In computing, extract, transform, load (ETL) is the general procedure of copying data from one or more sources into a destination system which represents the data differently from the source(s) or in a different context than the source(s). The ETL process became a popular concept in the 1970s and is often used in data warehousing.
Data extraction involves extracting data from homogeneous or heterogeneous sources; data transformation processes data by data cleaning and transforming it into a proper storage format/structure for the purposes of querying and analysis; finally, data loading describes the insertion of data into the final target database such as an operational data store, a data mart, data lake or a data warehouse.
A properly designed ETL system extracts data from the source systems, enforces data quality and consistency standards, conforms data so that separate sources can be used together, and finally delivers data in a presentation-ready format so that application developers can build applications and end users can make decisions.
Since the data extraction takes time, it is common to execute the three phases in pipeline. While the data is being extracted, another transformation process executes while processing the data already received and prepares it for loading while the data loading begins without waiting for the completion of the previous phases.
ETL systems commonly integrate data from multiple applications (systems), typically developed and supported by different vendors or hosted on separate computer hardware. The separate systems containing the original data are frequently managed and operated by different employees. For example, a cost accounting system may combine data from payroll, sales, and purchasing.
The first part of an ETL process involves extracting the data from the source system(s). In many cases, this represents the most important aspect of ETL, since extracting data correctly sets the stage for the success of subsequent processes. Most data-warehousing projects combine data from different source systems. Each separate system may also use a different data organization and/or format. Common data-source formats include relational databases, XML, JSON and flat files, but may also include non-relational database structures such as Information Management System (IMS) or other data structures such as Virtual Storage Access Method (VSAM) or Indexed Sequential Access Method (ISAM), or even formats fetched from outside sources by means such as web spidering or screen-scraping. The streaming of the extracted data source and loading on-the-fly to the destination database is another way of performing ETL when no intermediate data storage is required.
An intrinsic part of the extraction involves data validation to confirm whether the data pulled from the sources has the correct/expected values in a given domain (such as a pattern/default or list of values). If the data fails the validation rules, it is rejected entirely or in part. The rejected data is ideally reported back to the source system for further analysis to identify and to rectify the incorrect records.
In the data transformation stage, a series of rules or functions are applied to the extracted data in order to prepare it for loading into the end target.
An important function of transformation is data cleansing, which aims to pass only "proper" data to the target. The challenge when different systems interact is in the relevant systems' interfacing and communicating. Character sets that may be available in one system may not be so in others.
In other cases, one or more of the following transformation types may be required to meet the business and technical needs of the server or data warehouse:
The load phase loads the data into the end target, which can be any data store including a simple delimited flat file or a data warehouse. Depending on the requirements of the organization, this process varies widely. Some data warehouses may overwrite existing information with cumulative information; updating extracted data is frequently done on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Other data warehouses (or even other parts of the same data warehouse) may add new data in a historical form at regular intervals — for example, hourly. To understand this, consider a data warehouse that is required to maintain sales records of the last year. This data warehouse overwrites any data older than a year with newer data. However, the entry of data for any one year window is made in a historical manner. The timing and scope to replace or append are strategic design choices dependent on the time available and the business needs. More complex systems can maintain a history and audit trail of all changes to the data loaded in the data warehouse. As the load phase interacts with a database, the constraints defined in the database schema — as well as in triggers activated upon data load — apply (for example, uniqueness, referential integrity, mandatory fields), which also contribute to the overall data quality performance of the ETL process.
The typical real-life ETL cycle consists of the following execution steps:
ETL processes can involve considerable complexity, and significant operational problems can occur with improperly designed ETL systems.
The range of data values or data quality in an operational system may exceed the expectations of designers at the time validation and transformation rules are specified. Data profiling of a source during data analysis can identify the data conditions that must be managed by transform rules specifications, leading to an amendment of validation rules explicitly and implicitly implemented in the ETL process.
Data warehouses are typically assembled from a variety of data sources with different formats and purposes. As such, ETL is a key process to bring all the data together in a standard, homogeneous environment.
Design analysis should establish the scalability of an ETL system across the lifetime of its usage — including understanding the volumes of data that must be processed within service level agreements. The time available to extract from source systems may change, which may mean the same amount of data may have to be processed in less time. Some ETL systems have to scale to process terabytes of data to update data warehouses with tens of terabytes of data. Increasing volumes of data may require designs that can scale from daily batch to multiple-day micro batch to integration with message queues or real-time change-data-capture for continuous transformation and update.
ETL vendors benchmark their record-systems at multiple TB (terabytes) per hour (or ~1 GB per second) using powerful servers with multiple CPUs, multiple hard drives, multiple gigabit-network connections, and much memory.
In real life, the slowest part of an ETL process usually occurs in the database load phase. Databases may perform slowly because they have to take care of concurrency, integrity maintenance, and indices. Thus, for better performance, it may make sense to employ:
Still, even using bulk operations, database access is usually the bottleneck in the ETL process. Some common methods used to increase performance are:
nullvalues that can skew the partitioning)
disable constraint...) in the target database tables during the load
disable trigger...) in the target database tables during the load: simulate their effect as a separate step
; create index...)
Whether to do certain operations in the database or outside may involve a trade-off. For example, removing duplicates using
distinct may be slow in the database; thus, it makes sense to do it outside. On the other side, if using
distinct significantly (x100) decreases the number of rows to be extracted, then it makes sense to remove duplications as early as possible in the database before unloading data.
A common source of problems in ETL is a big number of dependencies among ETL jobs. For example, job "B" cannot start while job "A" is not finished. One can usually achieve better performance by visualizing all processes on a graph, and trying to reduce the graph making maximum use of parallelism, and making "chains" of consecutive processing as short as possible. Again, partitioning of big tables and their indices can really help.
Another common issue occurs when the data are spread among several databases, and processing is done in those databases sequentially. Sometimes database replication may be involved as a method of copying data between databases — it can significantly slow down the whole process. The common solution is to reduce the processing graph to only three layers:
This approach allows processing to take maximum advantage of parallelism. For example, if you need to load data into two databases, you can run the loads in parallel (instead of loading into the first — and then replicating into the second).
Sometimes processing must take place sequentially. For example, dimensional (reference) data are needed before one can get and validate the rows for main "fact" tables.
A recent[update] development in ETL software is the implementation of parallel processing. It has enabled a number of methods to improve overall performance of ETL when dealing with large volumes of data.
ETL applications implement three main types of parallelism:
All three types of parallelism usually operate combined in a single job or task.
An additional difficulty comes with making sure that the data being uploaded is relatively consistent. Because multiple source databases may have different update cycles (some may be updated every few minutes, while others may take days or weeks), an ETL system may be required to hold back certain data until all sources are synchronized. Likewise, where a warehouse may have to be reconciled to the contents in a source system or with the general ledger, establishing synchronization and reconciliation points becomes necessary.
Data warehousing procedures usually subdivide a big ETL process into smaller pieces running sequentially or in parallel. To keep track of data flows, it makes sense to tag each data row with "row_id", and tag each piece of the process with "run_id". In case of a failure, having these IDs help to roll back and rerun the failed piece.
Best practice also calls for checkpoints, which are states when certain phases of the process are completed. Once at a checkpoint, it is a good idea to write everything to disk, clean out some temporary files, log the state, etc.
As of 2010[update], data virtualization had begun to advance ETL processing. The application of data virtualization to ETL allowed solving the most common ETL tasks of data migration and application integration for multiple dispersed data sources. Virtual ETL operates with the abstracted representation of the objects or entities gathered from the variety of relational, semi-structured, and unstructured data sources. ETL tools can leverage object-oriented modeling and work with entities' representations persistently stored in a centrally located hub-and-spoke architecture. Such a collection that contains representations of the entities or objects gathered from the data sources for ETL processing is called a metadata repository and it can reside in memory or be made persistent. By using a persistent metadata repository, ETL tools can transition from one-time projects to persistent middleware, performing data harmonization and data profiling consistently and in near-real time.
Unique keys play an important part in all relational databases, as they tie everything together. A unique key is a column that identifies a given entity, whereas a foreign key is a column in another table that refers to a primary key. Keys can comprise several columns, in which case they are composite keys. In many cases, the primary key is an auto-generated integer that has no meaning for the business entity being represented, but solely exists for the purpose of the relational database - commonly referred to as a surrogate key.
As there is usually more than one data source getting loaded into the warehouse, the keys are an important concern to be addressed. For example: customers might be represented in several data sources, with their Social Security Number as the primary key in one source, their phone number in another, and a surrogate in the third. Yet a data warehouse may require the consolidation of all the customer information into one dimension.
A recommended way to deal with the concern involves adding a warehouse surrogate key, which is used as a foreign key from the fact table.
Usually, updates occur to a dimension's source data, which obviously must be reflected in the data warehouse.
If the primary key of the source data is required for reporting, the dimension already contains that piece of information for each row. If the source data uses a surrogate key, the warehouse must keep track of it even though it is never used in queries or reports; it is done by creating a lookup table that contains the warehouse surrogate key and the originating key. This way, the dimension is not polluted with surrogates from various source systems, while the ability to update is preserved.
The lookup table is used in different ways depending on the nature of the source data. There are 5 types to consider; three are included here:
An established ETL framework may improve connectivity and scalability. A good ETL tool must be able to communicate with the many different relational databases and read the various file formats used throughout an organization. ETL tools have started to migrate into Enterprise Application Integration, or even Enterprise Service Bus, systems that now cover much more than just the extraction, transformation, and loading of data. Many ETL vendors now have data profiling, data quality, and metadata capabilities. A common use case for ETL tools include converting CSV files to formats readable by relational databases. A typical translation of millions of records is facilitated by ETL tools that enable users to input csv-like data feeds/files and import them into a database with as little code as possible.
ETL tools are typically used by a broad range of professionals — from students in computer science looking to quickly import large data sets to database architects in charge of company account management, ETL tools have become a convenient tool that can be relied on to get maximum performance. ETL tools in most cases contain a GUI that helps users conveniently transform data, using a visual data mapper, as opposed to writing large programs to parse files and modify data types.
While ETL tools have traditionally been for developers and IT staff, research firm Gartner wrote that the new trend is to provide these capabilities to business users so they can themselves create connections and data integrations when needed, rather than going to the IT staff. Gartner refers to these non-technical users as Citizen Integrators.
Extract, load, transform (ELT) is a variant of ETL where the extracted data is loaded into the target system first. The architecture for the analytics pipeline shall also consider where to cleanse and enrich data as well as how to conform dimensions.
Cloud-based data warehouses like Amazon Redshift, Google BigQuery, and Snowflake Computing have been able to provide highly scalable computing power. This lets businesses forgo preload transformations and replicate raw data into their data warehouses, where it can transform them as needed using SQL.
After having used ELT, data may be processed further and stored in a data mart.
There are pros and cons to each approach. Most data integration tools skew towards ETL, while ELT is popular in database and data warehouse appliances. Similarly, it is possible to perform TEL (Transform, Extract, Load) where data is first transformed on a blockchain (as a way of recording changes to data, e.g., token burning) before extracting and loading into another data store.