Why use ETL for Real Time? …for Metadata support!

ETL tools were designed for back-room, nightly batch processing, right? Yes…maybe….I suppose. If you look at their history, with most ETL tooling born in the decision support and data warehousing world, the biggest challenges were for point-in-time refreshes and loading of vast amounts of information. However, requirements have evolved, missions have changed, and ETL is no longer used only for decision support. Indeed, a certain percentage of sites never have used ETL for data warehousing, even if that is admittedly still a large segment of the application for such tools and technologies. Today, ETL is a great choice for real-time, and it’s safe to say that the tools are now being designed for top notch real-time functionality. I’d like to just stop using the term “ETL” (or ELT, ETML and some of the other acronyms that have been floating around for years)! It’s not your father’s ETL anymore……..[but terms stick, so for now we’ll go with it unless any of you have better suggestions for us and our friends at the analysts 🙂 ].

If not ETL for Real Time, what else? A lot has already been written on ETL (Extract Transform Load) vs EAI (Enterprise Application Integration), with ETL generally being credited with better high volume abilities, and EAI better at complex, multi-construct (occurs, record types) sources and targets, and other pros and cons for either. As I learn more about how to manage this site I’ll create a page with my favorite links on this subject. In many of these comparisons, real-time often defaults to the EAI category.

However, one area that is often overlooked in this comparison are what you might call two “soft” issues — the user community, your teammates who will actually be doing the development, and the requirements for meta data management. While there are exceptions, ETL tools “tend” to be used by what I like to refer to as “data professionals.” These are folks who may have formal programming backgrounds, but gravitated to their role in the enterprise because they understand the business and they know the data. With their initial focus on business intelligence, ETL tools (I know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder) are often more inviting to this type of user. Not an “end-user” by any means, but also not the user who is typically comfortable with C header files, java types and code snippets. ETL vendors have competed for years on the usability issue. Their success with DBAs and more technical end users is a testament to their appeal.

The other “soft” issue worth noting as ETL moves into “real time” is the support for meta data. No longer is meta data something that people merely pay lip service to. Data lineage and impact analysis — the abilities to link a column name to a real-time Service, its rdbms target, its ERwin model AND its business intelligence report are unique to ETL tools. Most EAI type tools, until recently, could hardly spell metadata, let alone provide impact analysis and data lineage reporting from soup to nuts. This is changing, but deep metadata reporting has been a key component in the data warehousing space (and thus receiving massive investment from ETL vendors) for ten years or more.

Data Governance, regulatory compliance, and metadata management are on everyone’s minds. We can’t pay lip service to metadata and data lineage for any kind of data integration. SOA and real-time data integration need the deep metadata support provided by ETL tooling, as much as business intelligence applications do.

Increasingly, ETL tools, and the platforms they operate in are being chosen for real time data integration because of their support for meta data, and the preference of “data professionals” for these tools over their “closer-to-the-code” IDE tool cousins for programming development.


What is Real Time ETL anyway?

What is Real Time ETL? What does it mean? This question keeps coming up in discussions with customers and prospects, for enterprises large and small, and with tool jockeys and home grown coders. It surfaces in debates about EAI vs ETL (subject for another blog), Changed Data Capture, transactional vs batch processing, and more. I won’t debate the definitions of real-time, right-time, real-time data warehousing, active data warehousing, just-in-time or near-real-time — a lot of really smart people have already been there. I just want to look at what people are actually doing, and calling, Real Time ETL.

Trying to formally define real time isn’t easy — there are so many points of view, and critical differences based on industry segment. Those of us in the commercial “data world” spend lots of time discussing the finer points of “real time”….however, I stopped trying to come up with a single definition after reading pure academic and engineering definitions of “real-time computing” that talked about robotic arms in an assembly line reacting in microsecond “real time” to things like minute temperature changes!

I’d like to reflect here instead on the technical aspects of common patterns that those of us in the data integration space run into regarding Real-Time ETL, and mention some of the gotchas that often go overlooked. I see four basic “patterns” that, depending on your point of view and problem you are trying to solve, qualify as Real Time ETL:

  • Frequently executed ETL processes (ie. every 5 minutes, one minute, or every 10 seconds). Really a “batch” pattern, but run in small windows with tiny (by comparison to large batch loads) quantities of data.
  • Messaging or other “continually live” medium as a Source.
  • Messaging or other “continually live medium as a Target.
  • Request/Response with a continually live medium on either end (Source and Target).

The second one above interests me right now, as I’ve had numerous questions on this subject in the past few days. I want to speak here about the technical definition for jobs, maps, procedures (or whatever you call your ETL processes) that need to “read” data from a commonly accepted “real time” technology. Real time sources may be popular messaging engines, such as MQSeries, TIBCO Rendevous, or MSMQ, or java based standards such as JMS, or more custom based solutions such as sockets or even named pipes. Most ETL tools can access these, or provide extensions that make it possible to utilize some of the lesser known APIs.

This is the most commonly requested pattern. When someone says “I need Real-Time ETL,” it generally turns out that they want to “read” from such a source. Reasons for needing it vary. Some sites desire immediate updates to decision support systems or portals, while others are merely “dipping” into an available source that is passing through for other purposes. An already built MQ Series infrastructure, shipping messages between applications, are often the perfect source of data for ETL, whether the objective is immediate updates or not. It’s just “there” and available…and simpler to get than trying to wrestle with security folks for access to source legacy systems. Of course there are hundreds of variants, whether the target is decision support oriented (data warehouse or datamart), or ERP (such as SAP). Either way I’m talking about a persistent target.

Regardless of the reasons, such ETL processes have to deal with issues like the following:

  • Always On. Typically an initialization issue. ETL tools do a lot of preparation when they start…they validate connections, formally “PREPARE” their SQL, load data into memory, establish parallel processes, etc. Twenty seconds of initialization may be acceptable in a 45 minute batch job that processes ½ gigabyte. In a real time scenario, that’s unacceptable. You can’t afford to perform all of that initialization for every message or packet….it needs to be done once, then leave the process “always on” and waiting for new data. I like to think of it “floating” while it waits. Of course, this invites other problems…
  • End-of-file processing for “blocking” functionality. If you have an “always on” job, what do you do if someone wants to use an aggregation or sum() function? How does the process know when it’s finished and can flush rows thru such an operation? This is particularly critical when we move on to Web Services in the request/response pattern, but equally important when reading messages that contain multiple rows, such as when the message payload is a complex XML document.
  • Live vs buffered or in-memory lookups. A common technique for performance in large volume batch processes is to bring values into memory. Same issues for performance in “always on” jobs, but consider that “always on” means needing a strategy to refresh that in-memory copy. Or else ensure that a constant connection to the original source is feasible and performs well….and that the DBA who owns the real time source won’t kill your long running database connection in an “always on” scenario.

These aren’t the only issues, and there are numerous ways of dealing with them. Make sure the tool or techniques you choose give you ways to deal with these problems. Next time I’ll share my notes on these issues and the other real-time patterns in more detail.

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