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Earlier this year, Databricks wrote a blog that outlined how more and more enterprises are adopting the lakehouse pattern. The blog created a massive amount of interest from technology enthusiasts. While lots of people praised it as the next-generation data architecture, some people thought the Lakehouse is the same thing as the data lake. Recently, several of our engineers and founders wrote a research paper that describes some of the core technological challenges and solutions that set the Lakehouse paradigm apart from the data lake, and it was accepted and published at the International Conference on Very Large Databases (VLDB) 2020. You can read the paper, “Delta Lake: High-Performance ACID Table Storage over Cloud Object Stores”, here.

Henry Ford is often credited with having said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” The crux of this statement is that people often envision a better solution to a problem as an evolution of what they already know rather than rethinking the approach to the problem altogether. In the world of data storage, this pattern has been playing out for years. Vendors continue to try to reinvent the old horses of data warehouses and data lakes rather than seek a new solution.

More than a decade ago, the cloud opened a new frontier for data storage. Cloud object stores like Amazon S3 have become some of the largest and most cost-effective storage systems in the world, which makes them an attractive platform to store data warehouses and data lakes. However, their nature as a key-value store makes it difficult to achieve ACID transactions that many organizations require. Also, performance is hampered by expensive metadata operations (e.g. listing objects) and limited consistency guarantees.

Read Rise of the Data Lakehouse to explore why lakehouses are the data architecture of the future with the father of the data warehouse, Bill Inmon.

Based on the characteristics of object stores, three approaches have emerged.

Data Lakes

The first is directories of files (i.e. data lakes) that store the table as a collection of objects, typically in columnar format such as Apache Parquet. It’s an attractive approach, because the table is just a group of objects that can be accessed from a wide variety of tools without a lot of additional data stores or systems. However, both performance and consistency problems are common. Hidden data corruption is common due to transaction fails, eventual consistency leads to inconsistent queries, latency is high, and basic management capabilities like table versioning and audit logs are unavailable.

Custom storage engines

The second approach is custom storage engines, such as proprietary systems built for the cloud like the Snowflake data warehouse. These systems can bypass the consistency challenges of data lakes by managing the metadata in a separate, strongly consistent service that’s able to provide a single source of truth. However, all I/O operations need to connect to this metadata service, which can increase resource costs and reduce performance and availability. Additionally, it takes a lot of engineering work to implement connectors to existing computing engines like Apache Spark, TensorFlow, and PyTorch, which can be challenging for data teams that use a variety of computing engines on their data. Engineering challenges can be exacerbated by unstructured data, because these systems are generally optimized for traditional structured data types. Finally, and most egregious, the proprietary metadata service locks customers into a specific service provider, leaving customers to contend with consistently high prices and expensive, time-consuming migrations if they decide to adopt a new approach later.


With Delta Lake, an open source ACID table storage layer atop cloud object stores, we sought to build a car instead of a faster horse with not just a better data store, but a fundamental change in how data is stored and used via the lakehouse. A lakehouse is a new paradigm that combines the best elements of data lakes and data warehouses. Lakehouses are enabled by a new system design: implementing similar data structures and data management features to those in a data warehouse, directly on the kind of low cost storage used for data lakes. They are what you would get if you had to redesign storage engines in the modern world, now that cheap and highly reliable storage (in the form of object stores) are available.

Delta Lake maintains information about which objects are part of a Delta table in an ACID manner, using a write-ahead log, compacted into Parquet, that is also stored in the cloud object store. This design allows clients to update multiple objects at once, replace a subset of the objects with another, etc., in a serializable manner that still achieves high parallel read/write performance from the objects. The log also provides significantly faster metadata operations for large tabular datasets. Additionally, Delta Lake offers advanced capabilities like time travel (i.e. query point-in-time snapshots or roll back erroneous updates), automatic data layout optimization, upserts, caching, and audit logs. Together, these features improve both the manageability and performance of working with data in cloud object stores, ultimately opening the door to the lakehouse paradigm that combines the key features of data warehouses and data lakes to create a better, simpler data architecture.

Today, Delta Lake is used across thousands of Databricks customers, processing exabytes of structured and unstructured data each day, as well as many organizations in the open source community. These use cases span a variety of data sources and applications. The data types stored include Change Data Capture (CDC) logs from enterprise OLTP systems, application logs, time-series data, graphs, aggregate tables for reporting, and image or feature data for machine learning. The applications include SQL workloads (most commonly), business intelligence, streaming, data science, machine learning, and graph analytics. Overall, Delta Lake has proven itself to be a good fit for most data lake applications that would have used structured storage formats like Parquet or ORC, and many traditional data warehousing workloads.

Across these use cases, we found that customers often use Delta Lake to significantly simplify their data architecture by running more workloads directly against cloud object stores, and increasingly, by creating a lakehouse with both data lake and transactional features to replace some or all of the functionality provided by message queues (e.g. Apache Kafka), data lakes, or cloud data warehouses (e.g. Snowflake, Amazon Redshift.)

In the research paper, the authors explain:

  • The characteristics and challenges of object stores
  • The Delta Lake storage format and access protocols
  • The current features, benefits, and limitations of Delta Lake
  • Both the core and specialized use cases commonly employed today
  • Performance experiments, including TPC-DS performance

Through the paper, you’ll gain a better understanding of Delta Lake and how it enables a wide range of DBMS-like performance and management features for data held in low-cost cloud storage. As well as how the Delta Lake storage format and access protocols make it simple to operate, highly available, and able to deliver high-bandwidth access to the object store.

Download the research paper

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