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BenBirt for Dataform

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Consider SQL when writing your next processing pipeline

Once a team or organization has some data to manage - customer data, events to be fed into some machine learning system, or whatever else - they almost immediately find themselves writing, running, and maintaining processing pipelines.

Outputs of these pipelines are many and varied, including customer / market analysis, data cleaning, etc, but such pipelines seem to pop up more often and more quickly than one expects.

Today, most non-trivial data processing is done using some pipelining technology, for example Dataflow / Apache Beam, with user code typically written in languages such as Java, Python, or perhaps Go.

My experience

I worked as a software engineer at Google for several years, during which I led multiple teams and projects which required writing, managing, and maintaining various types of processing pipelines. During that time I became convinced that - for the majority of use-cases - expressing these pipelines in SQL is simpler, cheaper, and easier than the alternatives, with few disadvantages.

For what it’s worth, I’ll note that I’m actually a big fan of these pipelining technologies. While at Google, I was a cheerleader for the internal version of Cloud Dataflow (Flume) for both batch and streaming use-cases. However, I think that the reasons for using them - broadly - no longer apply to today’s world of highly scalable cloud warehouses and query engines.

Why isn’t SQL the de facto processing pipeline language today?

SQL wasn’t really a scalable option for processing data before we had widely available cloud data warehouses such as BigQuery and Redshift. Without these highly-scalable query engines, the only reasonable choice was to perform any significant data processing outside of the data warehouse.

Scalable processing

The first truly scalable data processing solution was probably something like Google MapReduce. It then quickly became obvious that chaining MapReduce-like processing steps into a full pipeline using some higher-level API can produce very powerful pipelining systems, and frameworks such as Hadoop, Apache Spark, and Google Cloud Dataflow were born. These systems enabled users to process terabytes of data (or more, with some tuning) quickly and scalably, which was often simply impossible using SQL query engines.

However, cloud data warehouse systems have evolved dramatically over the past 5 years. SQL queries running on BigQuery’s query engine will generally run much more quickly than the alternative, which requires reading all of the relevant data out of the warehouse, processing it, then writing the result back to some other table. It’s also much easier to run in production; there’s no need to manage temporary state, queries are optimized automatically, etc. All of these concerns are pushed to the query engine, and the user doesn’t have to care about them.

The query engine is the best place to optimize the pipeline since it has access to the most metadata about what data is being processed; as a result it’s much easier to manage the pipeline operationally in production. This is much better than the alternative - I can’t tell you how many hours (or days, or even weeks) my teams and I have spent debugging scalability issues and poor optimization choices in Java pipelines.

Existing bias towards imperative languages

I think there is an understandable cultural bias in software engineering teams towards using standard imperative programming languages to implement processing pipelines, and until very recently it wasn’t really possible to mix and match SQL and non-SQL (see below for more on this).

Engineers are much more familiar with configuring jobs written in these languages in production, but happily, modern SaaS options obviate this problem for SQL pipelines by taking responsibility for scheduling and running the user’s code, so that the user needs to do very little productionization at all.

Additionally, SQL scripts have sometimes been treated as a second class citizen versus other languages. Some tools used for SQL script development haven’t supported standard software engineering techniques such as version control or code review. However, this too has changed, with modern toolchain options supporting these practices as first-class features.

SQL has distinct advantages over the alternatives

SQL is a language built and designed to support exactly what you want to do when you’re processing data: joining, filtering, aggregating, and transforming data. Thus, it’s usually much simpler and easier to express your pipeline in SQL than it is in some other pipelining technology. (If you’d like to see an example of just how powerful SQL can be, take a look at this article in which a deep neural network is implemented with it!)

A common language

The biggest advantage of implementing your pipeline in SQL is that it’s likely to be the same language that you or your data team use to actually perform final analysis on the output of the pipeline.

This means that the data team don’t need support from engineers to make changes to the pipeline. Instead, they’re empowered to make the changes themselves.


When something goes wrong, SQL pipelines are usually much easier to introspect than the alternative. If you want to check exactly what data is being output by any given processing stage of a SQL pipeline, you can simply pull out those results into some relevant SELECT query.

Doing the same using a pipelining system can be a real pain, involving making significant code changes (just to add enough instrumentation to enable debugging) and re-deploying the pipeline.

Faster development

During development of a SQL-based pipeline, the iteration cycle is significantly faster. This is because the feedback loop is much quicker - make an edit to your query(s), re-run the pipeline, and immediately get new results.

If the pipeline processes so much data that it takes more than a minute or two to execute, it’s trivial to process a fraction of the data (to get results more quickly) by adding a LIMIT to your query (or subqueries), or by only selecting rows belonging to a subset of the input dataset.

When writing Java pipelines from scratch, I would often find that testing out a single bugfix would take hours - not so with SQL. I actually often found myself writing a SQL script to validate the output of some productionized Java pipeline, only to belatedly realize that I had essentially re-implemented the Java pipeline in SQL - in much fewer lines of code, with much more readability, and significantly less complexity.

SQL’s disadvantages

In my experience there are two distinct domains where other languages have an edge on pure SQL: (1) unit testing and (2) the readability of particularly complex data transformations.

Some SQL queries can be fairly complex, especially if they use powerful features such as BigQuery’s analytic functions. I’d like to be able to write unit tests for these SQL queries, statically defining sets of input rows and expected output rows, asserting that the query does exactly what it’s supposed to. We’re working on implementing this feature within Dataform, and expect to have basic unit test support out soon. However, a useful tool which can help out here is data assertions, using which you can express requirements of your input data, for example to check for correctness, before continuing to run your processing pipeline.

Occasionally, you will want to run some particularly complicated data transformation logic. (For one interesting - if slightly insane - example, check out this Medium post.) Sometimes, when expressed in SQL, this can become difficult to read and/or maintain due to its complexity. However, there exists a nice solution to this problem: User-Defined Functions (UDFs). UDFs allow you to break out of SQL and use JavaScript or Python (depending on the warehouse) when you need the power of a full imperative programming language to implement your own function.

The future

We’re seeing a general move towards expressing pipelines in plain SQL. Indeed, Apache Beam recently launched support for Beam SQL, allowing Java users to express transformations using inline SQL. I expect that as time goes on, we’ll see fewer and fewer processing pipelines expressed using Java/Python/Go, and much more work being done inside data warehouses using simple SQL, for all of the reasons discussed above.

Top comments (10)

simkimsia profile image
simkimsia • Edited

Thanks for writing this. I’m interested to learn more.

expressing pipelines

First the term “expressing pipelines” I am not sure if I understand that term completely.

Isn’t it a case of say running queries to extract data for reports? Meaning pure read only.

Does it also include the case of extracting data from a data source and then inputting in another source? I.e. read and write

difference between running sql pipelines and something like blaze

Are you familiar with

So their philosophy is that as data grows bigger it’s easy to send code to data than data to code for processing.

Conceptually are you suggesting the same thing? Except you recommend directly using sql queries


benbirt profile image

Thanks for reading my post!

To my mind, a processing pipeline is anything that reads data from a number of source(s), joins/transforms/filters those data, and outputs the results to some number of destination(s). (Note that it is rare, but occasionally the output destination is the same as the input source.) So I would say both of your examples would qualify.

I wasn't familiar with Blaze, but having had a quick look, it does look like I am suggesting a similar approach, but indeed just going straight to SQL instead.

simkimsia profile image

Actually when you define processing pipeline as "anything that reads data from a number of source(s), joins/transforms/filters those data, and outputs the results to some number of destination(s)."

You're talking essentially about ETL right?

Thread Thread
benbirt profile image

More or less, yes!

thorstenhirsch profile image
Thorsten Hirsch

IBM has such a tool since the late '90s: AppConnect (it was called "IBM Integration Bus" and "Websphere Message Broker" earlier). It's an application integration tool with a bunch of data transformation engines. Its 1st and still most relevant transformation engine ("compute node") uses an SQL dialect called ESQL. Its main benefit is that it abstracts data structure from serialised representation. That way you are not bound to databases - you can use ESQL to transform any kind of data, e.g. XML to CSV, or you can join JSON with tables in different databases. And a pipeline is called "flow" in this tool.

But Marcel is right - 1200 lines of SQL code are hard to grasp. You better use something different for the heavy algorithmic lifting and limit the use of ESQL to join/filter data from different sources. You can use a Java node in AppConnect for such a scenario and build a flow like this:

| CSV in +--+
+--------+  |
            |    +--------+     +--------+    +----------+
            +--->+  ESQL  +---->+  Java  +--->+ REST out |
+--------+  |    +--------+     +--------+    +----------+
| DB in  +--+
droher profile image
David Roher

I'm curious what you think about the functional API on top of SQL that Spark provides. It complicates the "imperative vs. SQL" framing, because with the DataFrame API you're metaprogramming SQL while still writing Scala/Python/Java. SQL API vs. SQL is the real tough choice from my perspective (and it doesn't have to be a choice, since Spark will support both in the same pipeline). Thanks for the article!

benbirt profile image

Honestly, anything that makes it easier/simpler to write pipelines is good in my book! (And Spark's SQL APIs definitely count there.)

That said, at least for data that can easily be brought into a single data warehouse, my preference is still to get rid of that extra layer - reducing complexity - and let the highly scalable warehouse do the grunt work.

mdpopescu profile image
Marcel Popescu

If you want to check exactly what data is being output by any given processing stage of a SQL pipeline, you can simply pull out those results into some relevant SELECT query.

Ok. You have a 1200-line stored procedure that returns garbage. What exactly do you do to figure out what the "relevant SELECT query" is?

Oh, I forgot: the stored procedure also modifies some tables, because why not? That means you can't easily re-run it without affecting data, which can create heisenbugs. Good luck! :D

benbirt profile image

Yup, this would be a tricky situation! To be honest, my advice would be:

  • only run SQL that is checked in to some source control somewhere - this rules out stored procedures, at least unless you have some release process that you trust that pushes your code to a stored procedure
  • figuring out the relevant SELECT is a matter of (a) having the original SQL be modular enough that you can easily do so, and (b) a reasonably standard debugging procedure (look at the output, if it's wrong then look one step before the output, etc)
  • it's bad practice to be running any form of processing pipeline that modifies underlying schemas, at least unless the modification is eventually consistent, for exactly the reason you mention
thorstenhirsch profile image
Thorsten Hirsch

much more work being done inside data warehouses

Let's not hope so. We've been there before (pre-cloud era) and saw that mixing the data persistency layer with the data transformation layer was a bad idea. Databases and data warehouses might be sufficient for a few nightly batch jobs, but it's a very restrictive runtime environment for data processing, hard to scale, hard to debug, hard to monitor. Modern data processing engines also need to support data streams (e.g. Apache Kafka) that need to be filtered in realtime.