In this fourth article in “Unveiling Lakehouse” series of five that explains the data lakehouse. The first article “What is Data Lakehouse?” introduced the data lakehouse and explored what makes it new and different. The second article “Explaining Data Lakehouse as Cloud-native DW” looked at the data lakehouse from a cloud-native design perspective, a significant departure from classic data warehouse architecture. The third article “Unveiling Lakehouse – Data Warehouse Deep Dive Part3″ explored whether the lakehouse and its architecture can replace the traditional data warehouse. The final article evaluates the differences (and some surprising similarities) between the lakehouse and the platform-as-a-service (PaaS) data warehouse.
This article examines the role of data modeling in designing, maintaining, and using the lakehouse. It evaluates the claim that the lakehouse is a lightweight alternative to the data warehouse.
Data Lakehouse vs. Data Warehouse: Making It Simple
Supporters argue that the lakehouse is a better replacement for traditional data warehouses, citing some extra benefits. Firstly, they claim that the lakehouse simplifies data modeling, making ETL/data engineering easier. Secondly, there’s a supposed cost reduction in managing and maintaining ETL code. Thirdly, they argue that the absence of data modeling makes the lakehouse less likely to “break” due to routine business changes like mergers, expansions, or new services. In essence, the lakehouse remains resilient because there’s no data model to break.
How Data Is, or Isn’t, Modeled for the Data Lakehouse
Let’s break down what this means by looking at an ideal scenario for modeling in the data lakehouse:
- Data enters the data lake’s landing zone.
- Optionally, some or all raw data is stored separately for archival purposes.
- Raw data or predefined extracts move into one of the data lake’s staging zones, which may be separate for different user types.
- Immediate data engineering, like scheduled batch ETL transformations, can be applied to raw OLTP data before loading it into the data lake’s curated zone.
- Data in staging zones becomes available to various jobs and expert users.
- A portion of data in staging zones undergoes engineering and moves into the curated zone.
- Data in the curated zone undergoes light modeling, such as being stored in an optimized columnar format.
- The data lakehouse acts as a modeling overlay, like a semantic model, superimposed over data in the curated zone or optionally over selected data in staging zones.
- Data in the curated zone remains unmodeled. In the data lakehouse, specific logical models for applications or use cases, similar to denormalized views, handle data modeling.
For instance, instead of extensively engineering data for storage and management by a data warehouse (usually an RDBMS), the data is lightly engineered, like being put into a columnar format, before being established in the data lake’s curated zone. This is where the data lakehouse comes into play.
Simplifying Data Volume Choices in the Lakehouse
How much data should be in the lakehouse’s curated zone? Well, the simple answer is: as much or as little as you prefer. But, in practice, it really depends on what the data lakehouse is meant to do – the uses, practices, and the people who will be using it. Let’s dig into this idea a bit.
Firstly, let’s understand what happens to the data once it’s loaded into the data lake’s curated zone. Typically, the data in this zone is stored in a columnar format like Apache Parquet. This means the data is spread across many Parquet objects, living in object storage. Here’s why the curated zone often goes for a simple data model, like a flat or one-big-table (OBT) schema. In simple terms, it means putting all the data in one denormalized table. Why? Well, this maximizes the benefits of object storage – high bandwidth and steady throughput – while keeping the costs in check (thanks to lower and more predictable latency). One big plus, according to lakehouse supporters, is that this approach eliminates the need for complex logical data modeling typically done in 3NF or Data Vault modeling, or the dimensional data modeling seen in Kimball-type data warehouse design. It’s a big time-saver, they say.
Rethinking Data Modeling in Warehouses
But hold on, isn’t this how data is modeled in some data warehouse systems?
The catch here is that data warehouse systems often use flat-table and one-big-table (OBT) schemas. Interestingly, OBT schemas were a thing with the first data warehouse appliances in the early 2000s. Even today, cloud Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) data warehouses like Amazon Redshift and Snowflake commonly go for OBT schemas. So, if you’re not keen on heavy-duty data modeling for the data warehouse, you don’t have to. Many organizations choose to skip it.
Now, here’s the head-scratcher: Why bother modeling data for the warehouse in the first place? What’s the big deal for data management experts?
The thing is, whether we like it or not, data modeling and engineering are tightly linked to the core priorities of data management, data governance, and data reuse. We model data to handle it better, govern it, and (a mix of both) reuse it. When we model and engineer data for the warehouse, we aim to keep tabs on its origin, track the changes made to it, know when these changes happened, and importantly, who or what made them. (By the way, the ETL processes used to fill the data warehouse generate detailed technical metadata about this.) Similarly, we manage and govern data to make it available and discoverable by a broader audience, especially those who aren’t data experts.
To sum it up, we model data so we can grasp it, bring some order to it, and turn it into well-managed, governed, and reusable data collections. This is why data management experts insist on modeling data for the warehouse. In their view, this focus on engineering and modeling makes the warehouse suitable for a wide range of potential applications, use cases, and consumers. This stands out from alternatives that concentrate on engineering and modeling data for a semantic layer or embed data engineering and modeling logic directly in code. Such alternatives usually target specific applications, use cases, and consumers.
Navigating Challenges in Data Modeling
Let’s talk about the challenges with data modeling.
One issue is that the typical anti-data modeling perspective can be misleading. If you avoid modeling at the data warehouse/lakehouse layer, you end up focusing on data modeling in another layer. Essentially, you’re still working on modeling and engineering data, just in different places like a semantic layer or directly in code. And guess what? You still have code to take care of, and things can (and will) go awry.
Consider this scenario: A business used to treat Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) as one region, but suddenly decides to create separate EU, ME, and Africa divisions. Making this change requires adjustments to the data warehouse’s data model. However, it also impacts the denormalized views in the semantic layer. Modelers and business experts need to update or even rebuild these views.
The claim here is that it’s supposedly easier, faster, and cheaper to fix issues in a semantic layer or in code than to make changes to a central repository like a data warehouse or a data lakehouse. This claim isn’t entirely wrong, but it’s a bit biased. It comes from a somewhat distorted understanding of how and why data gets modeled, whether it’s for the traditional data warehouse or the modern data lakehouse.
Both sides of this debate have valid concerns and good points. It’s ultimately about finding the right balance between the costs and benefits.
Key Points to Consider
Let’s wrap up with some important thoughts.
Assuming that the lakehouse eliminates the need for data modeling and makes ETL engineering less complex overlooks the essential role of data modeling in managing data. It’s like playing a game of moving tasks around—you can’t escape the work; you can only shift it elsewhere.
Adapting to changes in business is never straightforward. Altering something about the business breaks the alignment between a data model representing events in the business world and reality itself. While it might seem easier to move most data modeling logic to a BI/semantic layer, it comes with its own set of challenges. In scenarios where changes happen, modelers need to design a new warehouse data model, repopulate the data warehouse, and address issues in queries and procedures. Additionally, they must fix the modeling logic in the BI/semantic layer, adding extra work.
This challenge isn’t unique to data warehouses; it’s equally relevant for organizations implementing data lakehouse systems. The concept of a lightly modeled historical repository for business data is not new. If you choose to avoid modeling for the data lakehouse or warehouse, that’s an option, but it has been available for some time.
On the flip side, an organization that chooses to model data for its lakehouse should have less modeling to do in its BI/semantic layer, perhaps much less. The data in this lakehouse becomes clearer and more understandable to a larger audience, making it more trustworthy.
Interestingly, a less loosely coupled data lakehouse implementation, like Databricks’ Delta Lake or Dremio’s SQL Lakehouse Platform, has an advantage over an “ideal” implementation composed of loosely coupled services. It makes more sense to model and govern data in a tightly coupled data lakehouse implementation where the lakehouse has control over business data. However, achieving this in an implementation where a SQL query service lacks control over objects in the curated zone of the underlying data lake is unclear.