Chapter 4 Relational databases

4.1 Why use a database?

There are limitations on the types of data that R handles well. Since all data being manipulated by R are resident in memory, and several copies of the data can be created during execution of a function, R is not well suited to extremely large data sets. Data objects that are more than a (few) hundred megabytes in size can cause R to run out of memory, particularly on a 32-bit operating system.

R does not easily support concurrent access to data. That is, if more than one user is accessing, and perhaps updating, the same data, the changes made by one user will not be visible to the others.

R does support persistence of data, in that you can save a data object or an entire worksheet from one session and restore it at the subsequent session, but the format of the stored data is specific to R and not easily manipulated by other systems.

Database management systems (DBMSs) and, in particular, relational DBMSs (RDBMSs) are designed to do all of these things well. Their strengths are

  1. To provide fast access to selected parts of large databases.
  2. Powerful ways to summarize and cross-tabulate columns in databases.
  3. Store data in more organized ways than the rectangular grid model of spreadsheets and R data frames.
  4. Concurrent access from multiple clients running on multiple hosts while enforcing security constraints on access to the data.
  5. Ability to act as a server to a wide range of clients.

The sort of statistical applications for which DBMS might be used are to extract a 10% sample of the data, to cross-tabulate data to produce a multi-dimensional contingency table, and to extract data group by group from a database for separate analysis.

Increasingly OSes are themselves making use of DBMSs for these reasons, so it is nowadays likely that one will be already installed on your (non-Windows) OS. Akonadi is used by KDE4 to store personal information. Several macOS applications, including Mail and Address Book, use SQLite.

4.2 Overview of RDBMSs

Traditionally there had been large (and expensive) commercial RDBMSs (Informix; Oracle; Sybase; IBM’s DB2; Microsoft SQL Server on Windows) and academic and small-system databases (such as MySQL4, PostgreSQL, Microsoft Access, …), the former marked out by much greater emphasis on data security features. The line is blurring, with MySQL and PostgreSQL having more and more high-end features, and free ‘express’ versions being made available for the commercial DBMSs.

There are other commonly used data sources, including spreadsheets, non-relational databases and even text files (possibly compressed). Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) is a standard to use all of these data sources. It originated on Windows (see but is also implemented on Linux/Unix/macOS.

All of the packages described later in this chapter provide clients to client/server databases. The database can reside on the same machine or (more often) remotely. There is an ISO standard (in fact several: SQL92 is ISO/IEC 9075, also known as ANSI X3.135-1992, and SQL99 is coming into use) for an interface language called SQL (Structured Query Language, sometimes pronounced ‘sequel’: see Bowman et al. 1996 and Kline and Kline 2001) which these DBMSs support to varying degrees.

4.2.1 SQL queries

The more comprehensive R interfaces generate SQL behind the scenes for common operations, but direct use of SQL is needed for complex operations in all. Conventionally SQL is written in upper case, but many users will find it more convenient to use lower case in the R interface functions.

A relational DBMS stores data as a database of tables (or relations) which are rather similar to R data frames, in that they are made up of columns or fields of one type (numeric, character, date, currency, …) and rows or records containing the observations for one entity.

SQL ‘queries’ are quite general operations on a relational database. The classical query is a SELECT statement of the type

SELECT State, Murder FROM USArrests WHERE Rape > 30 ORDER BY Murder

SELECT t.sch, c.meanses,, t.achieve
  FROM student as t, school as c WHERE t.sch =

SELECT sex, COUNT(*) FROM student GROUP BY sex

SELECT sch, AVG(sestat) FROM student GROUP BY sch LIMIT 10

The first of these selects two columns from the R data frame USArrests that has been copied across to a database table, subsets on a third column and asks the results be sorted. The second performs a database join on two tables student and school and returns four columns. The third and fourth queries do some cross-tabulation and return counts or averages. (The five aggregation functions are COUNT(*) and SUM, MAX, MIN and AVG, each applied to a single column.)

SELECT queries use FROM to select the table, WHERE to specify a condition for inclusion (or more than one condition separated by AND or OR), and ORDER BY to sort the result. Unlike data frames, rows in RDBMS tables are best thought of as unordered, and without an ORDER BY statement the ordering is indeterminate. You can sort (in lexicographical order) on more than one column by separating them by commas. Placing DESC after an ORDER BY puts the sort in descending order.

SELECT DISTINCT queries will only return one copy of each distinct row in the selected table.

The GROUP BY clause selects subgroups of the rows according to the criterion. If more than one column is specified (separated by commas) then multi-way cross-classifications can be summarized by one of the five aggregation functions. A HAVING clause allows the select to include or exclude groups depending on the aggregated value.

If the SELECT statement contains an ORDER BY statement that produces a unique ordering, a LIMIT clause can be added to select (by number) a contiguous block of output rows. This can be useful to retrieve rows a block at a time. (It may not be reliable unless the ordering is unique, as the LIMIT clause can be used to optimize the query.)

There are queries to create a table (CREATE TABLE, but usually one copies a data frame to the database in these interfaces), INSERT or DELETE or UPDATE data. A table is destroyed by a DROP TABLE ‘query’.

Kline and Kline (2001) discuss the details of the implementation of SQL in Microsoft SQL Server 2000, Oracle, MySQL and PostgreSQL.

4.2.2 Data types

Data can be stored in a database in various data types. The range of data types is DBMS-specific, but the SQL standard defines many types, including the following that are widely implemented (often not by the SQL name).


Real number, with optional precision. Often called real or double or double precision.


32-bit integer. Often called int.


16-bit integer


fixed-length character string. Often called char.

character varying(n)

variable-length character string. Often called varchar. Almost always has a limit of 255 chars.


true or false. Sometimes called bool or bit.


calendar date


time of day


date and time

There are variants on time and timestamp, with timezone. Other types widely implemented are text and blob, for large blocks of text and binary data, respectively.

The more comprehensive of the R interface packages hide the type conversion issues from the user.

4.3 R interface packages

There are several packages available on CRAN to help R communicate with DBMSs. They provide different levels of abstraction. Some provide means to copy whole data frames to and from databases. All have functions to select data within the database via SQL queries, and to retrieve the result as a whole as a data frame or in pieces (usually as groups of rows).

All except RODBC are tied to one DBMS, but there has been a proposal for a unified ‘front-end’ package DBI ( in conjunction with a ‘back-end’, the most developed of which is RMySQL. Also on CRAN are the back-ends ROracle, RPostgreSQL and RSQLite (which works with the bundled DBMS SQLite, and RJDBC (which uses Java and can connect to any DBMS that has a JDBC driver).

PL/R ( is a project to embed R into PostgreSQL.

Package RMongo provides an R interface to a Java client for ‘MongoDB’ ( databases, which are queried using JavaScript rather than SQL. Package mongolite is another client using mongodb’s C driver.

4.3.1 Packages using DBI

Package RMySQL on CRAN provides an interface to the MySQL database system (see and Dubois, 2000) or its fork MariaDB (see The description here applies to versions 0.5-0 and later: earlier versions had a substantially different interface. The current version requires the DBI package, and this description will apply with minor changes to all the other back-ends to DBI.

MySQL exists on Unix/Linux/macOS and Windows: there is a ‘Community Edition’ released under GPL but commercial licenses are also available. MySQL was originally a ‘light and lean’ database. (It preserves the case of names where the operating file system is case-sensitive, so not on Windows.)

The call dbDriver(“MySQL”) returns a database connection manager object, and then a call to dbConnect opens a database connection which can subsequently be closed by a call to the generic function dbDisconnect. Use dbDriver(“Oracle”), dbDriver(“PostgreSQL”) or dbDriver(“SQLite”) with those DBMSs and packages ROracle, RPostgreSQL or RSQLite respectively.

SQL queries can be sent by either dbSendQuery or dbGetQuery. dbGetquery sends the query and retrieves the results as a data frame. dbSendQuery sends the query and returns an object of class inheriting from “DBIResult” which can be used to retrieve the results, and subsequently used in a call to dbClearResult to remove the result.

Function fetch is used to retrieve some or all of the rows in the query result, as a list. The function dbHasCompleted indicates if all the rows have been fetched, and dbGetRowCount returns the number of rows in the result.

These are convenient interfaces to read/write/test/delete tables in the database. dbReadTable and dbWriteTable copy to and from an R data frame, mapping the row names of the data frame to the field row_names in the MySQL table.

> library(RMySQL) # will load DBI as well
## open a connection to a MySQL database
> con <- dbConnect(dbDriver("MySQL"), dbname = "test")
## list the tables in the database
> dbListTables(con)
## load a data frame into the database, deleting any existing copy
> data(USArrests)
> dbWriteTable(con, "arrests", USArrests, overwrite = TRUE)
> dbListTables(con)
[1] "arrests"
## get the whole table
> dbReadTable(con, "arrests")
               Murder Assault UrbanPop Rape
Alabama          13.2     236       58 21.2
Alaska           10.0     263       48 44.5
Arizona           8.1     294       80 31.0
Arkansas          8.8     190       50 19.5
## Select from the loaded table
> dbGetQuery(con, paste("select row_names, Murder from arrests",
                        "where Rape > 30 order by Murder"))
   row_names Murder
1   Colorado    7.9
2    Arizona    8.1
3 California    9.0
4     Alaska   10.0
5 New Mexico   11.4
6   Michigan   12.1
7     Nevada   12.2
8    Florida   15.4
> dbRemoveTable(con, "arrests")
> dbDisconnect(con)

4.3.2 Package RODBC

Package RODBC on CRAN provides an interface to database sources supporting an ODBC interface. This is very widely available, and allows the same R code to access different database systems. RODBC runs on Unix/Linux, Windows and macOS, and almost all database systems provide support for ODBC. We have tested Microsoft SQL Server, Access, MySQL, PostgreSQL, Oracle and IBM DB2 on Windows and MySQL, MariaDB, Oracle, PostgreSQL and SQLite on Linux.

ODBC is a client-server system, and we have happily connected to a DBMS running on a Unix server from a Windows client, and vice versa.

On Windows ODBC support is part of the OS. On Unix/Linux you will need an ODBC Driver Manager such as unixODBC ( or iOBDC ( this is pre-installed in macOS) and an installed driver for your database system.

Windows provides drivers not just for DBMSs but also for Excel (.xls) spreadsheets, DBase (.dbf) files and even text files. (The named applications do not need to be installed. Which file formats are supported depends on the versions of the drivers.) There are versions for Excel and Access 2007/2010 (go to, and search for ‘Office ODBC’, which will lead to AccessDatabaseEngine.exe), the ‘2007 Office System Driver’ (the latter has a version for 64-bit Windows, and that will also read earlier versions).

On macOS the Actual Technologies ( drivers provide ODBC interfaces to Access databases and to Excel spreadsheets (not including Excel 2007/2010).

Many simultaneous connections are possible. A connection is opened by a call to odbcConnect or odbcDriverConnect (which on the Windows GUI allows a database to be selected via dialog boxes) which returns a handle used for subsequent access to the database. Printing a connection will provide some details of the ODBC connection, and calling odbcGetInfo will give details on the client and server.

A connection is closed by a call to close or odbcClose, and also (with a warning) when not R object refers to it and at the end of an R session.

Details of the tables on a connection can be found using sqlTables.

Function sqlSave copies an R data frame to a table in the database, and sqlFetch copies a table in the database to an R data frame.

An SQL query can be sent to the database by a call to sqlQuery. This returns the result in an R data frame. (sqlCopy sends a query to the database and saves the result as a table in the database.) A finer level of control is attained by first calling odbcQuery and then sqlGetResults to fetch the results. The latter can be used within a loop to retrieve a limited number of rows at a time, as can function sqlFetchMore.

Here is an example using PostgreSQL, for which the ODBC driver maps column and data frame names to lower case. We use a database testdb we created earlier, and had the DSN (data source name) set up in ~/.odbc.ini under unixODBC. Exactly the same code worked using MyODBC to access a MySQL database under Linux or Windows (where MySQL also maps names to lowercase). Under Windows, DSNs are set up in the ODBC applet in the Control Panel (‘Data Sources (ODBC)’ in the ‘Administrative Tools’ section).

> library(RODBC)
## tell it to map names to l/case
> channel <- odbcConnect("testdb", uid="ripley", case="tolower")
## load a data frame into the database
> data(USArrests)
> sqlSave(channel, USArrests, rownames = "state", addPK = TRUE)
> rm(USArrests)
## list the tables in the database
> sqlTables(channel)
1                              usarrests      TABLE        
## list it
> sqlFetch(channel, "USArrests", rownames = "state")
               murder assault urbanpop rape
Alabama          13.2     236       58 21.2
Alaska           10.0     263       48 44.5
## an SQL query, originally on one line
> sqlQuery(channel, "select state, murder from USArrests
           where rape > 30 order by murder")
       state murder
1 Colorado      7.9
2 Arizona       8.1
3 California    9.0
4 Alaska       10.0
5 New Mexico   11.4
6 Michigan     12.1
7 Nevada       12.2
8 Florida      15.4
## remove the table
> sqlDrop(channel, "USArrests")
## close the connection
> odbcClose(channel)

As a simple example of using ODBC under Windows with a Excel spreadsheet, we can read from a spreadsheet by

> library(RODBC)
> channel <- odbcConnectExcel("bdr.xls")
## list the spreadsheets
> sqlTables(channel)
1 C:\\bdr            NA           Sheet1$ SYSTEM TABLE      NA
2 C:\\bdr            NA           Sheet2$ SYSTEM TABLE      NA
3 C:\\bdr            NA           Sheet3$ SYSTEM TABLE      NA
4 C:\\bdr            NA Sheet1$Print_Area        TABLE      NA
## retrieve the contents of sheet 1, by either of
> sh1 <- sqlFetch(channel, "Sheet1")
> sh1 <- sqlQuery(channel, "select * from [Sheet1$]")

Notice that the specification of the table is different from the name returned by sqlTables: sqlFetch is able to map the differences.