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Adopting a Data Catalog

Over the past decade, a significant focus has been placed on effectively collecting and accessing data. While bringing data into a central location and making it readily available is crucial for establishing a data-driven culture, the true value lies in enabling users, particularly non-technical individuals, to easily search and discover relevant data that can be applied to their specific department. A data catalog can greatly enhance this process by unlocking the potential of previously collected but underutilized data, providing a valuable asset for decision-making purposes. 

What is a data catalog? It is a central repository of information about data assets within an organization. It serves as a metadata management system, providing a single point of access to information about data sources, their content, and how they can be used. Data catalogs typically include information such as data source location, data definitions, data lineage, data quality, and data governance policies. They also typically include a search and discovery function to allow users to easily find and understand the data they need. Overall, the goal of a data catalog is to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of data management within an organization by making data more discoverable, understandable, and usable.

Adopting and implementing a data catalog can be a complex process, and many steps should be considered.

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Assessing your data landscape

Before you begin the process of adopting a data catalog, it is important to understand your current data landscape. This involves identifying all of your data sources, understanding the structure and format of your data, and determining who owns and manages it.

Define your goals and objectives

Defining your goals and objectives for adopting a data catalog will guide the implementation process. This includes determining what specific problems you are trying to solve and what specific business needs you hope to address.

Choose a data catalog solution

There are many data catalog solutions available on the market, so it is important to choose one that meets your specific needs. The landscape of data catalogs has grown considerably over the last two years, and options vary wildly between implementation, features, and price. Factors such as scalability, security, and integration capabilities, as well as the add-on features, should be considered. The current trend is integrating pipeline observability and data governance into the data catalog solution. While there are barebone open-source solutions available, they do require significant amounts of customization to become usable. The price of SaaS-based solutions has come down considerably and may provide the most features that are ready to implement.

Implement the data catalog

Once you have chosen a data catalog solution, it is time to implement it. This will typically involve installing the software, configuring it to your specific needs, and integrating it with your existing data sources.

Promote the data catalog

As with any technical implementation, the technology only solves one aspect of the problem. Unless the people and the processes are put in place to support the data catalog and its use, the technical solution will not be successful. Therefore, it is important to promote the data catalog to all relevant stakeholders within your organization. This includes providing training and support to help users understand how to use the data catalog effectively.

Monitor and maintain the data catalog 

The data catalog must be monitored and maintained to remain accurate and up-to-date. This includes regularly reviewing and updating the metadata, monitoring user access and usage, and ensuring that the data catalog remains integrated with your other systems. As discussed above, the processes around incorporating the data catalog into the day-to-day practices of its users make the tool valuable. This ensures the tool and its associated data continues to be up-to-date and relevant in order to manage the data assets.

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While not an exhaustive list, some of the data catalogs you should consider include the following:

Open Source Options
Open-source data catalogs have several pros and cons, including:

  • Free to use 
  • Powerful search and discovery functionalities
  • Robust metadata management capabilities 
  • User-friendly 
  • Integration with other data management tools 
  • Setup and maintenance by the organization
  • May need more support compared to commercial data catalog solutions
  • The organization is responsible for scalability

Amundsen is the most well-known open-source data discovery and metadata management platform. 

Commercial On-Premises and SaaS
Commercial options also have a different set of pros and cons, including:

  • Enterprise-grade solution
  • Robust data governance and compliance features
  • Powerful search and discovery functionalities
  • Usually provides integrations tools and pathways
  • Often provides additional data management tools
  • Dedicated support staff and resources
  • Costly
  • Often complex to implement. Support is usually provided by the vendor
  • Limited customization options compared to the open-source options

Some commercial options to evaluate include Collibra, Informatica, Alation, and Atacama.

New Generation of SaaS Options

The new generation of SaaS-based data catalogs like Castor and SelectStar is a product of the “modern data stack” application generation. They provide deep integration with cloud-hosted solutions, including data lineage using tooling such as DBT cloud. In addition, these catalogs can also connect directly to the organization's business intelligence service and provide end-to-end solutions.

A data catalog is a powerful tool that can significantly enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of data management within an organization. By centralizing and organizing information about data assets, a data catalog makes it easier for users to find and understand the data they need. Organizations can improve their data's discoverability, understandability, and usability by implementing a data catalog, ultimately leading to more informed and data-driven decision-making. Additionally, a data catalog can help organizations be compliant with regulations and policies, as well as ensure data quality, lineage, and security. 

Adopting a data catalog is a strategic move that can bring significant value to any organization. Unicon partners with our clients to implement an overarching data strategy tailored to their needs. Choosing and implementing a data catalog is an essential part of this strategy, and ensuring the catalog not only meets your current needs but is flexible to allow for growth and support changes. Contact Unicon to discuss your data catalog project to see how we can help.

Rob Nield

Rob Nield

Data Architect
Robert Nield is a Data Architect at Unicon, Inc., a leading provider of education technology consulting and digital services. Rob joined Unicon in 2009 and has over 20 years of experience with professional software design and systems management, much of which has been spent working on a wide variety of projects for Fortune 100 companies. His experience focuses on developing, maintaining, and evaluating assessment and content authoring systems. He has a passion for educational data analysis and making sense of complex educational systems.