Reverse ETL: Workflows, Use Cases & Key Features

CEO, Portable

What is Reverse ETL?

Reverse ETL, also known as data unloading or data extraction, is a process that copies data from a repository like a data warehouse into platforms like analytics and automation software. It updates apps with accurate, real-time data from the cloud.

Reverse ETL broadly works in the opposite way as the ETL process, taking data that's stored in a cloud warehouse and pushing it out to individual SaaS applications and other platforms.

What do Reverse ETL tools do?

Reverse ETL solutions extract information from a data warehouse and load it into business applications.

While Reverse ETL tools are not truly reversing the ETL process, they have been named as such because they offer mirrored capabilities to traditional ETL (extract, transform, load) tools that extract information from business applications and load it into data warehouses.

ETL / ELT workflows load data into a data warehouse.
ETL / ELT workflows load data into a data warehouse.
Reverse ETL workflows extract data from a data warehouse.
Reverse ETL workflows extract data from a data warehouse.

Reverse ETL helps organizations streamline their data operations -- it's become a vital part of any data workflow for business teams that rely on cloud data storage.

In this guide, you'll learn how Reverse ETL works, who should use it, common use cases, and how to evaluate Reverse ETL solutions.

ETL vs. Reverse ETL: What's the difference?

The main difference between ETL and Reverse ETL is the direction of the data flow. ETL moves data from various sources into a repository like a data warehouse, while Reverse ETL moves data from a central location into other systems.

ETL stands for extract, transform, load. It's the traditional workflow to extract raw data from sources, load it into a cloud data warehouse, then use data transformations to improve it.

Reverse ETL takes that data and copies it into other platforms, like a CRM like Salesforce or a business intelligence tool like Tableau.

Reverse ETL tools don't truly reverse the ETL process, but they mirror the capabilities of a traditional ETL tool and complete the cycle of business data.

Organizations might employ both ETL and Reverse ETL for the same data. ETL can help collect and organize all data in a central hub, gathering information from several sources into a single place. Then Reverse ETL can move that data into a visualization platform for data insights or even push transformed data back into business applications.

Reverse ETL: What business value does it provide?

Reverse ETL provides value to organizations through better data activation, automation, and accuracy. The role of Reverse ETL as a data integration tool is to move cleaned, transformed data back into the platforms where it'll be used.

The primary benefit of Reverse ETL is activating data that would otherwise stay siloed in a data warehouse or on-premise SQL database. By making data usable, it allows organizations to access accurate data in real-time dashboards and workflows and make data-driven decisions faster.

Reverse ETL processes can also let companies bring stored data into their operational systems, such as CRMs or marketing automation platforms. When combined with an ETL/ELT tool, Reverse ETL helps eliminate data silos and provides a single source of truth.

What's the role of Reverse ETL in the Modern Data Stack?

Reverse ETL plays a crucial role in the modern data stack by bridging the gap between data infrastructure and business tools. It unlocks data stored in data lakes or data warehouses and delivers it to data engineers and other stakeholders.

This data can be used for operational analytics, marketing campaigns, sales, and more. It enables businesses to move data into real-time dashboards, BI tools, and other platforms for real-time analysis and insights.

Reverse ETL is an essential part of the data infrastructure, connecting different parts of the data stack and enabling real-time data delivery.

Reverse ETL vs. Point-to-Point-Solutions

Point-to-point solutions like Zapier or Workato involve direct connections between two systems. This approach can work well if you only have a few applications, but as you scale, it becomes time-consuming and difficult to maintain. Each new application requires a new point-to-point connection, oftentimes with a different data model for each one.

Reverse ETL is an improvement over this approach because it uses a hub-and-spoke model with your data warehouse as the hub. The result is easier to scale since each new application can be integrated into the existing Reverse ETL data pipeline.

Reverse ETL vs. Customer Data Platform

A customer data platform (CDP) is a centralized system for storing customer data and enabling personalization. While CDPs provide some data integration functionality, they are primarily focused on managing customer data and use a single hub to do so.

CDP is an all-in-one tool, while Reverse ETL is a platform-agnostic process that can integrate with the data warehouse and data destinations you use. This gives more flexibility and means you don't have vendor lock-in with a CDP system. Reverse ETL also works with any type of data, not just customer data from sales and marketing.

Choosing between Reverse ETL and a CDP doesn't have to be an either-or decision. Reverse ETL is often used alongside a CDP to ensure the platform uses the most up-to-date data from cloud storage.

Use Cases: Who should use Reverse ETL?

Reverse ETL is a powerful tool for any organization that uses a single data repository, like a data warehouse or data lake. It's a key component in a modern data stack since it lets business users across the organization---not just data engineering teams---benefit from the data you collect.

If you use a data warehouse, chances are the data won't only stay there. It needs to be ported into other systems and applications, and Reverse ETL is the tool to make that happen. There are several use cases for Reverse ETL across various industries and departments.

1. Data Activation

Reverse ETL can be used to activate data for real-time dashboards and other business intelligence tools. ETL consolidates customer data from various sources into a single, centralized location. Reverse ETL lets you activate data in real time across the organization. 

2. Data Automation

Reverse ETL can be used to automate data delivery, reducing manual work and improving efficiency. Instead of importing data by hand, Reverse ETL can integrate on a schedule, saving time and reducing errors.

3. Internal ETL

Reverse ETL solutions can be used to distribute data from different internal systems, such as an ERP or a product management tool, into other tools in an organization's data infrastructure. This makes it easier for data teams to get the information they need and have the most accurate data across all tools.

4. Reverse ETL for Marketing

Marketing is one of the most common applications for Reverse ETL. A Reverse ETL pipeline can ensure that consolidated customer data is available across the platforms the team uses daily.

Data warehouses and traditional ETL processes can generate complex information, like lifetime value, that's derived from several data points. Reverse ETL can ensure the marketing team has access to the most updated version of this data.

5. Reverse ETL for Sales

Your data warehouse might contain valuable real-time customer information, like product usage. Reverse ETL can help your sales team integrate that data into their existing processes and use it to inform their sales strategy.

6. Reverse ETL for Product

Product teams can draw on insights from your data warehouse to improve development and help decide on new features. Reverse ETL can pull the relevant information, like usage data or metrics on the customer experience, to inform the team about what matters most.

7. Reverse ETL for Support

Customer support teams can use Reverse ETL to consolidate customer data from various sources, such as customer support systems like Zendesk, to gain deeper insights into the customer base.

8. Reverse ETL for Data

Reverse ETL is a must-have tool for your data teams. It allows them to extract from warehouses and data lakes for insight, analysis, and visualization. Traditional ETL may eliminate data siloes and create a single source of truth, but Reverse ETL makes those improvements relevant and actionable.

Reverse ETL: Build vs. Buy?

Organizations have the option of building a Reverse ETL solution from scratch---usually based on an open-source protocol---or purchasing a Reverse ETL tool from a vendor.

Building a Reverse ETL solution can be a complex and time-consuming process. It will require your data engineering team to pull its attention away from analysis and dedicate time to building data pipelines.

Buying a solution has a direct cost but tends to save in the long term, as your data team can continue to focus on their responsibilities. A bought solution also offers a broader range of features than something built in-house and usually integrates more easily into your existing data stack.

How to Evaluate Reverse ETL Solutions

Reverse ETL solutions have become more popular as organizations look to streamline data workflows and improve data accuracy. But with so many options available, it can be difficult to know which solution is right for you.

Here are the most important factors to consider when choosing a Reverse ETL tool.

1. Cloud-based or On-Premises

Perhaps the biggest deciding factor when evaluating reverse ETL solutions is whether you want to use cloud software or an on-premises solution.

Cloud solutions are often software-as-a-service (SaaS) and typically require less setup and maintenance, while on-prem solutions provide greater control over data security and privacy.

But unless you're a large organization with very specific needs, a cloud-based solution is almost certainly the better option. It integrates best with managed data warehouses like Google BigQuery, Amazon Redshift, or Snowflake and offers improved scalability and lower maintenance than on-premise options.

2. Batch or real-time data support

You'll need to decide whether you want to use real-time or batch processing for Reverse ETL. Look for a solution that offers the speed and method that works best for your data flows.

3. Integration with Existing Tools

You already have a tool stack, and before deciding on a Reverse ETL solution, you need to consider how well it will integrate with it. Most major platforms like Fivetran or Airbyte offer connections to major tools like Slack, HubSpot, Salesforce, or Marketo.

But long-tail tools aren't so easy to find. In the past, data teams needed to write their own custom API integrations. But today, you can find a solution with pre-built connectors to the data sources you need to integrate with.

4. Ease of Use

The easier a Reverse ETL solution is to adopt, the more likely your organization will start---and keep---using it. Consider how easy it is for data teams, marketing teams, and other relevant departments to implement the tool and whether it requires extensive training.

5. Customer Success and Support

Finally, look at the quality and level of customer support the Reverse ETL vendor provides. Consider the level of support provided and the channel---through phone, email, or chat---as well as available hours and what others have said on third-party review sites.

The Bottom Line: Reverse ETL

Reverse ETL is a valuable tool for organizations looking to improve their data activation, automation, and accuracy.

It plays a key role in the modern data stack by extracting data from a central hub like a data lake or data warehouse and delivering it to the systems that need it.

Choosing a Reverse ETL solution comes down to your organization's needs. Look for a Reverse ETL tool that integrates with the platforms and data storage you use, with the scalability to grow later.

Portable is one of the most accommodating data integration tools you'll find. It has 300+ built-in data integrations to long-tail data sources, and the Portable team creates tailored integrations on request.

Plus, all connectors are maintained at no additional charge, saving your team time and letting them focus on insights---not pipeline maintenance.

Try Portable today!