Star Schema vs. Snowflake Schema: What to Choose?

Aditi Prakash
August 29, 2023
12 min read
Star schema is a simpler dimensional model with denormalized dimension tables, while the Snowflake schema introduces additional normalization by breaking down dimension tables into multiple levels, resulting in a more complex but less redundant structure.


This article delves into a detailed comparison, shedding light on their strengths, use cases, and when to employ each.

In data warehousing, effective data modeling lays the foundation for organized, efficient, and insightful data management. A key decision in modeling is choosing the appropriate schema, which defines the logical structure and relationships among data tables.

Two prominent schema types, the star schema and snowflake schema, offer distinct approaches to structuring data. Choosing between them has far-reaching implications for how data is stored, accessed, and transformed, which consequently affects performance and decision-making.

In this article, we will provide an overview of each schema type, a detailed comparison of the two, and the ideal use case scenarios.

What is Star Schema?

The Star Schema is a fundamental data modeling approach in data warehouses. Snowflake architecture revolves around a central fact table that holds quantitative measures or metrics, surrounded by dimension tables that provide context and descriptive attributes. 

This straightforward design results in a schema resembling a star, with dimension tables radiating from the fact table.

The following diagram illustrates the star schema:

Star Schema Example


The denormalized data structure simplifies query design and readability, leading to better performance. This is because denormalizing data in a data warehouse reduces the number of joins needed and speeds up SELECT queries.

So, when data relationships are straightforward, and fast performance and easy maintenance are priorities, the star schema is a good choice for data warehouses.

The star schema is commonly used in data warehouses for sales and marketing analysis, financial reporting, and inventory management.

What is Snowflake Schema?

The snowflake schema extends the star schema concept by normalizing dimension tables in a data warehouse. This means breaking down dimension tables into sub-dimensions, creating a more intricate and normalized structure.

The snowflake schema has three main components:

  • Fact Table: The fact table holds quantitative measures.
  • Dimension Tables: Dimension tables are normalized into sub-dimensions, resulting in additional tables.
  • Sub-Dimensions: These tables capture specific attributes within a dimension, creating a hierarchy of related tables.

The following diagram illustrates the snowflake schema:

Snowflake Schema Example

The primary strength of the snowflake schema is its focus on normalization, reducing redundancy, and improving data integrity. It also increases storage efficiency. This schema is ideal for large volumes of data, where the data relationships are complex and involve multi-level hierarchies or attributes.

The snowflake schema is often used in data warehouses that facilitate analytics in Customer Relationship Management (CRM), e-commerce platforms, and supply chain management.

Star Schema vs Snowflake Schema: A Detailed Comparison

Here’s a table highlighting the main differences between the two data warehouse schemas:

Differences between Star and Snowflake schemas


Let’s explore these differences in detail:

Architecture and Design

In a star schema, the data warehouse stores data in a fact table and multiple dimension tables surrounding it. The fact table contains the quantitative measures or facts, while dimension tables have descriptive attributes. This creates a simple, denormalized structure where each dimension is directly linked to the fact table.

The snowflake schema extends the star schema by normalizing dimension tables. This means dividing the dimension tables into sub-dimensions and creating additional related tables. This leads to a more complex structure resembling a snowflake pattern.

Complexity

A data warehouse using a star schema is simpler to understand and design since it involves minimal normalization. Queries are straightforward as they involve fewer joins. So, query readability and development are improved.

The snowflake schema introduces complexity due to normalization. Forming sub-dimensions leads to more tables and intricate relationships. This complexity can make schema design, querying, and maintenance more challenging.

Performance

Star schemas offer better query performance for analytical queries. Since most of the required data is contained within a single table or a few tables, queries involve fewer joins, resulting in faster query execution times.

Snowflake schemas can lead to slower performance because they require multiple joins to retrieve data from normalized tables. A normalized schema is also harder for business users to understand and analyze. However, with modern database optimization techniques, the performance gap between the two has been reduced.

Normalization

Star schemas are intentionally denormalized to speed up performance. This introduces some data redundancy as the same data might be repeated across multiple dimension tables. This takes up more storage space and can lead to decreased data integrity.

Snowflake schemas are normalized, avoiding data redundancy by storing dimensional data in separate tables. This improves data quality and reduces the required storage space.

Maintenance

Star schemas are relatively easier to maintain, as dimension changes don’t affect the fact table. Adding new attributes to dimension tables is straightforward and doesn’t require modifying many tables.

Snowflake schemas can be more challenging to maintain. Updating dimensions might require updates across multiple related dimension tables, which can be time-consuming and error-prone. This complexity can impact the agility of schema modifications.

Streamline Your Data Warehouse Integrations with Airbyte.
Schedule a demo now

Star vs Snowflake Schema: Performance Implications

Each data warehouse schema affects how they execute queries. Let’s consider two main performance factors and how the schemas measure up: 

Query Speed

Star schemas offer faster query speeds for analytical queries. The denormalized data structure means relevant data is present within a single or few tables. This reduces the number of joins required to retrieve relevant information, leading to quicker query execution.

Snowflake schemas can have slower query performance since the normalized data structure increases complexity.

Efficiency

Query efficiency in snowflake schemas can be compromised because writing and optimizing queries becomes challenging as the number of tables involved grows. This can lead to longer development times.

On the other hand, the simplicity of star schemas means query designers can easily understand the relationships between the central fact table and the dimension tables, resulting in faster query writing and optimization.

Examples of Typical Queries

Let’s consider examples of two common types of analytical queries and examine how they perform on both schema types:

Example Query: Sales by Product Category and Region

  • Star Schema: In a data warehouse using a star schema, the fact table contains sales data, while the product and region dimensions are directly related. This leads to a simple querying process.
  • Snowflake Schema: In a data warehouse using a snowflake schema, the same query involves more complex joins. The product and region dimensions might be further divided into sub-dimensions, requiring additional joins and leading to slower response times.

Example Query: Customer Purchase History

  • Star Schema: Retrieving a customer’s purchase history involves querying the fact table for sales data and joining it with the customer dimension. This is a straightforward process that results in quick query execution.
  • Snowflake Schema: In a snowflake schema, the customer dimension might be normalized into sub-dimensions like demographics and transactions. Retrieving customer purchase history from this data warehouse could take longer.

Use Cases for Each Schema

Explore the common use cases for both Star & Snowflake data warehouse schemas, outlining their distinct applications and scenarios:

Star Schema

Star schemas are well-suited for scenarios where simplicity, performance, and ease of querying are top priorities. Here are some real-world scenarios where the star schema shines:

  • Retail Sales Analysis: When analyzing sales data to understand product performance, sales trends, and customer behavior, a star schema is effective. The fact table holds sales metrics, while dimensions like products, time, and customers provide context for meaningful insights.
  • Financial Reporting: For financial analysis and reporting, a star schema simplifies queries related to revenue, expenses, and profitability. Dimensions such as time, accounts, and departments can provide insights into financial performance.
  • Marketing Campaign Analysis: Marketers can analyze campaign effectiveness using a star schema. The fact table can contain campaign metrics, and dimensions include channels, demographics, and geographic regions.
  • Inventory Management: Analyzing inventory levels, stock turnover, and supplier performance is easier with a star schema. The fact table can capture inventory metrics, and dimensions can have products, suppliers, and time.

Snowflake Schema

Snowflake schemas are useful in a data warehouse storing complex data and where reducing redundancy is a priority. Here are practical applications where the snowflake schema is beneficial:

  • Customer Relationship Management (CRM): In CRM systems, customer data can be highly complex, involving details like interactions, transactions, demographics, and preferences. A snowflake schema with normalized sub-dimensions efficiently manages intricate customer profiles.
  • Healthcare Data Analysis: Healthcare datasets often have multiple layers of information, including patient records, medical history, diagnoses, and treatments. A snowflake schema can manage these layers efficiently and ensure data accuracy.
  • E-commerce Platform: E-commerce systems require handling diverse information, such as product attributes, customer behavior, orders, and payments. A snowflake schema can use dimension tables to manage these relationships while maintaining data integrity.
  • Supply Chain Management: Supply chain data involves suppliers, distribution centers, shipments, and logistics. A snowflake schema can organize these relationships and help reduce duplication.

Choosing Between Star and Snowflake Schemas

Here are some key considerations and factors that organizations should take into account when deciding on between snowflake schema or star schema:

Data Complexity

Assess the complexity of your data relationships. If your data has straightforward relationships, a simple star schema is appropriate. On the other hand, if your data involves intricate relationships and normalization, a snowflake schema is a better choice.

Query Complexity

Consider the types and complexity of queries your business needs to run. A star schema’s denormalized structure is beneficial if your queries involve aggregations, reporting, and data analysis. A snowflake schema is more suitable if you need to maintain detailed, normalized data for more complex query design and analysis.

Performance vs. Maintenance

Decide on the balance between query performance and maintenance efforts. Star schemas generally perform better but might lead to data redundancy. Snowflake schemas reduce redundancy but can require more complex query optimization and maintenance.

Available Resources and Expertise

Assess your organization’s expertise in schema design, database optimization, and maintenance. A snowflake data model is viable if you have a team experienced in managing complex data structures and optimizing queries. A star schema might be easier to implement and maintain for organizations with limited resources.

Data Volume

Consider the volume of data you’re dealing with. While modern database technologies have improved the performance of both schema types, if you’re dealing with massive datasets, your schema choice will impact storage costs and capabilities.

Future Scalability

Consider how your data and querying needs might evolve going forward. Will your data relationships become more complex? Will query performance become a larger concern? Your schema choice should accommodate future growth and changes.

Tool and Platform Compatibility

Assess the tools and platforms you intend to use for querying and reporting. Some tools might be more optimized for star schemas, while others can handle snowflake schemas more effectively.

Business Goals

Align your schema choice with your business goals. A star schema is a good choice if your priority is quick insights and reporting. A snowflake schema aligns better with your goals if you aim for comprehensive and detailed analysis.

The Evolving Landscape: Modern Variations and Hybrid Models

The advancements in data warehousing have led to the emergence of hybrid models that aim to address the limitations of traditional schema designs. They provide flexible and efficient solutions for modern data needs.

Standard hybrid models include:

  • Galaxy Schema: The Galaxy schema or Fact Constellation is a hybrid approach with multiple fact tables, each with its own associated dimensional tables. This allows for representing different business processes or data sources within the same schema. While maintaining denormalized aspects for performance, the Galaxy schema might also incorporate normalized dimensions for more complex data relationships.
  • Starflake Schema: This hybrid approach involves having some dimensions in a denormalized star schema format while using a snowflake-like structure for more complex dimensions.

The evolving landscape also emphasizes the importance of agility and adaptability. With the help of emerging technologies and tools, businesses can navigate the complexities of modern data requirements. These include:

  • Columnar Databases: Modern columnar data warehouse solutions like Amazon Redshift, Google BigQuery, and Snowflake have optimized storage and query processing for analytical workloads. They can handle snowflake and star schemas efficiently, blurring the performance gap between them.
  • In-Memory Processing: Technologies like in-memory databases and caching mechanisms have improved the speed of querying, which can mitigate the performance impact of complex snowflake schemas.
  • Data Virtualization: Data virtualization tools allow querying data across disparate sources without physically consolidating them into a single data model. This approach can reduce the need for extensive schema design upfront and provide a unified data view.
  • Data Lakes and NoSQL Databases: For unstructured and semi-structured data, data lakes and NoSQL databases offer flexibility in schema design. Hybrid models can be built by structuring data as needed while retaining schema-on-read capabilities.
  • Machine Learning and AI: Advanced analytics techniques can identify query patterns and suggest optimizations, aiding in creating and tuning schema structures.
  • Data Catalogs and Metadata Management: These tools help understand data relationships, lineage, and usage patterns, facilitating schema design decisions.

Star Schema, Snowflake Schema, and Airbyte: Ensuring Seamless Data Integration

Schemas are crucial for data warehousing and data integration. They define how data is organized and can impact analytics workloads significantly. For seamless integration and schema enforcement, you need a platform like Airbyte. 

Airbyte is a cutting-edge data integration platform to simplify and streamline data ingestion. It has 350+ data connectors that can quickly adapt to varying data warehouse schema designs. Data engineers can also use Airbyte’s transformations to normalize data to match different schemas, whether a star schema, snowflake schema, or even a hybrid.

All of these features help data teams build ELT pipelines within minutes and centralize all their data to gain a unified view and enhance data analysis.

Conclusion

Choosing between the star schema and snowflake schema for your data warehouse is a strategic decision that can significantly impact data analysis, querying efficiency, and maintenance efforts.

The star schema offers denormalized simplicity with fewer joins, resulting in faster query performance. The snowflake schema prioritizes normalization to reduce data redundancy and manage complex relationships.

Understanding and selecting the most suitable data warehouse schema is paramount for achieving efficient data operations and extracting meaningful insights that help achieve business goals.

FAQ

Is star schema normalized or denormalized?

The star schema is a denormalized dimensional model. The dimension tables in a star schema contain redundant data and are not fully normalized to avoid complex joins and improve query performance.

Why use star schema vs snowflake schema?

The star schema is preferred for its simplicity, better query performance due to denormalization, and user-friendliness. The snowflake schema reduces data redundancy through normalization but increases complexity and may have slower query performance. The choice depends on prioritizing simplicity/performance versus minimizing redundancy.

Is snowflake faster than star schema?

No, the snowflake schema is generally not faster than the star schema for query performance. In fact, the star schema is typically faster for querying data due to its denormalized structure and fewer required joins compared to the snowflake schema.

Limitless data movement with free Alpha and Beta connectors
Introducing: our Free Connector Program
The data movement infrastructure for the modern data teams.
Try a 14-day free trial