The Evolution of Data Platforms from Warehouses to Lakes to Lakehouses

Let’s go on a journey through the evolution of database technologies—a wild ride from the early days of proprietary systems to the modern era of data lakehouses. This blog provides an overview for anyone interested in the evolution and future of data handling. Whether you’re a data scientist, business analyst, or IT professional, knowing where we’ve come from helps us navigate where we’re going. Grab your gear; it’s going to be an insightful expedition into the ever-expanding universe of data.

Why Data Platform Evolution Matters

Understanding this historical progression is not just academic—it’s crucial for any organisation that relies on data to make informed decisions. The evolution from warehouses to lakehouses reflects our growing needs for flexibility, scalability, and speed in data handling. It shows how technological advancements have enabled us to manage and analyse data in ways that were unimaginable just a few decades ago.

Reflecting on my own experiences, from early roles in data processing for particle accelerator experiments to consulting on modern data architectures, it’s clear that the challenges of data management are as much about people and processes as they are about technology. For instance, early in my career, I dealt with the limitations of tape storage and manual data entry, which taught me the importance of automation and the potential of digital data storage.

The Origins of Data Handling

Let’s kick things off with a little history. Did you know that the world’s largest databases tripled in size every two years since 2001? It’s like Moore’s Law, but for data! This exponential growth traces back to the days when data processing meant dealing with expensive, cumbersome proprietary systems. Remember when hardware and software were so tightly coupled that scalability seemed a distant dream? 

Our story begins in the late 19th century, a time when businesses first felt the need for efficient data handling. The invention of the mechanical tabulator in 1881 by Herman Hollerith revolutionised data processing, laying the groundwork for the modern computing era. These devices used punch cards to store information, a method that would dominate for decades and believe it or not, laid the groundwork for the data processors we use today.

Two professionals operating an early IBM computer system, one working on the database hardware backend while the other inputs data.
Two professionals operating an early IBM computer system, one working on the database hardware backend while the other inputs data.

By the early 20th century, companies like IBM emerged from the computing tabulating recording company, further advancing mechanical and electromechanical systems to handle increasingly complex data tasks. The introduction of the IBM 407 Accounting Machine in the 1940s, for instance, allowed businesses to automate financial calculations and record-keeping, significantly reducing manual labour and error rates.

Back in the 1950s, IBM introduced the magnetic drum data processor, a device so expensive and bulky that renting it cost as much as a car per month! Yet, it was a critical step towards automating data processing, transitioning from manual tabulation to semi-automatic data handling.

Vintage computing room with two people operating mainframe computers from the mid-20th century, showcasing early data processing equipment.
Early computing room with two people operating mainframe computers from the mid-20th century, showcasing early data processing equipment.

The IBM 701 and its successors introduced magnetic tape data storage, which provided quicker access to data and expanded storage capabilities. This era also saw the rise of databases like IBM’s RAMAC (Random Access Method of Accounting and Control), which utilised the world’s first hard disk drive. These innovations paved the way for the development of relational databases in the 1970s, spearheaded by Edgar F. Codd’s relational model, which aimed to enhance data accessibility and management.

Data Warehouses: The Next Logical Step

As time marched on, so did the need for more sophisticated data handling. The traditional data warehouse was born out of this necessity. These were essentially beefed-up databases designed to handle enormous volumes of historical data. However, they were not without their challenges, including their significant cost and rigid schemas.

The architecture of data warehouses allowed for the periodic extraction of data from various operational systems, such as sales or accounting, which was then processed and stored in a format suitable for analysis. This shift not only improved data retrieval efficiency but also enabled more sophisticated data mining techniques, leading to better business insights and decision-making.

Despite their advantages, data warehouses were not without challenges. Their reliance on structured data and complex schemas made them less adaptable to the changing needs of businesses, especially with the advent of unstructured data types like web logs and social media. They were like the mainframes of the data world: powerful yet not exactly user-friendly or flexible. The high cost of data warehousing solutions and the expertise required to maintain them also posed significant barriers for many organisations.

In response, the late 1990s and early 2000s saw innovations aimed at increasing the scalability and flexibility of data warehouses. Techniques such as online analytical processing (OLAP) and data marts were developed to provide more dynamic data slicing and dicing capabilities. Furthermore, advancements in hardware, such as increased RAM and faster processors, allowed data warehouses to handle larger datasets and more complex queries.

The Shift to Flexible Data Storage: Data Lakes

Recognising the limitations of both data warehouses and lakes, the data community conceived a hybrid model: the data lakehouse. This innovation seeks to merge the flexible, scalable storage of data lakes with the powerful management and analytical capabilities of data warehouses.

Data lakehouses support both batch and real-time analytics, making them suitable for a wide range of applications—from historical data analysis to real-time decision support systems. They incorporate advanced data management features, such as ACID transactions and schema enforcement, which help maintain data consistency and reliability.

The Rise of Data Lakehouses

Recognizing the limitations of both data warehouses and lakes, the data community conceived a hybrid model: the data lakehouse. This innovation seeks to merge the flexible, scalable storage of data lakes with the powerful management and analytical capabilities of data warehouses.

Data lakehouses support both batch and real-time analytics, making them suitable for a wide range of applications—from historical data analysis to real-time decision support systems. They incorporate advanced data management features, such as ACID transactions and schema enforcement, which help maintain data consistency and reliability.

Below are some of the different tools to build your own data lakehouse broken down by capability.

Infographic of data platform services and tools, including Databricks, Cloudera, and Snowflake logos, categories such as Data Science and Machine Learning with Keras, PyTorch, and TensorFlow, Business Intelligence and Analytics with Tableau and Power BI, SQL Processing with Presto and Hive, among others.

Key Tool Groupings in the Data Lakehouse Landscape

Navigating the data lakehouse landscape can be akin to steering through a bustling cityscape—there’s a lot going on, and everything seems interconnected. Here’s a breakdown of the essential tool groupings:

1. Storage and Data Formats

At the foundation of any data lakehouse are the storage technologies and data formats. Tools like Apache Hadoop initially popularised the distributed file system approach, which is crucial for handling vast amounts of data. Today, cloud-based object stores such as Amazon S3, Azure Data Lake Storage, and Google Cloud Storage are commonly used due to their scalability and durability.

Data formats play a critical role as well. Columnar storage formats like Parquet and ORC optimise for efficiency and speed, enabling quick access to large datasets. These formats are particularly beneficial in a data lakehouse setup because they support complex nested data structures and are excellent for both analytical and operational workloads.

2. Data Integration and Ingestion Tools

Data ingestion is the process of bringing data into the data lakehouse from various sources. Tools like Apache Kafka, Apache Nifi, and StreamSets are pivotal in this area, facilitating the continuous ingestion of data streams. For batch data loads, traditional ETL (Extract, Transform, Load) tools, as well as newer ELT (Extract, Load, Transform) platforms like Fivetran and Stitch, are commonly employed to populate data lakehouses.

3.Data Processing and Analytics Engines

Once data is ingested, processing engines like Apache Spark and Databricks come into play. Spark has been a game-changer, allowing for in-memory data processing, which significantly speeds up analytics. Databricks, built on top of Spark, extends its capabilities with a managed service that simplifies operations. These tools are essential for data transformation, aggregation, and complex computations required both for real-time and batch processing in a data lakehouse environment.

4. Data Governance and Security

Data governance is critical in ensuring that data within a lakehouse is used appropriately and complies with regulations. Tools like Apache Atlas and Collibra help manage data lineage, metadata, and security policies. They provide a framework for data stewards to classify and maintain the data, ensuring that it remains accurate, usable, and secure.

5. BI and Machine Learning Platforms

To extract value from data, BI and machine learning platforms are crucial. Tools like Tableau, Looker, and Power BI enable users to create visualisations and dashboards that make data insights accessible to business users. For machine learning, platforms such as TensorFlow, PyTorch, and again, Databricks, offer robust environments for developing and deploying ML models directly on data stored in a lakehouse.

6. Integration and Interoperability

One of the biggest challenges—and opportunities—in the data lakehouse landscape is ensuring that these diverse tools work well together. The goal is seamless integration, allowing data to flow freely across systems and processes without silos. Open standards and APIs play a huge role here, enabling interoperability and flexibility in tool choice.

The Impact of Distributed Computing

One cannot discuss the evolution of databases without mentioning the impact of distributed computing. Remember the days of single-server setups? They simply couldn’t handle the scale we needed. With the advent of distributed systems like Hadoop and later, Apache Spark, we saw a paradigm shift. These frameworks allowed for data to be processed across many servers simultaneously, drastically improving speed and efficiency.

Apache Spark, in particular, was a major advancement over Hadoop’s MapReduce. It allowed for in-memory data processing, which means faster data handling, and it wasn’t just limited to batch processing—it could handle real-time data streams too. This capability has been crucial in the development of data lakehouses, enabling them to support both historical data analytics and real-time decision-making.

The Diverse Roles in Data Management

As these technologies have evolved, so have the roles of those who manage and analyse data.  Here’s a brief rundown of some key positions in the data landscape:

  • Data Analysts: These professionals are typically found poring over data warehouses, using SQL to extract insights that drive business decisions. They turn data into charts and reports that reveal trends and support strategies.
  • Data Scientists: Often working with data lakes, data scientists require a robust understanding of machine learning and advanced statistical methods. They are proficient in programming languages like Python and R and are adept at handling unstructured data.
  • Data Engineers: The architects of data platforms, data engineers build and maintain the infrastructure for data generation, collection, and analysis. They ensure that data flows smoothly between servers and applications, enabling other professionals to perform analytics and machine learning efficiently.
  • Data Stewards: These guardians of data ensure that data management practices adhere to governance, quality, and compliance standards. They manage and protect data, ensuring that it is used correctly and ethically across the organisation.

It’s a whole ecosystem of professionals working together to harness the power of data effectively. 

Recommendations for Choosing a Database System

When selecting a database technology, consider your organisation’s specific needs:

  • For Structured, Query-Intensive Projects: A more traditional data warehouse like Snowflake may be ideal due to its robust SQL support and mature analytics capabilities.
  • For Projects Requiring Flexibility and Scale: Consider a data lake or lakehouse approach, where platforms like Databricks offer extensive support for unstructured data and machine learning.
  • Evaluate Your Team’s Expertise: The choice of technology should also align with the skills of your team. Ensure you have or can acquire the expertise needed to fully leverage the chosen technology.

Remember, the choice isn’t just about the technology—it’s about how it fits into your overall data strategy.

Wrapping Up

The journey from the early tabulating machines to today’s sophisticated data lakehouses is a testament to the ingenuity and perseverance of countless professionals in the field of data management. As we look to the future, the lessons learned from this evolution will guide us in developing even more innovative ways to handle the ever-growing data landscape.

In wrapping up, remember that understanding the past is crucial to navigating the future. Whether you’re a budding data scientist, a seasoned data analyst, or a strategic decision-maker, the rich history of data management offers valuable insights that can help shape your approach to the data challenges and opportunities ahead.

If you are interested to see how DiUS does data, head to our Data and Analytics page to learn more.

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