Data Warehouses vs. Databases

Explore the key differences between data warehouses and relational databases to understand which solution best fits your data management needs.

Data warehouses provide analytical insights from historical data, while relational databases support everyday operational tasks. Understanding the differences and applications of each is critical to effective data management.

What is a relational database?

Relational databases store data in tables that link to each other, making information easy to find and manage. Rows represent unique records, and columns represent a specific record attribute. These tables are related to each other through unique identifiers or keys, allowing for the organization of related data across different tables. 

Consider, for example, how a library might use a relational database to manage its inventory and patron information. One table could catalog book details like titles and authors, while another could track borrower information. The relational database's ability to link data across tables simplifies complex tasks, such as determining which books are checked out to which patrons.

Relational databases are set up to easily find and access data connected to other data in the database. They are built on set theory and use SQL (Structured Query Language) to organize and manage the data, making them a versatile choice for many applications.

The widespread reliance on relational databases is evident by their dominant presence across industries, reflected in the DB-Engines Ranking, which shows their extensive adoption and trusted status in data management.

Unlike non-relational databases (NoSQL), which can store unstructured data and are flexible regarding the data model, relational databases are structured and ensure data integrity through defined schemas. This makes them uniquely suited for applications requiring complex transactions and reliable data integrity, such as financial systems.

What is a data warehouse?

A data warehouse is a central repository that collects, stores, and organizes vast amounts of diverse data from multiple sources, making it ideal for analysis and reporting.

Data warehouses integrate data from multiple sources into a single, comprehensive environment, facilitating consolidated analyses. They're structured to support complex queries and aggregate data, enabling organizations to perform in-depth analyses across various data sets. 

Consider a retail company that collects sales data, customer feedback, inventory levels, and supplier information across multiple channels and systems. A data warehouse can amalgamate this data to provide insights into purchasing trends, inventory management efficiency, customer satisfaction, and supply chain optimization.

Unlike traditional databases optimized for transaction processing (OLTP), data warehouses are meant for online analytical processing (OLAP). This architectural distinction means data warehouses can handle large-scale, complex queries for analysis and reporting that transactional databases are not optimized to perform.

Key differences between a data warehouse and a relational database

Relational databases are essential for supporting your business's immediate transactional demands. They excel at processing fast atomic operations, maintaining data integrity, and providing rapid access to structured information. This makes them ideal for day-to-day operational tasks that require quick, reliable data interactions.

On the other hand, data warehouses are designed for a broader perspective, prioritizing the storage and analysis of large-scale historical data. They are the backbone of business intelligence efforts, enabling organizations to perform comprehensive analyses, spot long-term trends, and inform strategic decisions. Unlike the real-time operational focus of relational databases, data warehouses are structured to support complex queries across aggregated data sets over time.

Here’s a quick rundown of the differences.

Data structure and schema

Relational database: The data structure minimizes redundancy and ensures data integrity through normalization. This process organizes data into tables with unique identifiers (primary keys) and establishes relationships between tables using foreign keys. Normalization helps maintain data consistency and supports efficient updates and transactions.

Data warehouse: Data warehouses employ a denormalized data structure to optimize data retrieval for analysis. Denormalization involves merging data from various sources into fewer tables to speed up querying and reporting. Data warehouses commonly use dimensional schemas like star or snowflake, facilitating fast access to large volumes of data for analytical processing.

Querying and analytics

Relational database: The focus of querying in relational databases is to support Online Transaction Processing (OLTP), which emphasizes quick transactions. The structured query language (SQL) used allows for efficient data manipulation and retrieval for operational needs but is less suited for complex analytical queries across vast datasets.

Data warehouse: Data warehouses are designed for Online Analytical Processing (OLAP), enabling multidimensional analysis that lets users examine data from different perspectives and levels of detail. The querying capabilities are designed to handle large-scale, complex queries to derive insights and support decision-making, often across extensive historical data.

Performance and scaling

Relational database: Relational databases are engineered for optimal performance in handling numerous concurrent, short-lived transactions. They are optimized to ensure data integrity and quick access for operational processes, necessitating vertical scaling to boost performance.

Data warehouse: Data warehouses are built to manage massive datasets and are optimized for read-intensive operations. They handle fewer but more complex, long-running queries and are designed to scale horizontally, adding more servers to process large volumes of data efficiently.

Latency

Relational database: They are designed to provide low-latency access to data, ensuring that data is available for real-time business operations and decision-making.

Data warehouse: While operational immediacy isn't a priority for data warehouses, they focus on delivering comprehensive insights over longer periods. Therefore, some latency is acceptable in exchange for deep historical context and extensive analytical capabilities.

Users

Relational database: The primary users are operational staff who require immediate access to data to perform day-to-day tasks, including data entry, updates, and real-time queries.

Data warehouse: Data warehouse users typically comprise data analysts, business intelligence professionals, and decision-makers who rely on historical data to identify trends, make predictions, and formulate strategies.

When to choose a relational database or data warehouse

TL;DR: Choose a relational database for efficient day-to-day transaction processing and operational needs. Opt for a data warehouse when you need comprehensive data analysis and strategic decision-making based on historical data.

Choose a relational database when:

  • You need to process transactions: Relational databases are ideal for transactional processing, supporting many simple, quick transactions like sales or updates.

  • Real-time data access is crucial: If your operations require immediate data access for tasks like ATM transactions, in-store purchases, or hotel reservations, relational databases offer the necessary speed and efficiency.

  • You're dealing with operational data: Relational databases are well-suited for day-to-day operational needs such as managing customer records or inventory systems due to their OLTP capabilities.

Opt for a data warehouse when:

  • Analyzing large sets of historical data: Data warehouses are designed for OLAP, making them perfect for synthesizing vast amounts of data to uncover trends or inform strategic decisions.

  • Integrating multiple data sources: If your analysis requires consolidating information from various databases or external sources, data warehouses provide the centralized architecture necessary for such tasks.

  • Your focus is on business intelligence: For tasks that support decision-making, such as market research or sales forecasting, data warehouses offer the comprehensive data view and analytical capabilities required.

Effortless data management across your preferred stores

At Segment, we empower businesses to effectively manage, organize, and analyze their data across various storage solutions, accommodating the specific needs of different teams within an organization. While tools like Google Analytics and Mixpanel deliver ready-to-use insights for marketing teams and product managers, analysts and data scientists often require direct access to raw data to extract tailored, in-depth insights.

Data storage options with Segment:

Segment offers a spectrum of Data Storage Destinations to ensure you can store and manage your data effectively:

  • Data warehouses: Segment's data warehouse integrations facilitate a centralized repository for all your analytical data. Segment supports integration with leading data warehouses like Amazon Redshift, Google BigQuery, and Postgres, providing flexibility and choice in selecting the right warehouse for your needs. This allows for complex querying and comprehensive analysis.

  • Cloud storage solutions: Segment offers integrations with major cloud storage platforms like AWS S3 and Google Cloud Storage. These solutions offer businesses the reliability and security they need to manage large amounts of data efficiently.

  • Segment data lakes: Segment offers data lakes that allow for analyzing large-scale, unstructured, or semi-structured data. This is particularly beneficial for leveraging machine learning algorithms and advanced data analytics to uncover new insights and opportunities.

Segment's approach to data warehousing:

Rather than constant streaming, we load data into warehouses in bulk at regular intervals. This method optimizes data management by ensuring data is stored efficiently and organized to make it readily accessible for analysis. The process involves two key steps:

  • Ping: The initial connection with your warehouse to prepare for data synchronization

  • Load: The de-duplication and loading of data, ensuring it is organized and ready for analysis

Customer success story: How LensOnline optimized marketing and achieved growth 

LensOnline used our data management capabilities to refine its marketing approach and operational efficiency significantly. 

By consolidating disparate data streams from various customer interaction points, we provided them with a unified and enriched customer data view. This centralization was critical for LensOnline to transition from a broad, generalized marketing strategy to more targeted and personalized campaigns. 

The impact was quantifiable: a 15% reduction in marketing expenditure and a notable growth exceeding 10% in 2023.

We also enabled real-time data activation while ensuring they complied with data privacy laws. By automating tedious data tasks, the team could focus more on creative marketing strategies. This shift didn’t just translate into cost savings – it also set them up for better customer engagement and growth.


Interested in hearing more about how Segment can help you?

Connect with a Segment expert who can share more about what Segment can do for you.


Frequently asked questions