11 Overview of Extraction, Transformation, and Loading

This chapter discusses the process of extracting, transporting, transforming, and loading data in a data warehousing environment. It includes the following topics:

Overview of ETL in Data Warehouses

You need to load your data warehouse regularly so that it can serve its purpose of facilitating business analysis. To do this, data from one or more operational systems needs to be extracted and copied into the data warehouse. The challenge in data warehouse environments is to integrate, rearrange and consolidate large volumes of data over many systems, thereby providing a new unified information base for business intelligence.

The process of extracting data from source systems and bringing it into the data warehouse is commonly called ETL, which stands for extraction, transformation, and loading. Note that ETL refers to a broad process, and not three well-defined steps. The acronym ETL is perhaps too simplistic, because it omits the transportation phase and implies that each of the other phases of the process is distinct. Nevertheless, the entire process is known as ETL.

The methodology and tasks of ETL have been well known for many years, and are not necessarily unique to data warehouse environments: a wide variety of proprietary applications and database systems are the IT backbone of any enterprise. Data has to be shared between applications or systems, trying to integrate them, giving at least two applications the same picture of the world. This data sharing was mostly addressed by mechanisms similar to what we now call ETL.

ETL Basics in Data Warehousing

What happens during the ETL process? The following tasks are the main actions in the process.

Extraction of Data

During extraction, the desired data is identified and extracted from many different sources, including database systems and applications. Very often, it is not possible to identify the specific subset of interest, therefore more data than necessary has to be extracted, so the identification of the relevant data will be done at a later point in time. Depending on the source system's capabilities (for example, operating system resources), some transformations may take place during this extraction process. The size of the extracted data varies from hundreds of kilobytes up to gigabytes, depending on the source system and the business situation. The same is true for the time delta between two (logically) identical extractions: the time span may vary between days/hours and minutes to near real-time. Web server log files, for example, can easily grow to hundreds of megabytes in a very short period of time.

Transportation of Data

After data is extracted, it has to be physically transported to the target system or to an intermediate system for further processing. Depending on the chosen way of transportation, some transformations can be done during this process, too. For example, a SQL statement which directly accesses a remote target through a gateway can concatenate two columns as part of the SELECT statement.

The emphasis in many of the examples in this section is scalability. Many long-time users of Oracle Database are experts in programming complex data transformation logic using PL/SQL. These chapters suggest alternatives for many such data manipulation operations, with a particular emphasis on implementations that take advantage of Oracle's new SQL functionality, especially for ETL and the parallel query infrastructure.

ETL Tools for Data Warehouses

Designing and maintaining the ETL process is often considered one of the most difficult and resource-intensive portions of a data warehouse project. Many data warehousing projects use ETL tools to manage this process. Oracle Warehouse Builder, for example, provides ETL capabilities and takes advantage of inherent database abilities. Other data warehouse builders create their own ETL tools and processes, either inside or outside the database.

Besides the support of extraction, transformation, and loading, there are some other tasks that are important for a successful ETL implementation as part of the daily operations of the data warehouse and its support for further enhancements. Besides the support for designing a data warehouse and the data flow, these tasks are typically addressed by ETL tools such as Oracle Warehouse Builder.

Oracle is not an ETL tool and does not provide a complete solution for ETL. However, Oracle does provide a rich set of capabilities that can be used by both ETL tools and customized ETL solutions. Oracle offers techniques for transporting data between Oracle databases, for transforming large volumes of data, and for quickly loading new data into a data warehouse.

Daily Operations in Data Warehouses

The successive loads and transformations must be scheduled and processed in a specific order. Depending on the success or failure of the operation or parts of it, the result must be tracked and subsequent, alternative processes might be started. The control of the progress as well as the definition of a business workflow of the operations are typically addressed by ETL tools such as Oracle Warehouse Builder.

Evolution of the Data Warehouse

As the data warehouse is a living IT system, sources and targets might change. Those changes must be maintained and tracked through the lifespan of the system without overwriting or deleting the old ETL process flow information. To build and keep a level of trust about the information in the warehouse, the process flow of each individual record in the warehouse can be reconstructed at any point in time in the future in an ideal case.