Foreign Key Constraints Are Business Decisions

Published: December 1, 2016

A foreign key constraint is defined by Wikipedia as follows…

A field (or collection of fields) in one table that uniquely identifies a row of another table or the same table.

Sounds pretty technical, right? Frequently, a developer uses his or her judgement when planning the architecture of some feature to decide when a foreign key is appropriate. However, I had an experience today where I learned that often, foreign key constraint enforcement is a business decision rather than a technical one.

The Issue

The issue was reported by the client as follows…

I’m getting a cryptic error message when I try to delete products in our catalog.

The “cryptic” error message is the typical error message you see from MySQL when an attempt is made to DELETE a row that has a column referenced as a foreign key on another table that is lacking ON DELETE CASCADE.

SQLSTATE[23000]: Integrity constraint violation: 1451 Cannot delete or update a parent row: a foreign key constraint fails (`my_db`.`project_item`, CONSTRAINT `FK_PRD_ID_PROJECT_PRD_ID` FOREIGN KEY (`product_id`) REFERENCES `product` (`id`) ), query was: DELETE FROM `product` WHERE (id=49539)`

Looking at the issue, it turned out that a foreign key was added on a table called project_item for a column named product_id. This foreign key referenced the id column on a table named product. The foreign key was set to ON DELETE NO ACTION, meaning once a product was used in a project, the product could no longer be deleted.

While considering how to handle this issue report, I realized the developer who added the foreign key made an assumption about how the system should behave. Namely, he had assumed that a product should not be able to disappear from a project ever and thus added the ON DELETE NO ACTION foreign key. Clearly this behavior was not expected by the client.

What We Did

At this point, I realized there really needed to be a business decision made by the client about how the system should function. There were a few options…

  1. We could leave the system as is. The client would not be able to delete products that had, at one point, been added to projects. Presumably this was the original developers intention.
  2. We could add ON DELETE CASCADE to the foreign key. When products are DELETEd the associated project_items would also be deleted. Presumably this is what the developer was trying to avoid.
  3. We could get rid of the foreign key all together. Products can be deleted and projects will still contain a reference to those products. There may be un-intended bugs in the application due to an assumption that all the products in a given project would always exist.

In the end he chose option 1, probably because it wouldn’t require any development work…


I hope that this article leads some developers to think twice before making assumptions when adding foreign keys as part of their database design. First and foremost, ask stakeholders, “How should the application behave?”. In this case the question would be, “Should products that are in a given project be able to be deleted, and if so, what should happen?”

If you have any comments, feel free to drop a note comments below. Of course, as always, you can reach me on Twitter as well.

Max Chadwick Hi, I'm Max!

I'm a software developer who mainly works in PHP, but loves dabbling in other languages like Go and Ruby. Technical topics that interest me are monitoring, security and performance. I'm also a stickler for good documentation and clear technical writing.

During the day I lead a team of developers and solve challenging technical problems at Something Digital where I mainly work with the Magento platform. I've also spoken at a number of events.

In my spare time I blog about tech, work on open source and participate in bug bounty programs.

If you'd like to get in contact, you can find me on Twitter and LinkedIn.