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What Is Reverse ETL? The Ultimate Guide - RudderStack

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Businesses are rapidly recognizing the importance of effective data management to drive growth and gain a competitive edge in today’s data-driven environment. That idea is at the core of what RudderStack does, using the data on your doorstep; customer data.

Reverse ETL. Data activation. Operational analytics. These are all terms for a process that's become increasingly essential for data-driven organizations: getting information from your database and into the hands of various business teams and people in your company. Marketing is one of the most popular destinations

Concurrently, Data warehouses have emerged as a critical solution for businesses seeking to consolidate and analyze vast volumes of data in a structured and centralized manner. Their popularity has soared as businesses realize the transformative power of centralizing their data assets and providing a unified view of an organization's data, all of which makes advanced analytics and arriving at more informed decisions much faster and easier.

While ETL is a process designed to help move data into a database for analysis and organization, reverse ETL helps move data out to use in daily operations. And just like its forward-thinking counterpart, reverse ETL comes with its challenges.

However, traditional data warehouses may pose challenges in terms of operational accessibility by limiting real-time data usage and hindering agility. To address this, reverse ETL has emerged to enable data to flow from the warehouse back to operational systems. This ensures real-time access to relevant data, empowering teams and fostering agile decision-making.

This article will dive deeper into basics of reverse ETL before comparing it with other data pipeline processes to help you optimize your data stack for the best results. We'll also look at implementing reverse ETL, and by embracing reverse ETL, organizations can ensure that their teams have real-time access to relevant data, fostering agility and driving data-driven success.

What is reverse ETL?

Reverse ETL is a concept that flips the traditional flow of data in an Extract, Transform, Load (ETL) process. In a typical ETL process, data is extracted from operational systems, transformed and processed, and then loaded into a data warehouse for storage and analysis. However, in reverse ETL, data flows in the opposite direction, moving from the data warehouse back to operational systems or other data stores.

A diagram showing the reverse ETL data flow from the data warehouse to operational systems.

The practical applications of reverse ETL are endless, but here are a few examples:

  • Convert leads data from Salesforce into a format easily imported into Iterable for further marketing automation processes.
  • Update master customer profiles in your CRM by combining data from multiple sources (e.g., orders placed on your website, support tickets opened in Zendesk, and subscription activations in Salesforce).
  • Convert transaction data into machine learning training sets. For example, you could use reverse ETL to convert purchase history data into training records for a custom deep-learning model that predicts customer lifetime value.

Reverse ETL addresses the challenge of operational accessibility and real-time data usage that traditional data warehouses often face. It enables organizations to leverage the insights and analysis conducted within the data warehouse by delivering the processed data back to operational systems. This ensures that teams and applications have access to up-to-date and relevant data.

By implementing reverse ETL, organizations can bridge the gap between their data warehouse and operational systems, enabling timely data delivery and synchronization. Reverse ETL plays a crucial role in enabling real-time data-driven operations, allowing businesses to respond swiftly to change and optimize their performance.

Reverse ETL sits in the middle or towards the end of the modern data stack, depending on the specific architecture and components involved. The data stack typically consists of various layers and components that collectively manage the flow of data within an organization. Here's a simplified representation of the data stack:

  1. Source Systems: These are the systems where data originates, such as transactional databases, SaaS applications, or external data sources.
  2. Extract, Transform, Load (ETL): The traditional ETL process involves extracting data from source systems, files and APIs then transforming it to meet specific requirements, and loading it into a data warehouse or data lake. This is the initial phase of the data pipeline.
  3. Data Warehouse or Data Lake: This is the central repository where structured or unstructured data is stored for analysis and reporting. The data warehouse provides a consolidated view of data from different sources. Examples of this are Snowflake, Amazon RedShift, Google BigQuery.
  4. Analytics and Business Intelligence (BI) Tools: These tools consume data from the data warehouse or data lake to perform advanced analytics, generate insights, and create visualizations or reports for business users. Data teams will typically use tools like dbt to create SQL data models and visualization tools like Hex, Looker or Tableau for creating apps that showcase the insights generated from the models.
  5. Operational Systems: These are the systems used by operational teams to carry out day-to-day business processes, such as customer relationship management (CRM), marketing automation, or inventory management systems. Examples of this are Salesforce, HubSpot, Customer.io, Slack.
  6. Reverse ETL: Reverse ETL comes into play after the data has been loaded into the data warehouse or data lake. It involves extracting relevant data from the warehouse and loading it back into operational systems or other data stores. Learn more about RudderStack Reverse ETL.
  7. Applications and End-User Interfaces: These are the interfaces through which end-users interact with the operational systems and consume the data for their specific needs.

It's important to note that the position of reverse ETL in the data stack may vary based on the specific architecture and tools implemented within an organization. Some organizations may have a simpler data stack, while others may have a more complex one with additional layers or components.

The results of implementing reverse ETL can be far-reaching and impactful for organizations. By enabling the seamless flow of data from the data warehouse back to operational systems, reverse ETL facilitates the generation of deeper insights and unlocks the potential of various business tools and platforms across various tools:

  1. Customer Data Platforms (CDP): CDPs leverage a data warehouse through reverse ETL to synchronize customer data across multiple systems. This ensures that customer information, such as preferences, behaviors, and interactions, remains consistent and up-to-date, enabling personalized marketing campaigns, customer segmentation, and targeted communications.
  2. Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP): Reverse ETL enables the integration of ERP systems with the data warehouse, ensuring that operational data, such as sales, inventory, or financials, is synchronized and available in real time. This enhances the accuracy and efficiency of business processes, supports timely decision-making, and improves overall organizational performance.
  3. Real-Time Analytics and Reporting: By leveraging reverse ETL, data and marketing teams can enable real-time or near-real-time analytics and reporting capabilities. Operational systems and platforms can receive timely updates from the data warehouse, ensuring that users have access to the latest data for monitoring performance, tracking KPIs within comprehensive dashboards and taking immediate actions based on real-time insights.

There are several reverse ETL tools available in the market that can facilitate the process of extracting data from a data warehouse and loading it back into operational systems through built-in connectors.

RudderStack’s Reverse ETL can operationalize warehouse data and enable data teams to easily send warehouse data tables, features and metrics to different marketing, sales and support tools like Salesforce, Customer.io and Zendesk.

Reverse ETL: paving the way for operational analytics

Data warehouses are designed with analytics in mind. They're meant to store and organize large amounts of data to be queried and analyzed to uncover trends, make predictions, and inform business decisions.

Operational systems are designed for operations. They're the applications and processes that keep businesses running—such as CRMs, ERPs, and supply chain management systems.

Historically, these two systems have been siloed—for a good reason. Data warehouses are slow (by design), and operational systems are fast (also by design). But with more demand for operational analytics, data is increasingly being used to inform and optimize day-to-day operations in real-time. And that's where reverse ETL comes in.

Reverse ETL enables data to flow from data warehouses and other data stores into operational systems so businesses can use it to improve and automate their processes. In other words, reverse ETL is the glue that ties together data-driven operations, or what many call the last mile in the data pyramid.

A diagram of the Data Hierarchy of Needs.

A data pyramid has data warehouses at the bottom and operational systems at the top, with reverse ETL connecting the two. Getting data to your business units represents the final stage of effective data management, putting it to use.

The benefits of reverse ETL extend beyond data activation. With fewer requests for reports and spreadsheets across departments, data engineers have more time to work on strategic initiatives like data lake migrations and warehouse optimizations.

And since operational systems are generally better equipped to handle real-time processing, reverse ETL can also facilitate near-real-time analytics. This is especially valuable in retail and e-commerce, where decisions need to be made instantaneously to capitalize on opportunities and avoid potential pitfalls.

Comparing reverse ETL with other data pipeline solutions

There are many ways to move around your pipeline, which can be confusing and costly, depending on your setup. However, finding what might work best for your organization is much easier if you directly compare reverse ETL with other data flows.

Reverse ETL vs. ELT

Reverse ETL solutions extract data from the data warehouse (or target system) and load it into an operational system.

ELT tools work in partially reverse order to ETL tools: ETL tools extract data from an external source, transform it into the desired format and then load it into the data warehouse. ELT work by loading data first and then transforming it.

You'll likely need some combination of all three processes to get your data where it needs to go—which is why most data pipeline tools on the market, the most sophisticated being warehouse native CDPs. RudderStack's Reverse ETL solution is built on a robust infrastructure for data teams that supports multiple data pipelines and integrations as you scale.

  • ELT has become a more prevalent option because it can handle data faster due to its parallel processing.
  • Reverse ETL is best suited for organizations that need to move data in real time from a data warehouse to an operational system.
10x

Personalized recommendation speed

Using RudderStack Reverse ETL to transfer data from BigQuery into the company’s Redis in-memory data store, loveholidays can serve customized hotel recommendations to customers in 20 milliseconds.

Reverse ETL vs ETL

The key difference between ETL and Reverse ETL lies in the direction of data flow and their purposes. ETL focuses on extracting, transforming, and loading data into a data warehouse for analysis, while Reverse ETL involves extracting data from the data warehouse and loading it back into operational systems and SaaS tools for real-time data availability and operational efficiency. Here are some key distinctions between the two:

  1. Direction of data flow: In ETL, the data flow follows a traditional path. Data is extracted from source systems, transformed according to business rules and requirements, and loaded into a data warehouse or data lake for analysis and reporting.

    While in reverse ETL, the data flow is reversed. It involves extracting data from the data warehouse or data lake and loading it back into operational systems or other data stores.
  2. Purpose: The primary purpose of ETL is to consolidate data from various source systems, transform it into a consistent and structured format, and load it into a centralized repository (data warehouse or data lake) for analytical purposes.

    The main purpose of reverse ETL is to ensure that relevant and up-to-date data from the data warehouse flows back to operational systems or other data stores, enabling real-time or near-real-time data availability for operational processes, decision-making, and customer interactions.
  3. Data Transformation Complexity: In ETL, data transformation plays a significant role. It involves cleaning, aggregating, integrating, and enriching data to ensure its consistency and suitability for analysis in the data warehouse.

    In reverse ETL, the focus is more on data synchronization and formatting to meet the requirements of the operational systems or data stores. The emphasis is on delivering the data in a usable format rather than extensive transformation.
  4. Data Volume and Frequency: ETL processes typically deal with large volumes of data from various sources. Data extraction, transformation, and loading often occur in batches or scheduled intervals, depending on the specific requirements.

    Reverse ETL processes generally involve smaller subsets of data, focusing on delivering real-time or near-real-time updates to operational systems. The frequency of data delivery can be more frequent or event-triggered to ensure the operational systems have the most recent data.
  5. Data Destination: The primary data destination in ETL is the data warehouse or data lake, where data is stored for analysis, reporting, and business intelligence purposes.

    In reverse ETL, the data destination is the operational systems, data stores or other SaaS tools that require access to up-to-date data for operational processes, decision-making, or customer-facing applications.

Reverse ETL vs. CDP

Comparing a Customer Data Platform against Reverse ETL tools, despite CDPs having Reverse ETL capabilities, can be insightful for organizations for several reasons.

But looking at a data problem in this way can itself be problematic, RudderStack supports every stage of your data's journey to activation,
empowering your team to deliver value and build trust in data no matter the stage.

Our customer data platform is designed to collect, unify, and activate customer data from multiple sources. CDPs create a single customer view, which drive value for all business teams; in marketing this could be segmentation, personalization, and omnichannel marketing.

CDPs are designed to collect data, use it to create the customer profile, and then move it into an operational system.

A CDP is the best option for creating a single customer view. If your goal is to activate data beyond customer records, reverse ETL is the best option. However, there are benefits to using both CDP and reverse ETL tools to create a complete data management solution.

For example, with RudderStack handling your CDP and reverse ETL needs, you can use customer data from your data warehouse to facilitate targeted marketing campaigns.

  • CDPs create a single customer view.
  • Reverse ETL moves data in real time from a data warehouse to an operational system.
  • RudderStack is both a CDP and a Reverse ETL tool.

For more information check out: what is a Customer Data Platform?

Reverse ETL vs. iPaaS

Integration Platform as a Service (iPaaS) is a cloud-based platform that provides a complete set of tools for building and managing data pipelines. iPaaS tools like MuleSoft, Dell Boomi, and Zapier support ETL, ELT, and reverse ETL and are often used in conjunction with traditional data pipeline systems.

iPaaS is a good option for moving data between on-premise systems and cloud-based applications. However, iPaaS can be complex and expensive, so there are better options available for most businesses.

iPaaS is an overkill if you only need to move data from a data warehouse to an operational system—in which case, reverse ETL is the better option.

  • iPaaS can help you move data between on-premises systems and cloud-based applications.
  • iPaaS can be more complex and expensive to manage when compared to reverse ETL solutions.

Why should you use Reverse ETL?

Implementing reverse ETL in a business offers several benefits that can enhance operational efficiency, decision-making, and customer experiences. Here are some key advantages of using reverse ETL:

  1. Real-Time Data Activation: Reverse ETL ensures that operational systems have access to real-time or near-real-time data from the data warehouse. This enables teams to make informed decisions based on the latest information, leading to improved agility and responsiveness. With that, teams can rely on accurate and timely data to carry out their tasks, reducing manual data entry and potential errors. Some example use cases of data activation include:

    - Personalization Engines: Personalization engines utilize reverse ETL to activate data from the data warehouse and deliver personalized experiences across various channels. By leveraging real-time customer data, these engines can dynamically adjust website content, product recommendations, or app interfaces based on individual user preferences, leading to enhanced user engagement and conversion rates.

    - Sales Enablement Platforms: Sales enablement platforms leverage reverse ETL to activate data from the cloud data warehouse, providing sales teams with real-time customer insights, sales performance analytics, and deal tracking. This empowers sales representatives to have up-to-date information, prioritize leads, and engage prospects with personalized pitches, resulting in improved sales efficiency and revenue growth.

    - Marketing Automation Platforms: Marketing automation platforms rely on reverse ETL to activate customer data stored in data warehouses, allowing marketers to create personalized campaigns, automate email marketing, and deliver targeted messages based on real-time customer behavior and preferences. This results in higher engagement rates, improved customer experiences, and increased conversion rates.
  2. Better communication: When reverse ETL brings together data from various third-party apps and operational systems, it creates a centralized and comprehensive view that acts as a single source of truth that can benefit multiple departments within a business. This eliminates discrepancies that can occur when operational systems that different teams rely on reference outdated or data sources that exist as silos.

    An example of this is CRM platforms like Salesforce, HubSpot, and Zoho CRM serve as centralized repositories for customer data and interactions. By using reverse ETL with CRM platforms, businesses can provide valuable customer information to sales, marketing, and customer support teams. This allows different departments to collaborate, share insights, and align their efforts to provide personalized customer experiences and drive customer satisfaction.
  3. Answer important questions: Reverse ETL allows teams to combine real-time operational data with historical data stored in the data warehouse and load it into operational analytics software. This integration provides a holistic view of the business, enabling teams to uncover patterns, trends, and correlations that lead to actionable insights. By exploring a wide range of data sources, teams can gain a deeper understanding of how their product, customers, and company function.

    Data catalog and knowledge management tools like Alation, Confluence, and Notion help businesses organize and share information (marketing, customer success and product usage data) effectively. These tools provide a centralized repository for data documentation, data dictionaries, and collaborative knowledge sharing.

    By integrating reverse ETL, businesses can activate data-related insights from the data warehouse, enrich data documentation, and provide cross-departmental access to valuable data resources.
  4. Maximize efficiency: Reverse ETL reduces the burden on data analysts when it comes to extracting and preparing data for teams. By leveraging reverse ETL tools, teams can access analytics and insights quickly and easily, freeing up data analysts to focus on high-level data queries such as data security, quality, and implementation.

    An example of this is making analytics self-serve for different teams across an organization regardless of their technical knowledge, which significantly reduces the reliance on data analysts. By reducing the dependency on data analysts, teams can access the information they need quickly, make informed decisions, and improve operational efficiency.

Challenges with reverse ETL

Reverse ETL isn't the ultimate solution for all marketing and sales data problems. While it can be extremely helpful in managing data, like any data pipeline, it has limitations.

The central proposition of reverse ETL tools is to provide low/no-code solutions for non-technical users. However, these tools require technical expertise to set up and manage. Say you want to create customer journeys or do complex segmentation—you'll likely need someone who knows how to code.

And even if you have a high-performing reverse ETL tool, it's only as good as the provider you're syncing to. Each provider has different constraints, such as the number of API calls you can make daily or how the data should be transformed to fit the provider's data model.

Additionally, many pipelines rely on batch processing, which can cause delays in data delivery. The intervals range from minutes to hours, which can impact real-time decisions.

Lastly, while reverse ETL can save you time and money, it's not free. You'll need to pay for the tool and any support or training.

To overcome these challenges, choosing the right reverse ETL solution and clearly understanding your data pipeline needs is critical to getting results.

Reverse ETL - Key takeaways

  • Reverse ETL is a process that enables data to flow from data warehouses and other data stores into business dashboards and tools, allowing companies to operationalize data in daily activities.
  • ETL, ELT, and reverse ETL are different ways of processing data. Sometimes you'll need to use more than one, depending on your business goals.
  • CDPs can use your reverse ETL pipeline to deliver data to downstream destinations and activate your data for business teams.
  • Reverse ETL is a more straightforward and cost-effective solution than iPaaS. It’s also compatible with most data warehouses and operational systems.
March 14, 2024
Matthew Sibun

Matthew Sibun

Head of Growth Marketing