What Is A Hierarchical Database? - ITU Online

What Is a Hierarchical Database?

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Definition: Hierarchical Database

A hierarchical database is a data management system that organizes data in a tree-like structure. Each record has a single parent, except for the root record, which typically has no parent. This model represents relationships in a one-to-many manner, where a parent node can have one or more child nodes, but each child node has only one parent node.


Hierarchical databases were one of the earliest systems used for managing large amounts of data. They were developed in the 1960s, primarily for large systems such as banking and customer order systems. Despite being largely supplanted by more flexible models like the relational database, the hierarchical model is still used in certain applications where high performance and predictable querying are required.

Features of the Hierarchical Database


In a hierarchical database, data is represented as a hierarchical tree structure. Each node in the hierarchy represents a record, and each field in the record is called an attribute. The connections between records signify relationships, primarily one-to-many.

Data Retrieval

The tree structure allows for fast and efficient data retrieval, which is achieved through paths established from the top of the hierarchy. However, this model lacks the flexibility to directly retrieve child or sibling records without traversing from the root or parent nodes.

Data Manipulation

Manipulating data in a hierarchical database involves adding, deleting, or updating nodes. These operations can be complex because changes may require adjustments across the entire tree structure to maintain data integrity.

Schemas and Databases

In hierarchical databases, the schema, defined as the logical configuration of records and fields, must be determined in advance and usually cannot be changed without significant disruptions and downtime.

Benefits of the Hierarchical Database


Hierarchical databases offer excellent performance for read operations, particularly when the data access pattern is predictable, as paths to retrieve data are predefined.


The model is straightforward to understand and visualize, especially when the relationships between data elements are naturally hierarchical, such as organizational structures or file systems.

Data Integrity

Since each child record has only one parent, the hierarchical structure inherently prevents certain types of redundancy, promoting data integrity through clear parent-child relationships.

Use Cases of the Hierarchical Database

Directory Structures

File systems and directory structures are typical examples of hierarchical databases, where each folder (parent) can contain files or other folders (children).

Organizational Charts

Companies use hierarchical databases to manage and represent their organizational structures, where every employee, except the CEO, has exactly one manager.

XML Data Storage

XML data storage and navigation are inherently hierarchical, making hierarchical databases suitable for managing and querying XML data.

Frequently Asked Questions Related to Hierarchical Database

What are the main limitations of a hierarchical database?

The main limitations include difficulty in managing many-to-many relationships, lack of structural flexibility, and complexity in implementing organizational changes.

How is data integrity maintained in a hierarchical database?

Data integrity is maintained through the strict one-to-many relationship between parent and child nodes, which ensures a clear data lineage and reduces redundancy.

Can hierarchical databases be used for complex querying?

While suitable for simple queries, hierarchical databases are not ideal for complex querying that requires joining tables or accessing multiple branches of the tree concurrently.

What is a parent node in a hierarchical database?

A parent node is a record in a hierarchical database that has one or more child nodes associated with it, representing a one-to-many relationship.

What industries still use hierarchical databases?

Industries such as telecommunications, aviation, and certain areas of computing like file systems and configuration management often use hierarchical databases.

How do hierarchical databases handle data redundancy?

They minimize redundancy through exclusive parent-child relationships, which define clear data pathways and hierarchical levels.

How does a hierarchical database compare to a relational database?

Hierarchical databases excel in speed and simplicity for hierarchical data sets, whereas relational databases offer greater flexibility and ease of data manipulation with complex queries.

Are there modern alternatives to hierarchical databases?

Yes, many modern systems use relational databases, NoSQL databases, or graph databases, each offering unique advantages depending on the application’s requirements.

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