Overview of This Lesson

Refresh this page because I am probably still making changes to it.

In this lesson you'll learn the basics of relational database structure and how to create a simple database on cPanel. You'll also learn to use PHPMyAdmin to add tables and populate them with data. Lastly, you'll learn how to connect your PHP application to a database using PHP Data Objects.


Database Overview

A database is a collection of tables that contain data you can store and use in your applications (not just for web applications: you can use a database with any programming language).

We'll be using a free database called MySQL. MySQL is very popular among web developers.

Intro to MySQL

MySql is a database system that runs on a server and allows developers to store data that can be used to create interactive, data-driven web applications. Developers can create pages that allow a user to view, search, add, edit, and delete data from the database.

Many web sites make use of databases: blogs, news sites, game sites, retail stores, media sites, and many more. MySQL is one of the most popular database systems in use; it's used by companies and organisations such as Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter, Google, Yahoo, Flickr, Youtube, various government organisations including NASA and the United Nations, Sears, Walmart, Verizon Wireless, Nokia, Associated Press, BBC News, NHL, New York Times, Slashdot, McAfee, Symantec, Zynga games, Amazon, Craigslist, eBay, PayPal, and many, many more.

MySQL is free, fast, and efficient, and can handle very large databases. It also works on a variety of platforms.

Database Concepts

Before we define what a database is, we should start from the bottom of what is commonly called the data hierarchy. The data hierarchy shows the different components that make up a database. You will encounter these components repeatedly throughout most of your courses that deal with programming, database development and implementation, and even systems analysis.

Hierarchy of data for a database

It's easier to explain how the data hierarchy works when you start from the bottom.

Fields or Columns

If you examine the image to the left, you'll see a number of fields at the bottom of the screen. A field is a piece of information that describes an entity. Fields are also called columns, because they represent the columns in a table of data. For example, as a student entity, fields that describe you would be first name, last name, student number, the name of the program you're enrolled in, the semester you're in, etc. Each field is one piece of information. You can't make a field that describes more than one thing. For example, you can't have a "grades" field because you have more than one grade. However, you could have a field for the grade you received in a specific course, such as your grade for PROG10082.

A field doesn't always have to have a value. Some fields can be empty. For example, if you register at the college but haven't been accepted yet, the value for the field that defines the term you're in would be empty, because you haven't started school yet. On the other hand, some fields must have a value. For example, every student must have a student number, and you wouldn't be allowed to have information in a database on a student if the student had no student number.

Records or Rows

A group of fields that are related and describe one element in an entity make up a record. Records are also called rows because they represent the rows in a table of data. For example, the fields student number, first name, last name, address, phone number, and program code could all be the fields in a student's record. Each record describes one element, or one item. For example, a student record describes one specific student, and an inventory record describes one specific item in inventory.


A table is a group of related records that describe a particular entity. For example, a group of student records would describe all the students in the college, and would probably go in the Student table. A group of customer records would go in the Customers table, because they all pertain to the company's customers.

A table always has a specific structure or schema, and each record in a table must follow that structure. For example, the schema of the Students table could look like this:

Table Name: Students
Field Description Data Type Size Comments
student number String 9 primary key
first name String 50  
last name String 50  
program code String 6 foreign key - Programs
current g.p.a. Float n/a  

In this simplified example, each record in the table contains five fields (each row contains five columns). Most of the fields are Strings whose field size is identified by the number of characters. The one numeric field Float has n/a as its size because non-string values are usually of a fixed size (for example, an integer is Java is 8 bytes).

A table may or may not contain records. For example, a table that is created and opened for the first time will probably be empty, or a table that records a day's transactions in a store will be empty at the start of the day when the store opens. In addition, with many tables the programmer can't possibly know how many records will be in the table at any given time. Most tables will allow a user to add and delete records as needed, so the number of records in a table is dynamic and changes. As a programmer for a database, you would need to take all these things into account.


A database is a collection of tables, and those tables are usually related in some way. For example, a small, independent coffee shop might have a database with tables called Suppliers, Inventory, PriceLists, and Employees. The Suppliers table will contain records for each of the companies the coffee shop uses to purchase supplies, utilities such as hydro and water, and raw materials (such as coffee beans, flour for pastries, etc). The Inventory table would contain records for each of the items, products, and raw materials the coffee shop has in inventory at any given time. A typical Inventory record might contain fields for the item identification (we'll talk more about this in a moment), item description, quantity on hand, re-order point (how many items you gets down to before you must re-order more of this item), and supplier identifier (so you know where to find the supplier information for this product in the Suppliers table).

Database Server

A Database Server is an application that runs on a server machine (the machine itself might be a dedicated database server, or there might be several machines for the database server). Database server software manages the users of a database and the permissions those users have, the individual databases and their tables, and the various connections that users make to the various databases.

A database server can have several databases. For example, a large company could have an Employee Database and a Manufacturing Database. The Employee database would be used by HR and management for contacting employess, paychecks, taxes, work assignments, etc. The Manufacturing database would be used by the manufacturing plant staff and management to manage information about the products they manufacture, the parts, suppliers, vendors, etc. Another example: A large social media platform might have a database for Employees and a separate database for their application's users, postings, user activity, media, etc.

Primary Key Fields

Each table must have a special field called the primary key. A proper table in a relational database must not contain any duplicate records. For example, what if you had two customers both named Fred Smith, and one of the Fred's phoned and wanted information about their account balance. You could probably ask for some kind of identifying information like an address (what if they were parent and child and lived in the same house?) or a birth day (what if they were room mates with the same name who happened to have the same birthday?) but, however unlikely it is that these things would be the same, it's still possible. As a programmer, NEVER assume that just because something is unlikely, it will never happen! What if the two Fred Smiths were actually the same person who somehow got added twice to the same Customers table? This is also possible.

To avoid duplicate records, and to ensure that two records which appear similar are in fact different, we use primary key fields. A primary key is a special field that uniquely identifies each record. For example, no student in the college has the same student number as any other student, so that is used as the primary key in the student table. Books have an ISBN (international standard book number) which is unique for every book that is published by a certain publisher, so that could be used as a primary key in a Books table.

When you're designing some tables, it might not be obvious what the primary key should be. In a lot of these cases, you may need to make one up. This is how things like Product I.D.'s and Supplier I.D.'s get created. In one of your systems analysis courses, you'll probably spend a bit of time learning about how to make up a good format for a primary key field or I.D. field.

Sometimes you'll have a field that is actually a primary key from another table. This is called a foreign key and is used as a reference to the other table. For example, in your coffee shop's inventory table, each record might contain a Supplier ID field. When you need to get the supplier contact information because you've run out of a product, you look up the inventory item's Supplier ID in the Suppliers table to find out who this supplier is. We do this to avoid redundant data - it would be a waste of space to store all the supplier's information with each inventory item!


See how well you understood the concepts you've read so far!

  1. Besides Students, what other tables do you think would exist in a database for Sheridan College? What would be the primary key field for each of those tables?
  2. What would be the structure of a table called Courses that kept track of all of your courses and the final grade you got in each course?
  3. Make up three examples of records with field values for the Courses table in #2.

Setting Up a Database

This quick tutorial will allow us to set up some tables and data that we can use with PHP and HTML forms. This is by no means a complete lesson on how to use a database (you will take at least one course on that next year!) but it's just enough to allow you to do simple things with PHP and HTML forms.

Creating a Database

First, we need to set up a database. Log into your CPanel account on the dev server: go to dev.fast.sheridanc.on.ca:2083 if you're in the college or https://cpanel.login.dev.fast.sheridanc.on.ca if you're at home (where "login" is your own login name) and enter your dev.fast credentials.

Note: if you're logging in from an unsecure network (e.g. from home) your browser might block access to CPanel. Chrome gives you some advanced options on the page that can allow you to access CPanel "at your own risk".

Once you've logged into CPanel, go to the third heading "Databases" on the page and click on "MySQL® Databases".

Click on the MySQL Databases icon

At the top of the screen you can add a new Database. Enter a Database name and then click the "Create Database" button.

Create a new Database

Once you create your database, you'll see a message on the screen that your database was created successfully. You can click the "Go Back" link to go back to the main Database page.

Database has been created

Now we can go back to cPanel: Click the little icon in the top left of the page that looks like a grid of 9 little boxes.

Adding a Table

Now we need to add a table to our database. We do this in the PHPMyAdmin tool in CPanel. Locate the PHPMyAdmin icon in the Databases section on the main CPanel page and click it.

In the main PHP Admin screen, the left side will show a list of the databases already on your SQL server. You will see a default database called information_schema. You shouldn't touch this database, as it's needed by the database server and web server.

In the same area, you should also see your own database(s) you created.

Database list in PHPMyAdmin

Across the top you'll see various tabs or buttons that allow you to view and configure items on the server. Click on the Databases tab: you should see another list of the same databases.

Select the Databases tab

You can select to work with one of your databases by clicking it either in the list on the left side or on the Databases screen.

Select a database and we'll add a table to it.

When you select a database, you'll automatically be taken to the Structure tab where you are prompted to create a new table (if you already have tables in this database, you'll see them listed at the top of the screen).

Create a new Inventory database by typing "Inventory" in the Name: field and "4" as Number of Columns: then click the GO button.

Add a new table to the database

This next screen is where you will add the different columns or fields to your table. Each row of fields allows you to configure a single field for your table. We're going to add the following fields to our Inventory table:

Table Name: Inventory
Field Description Data Type Size Comments
id integer n/a primary key, auto number
name String 50  
quantity integer n/a  
price float n/a  

Let's start by adding our Primary Key field:

In the first row of fields, enter the following values for each field (if a field isn't listed here, leave it blank):

Now, create the remaining three fields in the same way:

After adding all the fields, locate the COLLATION: field underneath the Structure grid. Use the drop-down list to set the table collation to latin1_general_ci. This will set the entire table's default collation, which is handy if you want to add more fields later.

When you're finished, your page should look like this one:

All four fields have been configured

When finished, click the "Save" button in the bottom-right corner.

If everything was successful, you'll briefly see a screen with the progress and then a message that the table was created successfully. You should then see the final structure of your Inventory table.

The final structure of the Inventory table

Adding Records

Now that we have a table, let's add some records to it. Click on the Insert tab at the top of the screen.

This screen gives you a couple of sets of fields where you can add new record data: each block of fields will add one record (although you can leave one blank if you only need to add one record).

When adding records, we don't need to add the ID field value: we set up the id field as an auto_increment field, so there's no need to type in a value, one will be added automatically.

Add the following data in the first group of fields as the first record:

Now add the following data in the next group of fields as the second record:

2 records being added to the table

To save your records, click any of the GO buttons. To save and add more records, select "Insert another new row" In the dropdown list on the bottom of the page beside "and then", then click on the GO button below that.

On the next screen you can see the actual SQL query that added your records to the database. If you click the BROWSE tab up at the top of the page, you can view the records in tabular format.

The records have been added and we're adding new ones.

Use the same process to add four more records to your Inventory table:

Adding a Guest User

Now that we have a table with some records, we'll want to create some PHP pages that access those records. However, we need a guest account for this. If we use our own credentials within our PHP page, anyone using that page will be able to do things like alter the structure of our tables or even delete the entire database using SQL queries. To keep our data safe, we use a guest account with limited permissions in our PHP pages that access our databases.

Go back to the main cPanel page (it should still be open in another tab) and click on the MySQL Databases icon like you did before.

Scroll down the page until you see the "MySQL Users" section.

Here you can enter the name and password for your guest user. Add the following data to the fields:

This will create a user with the username login_guest where login is your own login name.

Add the new user data

Once you've entered all the data, click the Create User button.

If everything was ok, you'll be shown a success message. Click the link to go back to the Database page.

Users don't automatically have access to every database. You need to give them access. Scroll down the page to the "Add User to Database" section.

Select the user account you just created and then select the database with your Inventory table. Then click the ADD button.

Add the new user to the database

The next screen asks you to choose the permissions this user should have. You should only ever give your guest account the minimum permissions required. If all you need is to be able to browse a catalog, then all your guest account needs is SELECT permissions (permission to use SELECT query).

We'll be using our guest account to learn how to perform SELECT, UPDATE, DELETE, and INSERT queries, so make sure you select those four permissions in the permissions list. When you're done, click the "Make Changes" button.

Choose SELECT, UPDATE, DELETE, and INSERT permissions.

Database Access with PHP

Now we're ready to access our records in our Inventory table using PHP code.

Create a new project in your editor. Add a PHP file called "config.php". This is where we store our connection data. We keep this separate because it's usually used in several different php programs, and it's also safer to keep it in a separate file.

Add the following variables to your config.php file:


Make sure you put your own guest account user name and password in the $user and $passwd variables. Note that we're using plain text for the credentials and that's fine for now. In a security course, you would learn how to properly encrypt sensitive data.

Save the config.php file.

Connecting to the Database

There are a variety of ways to connect to and use your database. We'll be using PDO (PHP Data Objects). PDO has some advantages over other techniques:

PDO is object oriented, so you'll begin to see some of the OOP syntax that PHP uses. It's definitely not the same as Java or similar languages, but it's not difficult to pick up.

Making a Database Connection

In any programming or scripting language, you will need to establish a connection with your database or database server and then select the database you wish to use. In PHP this is done by instantiating the PDO object using the PDO() Constructor:

$dbConn = new PDO("connectionString", "username", "password");

The PDO constructor requires a connection string, user name, and password:

Earlier you created variables in the config.php file for the account info of the guest account, so that's the one we'll use to connect to the Inventory database:

Create a new file connect.php. Add a statement that includes (requires) the config.php file and creates a a new connection to the database:

    $dbConn = new PDO("mysql:host=$hostname;dbname=login_Summer22", $user, $passwd);

(use your own database name for the dbname parameter!!)

The $dbConn variable is an object variable; it's an instance of the PDO object. You can learn more about the PDO object on the PHP.net PDO page.

Connection Errors

It's always possible that there could be problems connecting to the database. PDO allows you to use a standard try-catch block to catch any PDOException objects:

try {
    $dbConn = new PDO("mysql:host=$hostname;dbname=flintsto_Summer22", $user, $passwd);
    // more stuff
} catch (PDOException $ex) {
    echo "Connection error: " . $ex->getMessage();

The code above will display any error messages, if any. $ex is the PDOException object that is thrown. getMessage() is the accessor method in the PDOException class that allows access to the PDOException's message data member. This data member contains the error message associated with the error that occurred. Notice that we don't use dot notation in PHP when accessing members of a class. Use the minus or dash symbol, followed by the greater than symbol.

We can make this re-usable by using a function to return the database connection object if there is a successful connection. If the connection fails, we can't do much of anything so we terminate the script with appropriate error messages:

    // connect.php


    function connect($host, $db, $user, $pass) {
        try {
            return new PDO("mysql:host=$hostname;dbname=flintsto_Summer22", $user, $pass);
        } catch (PDOException $ex) {
            exit("Connection error: " . $ex->getMessage());
    return connect($hostname, "login_Summer22", $user, $passwd);

Add an index.php HTML file, and add a PHP block above your !doctype element that includes the connect.php file. You should use a require() function, since we can't use the database in the index.php page without the dabase connection we've defined in the connect.php file.

$dbConn = require_once("connect.php");

This will attempt to connect to the database and if successful, $dbConn will contain the PDO connection object; otherwise, it will stop the script and display the error message in the error log and/or on the page.

You could then use this to perform database operations:

    $dbConn = require("connect.php");
    // if we reach this line, we successfully connected and can start 
    // performing queries on our database
<!doctype html>
... rest of the main page

Now that you know how to connect to a database, you're ready to write code that creates records from user input data!

Overview of SQL Queries

SQL stands for Structured Query Language and is used to invoke commands on a database. Programs like Microsoft Access, Oracle, and Postgre, and others allow you to use SQL to create databases, tables, fields, and to populate records with field values. When working with PHP and HTML forms, you can use SQL to store data in database tables, modify or delete those records, or even look up information that was entered previously. We use the MySql server for this, because it's free, easy to use, and readily available to us. Note that the SQL you learn here (and you'll learn much more of it next year in the database courses) you can use in Microsoft Access, with Oracle, or anywhere else you have access to SQL.

A query is a statement you that executes on an SQL server to perform some kind of operation. Queries can create databases and tables, search existing tables for matching records, add new records, modify and delete records, and many other kinds of things.

There are four categories of queries, but we're only concerned with one of them in this course: those written with DML statements.

DDL stands for Data Definition Language and refers to statements that define the database, its tables, and their schema.

DML stands for Data Manipulation Language and refers to statements that manipulate the database data in some way, such as editing a record.

DCL stands for Data Control Language and refers to statements that perform administrative tasks such as like changing user account permissions.

TCL stands for Transaction Control Language and refers to statements that manage changes made by DML statements, such as rolling back to a state before a record update was made.

This course will focus on four specific types of DML queries:

These four statements are often referred to as the CRUD operations, where CRUD stands for "Create Read Update Delete". Many applications are dedicated to CRUD operations. In the next four lessons, we'll look at each one of the CRUD operations using PHP and MySQL.

Preparing and Executing SQL Statements

To execute a query on our database, we first must prepare an SQL statement. Prepared statements are a feature of PDO. They allow you to create SQL statements and re-use them, and it does this much more quickly and efficiently than not using prepared statements. To start, you use the PDO object's prepare() method:

For our examples below, let's pretend that the $sqlQuery variable contains a very basic SELECT query:

SELECT * FROM Inventory;

This query will retrieve all of fields/columns of all of the records/rows from the inventory table. Notice that your SQL statements should end in a semi-colon. To prepare this statement to be executed, we would use the PHP code:

$statement = $dbConn->prepare($sqlQuery);

The prepare() method accepts a string that contains the SQL statement you'd like to execute and returns a PDOStatement object. The prepare() method will examine the SQL query and get it ready to execute. If the server is unable to prepare your statement, then the prepare() method will return the value false.

The PDOStatement object models a statement that is ready to execute. It contains a method execute(), which will execute the prepared statement and contain the results of the query. Once you've invoked the prepare() method, you can then invoke the execute() method on the statement object that was returned by prepare(). The execute() method will return true if it was able to successfully execute your query statement, or false if it was unable to execute your query statement.

Here's an example of how you would typically use these two functions on an open database connection:

    $statement = $dbConn->prepare($sql);
    $result = $statement->execute();

The execute() method returns true if the statement succeeded, and false if the statement failed. You could use this value to show feedback to the user, if necessary:

    $statement = $dbConn->prepare($sqlQuery);
    $execOk = $statement->execute();
    if ($execOk) {
        // do whatever you like with the results
    } else {
        // error executing query:
        print_r($dbConn->errorInfo());  // for debugging
        $statement->debugDumpParams();  // for debugging

In the else block above, we display the value of $dbConn->errorInfo(). The PDO object's errorInfo() method contains error information of any error that might have occurred during the last operation on the statement object. We also execute debugDumpParams() on the statement object: this prints out the actual SQL query, number of parameters, parameter values, etc. This can be helpful if your error is in the SQL statement.

The print_r() method is used for debugging: it prints out the values of a variable, array, or object in human-readable form. It's similar to var_dump().

PDO->errorInfo() returns an array with 3 elements:

You could use the last element in an error message, if you wanted:

    $statement = $dbConn->prepare($sqlQuery);
    $execOk = $statement->execute();
    if ($execOk) {
        // do whatever you like with the results
    } else {
        // show user feedback: error executing query
        echo "<p>Error executing query: " . $dbConn->errorInfo()[2] . "</p>";
        print_r($dbConn->errorInfo());  // for debugging
        $statement->debugDumpParams();  // for debugging


1. Using PHPMyAdmin, add a Course table to your database with the following fields:

Table: Courses
Field Name Type Size Comments
course_code Varchar 9 Primary Key
course_title Varchar 50  
credits Decimal 5,2  
grade Decimal 6,2  

Populate your Course table with a few sample records.

2. Write a segment of code that connects to your database, uses the Courses table, and then executes the query "SELECT * FROM Courses;".