Modern organizations swim in oceans of data. Messages, transactions, and sensor pings leave digital footprints that quickly accumulate into terabytes. This data is often siloed in local storage, destined to be scrubbed if it doesn't offer immediate benefits.

However, selectively retaining this data in a data lake is an alternative with many benefits. Instead of being a burden, this data becomes an opportunity to gain deeper insights and make better decisions.

This article will explain what data lakes are and how to use them to improve your data pipeline. 

What Is a Data Lake?

A data lake is a centralized storage repository that houses copious amounts of data. Its core purpose is to efficiently store structured, unstructured, and semi-structured data from various sources without reconnecting to the original data providers. The data inside the lake can be anything an organization deems essential enough to keep. For example, spreadsheets, email threads, or social media posts.

A data lake creates a single point of reference by consolidating this information in one place. The advantage of this consolidation is that it reduces data siloing and makes it easier to find, analyze, and share data across different departments and projects. 

Origin of the Term Data Lake

Coined in 2011 by James Dixon, the term “data lake” was initially a theoretical concept for data scientists. However, it has since gained traction among non-specialist users. Many companies have functional data lakes, and managed service providers offer them as ready-made solutions.

Data Lake Use Cases

A data lake has utility across various scenarios, including:.

  • Data analytics. The expansive and diverse dataset of the lake encourages you to uncover insights into your organization and customers.
  • Machine learning. Machine learning algorithms are data-hungry, and the lake provides a rich feeding ground. Its sheer volume and variety fuels model development and unlocks the true potential of artificial intelligence and predictive analytics.
  • Process optimization. A data lake can house raw data from machine sensors, production logs, and quality control reports. By analyzing it, organizations can identify bottlenecks in production, predict equipment failures, and optimize efficiency and waste.
  • Web scraping. If your organization is scraping data from the internet, you can store raw HTML data in the lake. This approach ensures a steady supply of data for development purposes and mitigates the risk of being blocked due to excessive requests when web scraping.
  • Archiving. The data lake can archive any information that might be crucial in the future but has no current use case.

GDPR, PCI, and HIPAA regulate owning and using personal data. If your data lake ingests such information, it is crucial to heed directives such as the "right to be forgotten." Forever storage is not an option for medical records or payment information.

Data Lake vs. Data Warehouse

Data lakes are temporary storage for unstructured data. They are an intermediary between the source and the destination.

On the other hand, a data warehouse stores structured data in tables with predefined schemas and rules. The data in a warehouse is transformed for specific analysis and reporting, making it easy to query and run reports. A data warehouse is expensive to maintain but more efficient for business intelligence tasks.

A data lake is not a replacement for a data warehouse but a complementary solution. The warehouse is a meticulously organized library, and the data lake is a vast, untamed wilderness.

Structured vs. unstructured data.

Read our article on structured vs. unstructured data to learn how to extract insights regardless of format.

Data Lake vs. Data Lakehouse

A data lakehouse is a hybrid architecture that combines elements of a data lake and a data warehouse. It stores data in cost-effective storage while enabling access and analysis through database tools typically associated with warehouses.

A lakehouse facilitates data ingestion and establishes relationships between diverse datasets within the lake by incorporating modeling capabilities.

Benefits of Using a Data Lake

The data inside the lake is disorganized, raw, and minimally transformed. Paradoxically, this approach has several benefits to more organized data storage.


Modifying a data warehouse is time-consuming, especially when dealing with a complex data model. When your team needs access to new data to analyze, waiting for weeks while these modifications are made is impractical.

In contrast, a data lake is dynamic and responsive, providing quick access to raw data without the constraints of a rigid structure.


Imagine you're developing a content analysis tool. It scrapes the internet, capturing and categorizing content that contains specific keywords related to your industry. After six months of analysis, you decide to add new keywords.

If you use a source-to-data warehouse pipeline, you restrict these changes to future data only. In other words, the changes to the pipeline apply solely to incoming data and do not affect the historical data already stored in the warehouse. However, storing the raw data in a data lake as an intermediary step allows the retrospective reprocessing of the entire dataset.

Reduced Data Loss and Corruption

There is an inherent risk of data loss and corruption if you rely solely on a data warehouse. Even subtle adjustments and tweaks to the data can inadvertently damage it.

Preserving completely unaltered raw data in a data lake safeguards against unforeseen issues that arise from data wrangling.


Imagine a scenario where entries that might be deemed invalid are removed during the initial processing of data, strings are converted to UTF-8 for standardized representation, and 0 values are substituted with NULL to address potential inconsistencies.

While each transformation is reasonable, the cumulative effect is like making several edits to a handwritten letter. As the number of transformations rises, so does the risk of unintentional damage.

Improved Scalability

Data warehouses struggle with big data and often require costly upgrades and disruptive migrations. Data lakes, on the other hand, can seamlessly expand to accommodate increasing loads.

This scalability is particularly valuable to organizations that need to transition to new technologies frequently or want a platform for efficient database migration.


Imagine a research agency studying climate change. They started with basic temperature and precipitation readings, neatly stored and organized in a data warehouse. However, their data volume exploded when they added sensors, satellite imagery, and high-resolution weather simulations.

One option they have is to upgrade the data warehouse and modernize the schema with new parameters. This method is expensive, time-consuming, and possibly requires downtime and data loss. Alternatively, they can add 60 terabytes of capacity to their data lake. This approach doesn't require schema changes and downtime and allows the agency to categorize and transform the new data at leisure.

Big data infographic.

Data is the lifeblood of a modern organization. Allowing it to get lost, compromised, or stolen is a recipe for disaster. That's why security must be woven into your data lake's very fabric.
Access control, encryption, and a robust IT security policy are the concentric rings of defense keeping your data safe.

Challenges of Data Lakes

The main challenge of data lakes is that they can transform into data swamps. The stored information loses significance in a data swamp, and querying becomes significantly more complex.

Two elements distinguish a data lake from a swamp:

  • Governance. Do you have a robust framework of policies and protocols to ensure data quality, security, and consistency? The data lake becomes a swamp without a metadata layer facilitating navigation.
  • Relevance. Does the stored data directly contribute to organizational goals, or is it a growing collection of irrelevant clutter? If the stored data contains irrelevant information, it is dead weight rather than a valuable resource.

Integration platforms and data lakes both facilitate data availability for analysis and decision-making. However, if you need data processing and reaction to happen as fast as the data arrives, an integration platform might be the better choice.
That's where integration platform as a service (IpaaS) comes in handy.

How to build a data lake.

How to Build a Data Lake

Here is a guide on navigating the implementation of a data lake.

1. Define and Align

  • Objectives. Clearly define your overall data lake goals.
  • Scope. Identify specific data types and potential future usage to determine initial footprint and scalability needs.
  • Business alignment. Ensure the data lake aligns with strategic goals and facilitates data-driven decisions across departments.

2. Choose the Right Infrastructure

  • Deployment model. Select an architecture that fits your resources and budget (on-premise, cloud, or hybrid).
  • Consider security and compliance. Assess security and compliance requirements to choose a platform with the necessary control mechanisms.

3. Design and Implement Storage

  • Storage layer. Select a scalable and cost-effective storage solution based on your data access needs (e.g., HDFS, Amazon S3, Azure Data Lake Storage).
  • Tiered storage. Consider implementing hierarchical storage management for cost optimization, storing frequently accessed data in high-performance tiers and colder data in more economical options.
  • Data partitioning. Divide data into logical partitions for efficient retrieval and processing based on specific attributes or access patterns.

4. Establish Governance & Security

  • Data governance. Implement robust information lifecycle management policies to ensure responsible data handling and regulatory compliance.
  • Security. Enforce strong security protocols like access controls, user authentication, data encryption, and audit trails to protect sensitive information.

5. Choose and Integrate Processing Tools

  • Processing frameworks. Select frameworks like Apache Spark or Apache Hadoop based on your data volume, processing complexity, and compatibility with your storage solution.
  • Data pipelines. Design and implement data pipelines for efficient data ingestion.
  • Real-time and batch processing. Choose appropriate data ingestion methods (batch, real-time) based on your specific use cases and data arrival patterns.

6. Enhance Discoverability and Usability

  • Metadata management. Implement a robust metadata management system like Apache Atlas or AWS Glue Data Catalog to tag, organize, and search data assets within the lake for easier discovery.
  • Data cataloging. Establish a centralized data catalog to document data sources, formats, schemas, and ownership. This step enables data understanding and collaboration.
  • Self-service tools. Provide user-friendly interfaces and tools for data exploration, querying, and analysis.

7. Optimize and Maintain

  • Monitoring and performance. Implement monitoring tools to track data lake health, resource utilization, and processing performance for proactive optimization.
  • Regular Maintenance. Schedule routine maintenance tasks for data lake components to ensure efficient operation and data integrity.
  • Cost optimization. Continuously review and adjust storage configurations, processing pipelines, and resource allocation to optimize costs without compromising performance.
Cloud vs. on-premises data lake

Cloud vs. On-Premises Data Lake

Whether you choose to build a data lake in the cloud or on-premises is a matter your organization’s resources financial and IT resources. It is important to remember, however, that the essence of a data lake is how we use it; where the data lives is less important than what it does.

Here is a table comparing the features of a cloud vs. on-premises data lake.

CostCheaper for large and growing data volumes due to pay-as-you-go pricing.Requires an initial investment in hardware and software, but cheaper long-term for small or static data sets.
ScalabilitySeamlessly scales up and down.Scaling requires adding physical hardware.
Availability and Disaster RecoveryHigh availability with built-in redundancy and backup options.Requires additional investments and planning for disaster recovery.
Management and MaintenanceMinimal on-site management, as the vendor handles infrastructure.Requires dedicated IT staff for hardware and software upkeep.
Security and ComplianceSecure, but compliance might require additional effort.Higher control over data and easier compliance.
Flexibility and IntegrationWide range of pre-built data services and tools for easy integration and analytics.More limited integration options; requires building and maintaining custom solutions.
Latency and PerformanceHigher latency, depending on network performance and location.Potentially faster performance with dedicated hardware and network.
Vendor Lock-inRisk of vendor lock-in and potential price increases.No risk of vendor lock-in.

Scale your data effortlessly with phoenixNAP Object Storage. Pay only for what you use, manage data easily with S3 API, and enjoy secure, encrypted storage across the globe.

Object storage by phoenixNAP.

Understanding the Power of Data Lakes

Data lakes are an innovative approach to storing large volumes of diverse data, regardless of format. They are a centralized platform for breaking down data silos and enabling collaboration.

A well-organized data lake can evolve into a data lakehouse and streamline the development of a data warehouse. However, a data lake can also dissolve into a disorganized and difficult-to-navigate swamp.

By thinking ahead, you can avoid the pitfalls and turn your data lake into a valuable asset.