Over the past few years, you may have heard someone somewhere drop the term “data lake.” The concept has increasingly gained traction as data volumes have increased exponentially, streaming data has taken off, and unstructured data has continued to dwarf its structured counterpart.
But what is a data lake anyway? Is it just marketing hype? And, generally speaking, how does it differ from the traditional data warehouse?
Understanding the traditional data warehouse
Odds are that at some point in your career you’ve come across a data warehouse, a tool that’s become synonymous with extract, transform and load (ETL) processes. At a high level, data warehouses store vast amounts of structured data in highly regimented ways. They require that a rigid, predefined schema exists before loading the data. (It’s almost always a star or snowflake schema.) Put differently, the schema in a data warehouse is defined “on write.” ETL processes dutifully kick out error reports, generate logs, and send errant records to exception files and tables to be addressed at later dates.
Because of this rigidity and the ways in which they work, data warehouses support partial or incremental ETL. In other words (and depending on the severity of the issue), an organization can load or reload portions of its data warehouse when something goes wrong.
Organizations typically populate data warehouses periodically. Generally speaking, data refreshes via regular cycles – say every morning at 3 a.m. when employees aren’t likely to be accessing the data and downstream systems. Employees arrive at work the next day with freshly squeezed data.
To be sure, the data stored in traditional data warehouses remains valuable today. Still, organizations and their leaders need to begin rethinking contemporary data integration. Consider the Internet of Things and the analytics it makes possible. Sensors on vehicles, farm equipment, wearables, thermostats and even crops result in massive amounts of data that stream continuously. It’s a good bet that even an industrial-strength data warehouse will struggle with these new streams of data.
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The rise of the data lake
Against this backdrop, we’ve seen the rise in popularity of the data lake. Make no mistake: It’s not a synonym for data warehouses or data marts. Yes, all these entities store data, but the data lake is fundamentally different in the following regard. As David Loshin writes, “The idea of the data lake is to provide a resting place for raw data in its native format until it’s needed.” Data lies dormant unless and until someone or something needs it.
When accessing data lakes, users determine:
- The specific data types and sources they need.
- How much they need.
- When they need it.
- The types of analytics that they need to derive.
Are all of these possible in a data warehouse? Probably not. And even if they were possible, achieving them in a period of time that business users would find acceptable is unlikely – especially in today’s rapidly changing environments. Beyond that, one particular schema almost certainly will not fit every business need. To wit, the data may ultimately arrive in a way that renders it virtually useless for the employee’s evolving purposes.
A different kind of schema
For this very reason, a data lake schema is defined “on read.” Put differently, a data lake still requires a schema. However, that schema is not predefined. It’s ad hoc. Data is applied to a plan or schema as users pull it out of a stored location – not as it goes in. Data lakes keep data in its unaltered (natural) state; it doesn’t define requirements unless and until users query the data.
When used correctly, data lakes offer business and technical users the ability to query smaller, more relevant and more flexible data sets. As a result, query times can drop to a fraction of what they would have been in a data mart, data warehouse or relational database.
Organizations will continue to integrate “small” data with its big counterpart, and foolish is the soul who believes that one application – no matter how expensive or robust – can handle everything. Phil Simon Author, speaker and technology expert
The increased flexibility of the data lake
The data lake emphasizes the flexibility and availability of data. As such, it can provide users and downstream applications with schema-free data; that is, data that resembles its “natural” or raw format regardless of origin.
While the jury is still out, many if not most data lake applications do not support partial or incremental loading. (In this way, the data lake differs from the data warehouse.) An organization cannot load or reload portions of its data into a data lake. It tends to be all or nothing.
A data lake analogy
If you’re still struggling with the notion of a data lake, then maybe the following analogy will clarify matters. Think of a data mart or data warehouse as a storage facility rife with cases of bottled water. Those cases didn’t just magically appear overnight. People and machines gathered and purified the water. After packaging it, only then was it ready for people to buy and drink.
By comparison, think of a data lake as a large body of natural water that you would only drink if you were dying of thirst. If you need 50 gallons of water to put out a fire, you don’t need to buy cases of bottled water and empty them out one by one. It’s all there, ready to go.
In keeping with this analogy, the “water” in a data lake flows from many places: rivers, tributaries and waterfalls. That is, the data lake doesn’t hold only one type of water (that is, data). Data lakes can house all types of data: structured, semistructured and unstructured. Note, however, that filling a data lake with structured data means that it will lose at least some of its structure and – you guessed it – some of its value. To this end, if you’re only interested in structured data, a data warehouse may still be your best bet.
There’s little doubt in my mind that the data lake will occupy an increasingly key place in the future of data management.
Two schools of thought on data lakes
Because we’re still in the early stages, today’s opinion on data lakes is anything but universal. At a high level, there are two schools of thought. One group views the data lake as not only important, but also imperative for data-driven companies. This group understands the limitations of contemporary data warehouses – principally that they were not built to handle vast streams of unstructured data. What’s more, the difference between “on write” and “on read” isn’t simply a matter of semantics. On the contrary, the latter lends itself to vastly faster response times and, by extension, analytics.
That’s one viewpoint and I happen to agree with it. To be fair, we have not reached industrywide consensus here – far from it. Skeptics of data lakes aren’t shy about their opinions. The cynics view the data lake as a buzzword or the hype of software vendors with a serious stake in the game. Moreover, some consider the data lake a new name for an old concept with limited applicability for their enterprises.
Adding to the legitimate confusion around the topic, few folks use the term “data lake” in a consistent manner. Some folks call any data preparation, storage or discovery environment a data lake.
Parallels with Hadoop and relational databases
When conceptualizing the need for data lakes, perhaps it’s best to think of Hadoop – the open source, distributed file system that more and more organizations are adopting. Hadoop grew for many reasons, not the least of which is that it fulfilled a genuine need that relational database management systems (RDBMSs) could not address. To be fair, its open source nature, fault tolerance and parallel processing place high on the list as well.
RDBMSs simply weren’t designed to handle gigabytes or petabytes of unstructured data. Try loading thousands of photos, videos, tweets, articles and emails into your traditional SQL server or Oracle database and running reports or writing SQL statements. Good luck with that.
For decades, data warehouses have handled even large volumes of structured data exceptionally well: lists of employees, sales, transactions and the like. They feed countless business intelligence and enterprise reporting applications. It’s unreasonable, however, to expect those same data warehouses to efficiently process fundamentally different data volumes, speeds and types.
A note on metadata
Data lakes rely upon ontologies and metadata to make sense out of data loaded into them. Again, methodologies vary. But generally speaking, each data element in a lake inherits a unique identifier assigned with extensive metadata (tags). Conclusion: The data lake is here to stay.
The bright future of the data lake
There’s little doubt in my mind that the data lake will occupy an increasingly key place in the future of data management. Organizations will continue to integrate “small” data with its big counterpart, and foolish is the soul who believes that one application – no matter how expensive or robust – can handle everything.
When a business question arises, users will increasingly need answers faster than traditional data storage and reporting stalwarts can provide. When used properly, data lakes allow users to analyze smaller data sets and quickly answer critical questions.
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About the authorPhil Simon is a keynote speaker and recognized technology expert. He is the award-winning author of eight management books, most recently Analytics: The Agile Way. He consults organizations on matters related to strategy, data, analytics, and technology. His contributions have been featured on The Harvard Business Review, CNN, Wired, The New York Times, and many other sites. In the fall of 2016, he joined the faculty at Arizona State University's W. P. Carey School of Business (Department of Information Systems).