By Robert Bordo —

A Journey Towards a Custom Data Warehouse Solution
Part 2: We Need Storage

6 minutes read

In the beginning we created a cluster. And the cluster was without form, and void; and nulls were upon the face of the storage.

As we learned in part 1 of our series, a data warehouse consists of several components. The key component is the storage. All the others group around it. But how can one draw a decision on which storage solution to adopt? What is out there anyway?


In a perfect world there would be only one kind of storage that fits all the needs of current DWH development and analysis. But since we are not living in that kind of place, we have several options. And the number of options increase the deeper one dives into the topic. There seem to be solutions for every use case you can think of.

That might be a good starting point. What is our most common use case? What are we going to store? And how would we like to access our data in the end?

Our major source is a massive amount of log data coming from our app. Everything the user does (e.g swiping through articles, selecting categories, leaving the app) is tracked, enriched with metadata (e.g. the user’s location, app version, article identifier) and stored by a third-party service in big, semi-structured log files. Having only this source, a time series database like Graphite or InfluxDB could do the job. But also having slow changing master data, like user profiles, article metadata and maybe even to keep a history of data, this solution would not satisfy our current and future needs.

Another thing that comes to my mind is how the data will be accessed by our final consumer (namely: Business Intelligence). Usually they use tools like Jasper Reports or Tableau for generating reports. For analyses we have to pre-aggregate the data to make queries more performant and translate raw information into a digestible format.

What else is on the market?

Storage good at bad at Example
S3/Flat Files scalability, easy to use, data lake querying S3
Time Series DB handling time series data non time series data Graphite
Relational DB referential integrity, transactions semi-structured data Postgres
Key Value Store semi-structured data, speed complex queries DynamoDB
Document Store schema free aggregating Elasticsearch
Wide Column Store storing large number of dynamic columns   Hadoop
Graph Database processing of graph structures indexing Neo4J
Object Database storing objects speed Versant

And there are even more. An extensive list can be found here.

The Given One - S3

Something I forgot to mention is, we store all (semi-structured) data we receive from different sources to S3 first. S3 serves as our Data Lake. This enables us to only load relevant data selectively to our main storage without losing information, because we could re-load afterwards. This reduces costs (S3 is cheap, our main storage is not) and Amazon Athena even enables us to query data in S3 directly.

The Candidate - AWS Redshift

Most of our infrastructure is hosted on Amazon Web Services (AWS). It would be handy to stay on this well known ground. There must be something out there. And it is indeed. Redshift is Amazon’s “data warehouse as a service” solution.

On Redshift’s homepage you can read:

Amazon Redshift is a fast, fully managed data warehouse that makes it simple and cost-effective to analyze all your data using standard SQL and your existing Business Intelligence (BI) tools.

Basically it is a column oriented database with good support for analytical functions. It is able to handle Petabytes of structured data by massively parallel query execution. Sounds good. Fulfills our requirements. Why not give it a chance?


  • (unlimited) scalability
  • good support for analytical functions
  • accessible like any other database
  • good integration in AWS infrastructure (S3, AWS Lambdas, etc.)
  • good support to import data from S3


  • Costly (depending on the type and number of nodes used)
  • steep learning curve in order to boost performance
  • maybe training necessary (or even consultancy)
  • no native support for semi-structured data
  • database administration is complex (column compression, distribution, vacuumization, …)

The Opponent - Snowflake

Redshift is not the only data warehouse as a service candidate. Snowflake is another one. To be honest, we evaluated Snowflake a while ago. A lot has changed since then, but let’s stick to the data we collected sometime in 2016.

On Snowflake’s homepage you can read:

From zero to Petabytes, our elastic data warehouse architecture scales to any volume of data painlessly and inexpensively. No more painful decisions about what data you can afford to keep.


  • storage is cheap (maybe) -> see cons
  • native support for semi-structured data
  • (unlimited) scalability
  • good integration into AWS infrastructure (S3, AWS Lambdas, etc.)
  • database administration is done automatically


  • nontransparent pricing policy
  • missing information about tooling (ETL)

Snowflake created a database layer on top of S3 (a little bit like Amazon Athena did later). Unfortunately it wasn’t easy to thoroughly test Snowflake at that time. Consequently we did not investigate further. Maybe we would handle this issue differently today.


We decided for Redshift in the end. I have to admit it hasn’t been a too unbiased process, because more or less we wanted to try Redshift anyway.

Starting with Redshift is easy, but getting satisfying results, especially if the amount of data increases, takes longer. Execution time and costs increase. You have to understand how Redshift works under the hood and you need to tune your tables accordingly. Also its maintenance is not a piece of cake. We will share our findings in a later post.


Selecting a proper storage for a data warehouse is tough. And it’s not at the same time. At the end of the day you, as a data engineer, manage data, not a database. Data goes into the storage and is being retrieved again. Make sure both ways are comfortable. You, as a data engineer, are able to load data into the storage easily. Your customer, usually some BI person, can fetch data quickly and is happy. Data maintenance should not be too complex as well. And all aggregations in-between should also work smoothly.

Questions you should ask:

  • How does my infrastructure look so far?
  • What are my sources?
  • How is my source data structured?
  • How much data do I expect to store?
  • Do I need unlimited scalability?
  • What tools (BI) need to access my data?
  • How much can I spend on it?
  • How complicated is the maintenance?
  • Do we have the capacity and knowledge to master this technology?
  • Do we need training?

And there’s nothing wrong with having more than one storage solution. I mean, storage is not Highlander in the end.