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Connolly and Begg define Database Management System (DBMS) as a "software system that enables users to define, create, maintain and control access to the database"

The DBMS acronym is sometime extended to indicated the underlying database model, with RDBMS for relational, OODBMS or ORDBMS for the object (orientated) model and ORDBMS for Object-Relational. Other extensions can indicate some other characteristic, such as DDBMS for a distributed database management systems.

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The functionality provided by a DBMS can vary enormously. The core functionality is the storage, retrieval and update of data. Codd proposed the following functions and services a fully-fledged general purpose DBMS should provide

  • Data storage, retrieval and update
  • User accessible catalog or data dictionary describing the metadata
  • Support for transactions and concurrency
  • Facilities for recovering the database should it become damaged
  • Support for authorization of access and update of data
  • Access support from remote locations
  • Enforcing constraints to ensure data in the database abides by certain rules

It is also generally to be expected the DBMS will provide a set of utilities for such purposes as may be necessary to administer the database effectively, including import, export, monitoring, defragmentation and analysis utilities.[ The core part of the DBMS interacting between the database and the application interface sometimes referred to as the database engine

Often DBMSs will have configuration parameters that can be statically and dynamically tuned, for example the maximum amount of main memory on a server the database can use. The trend is to minimise the amount of manual configuration, and for cases such as embedded databases the need to target zero-administration is paramount.

The large major enterprise DBMSs have tended to increase in size and functionality and can have involved thousands of human years of development effort through their lifetime.

The large major enterprise DBMSs have tended to increase in size and functionality and can have involved thousands of human years of development effort through their lifetime.

Early multi-user DBMS typically only allowed for the application to reside on the same computer with access via terminals or terminal emulation software. The client–server architecture was a development where the application resided on a client desktop and the database on a server allowing the processing to be distributed. This evolved into a multitier architecture incorporating application servers and web servers with the end user interface via a web browser with the database only directly connected to the adjacent tier.