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What is data integration?

Data integration refers to the process of combining and harmonizing data from multiple sources into a unified, coherent format that can be put to use for various analytical, operational and decision-making purposes.

In today's digital landscape, organizations typically can’t function without gathering data from a wide range of sources, including databases, apps, spreadsheets, cloud services, APIs and others. In most cases this data is stored in different formats and locations with varying levels of quality, leading to data silos and inconsistencies.

The data integration process aims to overcome these challenges by bringing together data from disparate sources, transforming it into a consistent structure and making it accessible for analysis and decision making.

Unlike, say, data ingestion, which is just one part of data integration, integration carries through into the analysis phase of data engineering. This means it encompasses data visualization and business intelligence (BI) workflows. Thus, it carries more responsibility for data outcomes.

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How data integration works

Data integration involves a series of steps and processes that brings together data from disparate sources and transforms it into a unified and usable format. Here's an overview of how a typical data integration process works:

  1. Data source identification: The first step is identifying the various data sources that need to be integrated, such as databases, spreadsheets, cloud services, APIs, legacy systems and others.

  2. Data extraction: Next, data is extracted from the identified sources using extraction tools or processes, which might involve querying databases, pulling files from remote locations or retrieving data through APIs.

  3. Data mapping: Different data sources may use different terminologies, codes or structures to represent similar information. Creating a mapping schema that defines how data elements from different systems correspond to each other ensures proper data alignment during integration.

  4. Data validation and quality assurance: Validation involves checking for errors, inconsistencies and data integrity issues to ensure accuracy and quality. Quality assurance processes are implemented to maintain data accuracy and reliability.

  5. Data transformation: At this stage, the extracted data is converted and structured into a common format to ensure consistency, accuracy and compatibility. This might include data cleansing, data enrichment and data normalization.

  6. Data loading: Data loading is where the transformed data is loaded into a data warehouse or any other desired destination for further analysis or reporting. The loading process can be performed by batch loading or real-time loading, depending on the requirements.

  7. Data synchronization: Data synchronization helps ensure that the integrated data is kept up to date over time, whether via periodic updates or real-time synchronization if immediate integration of newly available data is required.

  8. Data governance and security: When integrating sensitive or regulated data, data governance practices ensure that data is handled in compliance with regulations and privacy requirements. Additional security measures are implemented to safeguard data during integration and storage.

  9. Metadata management: Metadata, which provides information about the integrated data, enhances its discoverability and usability so users can more easily understand the data’s context, source and meaning.

  10. Data access and analysis: Once integrated, the data sets can be accessed and analyzed using various tools, such as BI software, reporting tools and analytics platforms. This analysis leads to insights that drive decision making and business strategies.

Overall, data integration involves a combination of technical processes, tools and strategies to ensure that data from diverse sources is harmonized, accurate and available for meaningful analysis and decision making.

ELT, ETL and other types of data integration

Several types of data integration exist, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Choosing the most appropriate data integration method depends on factors such as the organization's data needs, technology landscape, performance requirements and budget constraints.

Extract, load, transform (ELT) involves extracting data from its source, loading it into a database or data warehouse and then later transforming it into a format that suits business needs. This might involve cleaning, aggregating or summarizing the data. ELT data pipelines are commonly used in big data projects and real-time processing where speed and scalability are critical.

The ELT process relies heavily on the power and scalability of modern data storage systems. By loading the data before transforming it, ELT takes full advantage of the computational power of these systems. This approach allows for faster data processing and more flexible data management compared to traditional methods.

With extract, transform, load (ETL), the data is transformed before loading it into the data storage system. This means that the transformation happens outside the data storage system, typically in a separate staging area.

In terms of performance, ELT often has the upper hand as it leverages the power of modern data storage systems. On the other hand, ETL data pipelines can be a better choice in scenarios where data quality and consistency are paramount, as the transformation process can include rigorous data cleaning and validation steps.

Real-time data integration involves capturing and processing data as it becomes available in source systems, and then immediately integrating it into the target system. This streaming data method is typically used in scenarios where up-to-the-minute insights are required, such as real-time analytics, fraud detection and monitoring.

One form of real-time data integration, change data capture (CDC), applies updates made to the data in source systems to data warehouses and other repositories. These changes can then be applied to another data repository or made available in a format consumable by ETL, for example, or other types of data integration tools.

Application integration (API) involves integrating data between different software applications to ensure seamless data flow and interoperability. This data integration method is commonly used in scenarios where different apps need to share data and work together, such as ensuring that your HR system has the same data as your finance system.

Data virtualization involves creating a virtual layer that provides a unified view of data from different sources, regardless of where the data physically resides. It enables users to access and query integrated data on demand without the need for physical data movement. It is useful for scenarios where agility and real-time access to integrated data are crucial.

With federated data integration, data remains in its original source systems, and queries are executed across these disparate systems in real-time to retrieve the required information. It is best suited for scenarios where data doesn't need to be physically moved and can be virtually integrated for analysis. Although federated integration reduces data duplication, it may suffer from performance challenges.

Benefits of data integration

Data integration provides several benefits, which enable organizations to make more informed decisions, streamline operations and gain a competitive edge. Key benefits of data integration include:

Reduced data silos

Data integration brings together information from various sources and systems, providing a unified and comprehensive view. By breaking down data silos, organizations can eliminate redundancies and inconsistencies that arise from isolated data sources.

Improved data quality

Through data transformation and cleansing processes, data integration helps improve data quality by identifying and correcting errors, inconsistencies and redundancies. Accurate, reliable data instills confidence in decision makers.

Increased efficiency

Integrated data enables smoother business processes by reducing manual data entry and minimizing the need for repetitive tasks. It also minimizes errors and enhances data consistency across the organization.

Faster time to insights

Data integration allows for quicker access to data for analysis. This speed is crucial for timely decision making and responding to market trends, customer demands and emerging opportunities.

Improved business intelligence

Data integration is a fundamental aspect of any business intelligence initiative. BI tools rely on integrated data to generate meaningful visualizations and analysis that drive strategic initiatives.

Data-driven innovation

Integrated data can uncover patterns, trends and opportunities that might not be apparent when enterprise data is scattered across disparate systems. This enables organizations to innovate and create new products or services.

Data integration use cases 

Data integration is used in a wide range of industries and scenarios to address various business needs and challenges. The most common data integration use cases include:

  • Data warehousing: Data integration is used when building a data warehouse to create a centralized data store for analytics and basic reporting.

  • Data lake development: Big data environments often include a combination of structured, unstructured and semistructured data. Moving this data from siloed on-premises platforms into data lakes makes it easier to extract value by performing advanced analytics on the data, including artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML).

  • Customer 360° view: Consolidating customer data from different sources such as customer relationship management (CRM) systems, marketing databases and support platforms enables organizations to create a unified view of each customer. Well-integrated customer data can help companies better target their marketing efforts, identify cross-sell/upsell opportunities and deliver better customer service.

  • Business intelligence and reporting: Data integration is essential for creating comprehensive BI reports and dashboards that provide insights into various aspects of a business's performance, such as sales, marketing, finance and operations.

  • Processing IoT data: Integrating data from Internet of Things (IoT) devices allows organizations to monitor and manage connected devices, analyze sensor data and automate processes based on real-time insights.
Data integration tools

For many years, the most common approach to data integration required developers to hand code scripts written in Structured Query Language (SQL), the standard programming language used in relational databases.

Today, various IT providers offer many different data integration tools that automate, streamline and document the data integration process, ranging from open-source solutions to comprehensive data integration platforms. These data integration systems generally include many of the following tools:

  • ETL tools: ETL tools are used to extract data from various sources, transform it to meet the desired format or structure and then load it into a target system, including data warehouses and databases. In addition to data warehousing, these tools are used for data integration and data migration.

  • Enterprise service bus (ESB) and middleware: These tools facilitate the integration of different software applications and services by providing a messaging and communication infrastructure. They enable real-time data exchange, workflow orchestration and API management.

  • Data replication tools: Data replication tools are used to continuously replicate data from source systems to target systems, keeping them in sync. Real-time data integration, disaster recovery and high availability scenarios are common use cases for these tools.

  • Data virtualization tools: Used to create a virtual layer that delivers a unified view of data from different sources—regardless of where the data physically resides. These tools allow users to access and query integrated data without the need for physical data movement.

  • Data integration platforms as a service (iPaaS): iPaaS solutions offer cloud-based data integration services, including data transformation, data routing, API management and connectivity to various cloud and on-premises applications. Commonly used for hybrid cloud integration and connecting SaaS applications.

  • Streaming data integration tools: These tools focus on the real-time integration of streaming data from sources like IoT devices, sensors, social media and event streams. They enable organizations to process and analyze data as it is generated.

  • Data quality and data governance tools: Tools to help ensure that data integrated from multiple sources meets quality standards, is compliant with regulations and adheres to data governance policies. Theses tools often include data profiling, cleansing and metadata management capabilities.

  • CDC tools: CDC tools capture and replicate changes in data from source systems in real-time. These tools are often used for keeping data warehouses up-to-date, as well as for real-time analytics.

  • Master data management (MDM) tools: MDM tools focus on managing customer, product, employee and other types of master data and ensuring its consistency and accuracy across the organization. These tools often include data integration capabilities to consolidate and synchronize master data from various systems.

  • API management platforms: These platforms offer tools for designing, publishing and managing APIs. While their primary focus is on enabling API integration, they play a crucial role in connecting systems and applications.
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