Conceptualization of a Data Migration II

10 min readFeb 4, 2021

Data Access

Once the data sources for a Data Migration (DM) were identified the first question is how the data can be accessed. The legacy systems relying on ODBC-based databases are in theory relatively easy to access as long they allow the direct access to their data, which would enable thus a pull strategy. Despite this, there are organizations that don’t allow the direct access to the data even for read-only operations, being preferred to push the data directly to the consumers (aka push strategy) or push the data to a given location from where the consumer can use the data as needed (aka hybrid strategy).

The direct access to the data allows in theory the best flexibility as the solution can extract the data when needed and this especially important during the initial phases of the project when the data need to be pulled more frequently until the requirements and logic is stabilized. A push strategy tends to add additional overhead as usually somebody else oversees the data exports, respectively the data need to be prepared in the expected format. On the other side, it would make sense to make an exception for a DM and allow the direct access to the data.

Hybrid strategies tend to be more complex and require additional resources or overhead as the data are stored temporarily at a separate location. Unfortunately, in certain scenarios this is the only approach can be used. Are preferred data files that allow keeping the integrity of the data and facilitate data consumption. Therefore, tabular text files or JSON files are preferred in the detriment of XML or Excel files. It’s preferable to export one data structure individually then storing parent-child solutions even if the latter can prove to be useful in certain scenarios. When there’s no other solution one can use also the standard reports available in the legacy systems.

When storing data outside the legacy systems for further processing it’s recommended to follow organization’s best practices, respectively to address the data security and privacy requirements. ETL tools allows accessing data from password protected areas like FTP, OneDrive or SharePoint. The fewer security layers in between the lower is in theory the overhead. Therefore, given its stability and simplicity FTP might prove to be a better storage solution than OneDrive, SharePoint or other similar technologies.

Ideally the extraction/export mechanisms should use the database objects that encapsulate already the logic in the legacy systems otherwise the team will need to reengineer the logic — for master data this can prove to be easy, though the logic of transactional data like on-hand or open invoices can be relatively complex to reengineer. Otherwise, the logic can be implemented directly in the extraction/export mechanisms or sometimes is more advisable to create database objects (usually on a different schema) on the legacy systems and just call the respective objects.

When connecting directly to the data source it’s advisable using the data provider which allows the best performance and flexibility, however several tests might be needed to determine the best fit. It would be useful to check the limitations of each provider and find a stable driver version. OLEDB and ADO.Net data providers provide in general a good performance, though native drivers of the legacy systems can be a better option upon case.

Some legacy systems allow the access to their data only via service-based technologies like OData. OData tends to have poor performance for large data exports than standard access methods and therefore not indicated in such scenarios. In such cases might be a good idea to export the data directly from the legacy system.

Data Extraction Layer

ETL tools are ideal for extracting the needed data from the legacy system(s). They offer a considerable number of connectors to standard databases that leverage legacy systems’ data access layers or own frameworks, both categories providing acceptable performance for a wide range of solutions. Otherwise, third-party connectors can be considered as well, though their advantage might reside in the extra features they bring out-of-the-box in the detriment of performance loss, and thus should be used with caution.

Besides that, ETL tools provide also rich visual functionality that allow users building complex pipelines with transformations that process the data as data go through the pipeline. Further features like data profiling or cleansing bring additional benefits.

As usually only a subset of the legacy data is needed for the migration, an ETL solution allows extracting only the data in scope as filtering and other logic can be used in the extraction mechanism. Whether one loads the tables or entities 1:1 or aggregates the data from multiple tables is a matter of choice, even if the former two approaches are usually recommended.

As alternative to an ETL tool is building own extraction layer based for example on a powerful data access layer like ADO.Net. This might prove to be a cheaper alternative especially when ETL capabilities aren’t needed. This depends also on the overall architectural approach. Attempting to build a desktop-based application for a DM can prove to be a foolhardy approach especially when dealing with a considerable volume of data. Moreover, it would be needed to build features that are already available in ETL tools (transformations, workflows) or databases (indexes for performance optimization, join-based logic).

When the volume of data exceeds the capabilities of ETL tools one can consider ELT tools which load first the data before applying any transformations on them. Such tools are designed for the processing of what is known as big data (data having high volume, high velocity, high variety and different veracity).

When considering the best data extraction approach, it’s important to know where the data will be stored for processing. Given that DMs are data processing intensive the best data storage solution for processing would be a modern relational database. Besides performance, scalability, security, concurrency, failover mechanism some databases offer the possibility to connect directly to other servers via server links functionality. Despite this latter feature an ETL tool can still have considerable advantages for data extraction.

On the other side the DM logic can be in theory built entirely in the ETL tool without storing the data within a database, though this adds a high overhead on the server resources on which the solution runs as all the data needed for processing need to be loaded in memory. Even if the data are loaded in batches and processed as the batches go through the pipeline, the complexity of the processing can make challenging implementing any optimization techniques directly into the ETL tool. Moreover, fully ETL-based solutions are difficult to troubleshoot and change as the requirements change.

To address the high resources’ consumption of the ETL tools one can store the intermediary results into database tables on which indexes can be created for performance optimization. Moreover, the logic can be encapsulated in database objects and used in the processing. This approach enables troubleshooting, performing validations and restarting the processing from a given step in the detriment of splitting the logic between multiple ETL packages. This can be an acceptable price to pay for more flexibility. Given that most ETL transformations can be replaced with SQL-based logic the ETL tool can be used only for data extraction.

Data Migration Layer

Besides migrating the master and transactional data from the legacy systems there are usually three additional important business requirements for a Data Migration (DM) — migrate the data within expected timeline, with minimal disruption for the business, respectively within expected quality levels. Hence, DM’ timeline must match and synchronize with main project’s timeline in terms of main milestones, though the DM needs to be executed typically within a small timeframe of a few days during the Go-Live. In what concerns the third requirement, even if the data have high quality as available in the source systems or provided by the business, there are aspects like integration and consistency that rely primarily on the DM logic.

To address these requirements the DM logic must reach a certain level of performance and quality that allows importing the data as expected. From project’s beginning until UAT the DM team will integrate the various information iteratively, will need to test the changes several times, troubleshoot the deviations from expectations. The volume of effort required for these activities can be overwhelming. It’s not only important for the whole solution to be performant but each step must be designed so that besides fast execution, the changes and troubleshooting must involve a minimum of overhead.

For better understanding the importance, imagine a quest game in which the character has to go through a labyrinth with traps. If the player made a mistake he’ll need to restart from a certain distant point in time or even from the beginning. Now imagine that for each mistake he has the possibility of going one step back try a new option and move forward. For some it may look like cheating though in this way one can finish the game relatively quickly. It would be great if executing a DM could allow the same flexibility.

Unfortunately, unless the data are stored between steps or each step is a different package, an ETL solution doesn’t provide the flexibility of changing the code, moving one step behind, rerunning the step and performing troubleshooting, and this over and over again like in the quest game. To better illustrate the impact of such approach let’s consider that the DM has about 40 entities and one needs to perform on average 20 changes per entity. If one is able to move forwards and backwards probably each change will take about a few minutes to execute the code. Otherwise rerunning a whole package can take 5–10 times or even more as this can depend on packages’ size and data volume. For 800 changes only an additional minute per change equates with 800 minutes (about 13 hours).

In exchange, storing the data for an entity in a database for the important points of the processing and implementing the logic as a succession of SQL scripts allows this flexibility. The most important downside is that the steps need to be executed manually though this is a small price to pay for the flexibility and control gained. Moreover, with a few tricks one can load deltas as in the case of a phased DM.

To assure that the consistency of the data is kept one needs to build for each entity a set of validation queries that check for duplicates, for special cases, for data integrity, incorrect format, etc. The queries can be included in the sequence of logic used for the DM. Thus, one can react promptly to each unexpected value. When required, the validation rules can be built within reports and used in the data cleaning process by users, or even logged periodically per entity for tracking the progress.

Data Import Layer

The data requirements for the Data Migration (DM) and Data Quality (DQ) are driven by the processes implemented in the target system(s). Therefore, a good knowledge of these requirements can decrease the effort needed for these two subprojects considerably. The needed knowledge basis starts with the entities and their attributes, the dependencies existing between them and the various rules that apply, and ends with the parametrization requirements, respectively the architecture(s) that can be used to import the data.

The DM process starts with defining the entities in scope and their attributes, respectively identifying the corresponding entities and attributes from the legacy systems. The attributes not having a correspondent in the legacy system need to be provided by the business and integrated in the DM logic. In addition, it’s needed to consider also the attributes needed by the business and not available in the target system, some of them more likely available in the legacy systems. For such attributes is needed either to misuse an attribute from the target or to extend the target system.

For each entity is created a data mapping that basically documents the data transformations needed for migrating the data. In the process is needed to consider also attributes’ data types, the (standard) formatting, their domain of definition, as well the various rules that apply. Their implementation belongs into the DM layer from which the data are exported in a standard format as needed by the target system.

Exporting the data from the DM layer directly into the target system’s tables has in theory the lowest overhead even if the rejected records are difficult to track, the rejections resulting only from records’ ‘validation against database’s schema. For this approach to work, one must have a good knowledge of the database schema and of the business rules implemented into the target system.

To solve the issue with errors’ logging, systems have a further layer on top of the database model, which also allow running data validation against target system’s business rules. Modern import frameworks allow loading the data via a set of standard files with a predefined structure. The data can be thus imported manually or via load jobs into the system a log with the issues being generated in the process. Some frameworks allow even the manual editing of failed records, respectively to import the data. Unfortunately, calling the layer from the DM layer is not possible from a database, though this would bring seldom a benefit. Some third-party tools attempt to improve the import functionality by calling the target system’s import layer.

The import files must be generated from the DM layer in the required structure with the appropriate formatting. The challenge however resides in identifying all the attributes that should make scope of the load. It’s an iterative process which sometimes is backed by try-and-error heuristics. Unless target system’s validation rules are known beforehand, the rules need to be discovered in this process, which can prove time-consuming. The discoveries need to be integrated also in the DM and from here results the big number of changes that need to be performed.

Given the dependencies existing between entities the files need to be generated and loaded in a predefined order. These dependencies are reflected also in the data processing and the validation rules considered in the DM layer.

A quality checkpoint can be implemented between the export from the DM layer and import to enforce the four-eyes principle. It’s normally the last opportunity for trapping the eventual issues. A further quality check is performed after import by validating on whether the data were imported as expected.

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IT professional/blogger with more than 19 years experience in IT - Software Engineering, BI & Analytics, Data, Project, Quality, Database & Knowledge Management