Why We Don’t Truncate Dimensions and Facts During a Data Load

Published On: 2019-07-25By:

Every once in a while, I come across a data warehouse where the data load uses a full truncate and reload pattern to populate a fact or dimension. While it may not be the end of the world for a small table, it does concern me and I usually recommend to redesign the load. My thoughts below on why this is an anti-pattern are true for using the actual TRUNCATE TABLE statement as well as executing a DELETE statement with no WHERE clause.

Surrogate Keys

Dimensional models use surrogate keys rather than natural keys. Surrogate keys are system-generated, meaningless values that are usually integers used to uniquely identify a record. They provide good performance for joins in queries, allow us to switch or use multiple source systems to feed the same tables, and facilitate the use of slowly changing dimensions. If you truncate a dimension table and then repopulate it, you will end up with different surrogate keys assigned to your dimension values. Let’s say we have a Geography dimension that looks like the table below.

1DenverColoradoUnited States80205
2DallasTexasUnited States75201

If I truncate and reload this table, there is no guarantee that Denver will have a GeographyKey value of 1. I might reload the data and then have Paris as 1, Denver as 2, and Dallas as 3. And since we use surrogate keys as dimension lookups in fact tables and bridge tables (and snowflaked dimensions, if you use those), I would now need to update every table that references this dimension. That’s a lot of table updates without a good reason.

Error Handling

Another reason to avoid truncating the tables in your dimensional model is error handling. When you design your data load, you need to think about what should happen when it fails and where it is most likely to fail. Failures will often occur either in data transformation steps or upon inserting/updating values in the destination table due to data type/size conflicts.

Let’s say you truncate your fact table and then you encounter an ETL failure while performing the transformations to reload the table. Now you have an empty fact table. If you have error handling logic in your ETL, you may be able to redirect the error rows to another location to be handled later. But that still leaves you with an incomplete table at best. If instead of truncating and reloading, you were doing inserts and updates when you encountered an error, your table might reflect slightly stale data as of the previous load. You still might have a situation where your table is partially updated with the rows that were inserted before the error was encountered depending on how your ETL design. But having a fact table with old or partially updated data is usually (but not always) more preferable than having no data when a data load process fails.

Performance and Data Availability

When you truncate and reload a table, you are assuming you have access to all of the source data needed to fully repopulate the table. This may be true today, but what about next year when you switch CRM systems? Or what if your organization makes the decision to archive data in the source system that is older than 5 years? If any data needed for your fact or dimension becomes unavailable, your truncate and reload pattern will fail to serve your needs.

Even if you are sure your data will be available, you may want to consider your data load times. If you only have a handful of tables with a few hundred thousand rows max, you may load your data warehouse in a few minutes. But what happens when you have a few hundred million rows with some complicated transformation logic in your pipelines? You might be adding minutes to hours to your load times.

Why Do ETL Developers End Up Truncating Fact Tables?

Sometimes developers just don’t know better. But often there were understandable reasons for using the truncate and reload pattern. While I have never built a system where I truncated a dimension, I have had a couple were we at least started out with truncating the fact table. We usually built it to make data initially available with correct values, and then worked with stakeholders to find a different way to access the data or to have them generate the data differently to alleviate the problems that caused us to want to truncate and reload.

Often the cause is data quality issues. One one project I worked, we had dimension values that defined the granularity of the fact table that would change in the source systems, and the process to try to update them in the fact table was too complicated and took too long. So we made the decision to truncate and reload, understanding the risks of doing so. Having the data available and usable for analysis gave us more information on how useful the data was to users and helped us work to understand why and how our keys were changing. Over time, we were able to influence the way data was entered into source systems so that we didn’t have to go through the truncate and reload process and could perform incremental loads on our fact table.

Sometimes source systems allow hard deletion of data and don’t maintain a list of what was deleted. And depending on access methods and the size of the data, it can be difficult to compare the rows in a fact table with the source data to identify the deleted rows. I would argue this is a poor design of the source system, but we often can’t change that, and we still need to include the data in our data warehouse. So it’s understandable why someone in this situation would want to truncate and reload a fact table.

If your stakeholders are ok with the potential of long load times, empty tables when errors occur, and the assumption that source data will always be available, then there isn’t much problem with truncating and reloading a fact table. But that is often not the case. And that decision should be made explicitly rather than implicitly.

What To Do Instead of Truncating and Reloading a Fact Table

If you’ve been truncating and reloading a fact table because that just seemed like the simplest thing to do, you can change your load pattern.

My general load pattern is:

  1. Truncate the update table
  2. Insert new rows into the fact table and changed rows into the update table
  3. Perform set-based updates on the fact table based upon the data in the update table

I’m able to determine what rows are new, changed, and unchanged by using hash values. I concatenate and hash the values that define the level of uniqueness of the row into one value I call HistoricalHash and the values from the remaining columns into a value I call ChangeHash. In other words, I load a transactional or periodic snapshot fact table in a manner similar to a Type 1 slowly changing dimension.

If you have data quality, data deletion, or other issues that prevent you from using a change detection pattern like the above, consider using a staging table and swapping it out with the fact table. Create a staging table that looks exactly like your fact table.

  1. Truncate the staging table
  2. Populate the staging table with all rows that should be in the fact table
  3. Swap the staging table and the fact table (this usually involves renaming the tables)

Understand the Consequences of Your Design

If you are choosing to truncate a dimension or fact table, be sure that you understand the trade-offs. You may be unwittingly opting for simplicity of ETL over data availability and efficient data loads.

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