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From ETL and ELT to Reverse ETL

From ETL and ELT to Reverse ETL

In recent years, we've witnessed a significant transformation in data management, moving from the traditional ETL (Extract, Transform, Load) framework to the more agile ELT (Extract, Load, Transform) methodology. This evolution marks a major shift in how data is processed. However, an even newer trend, Reverse ETL, is reshaping our approach to data integration.

Understanding ETL and ELT


ETL Fundamentals

ETL has been the foundational framework in data handling for decades. It involves:

  1. Extract: The first step is to gather data from various sources, such as applications, websites, CRM platforms, and other source systems.
  2. Transform: Raw data requires cleansing, de-duplication, validation and organization to conform to a single data model and maintain data integrity, and this is the step where it all takes place. Also a series of rules or functions are applied to the extracted data in order to prepare it for loading into the final target database.
  3. Load: The final step is to store the cleansed and organized data into the final target database such as an operational data store, a data mart, data lake or a data warehouse.

However, ETL's linear process often led to bottlenecks, especially with the exponential growth in data volume and complexity. Transforming data before loading it into the warehouse was time-consuming and less flexible, particularly for unstructured data, which is increasingly prevalent in today's data ecosystems. In response to these challenges, the ELT approach emerged as a solution.

The Shift to ELT

Extract, Load, Transform is a variant of ETL where the extracted data is loaded into the target system first. Here, the transformation process occurs within the data warehouse, utilizing its robust computing power and handling the data more efficiently. In ELT, transformations are performed after the data is loaded, often involving complex SQL queries that utilize the significant compute power of modern data warehouses.

This shift was not just about speed; it also offered greater flexibility in managing and analyzing diverse data types. This approach allows for more complex, resource-intensive operations like machine learning algorithms and advanced analytics to be performed directly on the data within the warehouse.

With the transition from ETL to ELT, data warehouses have ascended to the role of data custodians, centralizing customer data collected from fragmented systems. This pivotal shift has been enabled by a suite of powerful tools: Fivetran and Airbyte streamline the extraction and loading, DBT handles the transformation, and robust warehousing solutions like Snowflake and Redshift store the data. While traditionally these technologies catered to analytical and business intelligence applications (think Looker and Superset), there's an increasing recognition of their potential for more dynamic operational analytics, delivering real-time data for actionable insights.

Today, many new data integration platforms support both ETL and ELT processes, often dynamically choosing based on the use case.

What is Reverse ETL then?

While ETL and ELT streamlined data storage and analysis, it didn’t fully address the need for operationalizing this data. Reverse ETL steps in here, focusing on extracting processed data from the warehouse and integrating it back into various operational tools and systems.

Picture this as a bidirectional flow of data: ETL (or ELT) focuses on moving raw data into the warehouse for consolidation and analysis. Conversely, Reverse ETL concentrates on extracting this cleansed and enriched data from the warehouse and actively deploying it into downstream tools for immediate practical, organizational use.

Reverse ETL

This strategy ensures that data remains timely and relevant across all business applications, fostering a unified view of operations and customer interactions. Reverse ETL serves as a synchronization tool, maintaining consistency and providing up-to-date information throughout a business’s entire suite of applications. It effectively transforms the data warehouse from a mere storage solution into a crucial hub for ongoing data refinement and strategic insights, enabling data to drive more informed decisions and actions across the enterprise.

Benefits and challenges

Benefits of Reverse ETL

  • Data Activation: It enables non-technical teams to leverage data stored in the warehouse for customer engagement and other business operations, significantly enhancing the value of the data.
  • Increased Engineering Efficiency: Reverse ETL alleviates the burden on data engineers, who would otherwise be swamped with building and maintaining bespoke API connections for marketing and other teams.
  • Accessibility for Non-Technical Teams: It speeds up the process of making warehouse data available to business teams, eliminating the need for continuous engineering support.

Challenges of Reverse ETL

Challenges of Reverse ETL include managing API rate limits, ensuring data security during the transfer, and maintaining the freshness of data in operational systems. These challenges require robust solutions and strategies to ensure that the operational benefits of reverse ETL are realized without compromising data integrity or performance.

Tools and Technologies

A vibrant ecosystem of reverse ETL solutions is emerging, with startups like Hightouch, Census, Grouparoo (open source), Polytomic, Rudderstack, and Seekwell leading the charge. Even platforms like Workato are incorporating reverse ETL functionalities with differential sync capabilities.


Reverse ETL is transitioning from a novel concept to a fundamental component of modern data architecture. Its potential to unlock the full capabilities of data warehouses and integrate seamlessly with various business systems is revolutionizing how we interact with data. As this ecosystem continues to evolve, the prospects for reshaping data operations and analytics are boundless. This approach is rapidly becoming a staple in the modern data stack, leveraging existing data assets in unprecedented ways.


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