Understanding DBT (Data Build Tool): An Introduction

First published on August 11, 2023


15 minute read

Guest post by Shashank MishraData Engineer @ Expedia



DBT (Data Build Tool)

is an open-source software tool that enables data analysts and engineers to transform and model data in the data warehouse. It simplifies the ETL process by focusing on the 'T' – transformation – and integrates seamlessly with modern cloud-based data platforms.


  • Overview of DBT

  • Core principles of DBT

  • DBT architecture

  • Challenges with DBT

  • Conclusion

Overview of DBT

DBT (Data Build Tool) is an open-source tool that has revolutionized the way data analysts and engineers view and handle data transformation and modeling in the modern data stack. Here's an overview of DBT:

  • Philosophy:

    • Focuses on the ELT (Extract, Load, Transform) approach, leveraging modern cloud data warehouses.

  • Core Components:

    • Models

      : SQL queries that define data transformations.

    • Tests

      : Ensure data quality by validating models.

    • Snapshots

      : Track historical changes in data.

    • Documentation

      : Auto-generates documentation for clarity on data processes.

  • Development Workflow:

    • Developer-centric with version control (typically Git), branching, and pull requests.

  • Execution:

    • Compiles models into SQL and runs them directly on data warehouses like Snowflake, BigQuery, and Redshift.

  • Adapters:

    • Makes DBT versatile by connecting to various databases and data platforms.




Core principles of DBT

DBT (Data Build Tool) operates on a set of core principles that guide its philosophy and approach to data transformation and modeling:

  • Data Warehouse-Centric:

    • Raw data is ingested into the data warehouse, using its computational capabilities for in-database transformations. This principle capitalizes on modern warehouses like Snowflake, BigQuery, or Redshift for heavy computations.

  • ELT Workflow:

    • Instead of pre-transforming data (ETL), DBT supports ELT, where raw data is loaded into the data warehouse (Extract, Load) and then transformed using SQL-based models (Transform).

  • SQL as the DSL:

    • DBT uses SQL as its domain-specific language. This eliminates the need for proprietary transformation languages or GUI-based ETL tools, providing direct and transparent transformation logic.

  • Git-based Version Control:

    • DBT projects are typically version-controlled using Git, allowing for branch-based development, commit histories, and collaboration through pull requests.

  • Model Dependencies:

    • Models, written in SQL, can reference other models (ref() function). This creates a DAG (Directed Acyclic Graph) of dependencies, which DBT uses to run models in the correct order.

  • Data Testing:

    • DBT's schema tests (e.g., unique, not_null, accepted_values) validate the integrity of the transformed data. Custom data tests can also be written in SQL to enforce specific business rules or constraints.

  • Jinja Templating:

    • DBT uses the Jinja2 templating engine. This allows for dynamic SQL code generation, loops, conditional logic, and macro creation for reusable SQL snippets.

  • CLI and API Integration:

    • DBT's command-line interface (CLI) supports operations like run, test, and docs generate. It can also be integrated with CI/CD tools and other platforms through APIs.

  • Configurations & Hooks:

    • Technical configurations can be set at the project, model, or global level (dbt_project.yml). Pre- and post-hooks allow for operations (like data quality checks or audit trails) to be executed before or after a model runs.

  • Extensibility with Adapters


    • DBT's architecture allows for custom adapters. While it comes with adapters for popular data platforms, the community or organizations can develop adapters for other platforms, ensuring wide compatibility.

By emphasizing these technical principles and functionalities, DBT provides a powerful and flexible framework for data engineers and analysts to manage data transformations with precision and efficiency.




DBT architecture

DBT (Data Build Tool) employs a unique architecture that sets it apart from traditional ETL tools and frameworks. At its core, DBT is a command-line tool that uses SQL and Jinja2 templating to transform and model data. Let's break down its architecture:

  • Command-Line Interface (CLI):

    • Central Control:

      DBT is primarily operated through its command-line interface, allowing users to run commands for transformations (dbt run), testing (dbt test), and documentation generation (dbt docs generate).

  • SQL + Jinja2 Templating:

    • Dynamic SQL Generation:

      By combining SQL with the Jinja2 templating engine, DBT allows for dynamic SQL code generation. This lets users incorporate loops, conditional logic, and macros into their transformation logic.

  • Projects and Configuration:

    • DBT Project

      : The foundational unit in DBT. It contains models, tests, snapshots, macros, and the essential dbt_project.yml configuration file.

    • Configuration Files

      : These YAML files (dbt_project.yml, profiles.yml, etc.) define project details, model configurations, and database connections.

  • Models & Directed Acyclic Graph (DAG):

    • Models

      : SQL files that represent the transformation logic.

    • DAG

      : DBT builds a DAG of model dependencies using the ref() function in models. The DAG determines the execution order when running transformations.

  • Adapters


    • Database Compatibility:

      DBT uses adapters to connect and interface with different data platforms, like Snowflake, BigQuery, and Redshift. Adapters translate DBT's generic SQL into database-specific SQL.

  • Testing Framework:

    • Built-in & Custom Tests

      : DBT supports both built-in tests (like unique or not_null) and custom tests defined in SQL, ensuring data quality and conformity to business rules.

  • Version Control Integration:

    • Git Integration

      : DBT projects are typically stored in Git repositories, enabling collaboration, versioning, and branching.

  • Documentation:

    • Auto-generation

      : DBT automatically generates a web-based documentation portal that visualizes model metadata, lineage, and descriptions.

  • Plugins and Extensibility


    • Community Plugins:

      DBT's architecture allows for extensions, and the community has contributed various plugins, adding functionality and compatibility with other tools.

  • Runtime Environment:

    • In-database Computation:

      Unlike ETL tools that may have their own computation engines, DBT compiles and runs SQL directly in the target data warehouse, leveraging its computational power for transformations.




Challenges with DBT

While DBT (Data Build Tool) has gained substantial popularity due to its approach to data transformation, it is not without its technical challenges, especially when viewed in the context of the broader data pipeline design:

  • Initial Data Ingestion:

    • DBT focuses mainly on the transformation (T) part of the ELT process. The extraction (E) and load (L) phases are out of its scope, requiring other tools or manual setups to ingest data into the data warehouse.

  • Complex Dependency Management:

    • As DBT projects grow, managing model dependencies (DAG) can become complex. Ensuring models run in the right order without causing circular dependencies is crucial and can be challenging in large projects.

  • Performance Considerations:

    • Relying on the computational power of the data warehouse for transformations can lead to increased costs, especially if not optimized.

    • Some transformations might be less efficient in SQL compared to other data processing languages or tools.

  • Concurrency and Parallelism


    • Handling concurrent DBT runs or ensuring that parallel transformations don’t interfere with each other can be challenging. There's a need to fine-tune data warehouse configurations and manage resource contention.

  • Incremental Processing:

    • While DBT supports incremental models, designing them effectively requires careful consideration to ensure data integrity and avoid data duplication.

  • Real-time Data Processing:

    • DBT is batch-oriented by design. Real-time or near-real-time data processing pipelines might need additional tools or configurations outside of DBT's standard capabilities.

  • Integration with External Tools:

    • DBT's ecosystem is primarily SQL-focused. Integrating with non-SQL tools or platforms might require additional effort or custom plugins.

  • Operational Monitoring and Alerting:

    • Out-of-the-box, DBT does not provide comprehensive monitoring or alerting mechanisms for transformations. Integration with monitoring tools or building custom alert systems might be necessary.

  • Error Handling:

    • Granular error handling, especially for non-fatal issues, can be complex. DBT will fail a run if a model encounters an error, requiring manual intervention or a robust orchestration tool to manage failures.

  • Security and Compliance:

    • Ensuring that DBT processes adhere to data governance, security, and compliance requirements might necessitate additional configurations, especially when working with sensitive data.

  • Scalability:

    • As data volume grows, some DBT models might need refactoring or optimization to maintain performance. This requires ongoing maintenance and tuning.





In the ever-evolving landscape of data processing and analytics, DBT emerges as a powerful tool that merges software engineering best practices with data operations. Its ELT-centric approach, modular design, and emphasis on code and collaboration make it an attractive solution for modern data teams.

Yet, like any tool, it is not without its challenges. Factors like dependency management, real-time processing, and scalability require thoughtful consideration in the broader context of data pipeline design.

With proper planning and awareness of its intricacies, DBT can be a pivotal element in a data team's toolkit, driving efficiency, transparency, and reliability in data transformations. As with all tools, a balance of its strengths against its challenges is essential in leveraging its full potential effectively.