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Five Simple Steps for Implementing a Star Schema in Databricks With Delta Lake

How to consistently get the best performance from star schema databases used in data warehouses and data marts with Delta Lake
Cary Moore
Lucas Bilbro
Brenner Heintz
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Most data warehouse developers are very familiar with the ever-present star schema. Introduced by Ralph Kimball in the 1990s, a star schema is used to denormalize business data into dimensions (like time and product) and facts (like transactions in amounts and quantities). A star schema efficiently stores data, maintains history and updates data by reducing the duplication of repetitive business definitions, making it fast to aggregate and filter.

The common implementation of a star schema to support business intelligence applications has become so routine and successful that many data modelers can practically do them in their sleep. At Databricks, we have produced so many data applications and are constantly looking for best practice approaches to serve as a rule of thumb, a basic implementation that is guaranteed to lead us to a great outcome.

Just like in a traditional data warehouse, there are some simple rules of thumb to follow on Delta Lake that will significantly improve your Delta star schema joins.

Here are the basic steps to success:

  1. Use Delta Tables to create your fact and dimension tables
  2. Optimize your file size for fast file pruning
  3. Create a Z-Order on your fact tables
  4. Create Z-Orders on your dimension key fields and most likely predicates
  5. Analyze Table to gather statistics for Adaptive Query Execution Optimizer

1. Use Delta Tables to create your fact and dimension tables

Delta Lake is an open storage format layer that provides the ease of inserts, updates, deletes, and adds ACID transactions on your data lake tables, simplifying maintenance and revisions. Delta Lake also provides the ability to perform dynamic file pruning to optimize for faster SQL queries.

The syntax is simple on Databricks Runtimes 8.x and newer where Delta Lake is the default table format. You can create a Delta table using SQL with the following:


Before the 8.x runtime, Databricks required creating the table with the USING DELTA syntax.

Sample star schema and dimensional attributes typically used Delta Lake tables.

2. Optimize your file size for fast file pruning

Two of the biggest time sinks in an Apache Spark™ query are the time spent reading data from cloud storage and the need to read all underlying files. With data skipping on Delta Lake, queries can selectively read only the Delta files containing relevant data, saving significant time. Data skipping can help with static file pruning, dynamic file pruning, static partition pruning and dynamic partition pruning.

One of the first things to consider when setting up data skipping is the ideal data file size - too small and you will have too many files (the well-known “small-file problem”); too large and you won’t be able to skip enough data.

A good file size range is 32-128MB (1024*1024*32 = 33554432 for 32MB of course). Again, the idea is that if the file size is too big, the dynamic file pruning will skip to the right file or files, but they will be so large it will still have a lot of work to do. By creating smaller files, you can benefit from file pruning and minimize the I/O retrieving the data you need to join.

You can set the file size value for the entire notebook in Python:

spark.conf.set("", 33554432)

Or in SQL:


Or you can set it only for a specific table using:

ALTER TABLE (database).(table) SET TBLPROPERTIES (delta.targetFileSize=33554432)

If you happen to be reading this article after you have already created tables, you can still set the table property for the file size and, when optimizing and creating the ZORDER, the files will be proportioned to the new file size. If you have already added a ZORDER, you can add and/or remove a column to force a re-write before arriving at the final ZORDER configuration. Read more about ZORDER in step 3.

More complete documentation can be found here, and for those who like Python or Scala in addition to SQL, the full syntax is here.

As Databricks continues to add features and capabilities, we can also Auto Tune the file size based on the table size. For smaller databases, the above setting will likely provide better performance but for larger tables and/or just to make it simpler, you can follow the guidance here and implement the delta.tuneFileSizesForRewrites table property.

3. Create a Z-Order on your fact tables

To improve query speed, Delta Lake supports the ability to optimize the layout of data stored in cloud storage with Z-Ordering.

To improve query speed, Delta Lake supports the ability to optimize the layout of data stored in cloud storage with Z-Ordering, also known as multi-dimensional clustering. Z-Orders are used in similar situations as clustered indexes in the database world, though they are not actually an auxiliary structure. A Z-Order will cluster the data in the Z-Order definition, so that rows like column values from the Z-order definition are collocated in as few files as possible.

Most database systems introduced indexing as a way to improve query performance. Indexes are files, and thus as the data grows in size, they can become another big data problem to solve. Instead, Delta Lake orders the data in the Parquet files to make range selection on object storage more efficient. Combined with the stats collection process and data skipping, Z-Order is similar to seek vs. scan operations in databases, which indexes solved, without creating another compute bottleneck to find the data a query is looking for.

For Z-Ordering, the best practice is to limit the number of columns in the Z-Order to the best 1-4. We chose the foreign keys (foreign keys by use, not actually enforced foreign keys) of the 3 largest dimensions which were too large to broadcast to the workers.


Additionally, if you have tremendous scale and 100's of billions of rows or Petabytes of data in your fact table, you should consider partitioning to further improve file skipping. Partitions are effective when you are actively filtering on a partitioned field.

4. Create Z-Orders on your dimension key fields and most likely predicates

Although Databricks does not enforce primary keys on a Delta table, since you are reading this blog, you likely have dimensions and a surrogate key exists - one that is an integer or big integer and is validated and expected to be unique.

One of the dimensions we were working with had over 1 billion rows and benefitted from the file skipping and dynamic file pruning after adding our predicates into the Z-Order. Our smaller dimensions also had Z-Orders on the dimension key field and were broadcasted in the join to the facts. Similar to the advice on fact tables, limit the number of columns in the Z-Order to the 1-4 fields in the dimension that are most likely to be included in a filter in addition to the key.


5. Analyze Table to gather statistics for Adaptive Query Execution Optimizer

One of the major advancements in Apache Spark™ 3.0 was the Adaptive Query Execution, or AQE for short. As of Spark 3.0, there are three major features in AQE, including coalescing post-shuffle partitions, converting sort-merge join to broadcast join, and skew join optimization. Together, these features enable the accelerated performance of dimensional models in Spark.

In order for AQE to know which plan to choose for you, we need to collect statistics about the tables. You do this by issuing the ANALYZE TABLE command. Customers have reported that collecting table statistics has significantly reduced query execution for dimensional models, including complex joins.



By following the above guidelines, organizations can reduce query times - in our example, from 90 seconds to 10 seconds on the same cluster. The optimizations greatly reduced the I/O and ensured that we only processed the correct content. We also benefited from the flexible structure of Delta Lake in that it would both scale and handle the types of queries that will be sent ad hoc from the Business Intelligence tools.

In addition to the file skipping optimizations mentioned in this blog, Databricks is investing heavily in improving the performance of Spark SQL queries with Databricks Photon. Learn more about Photon and the performance boost it will provide to all of your Spark SQL queries with Databricks.

Customers can expect their ETL/ELT and SQL query performance to improve by enabling Photon in the Databricks Runtime. Combining the best practices outlined here, with the Photon-enabled Databricks Runtime, you can expect to achieve low latency query performance that can outperform the best cloud data warehouses.

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