In the world of relational databases, keys are the linchpin that binds tables and ensures data integrity. Among these keys, surrogate keys hold a special place. In this blog post, we’ll explore what surrogate keys are, why they are important, and the best practices for using them effectively in SQL databases.

What Are Surrogate Keys?

Surrogate keys, also known as synthetic keys or artificial keys, are unique identifiers assigned to each row in a database table. Unlike natural keys, which are based on the actual data within the row (e.g., social security numbers, email addresses), surrogate keys have no intrinsic meaning and are solely used to establish a unique identifier for each record.

Benefits of Surrogate Keys:

1. Data Independence: Surrogate keys provide a layer of abstraction between the data and the primary key. This means that changes in the actual data (e.g., updates to names or addresses) won’t impact the primary key, ensuring data consistency.

2. Efficiency: Surrogate keys are typically integers, which are more efficient to work with than long strings or complex composite keys. They consume less storage space and result in faster indexing and JOIN operations.

3. Simplicity: Surrogate keys simplify database design. You don’t have to rely on potentially complex and changing natural keys. Instead, you have a consistent and reliable identifier for each row.

4. Security: Surrogate keys are not based on sensitive or private data. This can be beneficial from a security and privacy standpoint, as you can store them without exposing sensitive information.

Best Practices for Using Surrogate Keys

To harness the advantages of surrogate keys effectively, it’s essential to follow best practices when implementing them in your SQL database.

1. Always Include a Surrogate Key:

When designing your database schema, make it a practice to include a surrogate key, even if you have natural keys available. This provides data independence and simplifies data management.

2. Use Integer Data Types:

Surrogate keys are typically implemented using integer data types (e.g., INT, BIGINT) for efficiency and performance. Choose an appropriate data type based on the expected volume of data.

3. Ensure Uniqueness:

Surrogate keys must be unique across all rows in the table. You can use auto-incrementing values (e.g., SERIAL in PostgreSQL, AUTO_INCREMENT in MySQL) to guarantee uniqueness.

4. Make It the Primary Key:

In most cases, the surrogate key should serve as the primary key for the table. This ensures that it is the primary means of identifying rows.

CREATE TABLE my_table (

5. Index Surrogate Keys:

To optimize query performance, consider creating an index on the surrogate key. This speeds up SELECT, JOIN, and WHERE clause operations.

CREATE INDEX idx_surrogate_key ON my_table (id);

6. Document Your Schema:

Include comments or documentation in your database schema to clarify the purpose of the surrogate key and its role in the table.

7. Avoid Business Logic:

Surrogate keys should not carry business logic or meaning. Their sole purpose is to provide a unique identifier. Avoid encoding information into surrogate keys, as this defeats their purpose.

When to Use Surrogate Keys

Surrogate keys are well-suited for various scenarios, including:

  • Tables with No Natural Keys: When a table lacks a suitable natural key or when existing natural keys are subject to change.
  • Historical Data: In tables where historical records need to be maintained, surrogate keys ensure stability even as data changes.
  • Data Warehouses: In data warehousing environments where data is often transformed and integrated from multiple sources, surrogate keys simplify the ETL (Extract, Transform, Load) process.
  • Security and Privacy: When dealing with sensitive or private data, surrogate keys provide an extra layer of security by avoiding the storage of sensitive information.

In conclusion, surrogate keys are a powerful tool in the database designer’s toolkit. By following best practices and using them judiciously, you can achieve data independence, simplicity, and efficiency in your SQL database designs. Surrogate keys streamline data management, enhance query performance, and contribute to the overall reliability and maintainability of your database systems.

By Abhishek K.

Author is a Architect by profession. This blog is to share his experience and give back to the community what he learned throughout his career.