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How data lakes and data warehouses support modern data architectures

Originally published on April 4, 2019 on

Now more than ever, businesses need to leverage data, not only to stay relevant in a highly competitive landscape but also to find new competitive edges. To solve data problems, businesses need to collect both application data from many systems within their operation and the data made available to them by their business partners.

Managing such data becomes increasingly challenging as the volume of information continues to grow. This is where data lakes and data warehouses come into play. To leverage these data-storage structures effectively, you should understand the difference between them. It’s also important to know that the discussion is not about choosing between data lakes and data warehouses but about when and how we can use these two important types of data-storage systems together.

The basics of data warehouses

Data warehouses, well-understood data-storage structures, have been around for a long time. They excel when you pre-process your well-structured data before you store it. This pre-processing, more commonly known as extract, transform, load (ETL), is critical in making a data warehouse useful because data warehouses are schema-on-write data-storage systems.

Data in a data warehouse are generally well understood—we know the content, as well as why and how we want to use it. The typical users of data warehouses are business analysts, who prepare reports and dashboards for decision makers.

What are the three layers of data warehouse architecture?

Generally, a data warehouse adopts a three-tier architecture:

  • Bottom Tier: The data warehouse database server or the relational database system. Back-end tools and utilities extract, clean, load, and refresh data.
  • Middle Tier: The Online analytical processing (OLAP) Server, implemented by using either the Relational OLAP (ROLAP) or Multidimensional OLAP (MOLAP) model. MOLAP directly implements the data and operations, while ROLAP maps the operations on data to standard relational operations.
  • Top-Tier: The front-end client layer holding the tools and API (including query tools, reporting tools, analysis tools, and data-mining tools) to connect and move data in and out.

What factors should you consider in choosing the architecture of your data warehousing?

The most important factors for choosing your data warehouse architecture are:

  • The strategic view of the warehouse before implementation
  • Information interdependence between organizational units
  • The information needs of leadership

The basics of data lakes

While data warehouses thrive on structure and processed data, data lakes are almost the opposite. The goal of a data lake is to ingest and store data as quickly as possible. Data lakes achieve this by storing the data with little to no processing. Data in a data lake can come from any business system, in any format, and the user might not understand the usefulness of the data at all.

If the data in a data lake is unstructured and the use of the data isn’t fully understood, ask yourself: Who is the intended user of this data, and what purpose does it serve? The intended users are data scientists, and one of their primary objectives is to find insights and use for the data that have not been previously considered. For this reason, data lakes are primarily schema-on-read systems because it is unknown how users will query data.

Data warehouses and data lakes in broader business architecture

Data lakes occupy a central position in a business' data architecture. A data lake might serve as a source of data for a data warehouse (as well as many other data processing systems), whereas usually, a data warehouse does not serve as a source for a data lake.

With a data lake as a central repository of the data generated and collected by a business, you can modify workflows. Data scientists can explore the data for useful and interesting new insights. After they understand the data, they can pre-process and prepare it for consumption by a data warehouse, which in turn drives reporting and dash-boarding. This work can facilitate better decision making by business leaders.

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Adnan Ahmad

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