What is a Data Catalog?

A data catalog is a centralized inventory of data assets (and information about those data assets). A data catalog enables organizations to find and understand data efficiently. But data catalogs can do more than help users locate data. A data catalog can offer the modern enterprise a better way to harness the power of its data for analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) initiatives.

According to recent Accenture research, “Only 25% of organizations are realizing the potential of their data and analytics projects today.” 1 To succeed today, you must use your data assets to drive business value. And AI-led data catalogs can help you keep up, even when dealing with thousands of datasets. Modern data catalogs apply machine learning (ML) to scan data and metadata automatically. ML helps you discover valuable information about data — at scale. With this information, users can confidently assess and leverage data for analytics initiatives that help drive increased revenue, reduce costs and achieve operational efficiency.

With a robust data catalog, users can:

  • Find data assets (e.g., datasets, tables, files and more) across disparate databases, data lakes and other systems and applications
  • Identify and organize information about an organization’s data, such as its source, data lineage, relationship to other data, classification and associated business glossary terms
  • Determine which data within the organization is relevant and fit for use

Purpose and Functions of a Data Catalog

Here are some of the key features and ways that a data catalog can help organizations manage their data assets more effectively:

Data discovery

Data discovery delivers a comprehensive inventory and search capabilities for data assets and metadata (data about your data) throughout your enterprise. This can help build data understanding, trust and confidence.

Data lineage

Data lineage records context and displays the origin of your data assets. Data lineage shows where it’s stored, how it moves through the organization, how it gets transformed, who accesses it and other critical metadata.

Data profiling

With data profiling, you can analyze the structure and content of data to help identify trends and potential issues to address to improve data quality.

Data governance

Data governance offers organizations a way to help ensure that their data is reliable and trusted. A successful data governance program can help you comply with local and company policies in a repeatable and consistent way.

Metadata management

To build a data-driven business, it helps if you follow the best-practice processes to manage this data about your data. Metadata management enables you to extract, organize and enrich metadata such as database schemas, transformations, quality checks, business context information and usage stats.

Detailed reporting and dashboards

Data catalogs offer a variety of reporting and dashboards. Users can quickly see stakeholder / owner assignments, track glossary metrics, monitor automated predefined workflows, check task completions and view notifications.

Benefits of a Data Catalog

Whether you’re a business analyst, a data scientist or a non-technical user, you need good data to support your work. And that’s what data catalogs do: they can help you scan and catalog data assets to find the most relevant, trusted data. An intelligent data catalog offers end-to-end visibility into data sources and lineage. And this allows business users and data analysts to use intuitive, cloud-based analytics tools to locate relevant, trusted data. Business users, data architects and stewards can have more confidence in the data — without bottlenecks. Some other benefits of a data catalog include:

Increased Productivity and Faster Time to Insight

A data catalog can help users spend less time searching for data and more time analyzing and deriving insights. In many organizations, data is stored across various departments and systems. And when that happens, you have incomplete, inconsistent, duplicative and fragmented data. Because a data catalog provides a unified, holistic view of data assets and necessary context, users no longer need to navigate multiple systems. This helps improve data discovery, quality and usage by providing comprehensive visibility and understanding of your data. You know what you have, where it’s coming from, how it’s related to other data, how it gets used and more. And the result? An organization that’s more agile, resilient and competitive.

Enhanced Data-Driven Decision-Making

A data catalog empowers users to make informed, data-driven decisions by providing extensive metadata, data lineage and quality information. Users can evaluate the suitability and reliability of data for specific analytical or operational purposes to support informed decision-making and drive better business outcomes by:

  • Enhancing customer experience
  • Avoiding or minimizing disruptions in their supply chain
  • Driving more value in digital commerce
  • Providing insightful financial planning and analysis

Improved Data Understanding and Self-Service Analytics

Intelligent data cataloging empowers everyone who uses your data. Data catalogs make data more visible and understandable and enable self-service access. An intelligent data catalog offers end-to-end visibility into data sources and lineage. This self-sufficiency delivers greater productivity and user satisfaction.

Facilitated Collaboration and Knowledge Sharing

A data catalog can be a central platform where users and stakeholders can collaborate and share knowledge. Users can contribute comments, annotations and documentation related to specific data assets, fostering a culture of knowledge sharing and collective understanding. Collaboration features in a data catalog enable teams to work together, promoting efficient data exploration, improved analysis and confident decision-making.

A Comprehensive Approach to Data Governance

A data catalog helps identify critical data elements that need governance. You can then use end-to-end data lineage and data quality to inform, define and enforce governance policies. Additionally, within modern data catalogs, users can document and manage compliance information such as data sensitivity and access controls, helping to ensure adherence to internal policies and regulatory requirements.

Much of the traditional need for data governance stemmed from regulatory and legal requirements. While risk management and policy compliance still play a significant role, many modern organizations also use data governance to deliver trusted data for other business needs.

A governance rule is any practice the organization wishes to follow or enforce. Governance usually codifies policies, procedures and best practices such as:

  • Where you can store certain types of data
  • What applications can use the data
  • Preferred methods for data protection (such as encryption and password strength) to reduce risk exposure
  • How to assign data sensitivity
  • How to back up data
  • Who can access data (and under what conditions)
  • When you should destroy archived data

Alongside a data catalog, a successful data governance framework and program can help CDOs ensure data is trusted and used responsibly by enforcing governance policies and standards.

A Data Catalog as Part of an Integrated Data Management Solution

A data catalog is just one component of a comprehensive data management solution. Other components can include data integration, data quality, master data management and data sharing tools. The benefits of having a data catalog as part of an integrated solution on a single platform include:

Enhanced Data Governance

Having a data catalog work alongside data governance frameworks allows for seamless enforcement of data policies, standards and guidelines. It facilitates the alignment of data assets with data governance initiatives, helping to ensure compliance with regulatory requirements and appropriate data usage to drive data-driven decision-making.

Consistency and Accuracy

A single integrated solution allows for the synchronization of metadata and data definitions across various services and capabilities. This ensures consistency and accuracy in data descriptions, lineage, quality metrics and business context throughout the data ecosystem.

Streamlined Data Processes

With a data catalog as part of a unified platform, data smoothly flows between the data catalog and other data management tools. It reduces manual efforts and errors by automating the exchange of information and updates between different services.

Holistic View of Assets

As part of a comprehensive data management toolset, a data catalog provides a holistic view of data assets by consolidating metadata, lineage and quality information from various sources. It enables users to navigate and manage data assets across different tools from a centralized data catalog interface.

Improved Collaboration

Utilizing a data catalog as a foundation for trusted data sharing helps foster collaboration and knowledge sharing when organizations connect their data catalog to a data sharing tool, such as a data marketplace. Users can leverage the catalog's metadata and contextual information to collaborate on data projects, making it easier to collaborate on data analysis and decision-making.

Five Ways a Data Catalog Helps Data Consumers Find the Data They Need

A data catalog can help an organization realize its goal of democratizing data. How? It levels the playing field for data users of all types (technical and non-technical). A data catalog empowers consumers across the organization and helps them to find, understand, trust and access relevant data assets. Some of the ways that a data catalog can do this include:

1. Improves Discoverability

A data catalog offers a user-friendly way for technical and non-technical data consumers to locate the datasets, tables, files or data sources that meet their needs.

2. Enhances Data Understanding

Users who want to understand the meaning and context of the data can refer to the data catalog’s business glossaries and descriptions. Data catalogs also allow users to access metadata and documentation within the catalog, which helps them gain greater insights into the content, structure and usage of the data assets.

3. Encourages Data Exploration and Analysis

With intuitive interfaces and self-service capabilities, data catalogs foster data exploration and analysis. Users who can now access and query data directly from the catalog are empowered to perform ad-hoc analysis or build their data pipelines.

The catalog may also offer data profiling and preview functionalities, which allow users to assess data quality and sample the data before further analysis.

4. It Makes It Easier to Collaborate and Share Knowledge

Because it provides a platform for discussion, annotations and comments on data assets, users find that a data catalog is a great place to collaborate and share knowledge. And everyone in the community benefits from these insights, findings and best practices.

5. Empowers Data-Driven Decision-Making

Your data has the potential to change your business. Data-driven, actionable insights are essential to a company’s ability to compete. But it isn't easy to get full value from it if you don’t know what data you have, where it’s located or understand its lineage. A data catalog helps minimize the frustration and inefficiency associated with data silos. Instead, users throughout the company can use the data catalog to locate the data they need to achieve critical business outcomes.

Data Catalog Resources

Find out how AI-powered intelligent data catalogs can help you discover, inventory and organize data assets.