DBT Vs Airflow

Welcome to the DBT vs Airflow Blog! Apache Airflow and the Data build tool are prominent tools used in the data engineering field to make data processing more accessible and data engineers' work faster. This blog post will discuss the core difference between DBT & apache Airflow and where they fit in the data engineering field.

Before getting into the details, let's understand what data engineering is. Well, data engineering is a process designed to collect, transform, and analyze massive volumes of data. Irrespective of industry, every business is adopting data engineering to use data and sustain in the ever-increasing competition. The collected raw data needs to pass through different tools to make it into a usable format. DBT and Apache airflow are tools that play a vital role in the modern data stack.

Let's understand them one by one, clearly

What is a Data Build Tool (DBT)?

DBT is an SQL-based data transformation framework that makes data transformation quicker and more reliable. It streamlines the data transformation process in an organization. DBT can be deployed on any data warehouse platform and acts as a single source of truth by facilitating easy collaboration between different data engineering teams.

Currently, DBT is available in two options: DBT cloud (subscription-based) and DBT core  (open-source).  DBT offers version control features that help data engineers modify pipelines and update and track data.

Relate Article: What is DBT

How Does Data Build Tool Work?

The data build tool is an open-source data transformation tool that uses simple SQL statements to build optimized models. The users can define and build optimized SQL models that can run against any data warehouse or storage system. DBT allows data engineers to build and maintain a simplified, scalable data infrastructure that is easy to maintain.

Want to gain practical DBT knowledge from experts? Check out our live project-oriented Data Build Tool Training Program.


Data Build Tool (DBT) Features:

DBT offers rich features to make the data transformation process faster and more reliable using simple SQL statements. It reduces logic errors from copy-and-paste SQL and allows users to build and use reusable models.

Below listed are the DBT features; let's explore each one:

1) Handle Bipolarate Code:

DBT supports boilerplate SQL code, which makes building materializations simpler than ever. DBT supports building different materializations that include tables, views, incremental, and ephemeral.

2) Code Compiler:

In DBT, you can enhance the performance by combining SQL with Jinja, a lightweight templating language. Using Jinja along with SQL offers a programming environment and enables you to perform some operations that are not possible alone with SQL, for example, controlling data structures.

3) Staged Approach:

Data transformation tasks become more accessible and make sense using a staged approach. DBT makes use of the “ref function” to execute stage-wise transformations.

4) Easy Documentation of Project:

DBT offers you the facility to document & share all DBT models you build.  You can also auto-generate DBT models using the DBT cloud version.

5) Model Tests:

DBT offers a test option to test the models and assess the generated results. Test features will help users make appropriate model changes and improve accuracy.

6) Snapshot Data:

In Data engineering, records are mutable, and it becomes a challenging task for data engineers when reconstructing historical values. DBT offers a Snapshot mechanism that you can use to snapshot data from the past.

What is Apache Airflow?

Apache workflow is an open-source platform that allows businesses to manage complex and vast numbers of workflows easily. It is a widely used data engineering platform to build, organize, and maintain workflows or data pipelines.

Apache Airflow allows users to view code, scheduled tasks, trigger tasks, work in progress, dependencies, DAGs, etc. It becomes easier for data analysts to view any pipeline and its status and troubleshoot errors if any occur.

Want to learn how to build & manage airflows from scratch? Get advice & live project support from experts with Apache Airflow Training.


How does Apache Airflow Work?

Apache Airflow is used to build large-scale workflows and uses DAG chains. All workflows in airflow are built using Python scripts; each Python script can perform tasks such as data extraction, transformation, and loading. Airflow offers pre-built operators to automate specific tasks, such as data loading into a warehouse. 

Apache Airflow Features:

1) Opensource:

Apache Airflow is an open-source platform developed using Python language. It also offers greater flexibility and community support for handling any workflow.

2) Easy User Interface:

Apache Airflow has a simplified interface that users can use to interact with any pipeline.

3) Integrations:

Airflow enables easy integration with the top three cloud solution providers: Azure, GCP, and AWS.

4) Programmatic Approach:

Airflow was built using Python, and users are allowed to use Python to build customized workflows.

DBT vs Airflow: Key Differences

Here is a comparison of critical differences between DBT and Airflow:

# 1) DBT vs Airflow - Purpose

Data transformations and modeling are the main areas that DBT focuses on. In a SQL-based environment, it enables you to develop data models, transformations, and pipelines. Data warehousing and analytics applications are the primary uses of DBT.

Scheduling, orchestrating, and managing complicated workflows are all possible using Airflow, a workflow management application. You may define tasks, dependencies, and pipelines with it. Workflows for data engineering and ETL frequently use airflow.

#2 ) DBT vs Airflow - Language 

DBT's primary language for defining transformations and models was SQL. With SQL-based databases and warehouses, it integrates quickly.

Compared to DBT, Airflow offers even more flexibility and extension because it uses Python to build workflows and tasks. This allows you to integrate and perform data operations and transformations with other systems while utilizing various tools and frameworks.

#3) DBT vs Airflow - Data Transformations

DBT was explicitly created for transformations that use SQL. In SQL queries, data transformations are defined. DBT supports features for testing, modeling, and documenting SQL-based transformations.

In contrast, Airflow executes data transformations in SQL and other languages. It can integrate with DBT as a task, enabling you to incorporate DBT transformations within the airflow workflows.

#4) DBT vs Airflow - Dependency Management

DBT supports dependency management between data transformations. Automatically, it builds dependency graphs depending on the connectivity between models, assuring that transformations are implemented in the correct sequence.
On the other hand, airflow also supports dependency management through its task dependencies and DAG (directed acrylic graph) structure. Dependencies can be defined between tasks, including data transformation tasks, to ensure proper implementation and sequencing.

#5) DBT vs Airflow - Incremental Processing

Let’s compare incremental processing in the context of DBT and airflow:

DBT has native support for incremental processing. It can monitor changes to the source data and process only the data that has changed since the last run. This speeds up how quickly transformations are executed.

Airflow can also manage incremental processing by including the proper logic in the data transformation tasks. But unlike DBT, it lacks native functionality, especially for incremental processing.

#6) DBT vs Airflow - Orchestrations

Although DBT and Apache Airflow are practical tools for orchestrating data workflows, they have different purposes and use different orchestration techniques.

Data transformation and modeling within a data warehouse are the main areas for DBT. It offers an SQL-based interface for specifying data models and transformations. The primary objective of DBT's orchestration capability is to carry out these transformations in a predetermined sequence based on their dependencies. It arranges the models into a directed acyclic graph (DAG) and ensures the upstream models run before the dependent models.

On the other hand, Apache Airflow offers an adaptable workflow management platform. You can design, organize, and execute intricate processes incorporating duties and system dependencies. Airflow can manage tasks like DBT, but its capabilities go beyond data modeling in a data warehouse. Tasks that can be coordinated with Airflow include loading, transforming, and extracting data, to name a few.

#7) DBT vs Airflow - Pricing

The DBT (data build tool) and Apache Airflow are open-source, meaning using them is free. But, it's important to remember that maintaining the infrastructure and services required to run these tools results in costs.

For DBT, since it operates primarily within the data warehouse, this would incur the usual costs associated with your chosen data warehouse platform. These costs are frequently influenced by storage consumption, computing power, and data transfer. To fully understand the associated costs, it is essential to refer to the documentation of your particular data warehouse provider for price. 

The costs for Apache Airflow will also vary depending on the hosting and operating system you choose. Airflow can be installed on various cloud platforms or on-premises infrastructure. The costs will change depending on the number of virtual machine instances, storage capacity, network traffic, and any extra services used inside the architecture.

#8) DBT vs. Airflow - Support

There are some critical differences between DBT and Airflow in terms of support:
The user base of the open-source tool DBT is growing. Support for DBT is accessible through a variety of ways, including:

  • Documentation: The tool's installation, configuration, operation, and troubleshooting are all covered in-depth by DBT's comprehensive documentation. The documentation is often updated with the latest developments and features. 
  • Slack Community: A specific Slack workspace for the DBT community exists where users may post questions, ask for help, and converse with other DBT users and contributors. 
  • GitHub issues: Bugs and issues can be reported on the official DBT GitHub repository, which is where DBT is hosted on GitHub. Issues are closely watched for and addressed by the maintainers and community members.

A robust ecosystem and community exist for Airflow as well. Here are a few of the ways that Airflow can be supported:

  • Documentation: Airflow offers thorough installation, configuration, operation, and advanced topic documentation. The documentation contains thorough justifications, illustrations, and instructions and is frequently updated.
  • Slack Community: Airflow offers a dedicated Slack workplace where users can communicate with one another, post queries, and request help. The Slack workspace is active and has channels for various themes and Airflow elements.
  • Numerous Airflow users and professionals watch the "Apache-airflow" tag on Stack Overflow. On this platform, you can post inquiries or look for already submitted responses about Airflow.
  • GitHub issues: You can report issues with Airflow, an open-source project hosted on GitHub.

Which is best, DBT or Airflow?

Determining whether DBT or Airflow is the best tool depends on your requirements. Both DBT and Airflow serve different purposes and excel in other areas. Suppose your primary focus is on data transformation and modeling within a data warehouse, and you value features like SQL-based transformations, testing, and documentation. In that case, DBT may be the better choice. However, Airflow might be better if you require comprehensive process orchestration features, system integration, and scalability.

Combining the two tools may even make sense in some situations. It is possible to utilize Airflow to organize and control the complete data pipeline or workflow while utilizing DBT for data transformation and modeling within the data warehouse.

Apache Airflow vs Data Build Tool (DBT) - Core Differences

Airflow and DBT belong to the data engineering technology segment, but their capabilities and responsibilities differ. Airflow is specialized in managing workflows or data pipelines that perform operations like data extraction, transformation, and loading. Whereas DBT is responsible only for transformation operations. Following are some of the notable differences between these two tools

Parameter  Data Build Tool (DBT)   Apache Airflow
Language SQL Python
Used For Data Transformation  ETL / Workflow management
Users Data Analyst Data Engineer
Orchestration  Slower Faster
Pricing  Subscription-Based  Open-Source 


By now, you may know how airflow and DBT differ and contribute their share in the data engineering segment.  Airflow is a powerful workflow management platform, whereas the data build tool is an advanced SQL-based data transformation tool. I believe this has helped you clear the confusion on DBT vs Airflow.

By Tech Solidity

Last updated on January 24, 2024