Unlocking the Secrets of Slowly Changing Dimension (SCD): A Comprehensive View of 8 Types

Photo by Donald Tran on Unsplash
Photo by Donald Tran on Unsplash

If you are designing a data warehouse, one of the most important concepts in this the dimensional modeling is the Slowly Changing Dimension (SCD). Many online resources provide a general overview of the slowly changing dimension, but they often need a deep dive into explanations regarding which type of SCD to use.

In this story, we will discuss the eight types of SCDs, each with its unique characteristics and situations. By the end, you will clearly understand each type and be able to differentiate between them when creating your next SCD in dimensional modelin

Why is SCD needed in dimensional modeling?

Typically, OLTP only stores recent data. When executing an update statement, the current data is replaced, and the previous data is lost unless the system is specifically designed to retain historical data, which could cause added latency.

On the other hand, an OLAP system, which often uses dimensional modeling, would be interested in the trend and derive insights for business, and keeping historical records is usually preferred. 

The primary goal for SCD is to track the history of the change. 

In dimensional modeling, the most commonly used schema is the star schema. This schema revolves around a large fact table that houses various measurement fields for your business. The dimension tables that surround the fact table contain fields that allow for data manipulation and analysis within the fact table. Fact tables usually have many rows and expect to update rapidly. On the other hand, dimensions are changing slowly or never.

The Importance of Surrogate Key

The connection between the fact and dimensions are keys in each table. Those are usually surrogate keys rather than the IDs used in the OLTP system. The surrogate key is usually generated during data warehouse processing the data and decided after looking up the OLTP ids. This is critical for some types of SCD to avoid losing primary keys on a table, and we will cover them later in this type 2.

Why must we generate a “surrogate” key but not reuse the original business id in the dimensional modeling? One advantage of using a surrogate key is its ability to track historical changes while avoiding duplicated keys.

Let’s take an example of a table named “Company” with the following schema in an OLTP system. For example, we only have one company called Xesla, which HQ is in Palo Alto, California. Then Xesla decided to move to Austin, California. However, it gets too humid in summer, so Xesla returns to Palo Alto, California again.

If we look at the OLTP side, it usually only keeps the current location_id, and the HQ movement from California -> Austin -> California is invisible.

OLTP Schema for Company Table | Image By Author
OLTP Schema for Company Table | Image By Author

Performing analytics queries in OLTP directly has disadvantages. The ignorance of historical data might not be preferable for the business. We cannot answer questions like “How is the company’s profit performing due to HQ relocation?”, “What’s the turnover ratio due to HQ relocation?”

In this case, keeping track of the historical data that come to the rescue and the surrogate key helps maintain the row’s uniqueness and the table’s integrity. 

We have incorporated a “Key” column as a surrogate key, which has addressed multiple issues. Firstly, it enables us to track the movement history of the company’s headquarters. Secondly, it provides a unique primary key that replaces the business id, eliminating any violation of the foundational database rule that requires the primary key to be unique for each row.

Surrogate Key For Dimension | Image By Author
Surrogate Key For Dimension | Image By Author

We still need to discuss the connection between the dimension table and the fact table and their usage. We will address these topics as we go through each SCD.

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SCD Type 0 - No Change Allowed

Overview

SCD is a “special” type of SCD that doesn’t track changes. Essentially, Type 0 signifies that the dimension will remain unchanged. Once an entry gets into SCD type 0, it won’t change. For instance, we can have a date dimension that won’t change. 

A confusing point here is date dimension will be fixed (SCD type 0), but how we interpret the date could be different. For example, we could have a fiscal year different from the calendar year. We could design our fact table with one key calenderKey and another key for fiscalCalenderKey. 

Implementation

SCD Type 0 can also include the business ID since changes are not tracked, and the original entry cannot be overwritten. 

When to consider using

Regarding fixed dimensions, such as date and time, SCD Type 0 is the way to go. This type is best used when you are confident that the dimension will only require adding new records and no future updates.

SCD Type 1 - Change Overwrite

Overview

The SCD Type 1 is similar to many OLTP designs that replace the original data with new data, making it impossible to track changes to individual rows.

Unlike SCD Type 0, updating dimension rows in Type 1 is achievable. However, type 1 does not keep the history. Users consuming the data can assume that the current snapshot of the dimension is always up-to-date.

Implementation

SCD type 1 implementation can be straightforward: looking up the correct id and performing the update. 

When to consider using

“Do we always want to keep history?”

Whether or not you need to track historical data depends on your business use case. Keeping more data points can provide a more comprehensive understanding of your dataset. Incorporating history into your dimensional modeling design can be advantageous. However, not tracking history can simplify ETL management.

Interestingly, the first two types of SCD cannot track any changes. The more powerful SCD type starts with SCD type 2.

SCD Type 2 - Tracking History with New Rows

Overview

SCD Type 2 is a powerful SCD type widely used to track changes in dimensional modeling. It is practical with its ability to tell the history of changes with a single view quickly.

When changes are made to the data, SCD Type 2 replicates the unchanged fields, which can be repetitive and increase storage costs. To better accommodate rapidly updated dimensions, improvements are needed.

We already have the surrogate key similar to the schema we looked at for the Xelsa example. Now, we can add the effective start and end date to indicate the period when the row was active.

In this case, the currently active row has the effective ended date in the future — 12/31/9999, so it never (at least for an extended period) expires.  

SCD Type 2 Example | Image By Author
SCD Type 2 Example | Image By Author

Implementation

To execute SCD type 2, we will need to perform two tasks:

  • Add surrogate key
  • Add a current row identifier, which could be: the start/end date, version number, or the current flag.

When it comes to ETL, the implementation process is more intricate compared to SCD type 1. This process typically involves the following steps:

  1. Initialize the dimension table with all rows of the end effective date as 12/31/9999
  2. When an update is recognized, look up the ID to identify the correct rows
  3. Update the existing row with the ended date as desired. 
  4. Insert a new row with the same ID but a different surrogate key. Use the previous ended date + 1 as the start date for the new row, and make the end effective date 12/31/9999
Steps for SCD Type 2 Implementation | Image By Author
Steps for SCD Type 2 Implementation | Image By Author

When to consider using

Regarding SCD, the type 2 option is often chosen by default due to its simplicity to consumers. However, there may be better choices if a dimension undergoes frequent changes, as it can be costly to replicate unchanged fields multiple times. For example, we have a flattened dimension with 50 fields, and one field update could lead to the remaining 49 repeating again. 

SCD Type 3- Tracking History with New Fields

Photo by Super Snapper on Unsplash
Photo by Super Snapper on Unsplash

Overview

I consider SCD type 3 as a “queue” option. Instead of replicating the entire row and tracking the table history, SCD type 3 only tracks the changes for the selected fields. Since type 3 is at the column level, keeping a limited number of history (usually the current & previous) is the implementation. 

Continue on the example for Xesla, assuming we are only interested in tracking the state and the city history. We can include columns for the previous state and city to follow the history. The history is limited here with only the last one, but we can trace back as far as possible with additional columns.

SCD Type 3 Example | Image By Author
SCD Type 3 Example | Image By Author

Implementation

SCD Type 3 is like a sized queue. During updates, a lookup needs to perform, the previous value will be dropped, and then the current value will be moved to the previous value field.

When to consider using

If you’re looking to keep track of the history of a small set of columns, SCD Type 3 is advantageous. To effectively grasp the nature of the business and the frequency of changes, it is crucial to have a solid knowledge base. This is especially important when extending SCD type 3 to a new field, as it requires adding extra columns.

SCD Type 4- Tracking History with Separate Table (Mini-Dimension)

Overview

We have covered tracking history in the same table vertically by SCD Type 2 and horizontally by SCD Type 3. SCD Type 4 is like Z-axis that we follow the history in another table. 

One table is the current view table, and another table is for history. This is a similar idea to CDC. The current table shows the present; the history table change log can reconstruct everything from the beginning. 

SCD Type 4 | Image By Author
SCD Type 4 | Image By Author

If we combine the two tables, that’s SCD type 2. So why do we want to split the current and historical views? The main reason is the help improve the query performance if the dimension table updates rapidly and ends up with millions of records. Keeping the current view relatively minor can enhance the query performance for the end users. 

Implementation

Regarding updating data, SCD Type 2 involves updating information in the same table. However, with SCD Type 4, you must work with two separate tables. The process for updating data in SCD Type 4 follows the same pattern as in SCD Type 2.

When to consider using

If the SCD Type 2 becomes too large and starts affecting the speed of queries, it may be worth considering switching to SCD Type 4. Additionally, if you notice that the dimension table is updated frequently, SCD Type 4 may be a better choice to track the complete history accurately.

The following SCD type 5,6,7 are all hybrid approaches

SCD Type 5 - Type 4 Mini-Dimension + Type 1 Outrigger

Overview

SCD Type 5 is an enhancement to SCD Type 4 that incorporates elements of Type 1. It allows the current view of a dimension to be embedded into another dimension. 

SCD Type 5 created a snowflake schema and kept the current view as an addon dimension. However, for any BI tool or presentation layer, it’s better to collapse those two dimensions into one so it’s less confusing. 

For example, we’d want to embed our company dimension into the employee table and link to employer_key. The Current_Company_D is the current view. As we discussed in SCD Type 4, it was referred to by employer_key as a foreign key. 

It will function like SCD Type 1 if you need to make updates. This means we must overwrite the employer_key with the new reference to the current company ID. To avoid any confusion with historical data as part of SCD Type 4, it is best to prefix the current table with “Current_.”

SCD Type 5 | Image By Author
SCD Type 5 | Image By Author

Implementation

Maintaining SCD Type 5 at the ETL layer can be a complex task. It requires significant effort to combine with SCD Type 4 and Type 1. In addition, it is crucial to ensure proper reference and perform accurate lookups. 

The three tables must be consistent and implemented when updates occur: the primary table, the current view table, and the historical table. 

When to consider using

SCD Type 5 has been usually less discussed compared with other SCD types. The level of effort to manage SCD type 5 at ETL is significant. The situation to leverage SCD type 5 is if the update velocity increases rapidly on the current view, it becomes hard to keep track of all the changes with only the reference key change. 

SCD Type 6- Blended SCD 1 + SCD 2 +SCD 3

Overview

SCD Type 6 is how the type comes from blending SCD 1 + SCD 2 + SCD 3. This might be too lengthy initially, but it suits the time when you need clarification on the potential change in the future. Ralph Kimball said SCD type 6 is “Unpredictable Changes with Single-Version Overlay.”

Let’s continue to use the example to illustrate how SCD type 6 works.

SCD Type 6 | Image By Author
SCD Type 6 | Image By Author

To split SCD Type 6 into individual types, we can breakdown them by checking the following: 

  • SCD Type 1: we overwrite the current state and current city for all the rows for the specific ID
  • SCD Type 2: when new changes happened, we created a second row to track the evolution and history, also flipped the current row flag and effective date
  • SCD Type 3: we also add the history state and history city fields, so we know the past values are

Implementation

SCD Type 6 is a combination of SCD Type 1 to 3. The implementation detail can refer to the previous implementation above

When to consider using

SCD Type 6 has a wealthy context and can perform queries relatively quickly. Given it is a hybrid SCD approach, it has all the features within a single view, and it might be appealing to you at first. 

However, SCD Type 6 increases the dimension by rows and columns to grow exponentially than the users expected. In those cases, finding a balance between flexibility and richness is crucial, and conducting the business interview and alignment is critical. 

When you want to showcase how information is presented and demonstrate various SCD types in one view, SCD Type 6 is an excellent choice for a POC.

SCD Type 7 - Rethink Type 6 By Logically Splitting

Overview

The SCD Type 7 is a variant of the SCD Type 6, also called the “Dual Type 1 and Type 2 Dimensions.” In SCD Type 7, we divide one SCD Type 6 dimension table into two different tables: the historical and current views. We use dual foreign keys to refer to these tables in the fact table.

SCD Type 7 | Image By Author
SCD Type 7 | Image By Author

One advantage of utilizing SCD Type 7 is that it enables us to maintain separate keys for historical and current tables, preserving their respective histories. This eliminates the need for binding the current company table to the same surrogate keys as the historical one.

Implementation

Based on the current view, SCD type 7 requires less ETL effort as it is a derived view from the historical table. Once you have the SCD Type 2 table, the only remaining task is to create the current view table and connect the key to the fact table.

When to consider using

With SCD Type 7, users can quickly access the current view and historical data without spending time understanding the dimensional table’s structure. Unlike SCD Type 2, which requires selecting an effective date or current row flag to view the existing data, SCD Type 7 simplifies the process by deriving the current view into another key within the fact table. This saves users time and effort.

Final Thoughts

Understanding the Slow Change Dimension (SCD) is crucial in dimensional modeling for data warehouses. While SCD Type 2 or Type 3 are often preferred for tracking history, other types of SCD can also help solve specific problems based on user requirements.

I hope that my deep dive into dimensional modeling Slow Change Dimension (SCD) can be helpful to you in designing and building the data warehouse. 

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