Back to articles list Articles Cookbook
9 minutes read

Using SQL in Data Warehousing

SQL is a key player in organizing and analyzing data in data warehouses. In this article, I'll introduce you to the basics of SQL in data warehousing. We’ll learn how this powerful language helps manage large datasets, making your work easier and more productive.

Whether you're a student diving into the world of technology or an experienced specialist navigating the domain of data, understanding the concept of data warehousing is fundamental.

Data warehousing is a strategic process used by companies to collect, organize, and manage vast volumes of data sourced from diverse origins. This process ends up storing the data in a centralized repository known as a “data warehouse”.

This approach isn't a simple buzzword; it's a key tool, especially used by data analysts and professionals. Data warehousing isn't just about accumulating information; it's about combining, refining, and presenting a comprehensive, coherent, and historical perspective of a company’s data landscape. And SQL, or Structured Query Language, is key to data warehousing; it allows us to communicate directly with databases.

Do you want to learn how to use SQL for data analysis? If you do, I highly recommend you take our track SQL for Data Analysis. It contains four courses tailored to help beginners become proficient data analysts using SQL.

What Is Data Warehousing?

Imagine a data warehouse as the nerve center of an organization's information ecosystem: a well-organized and structured repository. Here, an enterprise stores a multitude of critical information from many streams – sales records, customer profiles, operational statistics, and much more. This centralization represents a unified source, allowing the efficient retrieval, analysis, and utilization of essential data assets.

Data warehousing is more than a simple storage solution. It acts as the basis upon which data analysts build their insights. As such, it offers a panoramic view of an organization's past, present, and potential future. It's not just a mechanism for storing data, but a full process that allows companies’ shareholders and management teams to make data-driven decisions – and build strong, sustainable strategies to stay competitive.

You may wonder: What is a data analyst? What are their daily duties, and what skills do they need? I invite you to read the excellent article Roadmap to Becoming a Data Analyst by Kateryna Koidan.

How SQL Is Used in Data Warehousing

A data warehouse is composed of one or more relational databases, and SQL is a powerful language used to communicate with relational databases. In data warehousing, SQL plays a crucial role in querying and retrieving data from a data warehouse. It allows users to interact with the data, extract specific information, perform calculations, and more.

Do you want to know more about what an SQL database is? In his article What Is an SQL Database?, Luke Hande reminds us of the fundamentals of relational databases.

Regarding SQL, is it worthwhile to learn it? Or will a language that’s over 40 years old soon be outdated? In her article The Future of SQL, Jill Thornhill provides a complete overview of the question and gives us all the answers we need.

Let’s see a few examples of SQL in data warehousing.

1.   Retrieving Data with the SELECT Statement

The SELECT statement is fundamental for querying data in a data warehouse. It retrieves specific information from one (or more) database tables.

Imagine we have a table called employees in our data warehouse that contains columns like employee_id, name, department, and salary. To retrieve all columns from the employees table, we’d write:

SELECT * FROM employees;

This query fetches all columns ( the asterisk (*) represents all columns) from the employees table. Since this query retrieves ALL data from the table, it may not be efficient if the table contains a huge amount of information. We may need to filter the query.

2.   Filtering Data with the WHERE Clause

The WHERE clause in SQL is a powerful tool for filtering and retrieving specific data from vast repositories of information. It allows users to selectively retrieve rows that meet specific criteria, narrowing down the dataset to only those records that satisfy the given conditions.

Let's say we want to retrieve details of employees earning more than $50,000:

SELECT * FROM employees 
WHERE salary > 50000;

This query selects all columns (*) and then filters for employees with a salary greater than $50,000. Note that we use the “greater than” (>) operator. Other operators are available: greater than or equal to (>=), less than (<), less than or equal to (<=), equal to (=), and not equal to (<> or !=).

3.   Sorting Data with ORDER BY

The ORDER BY clause in SQL serves as a valuable tool for sorting the retrieved data based on specified columns or expressions. This clause enables users to organize the data in a desired order before presenting it for analysis or reporting purposes. ORDER BY arranges the results in ascending order (1–10, A–Z; this is the default order) or descending order (10–1, Z–A) based on specified columns.

To sort employees by salary in descending order, we’d write:

SELECT * FROM employees 

This query fetches all columns from the employees table and sorts them based on the salary column in descending (highest to lowest) order.

Note that we can combine multiple SQL clauses in the same query. For example, suppose we want to fetch all columns from the employees table for all workers earning more than $50,000 and sort the records on the salary column in descending order. We can do that with this query:

SELECT * FROM employees
WHERE salary > 50000

4.   Aggregating Data with GROUP BY and Aggregate Functions

The GROUP BY clause in SQL helps you segment, aggregate, and summarize data from large datasets stored within a data warehouse. It is used for grouping rows that share a common value in one or more columns. This clause – often paired with aggregate functions like COUNT(), SUM(), and AVG() – facilitates data analysis by organizing and summarizing data based on specified criteria.

For instance, let's count the number of employees in each department:

SELECT department, COUNT(*) AS employee_count FROM employees 
GROUP BY department;

This query counts the number of employees (COUNT(*)) in each department, displaying the department name and the count in a new column called employee_count.

5.   Joining Tables with INNER JOIN

The INNER JOIN clause in SQL combines data from multiple tables based on matching values in one or more columns. It plays a crucial role in integrating and consolidating information stored across different tables within a data warehouse.

Suppose we have a departments table containing the department_id and department_name columns. To combine information from the employee and department tables, we’d write:

SELECT, d.department_name FROM employees e
INNER JOIN departments d ON e.department = d.department_name;

This query fetches the employee names from employees and the department_name from departments, connecting them based on the values in the department column in the employees table and the department_name in the departments table. If these two values match, the employee’s name and the department they work in will be shown in the results.

These examples showcase fundamental SQL queries used in data warehousing. Understanding these basics lays a solid foundation for more advanced SQL operations. Practicing and experimenting with these queries will help solidify your understanding!

Do you want to explore more advanced queries for data analysis? I recommend you check out Top 7 Advanced SQL Queries for Data Analysis by Nicole Darnley for additional info.

Data Warehouse Best Practices

If you are brand new in this field, starting with SQL in data warehousing can pose certain challenges. Let’s dive into common challenges faced by inexperienced users.

The first of the challenges is undoubtedly understanding the syntax. SQL has its own syntax, structure, and rules that define how queries are written. For beginners, understanding these fundamental aspects can be challenging. Learning to write queries that retrieve, manipulate, and manage data requires learning the language's nuances, which can take time. I would recommend you start with simple queries and gradually progress. Refer to SQL documentation or beginner-friendly tutorials to understand basic syntax and structure, and practice regularly to reinforce your learning.

Perhaps a question comes to mind: If you have no IT skills, Is SQL Hard to Learn? In her article, Jill Thornhill answers all those questions. And if you believe that learning SQL is only for programmers, you are very wrong! In her article How to Learn SQL Without Any Programming Knowledge, Kamila Ostrowska demonstrates why.

Efficient query structuring is another common challenge. Formulating efficient queries that retrieve accurate results can be challenging, especially when you’re dealing with the complex datasets of a data warehouse. Since data warehouses contain a huge amount of data, an inefficient query can have a massive impact on both query and database performance, resulting in a rise in infrastructure costs.

I would recommend breaking down complex tasks into smaller, manageable steps. Furthermore, you can use comments within queries to clarify each step's purpose and employ proper indentation and formatting for better readability.

Now, the errors! Dealing with errors in SQL – especially within the context of data warehousing – is a crucial skill to master. Errors can arise due to various reasons, including syntax issues, incorrect query construction, data type mismatches, or constraint violations. To deal with them, carefully review error messages for clues and double-check syntax, column names, and data types. You can use aliases to simplify column names and avoid ambiguity as well.

Finally, handling large datasets within a data warehousing environment requires strategies to optimize query performance, manage resources efficiently, and extract valuable insights from vast amounts of data.

Navigating through large datasets might be challenging and can impact query performance. To deal with large datasets, you can optimize queries by using indexing, limiting result sets with the LIMIT clause, and leveraging appropriate filtering conditions with WHERE clauses to reduce the dataset size. You can also use pagination techniques to manage large result sets.

SQL in Data Warehousing: A Must-Have

SQL plays a pivotal role in the field of data analysis, particularly within the area of data warehousing, and its significance cannot be overstated. As a structured query language, SQL serves as the key element that empowers data analysts and professionals to extract valuable insights, unlock patterns, and make informed decisions from the wealth of data stored within data warehouses.

In the landscape of data warehousing, SQL acts as the conduit that enables users to interact with large volumes of structured and unstructured data efficiently. It facilitates the seamless retrieval, manipulation, and management of data, allowing users to build advanced queries to extract crucial information.

I invite you to continue your SQL journey by learning and practicing with the excellent track SQL from A to Z on This track contains 7 courses and hundreds of coding challenges that will allow you to become an SQL master. You’ll start from the basics and then discover advanced SQL functions and features.

Thank you for staying with me until the very end of this article! I really hope the information I’ve shared has been insightful and valuable to you. See you in the next article!