Data Ingestion

What is Flat File Data Ingestion? Structures & Uses | Osmos

Written by 
Naresh Venkat
March 29, 2024

Data Ingestion Fundamentals: Flat File Data Ingestion

If you’ve ever exported a CSV for data exchange, you know that flat files are business-critical. Among the most basic yet significant formats, you've likely encountered tons of flat files in your data ingestion day-to-day. 

Why are flat files so ubiquitous?  We’ll define the terms you need to know, provide some business context, and help you understand the fundamentals behind this essential file format.

What is a Flat File?

A flat file is a data file containing records with no structured relationships. It's called "flat" because the data is stored in a simple, two-dimensional array where every line holds a single record.

Flat files are easy to read, write, and manipulate, making them a universal choice for simpler data tasks.

Each individual piece of data (a 'record') is stored as a line in the file with an unvaried format where the hierarchy or relational connections aren't utilized between records. Each of these records consists of fields, or attributes, defined by columns in the file.

It’s important to note that flat files, while not suitable for complex, relational tasks, maintain a stronghold in the data realm. Their simplicity, speed, and versatility make them highly useful across countless business use cases.

Flat File Structures

Flat file data structures consist of a simple framework, primarily of two types:

Fixed Width Format: Every field (column) has a specific width; for example, a product "id" might be fixed to four alphanumeric characters.

Delimited Format: Fields are separated by a specific character, such as a comma, semicolon, or tab. CSV (Comma-Separated Values) is a perfect example of this type.

A flat file structure generally involves a bare minimum of two components, a header and the data.

Header: The header is typically the first line that includes the column names. It helps the system or the user to make sense of the data that follows.

Data: The rows following the header constitute the data. Each row, known as a record, holds individual entries.

Flat File Usage

Flat files are commonly used for data ingestion, particularly of smaller data sets which could include:

  • Exporting data between software programs
  • Website configurations
  • Ad hoc reporting

The CSV file format is universally accepted across various platforms and applications, making it an ideal choice for data exchange between disparate systems. 

CSV data ingestion is one of the most common data tasks executed by professionals today. That’s because CSVs can accommodate data structures ranging from the very basic to the more complex hierarchical levels, albeit in a flattened form. From a practical standpoint, CSV files are easy to generate, manipulate, and parse. As an added bonus, they require no special software to open, which is not the case with proprietary binary formats.

Flat File Data Ingestion

Flat files are highly suited for data ingestion tasks. Their structure allows systems to efficiently ingest data as their content can be quickly read and processed line by line. Because flat files are typically text-based, they can be read by a myriad of tools and applications, making them platform-agnostic. This is a significant advantage when working within diverse and heterogeneous technology ecosystems. 

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Naresh Venkat

Co-founder and COO