Data Warehousing and Business Intelligence

27 February 2011

SSIS: Work Flow vs Stored Procedures

Filed under: SSIS — Vincent Rainardi @ 9:44 pm

When importing a file into a SQL table, we create a Work Flow. But for transferring data from one SQL Server table to another SQL Server table, is it better to use Execute SQL Task (Stored Procedures) or Work Flow?

This is a classic debate in SSIS. A lot of times in data warehousing we need to transfer data from the staging tables to the fact and dimension tables. Should we use SQL Task or Work Flow?

There are 4 main considerations here:

  1. Data quality checking
  2. ETL framework
  3. Performance
  4. Development time

Data Quality Checking

There are a number of data quality checks that we need to perform on the incoming data and log them accordingly, potentially rejecting the incoming data. For example data type validations, number of columns, whether the data is within a certain allowable range or conforming to a certain list, etc. These DQ checks should be built only once and used many times, avoiding redundant work. For that purpose, it is easier to build the DQ checks in the form of stored procedures, running dynamic SQLs on many staging tables tables one by one. One of the main principle in DQ is that any silly data in the incoming data should not fail the data load. It should be gracefully recorded and the whole ETL package carries on. It is of an order of magnitude more difficult to build the DQ routines as script tasks, which are executed before the data flows into the warehouse. On the other hand, the data profiles are easier to be built using Data Profiling task. What I’m saying is that the decision whether to use a data flow or stored procedure/execute SQL task is affected by how the DQ routines were built.

ETL Framework

In every data warehousing or data integration project that uses SSIS as the ETL tool, the first step is to build an ETL framework. This framework handles error checking, alert notification, task failures, logging, execution history, file archiving and batch control. It is built as “parent child” package system, supported by a series of ETL metadata tables, as per chapter 10 of my book, e.g. data flow table, package table and status table. What I’m saying here is that the decision of whether to use a data flow or stored procedures/execute SQL task is affected by your ETL framework. I know that it should be the other way around: the ETL framework should be built to incorporate both the workflow and the stored procedures. Well if that’s the case in your project that is excellent, there’s no problem here. But practically speak I’ve seen several cases where we could not implement a data transfer routine as a workflow because the the ETL framework dictates that they need to be implemented as a stored procedures.

The next 2 points are the guts of the reasons. They are the real reasons for choosing between work flow approach and stored procedures, if it is a green field. Meaning that you have a complete freedom to choose, without any of the existing corporate rules/architecture affecting your decision.


Performance is about how fast the data load is. Given the same amount data to load from the staging table into the main table, which one is the fastest method, using select insert, or using a data flow? Generally speaking, if the data is less than 10k rows, there’s no real difference in performance. It is how complicated your DQ stuff that slows it down, not whether it’s a workflow or a stored procedure. If you are lucky enough to be involved in a project that loads billions of rows every day, you should be using work flow. Generally it is faster than stored procedure. The main issue with a stored procedure to do 1 billion upsert in SQL Server database is the bottleneck on the tempDB and log files. Your DBA wouldn’t be happy if you blew up the tempDB from a nice 2 GB to 200 GB. Ditto with log files.

Using workflow you can split a derived column transformation into several transformations, effectively boosting the throughput up to twice faster. See here for details from SQLCat team. And this principle is applicable for any synchronous task, including data conversion transform, lookup, row count, copy column and multicast. See here for an explanation about sync vs async tasks. One thing that gives us the most performance gain is to use multiple workflow to read different partitions of the source table simultaneously. This is for sure will create a bottleneck on the target, so it too needs to be partitioned, pretty much the same way as the source table. The other thing that increases the performance is the use of cache on lookup transformation. Using Full Cache, the entire lookup table is pulled into memory before the data flow is executed, so that the lookup operation is lightning fast. Using Partial Cache, the cache is built as the rows pass through. When a new row comes in, SSIS searches the cache (memory) for a match. Only if it doesn’t find then it fetches the data from disk. See here for details. You don’t get all these when you use stored procedures to transfer the data.

Development Time

You may say that development time is inferior compared to performance, when it comes to how big it influences the decision between work flow and SP. But in reality this factor is significant. I have seen several cases where the ETL developer is more convenient coding in Transact SQL than using SSIS transformations. They are probably twice as fast building it in stored procedures than doing it in SSIS transformations, due to their past experience. Understandably, this is because the majority of the so called “SSIS developer” was a “SQL developer”. They may have been doing SSIS for 2 years, but they have been doing SQL stored procedures for 10 years. For example, many developers are more conversant doing date conversion in Transact SQL than in Derived Column.


If you are lucky enough to be able to choose freely, work flow gives more performance and flexibility. But as with everything else in the real world, there are other factors which tie your hands, e.g. the data quality checking, the ETL framework and the development time.

As always I’d be glad to receive your comments and discussion at Vincent 27/2/11.


  1. Gud article

    Comment by bala — 23 March 2012 @ 1:18 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks for this article. It helped to clear my understanding when to use dataflow or stored proc.

    Comment by Abhijit — 3 July 2012 @ 7:10 am | Reply

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