If you’re like me, you may be accustomed to reading articles about event streaming that are framed by large organizations and mountains of data. We’ve read about how the event streaming juggernaut Netflix uses Apache Kafka® to make sense of the viewing habits of 167 million subscribers, and understand how best to allocate a production budget measured in billions of dollars. We’ve learned how Deutsche Bahn manages passenger data for over 5 million passengers every day, across 24,000 unique services. Kafka’s ability to reliably scale and handle workloads of these magnitudes is the reason why these big companies use it.
But what if your business operates on a more typical scale? What if you’re a small-sized or medium-sized enterprise with data, and have a desire to do more with it—can you make use of Kafka? Will the costs and infrastructure requirements overwhelm your budget and small team, taking them away from the important work they’re already doing? Can the sophistication of a tool designed to handle millions of events every day be harnessed by an organization that only generates a few hundred, or should you stick to spreadsheet formulae and point-in-time data extracts?
Confluent’s new kid on the block, ksqlDB, is designed to allow organizations of any size to build event streaming pipelines with minimal infrastructure and code, using a language that is intuitive and familiar to almost anyone with experience in relational databases. We’ll look at one such use case with an online pharmacy, and see how it took its transactional data and turned it into something of greater value.
The company that undertook this project has a business model similar to that of many modern internet-based companies. It runs an online store, selling several thousand unique products sourced from multiple brands, and it ships these products to customers around the world. The store keeps track of stock on hand and manages product prices (including taxes) and various shipping methods that are available at different costs. Orders can be made up of many products and are recorded in the customer’s ordering history. So far, so good, right?
But the nature of the products differ within this online store. While some products are generally available, others are only sold under prescription from a registered practitioner. These practitioners exist as largely autonomous entities in the online store and are responsible for managing their patients, including generating prescriptions for them. A prescription is usually for a fixed quantity of a product and comes with an expiration date, after which another prescription is required. A practitioner can also offer patients a discount on purchased products, in effect acting as their own “mini business” within the greater online store. The layers of complexity are starting to add up.
As a business dealing in medical products, the company also has a legal imperative to properly handle the personally identifiable information (PII) data from the online store. It must strictly maintain customer confidentiality.
So our use case has a few features that set it apart from the traditional online store. But in reality, this isn’t uncommon—most companies have features that are specific to their industry or area of business, and these must be accounted for in any project. Luckily, ksqlDB is well suited to handle this kind of bespoke complexity without losing sight of the core objective: improved business intelligence.
Online stores tend to generate a lot of data, especially when they take on roles and manage business processes other than handling orders. In this case, the starting point is a dataset containing:
In the past, the company has tried to properly make sense of this data using the tried and tested Swiss Army knife of businesses: Excel. Though this can quickly get a business up and running with some useful metrics, it doesn’t scale well for a number of reasons:
To begin with, the business wanted answers to some common questions, such as:
But this company’s online store is also different in that patients are really buying from their registered practitioner; it is the practitioner that decides which products to prescribe to a patient, under what conditions, and how much of a discount should be given on their orders. The store actually operates on two levels, and that means digging deeper to understand the state of the business:
Finally, the company wanted to answer some complex questions about the state of the business, which its existing spreadsheet-based analysis couldn’t handle:
This kind of information is ideal for supporting a test-and-measure mindset, but it only works when supported by real-time feedback and a set of tools with the power to properly transform the data.
In our use case, ksqlDB is compelling as the backbone of our business intelligence platform based on three main factors:
.ksqlqueries file, rather than a complex framework-based project that could require thousands of support files.
A full outline of all streams and tables created for this project is beyond the scope of this article, so we’ll instead focus on the code used to answer one of the company’s more pressing questions, and see how easy it is to handle the complexity of that using ksqlDB’s featureset.
What is the impact of discounting when looking at average order value?
With de-identified patient data arriving via the Debezium CDC connector into the source topic
Name: USERS_SRC Field | Type ------------------------------------------------------------------- ROWTIME | BIGINT (system) ROWKEY | VARCHAR(STRING) (system) ID | BIGINT PRACTITIONER_ID | BIGINT CLINIC_ID | BIGINT PRACTITIONER_DISCOUNT | DOUBLE REGISTER_DATE | BIGINT -------------------------------------------------------------------
We can reduce this to just the fields that are relevant to our question in the derived stream
CREATE STREAM USERS WITH (VALUE_FORMAT='AVRO', PARTITIONS=3, REPLICAS=3) AS SELECT CAST(ID AS VARCHAR) AS ID, CAST(PRACTITIONER_ID AS VARCHAR) AS PRACTITIONER_ID, TIMESTAMPTOSTRING(REGISTER_DATE, 'yyyy-MM-dd HH:mm:ss') AS REGISTER_DATE, PRACTITIONER_DISCOUNT FROM USERS_SRC PARTITION BY ID;
Then we can turn this into a table to give us the latest state of any user when joining to the table:
CREATE TABLE USERS WITH (KAFKA_TOPIC='USERS_SRC', VALUE_FORMAT='AVRO', KEY='ID');
Order data is delivered in a similar way from Debezium into
Name: ORDERS_SRC Field | Type ----------------------------------------------------- ROWTIME | BIGINT (system) ROWKEY | VARCHAR(STRING) (system) ID | BIGINT USER_ID | BIGINT PRACTITIONER_ID | BIGINT CLINIC_ID | BIGINT TRANSACTION_ID | VARCHAR(STRING) AMOUNT_TOTAL | DOUBLE AMOUNT_SUBTOTAL | DOUBLE
So let’s reduce that to only what we need and partition it for joining to the users table:
CREATE STREAM ORDERS WITH (VALUE_FORMAT='AVRO', PARTITIONS=3, REPLICAS=3) AS SELECT CAST(ID AS VARCHAR) AS ORDER_ID, DATE AS EVENT_TS, CAST(USER_ID AS VARCHAR) AS PATIENT_ID, CAST(PRACTITIONER_ID AS VARCHAR) AS PRACTITIONER_ID, CAST(CLINIC_ID AS VARCHAR) AS CLINIC_ID, TIMESTAMPTOSTRING(DATE, 'yyyy-MM-dd HH:mm:ss') AS ORDER_DATE, AMOUNT_TOTAL FROM ORDERS_SRC PARTITION BY PATIENT_ID;
Now, let’s enrich the orders with the patient data that we’re most interested in, their assigned discount:
CREATE STREAM ORDERS_ENRICHED WITH (VALUE_FORMAT='AVRO', PARTITIONS=3, REPLICAS=3) AS SELECT O.ORDER_ID AS ORDER_ID, O.PATIENT_ID AS PATIENT_ID, O.PRACTITIONER_ID AS PRACTITIONER_ID, O.CLINIC_ID AS CLINIC_ID, O.ORDER_DATE AS ORDER_DATE, O.AMOUNT_TOTAL AS AMOUNT_TOTAL, P.DISCOUNT AS DISCOUNT FROM ORDERS O JOIN USERS P ON O.PATIENT_ID = P.ID
Repartition that stream by order ID, which helps reason about the orders in subsequent streams and tables:
CREATE STREAM ORDERS_BY_ID WITH (VALUE_FORMAT='AVRO', PARTITIONS=3, REPLICAS=3) AS SELECT * FROM ORDERS PARTITION BY ORDER_ID;
Let’s turn that stream into a table to support aggregation:
CREATE TABLE ORDERS_WITH_DISCOUNT WITH (KAFKA_TOPIC='ORDERS_BY_ID', VALUE_FORMAT='AVRO', KEY='ORDER_ID');
Calculate the average order value per unique discount value:
CREATE TABLE AVG_ORDER_VALUE_BY_DISCOUNT AS SELECT DISCOUNT, ROUND(AVG(AMOUNT_TOTAL), 2) AS AVG_ORDER_VALUE FROM ORDERS_WITH_DISCOUNT GROUP BY DISCOUNT;
This gives us a high-level, real-time view of the average value of orders at different degrees of discounting:
+-----------------------------------------------+--------------------------------------+ |ROWTIME |DISCOUNT |AVG_ORDER_VALUE | +-----------------------------------------------+--------------------------------------+ |1580921043000 |-4.0 |91.64 | |1581615972000 |-5.0 |126.24 | |1581619970000 |-6.0 |151.54 | |1580987564000 |-7.0 |121.94 | |1581263574000 |-8.0 |148.89 | |1581011841000 |-9.0 |148.99 | |1581627574000 |-10.0 |129.44 | |1580381414000 |-11.0 |169.77 | |1581605818000 |-12.0 |148.73 | |1579627567000 |-13.0 |168.62 | |1581490185000 |-14.0 |146.12 | |1581620261000 |-15.0 |134.31 |
Immediately, we can see that the average value of an order experiences its greatest jump when moving from a 5% to 6% discount, and again when moving from 10% to 11%. There is probably an element of human psychology at play here—5% and 10% are both fairly “conventional” in terms of a discount, but moving even 1% beyond that makes the discount feel more significant. In working with its practitioners, the company can now advise them that these two, slightly non-conventional figures represent the greatest return on the discounts they give, and that higher levels of discounting do not necessarily correlate with greater average order values.
While this is a somewhat simplified example (there might be other influencing factors to investigate), the great thing about ksqlDB is that digging deeper from here is straightforward and efficient. If we want to look at how the discount impacts order value over time (year on year for, example), we just adjust the
ORDERS declaration to bring in the year:
CREATE STREAM ORDERS AS SELECT ..., TIMESTAMPTOSTRING(DATE, 'yyyy') AS ORDER_YEAR, AMOUNT_TOTAL FROM ORDERS_SRC PARTITION BY PATIENT_ID;
Include that as part of the
SELECT statement in
ORDERS_ENRICHED, and then group on the year and discount in the output table:
CREATE TABLE AVG_ORDER_VALUE_BY_DISCOUNT_PER_YEAR AS SELECT DISCOUNT, ORDER_YEAR, ROUND(AVG(AMOUNT_TOTAL), 2) AS AVG_ORDER_VALUE FROM ORDERS_WITH_DISCOUNT GROUP BY DISCOUNT, ORDER_YEAR;
This kind of extendable, reusable architecture is one of the great things about ksqlDB. We don’t need to go back to scratch to adjust the output; we can incrementally update as our areas of focus and available data evolve.
Of course, this new intelligence is still in its raw Kafka form and is not that compelling for a presentation or showcase. But that’s really just another advantage of the platform—it generates output without any specific visualization app or storage engine in mind. Set up the appropriate connector, and you can sink out the data to wherever you wish, all from within ksqlDB. The client is currently assessing a number of third-party products for this role, including Tableau and Google Data Studio.
We can see that by using a transactional dataset the company already has, some ksqlDB/Kafka expertise, and a curious mind, it’s possible to:
Improved business intelligence shouldn’t be limited to large-scale, international companies with in-house analytics teams. ksqlDB is an agile and easily adapted framework that can offer the same level of insight to small and medium-sized businesses alike, in any kind of industry. The knowledge required to make better decisions is already contained within your data. ksqlDB provides the means to deliver it.
Terry Franklin is a freelance data consultant, helping organizations use their data to make better decisions. He specializes in event-driven platforms like Confluent Platform, as well as graph databases, to build systems that generate business intelligence with the context required to turn data into action. Prior to consulting, he worked for 15 years in a digital media startup, both managing technical teams and developing applications. Outside of work, he enjoys cross-country mountain biking, coffee, and good sci-fi.
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