When ETL Is a Symptom

When you have several different applications (e.g. to perform simulations and analyses) that each have their own data model, it’s typical for each to also maintain its own siloed data store. Then, in order to use all the applications in concert to complete a research project, or to support an ongoing research program, you need to run extract-transform-load (ETL) pipelines to sync the data.

In the best case for such an application-centric architecture, you may have a central data store with which each application-specific store performs ETL. In the worst case, you have quadratic growth of point-to-point ETL.

Even if every application’s data is technically in the same store (e.g. a “data lake”), each application’s data model can be arbitrarily different from the others', necessitating custom transformations to be implemented and maintained over time.

In this scenario, ETL is a symptom of data diseconomy. You may recognize and budget for “technical debt” when optimizing for expediency in developing a given application, perhaps to hit a conference deadline. This debt is at the code level. However, beware also of “integration debt” at the data level if adding a new software tool with an arbitrarily different data model.

What is an alternative to ballooning ETL efforts? Though it takes discipline, a data-centric, (data-)model-driven architecture is a way out of the quagmire.1

I don’t have a catchy-acronym substitute for ETL – perhaps cache, map, cache (CMC), where bookend caching is optional, an incidental performance optimization. That is, one can federate virtualized queries that map at query time, e.g. via the R2RML standard if a given application needs to work with data in a tabular form rather than the document/graph form of a central data store. The “mapping” is just one of form – the underlying data model is shared across all applications.

This post was adapted from a note sent to my email list on Scientific Data Unification.
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  1. McComb, Dave. The Data-Centric Revolution: Restoring Sanity to Enterprise Information Systems. Technics, 2019. ↩︎