What's the best practice for primary keys in tables?

When designing tables, I've developed a habit of having one column that is unique and that I make the primary key. This is achieved in three ways depending on requirements:

  1. Identity integer column that auto increments.
  2. Unique identifier (GUID)
  3. A short character(x) or integer (or other relatively small numeric type) column that can serve as a row identifier column

Number 3 would be used for fairly small lookup, mostly read tables that might have a unique static length string code, or a numeric value such as a year or other number.

For the most part, all other tables will either have an auto-incrementing integer or unique identifier primary key.

The Question :-)

I have recently started working with databases that have no consistent row identifier and primary keys are currently clustered across various columns. Some examples:

  • datetime/character
  • datetime/integer
  • datetime/varchar
  • char/nvarchar/nvarchar

Is there a valid case for this? I would have always defined an identity or unique identifier column for these cases.

In addition there are many tables without primary keys at all. What are the valid reasons, if any, for this?

I'm trying to understand why tables were designed as they were, and it appears to be a big mess to me, but maybe there were good reasons for it.


OK... Wow! A lot of great responses and discussion. I guess I hit on a topic that's a little bit religious without realizing it. :-)

A third question to sort of help me decipher the answers: In cases where multiple columns are used to comprise the compound primary key, is there a specific advantage to this method vs. a surrogate/artificial key? I'm thinking mostly in regards to performance, maintenance, administration, etc.?


There are lots of good answers here, and it was hard to choose the "best" one, so I've chosen one I thought was helpful, but didn't receive as many votes, and up-voted the others that helped answer my question.


I follow a few rules:

  1. Primary keys should be as small as necessary. Prefer a numeric type because numeric types are stored in a much more compact format than character formats. This is because most primary keys will be foreign keys in another table as well as used in multiple indexes. The smaller your key, the smaller the index, the less pages in the cache you will use.
  2. Primary keys should never change. Updating a primary key should always be out of the question. This is because it is most likely to be used in multiple indexes and used as a foreign key. Updating a single primary key could cause of ripple effect of changes.
  3. Do NOT use "your problem primary key" as your logic model primary key. For example passport number, social security number, or employee contract number as these "primary key" can change for real world situations.

On surrogate vs natural key, I refer to the rules above. If the natural key is small and will never change it can be used as a primary key. If the natural key is large or likely to change I use surrogate keys. If there is no primary key I still make a surrogate key because experience shows you will always add tables to your schema and wish you'd put a primary key in place.

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