Project structure review
So far we’ve focused on the
models folder, the primary directory of our dbt project. Next, we’ll zoom out and look at how the rest of our project files and folders fit in with this structure, starting with how we approach YAML configuration files.
│ └── finance
│ ├── _int_finance__models.yml
│ └── int_payments_pivoted_to_orders.sql
│ ├── finance
│ │ ├── _finance__models.yml
│ │ ├── orders.sql
│ │ └── payments.sql
│ └── marketing
│ ├── _marketing__models.yml
│ └── customers.sql
│ ├── jaffle_shop
│ │ ├── _jaffle_shop__docs.md
│ │ ├── _jaffle_shop__models.yml
│ │ ├── _jaffle_shop__sources.yml
│ │ ├── base
│ │ │ ├── base_jaffle_shop__customers.sql
│ │ │ └── base_jaffle_shop__deleted_customers.sql
│ │ ├── stg_jaffle_shop__customers.sql
│ │ └── stg_jaffle_shop__orders.sql
│ └── stripe
│ ├── _stripe__models.yml
│ ├── _stripe__sources.yml
│ └── stg_stripe__payments.sql
When structuring your YAML configuration files in a dbt project, you want to balance centralization and file size to make specific configs as easy to find as possible. It’s important to note that while the top-level YAML files (
packages.yml) need to be specifically named and in specific locations, the files containing your
models dictionaries can be named, located, and organized however you want. It’s the internal contents that matter here. As such, we’ll lay out our primary recommendation, as well as the pros and cons of a popular alternative. Like many other aspects of structuring your dbt project, what’s most important here is consistency, clear intention, and thorough documentation on how and why you do what you do.
- ✅ Config per folder. As in the example above, create a
_[directory]__models.ymlper directory in your models folder that configures all the models in that directory. for staging folders, also include a
- The leading underscore ensure your YAML files will be sorted to the top of every folder to make them easy to separate from your models.
- YAML files don’t need unique names in the way that SQL model files do, but including the directory (instead of simply
_sources.ymlin each folder), means you can fuzzy find for the right file more quickly.
- We’ve recommended several different naming conventions over the years, most recently calling these
schema.ymlfiles. We’ve simplified to recommend that these simply be labelled based on the YAML dictionary that they contain.
- If you utilize doc blocks in your project, we recommend following the same pattern, and creating a
_[directory]__docs.mdmarkdown file per directory containing all your doc blocks for that folder of models.
- ❌ Config per project. Some people put all of their source and model YAML into one file. While you can technically do this, and while it certainly simplifies knowing what file the config you’re looking for will be in (as there is only one file), it makes it much harder to find specific configurations within that file. We recommend balancing those two concerns.
- ⚠️ Config per model. On the other end of the spectrum, some people prefer to create one YAML file per model. This presents less of an issue than a single monolith file, as you can quickly search for files, know exactly where specific configurations exist, spot models without configs (and thus without tests) by looking at the file tree, and various other advantages. In our opinion, the extra files, tabs, and windows this requires creating, copying from, pasting to, closing, opening, and managing creates a somewhat slower development experience that outweighs the benefits. Defining config per directory is the most balanced approach for most projects, but if you have compelling reasons to use config per model, there are definitely some great projects that follow this paradigm.
- ✅ Cascade configs. Leverage your
dbt_project.ymlto set default configurations at the directory level. Use the well-organized folder structure we’ve created thus far to define the baseline schemas and materializations, and use dbt’s cascading scope priority to define variations to this. For example, as below, define your marts to be materialized as tables by default, define separate schemas for our separate subfolders, and any models that need to use incremental materialization can be defined at the model level.
One of the many benefits this consistent approach to project structure confers to us is this ability to cascade default behavior. Carefully organizing our folders and defining configuration at that level whenever possible frees us from configuring things like schema and materialization in every single model (not very DRY!) — we only need to configure exceptions to our general rules. Tagging is another area this principle comes into play. Many people new to dbt will rely on tags rather than a rigorous folder structure, and quickly find themselves in a place where every model requires a tag. This creates unnecessary complexity. We want to lean on our folders as our primary selectors and grouping mechanism, and use tags to define groups that are exceptions. A folder-based selection like **
dbt build --select marts.marketing is much simpler than trying to tag every marketing-related model, hoping all developers remember to add that tag for new models, and using
dbt build --select tag:marketing.
How we use the other folders
│ └── employees.csv
│ ├── _macros.yml
│ └── cents_to_dollars.sql
We’ve focused heavily thus far on the primary area of action in our dbt project, the
models folder. As you’ve probably observed though, there are several other folders in our project. While these are, by design, very flexible to your needs, we’ll discuss the most common use cases for these other folders to help get you started.
seedsfor lookup tables. The most common use case for seeds is loading lookup tables that are helpful for modeling but don’t exist in any source systems — think mapping zip codes to states, or UTM parameters to marketing campaigns. In this example project we have a small seed that maps our employees to their
customer_ids, so that we can handle their purchases with special logic.
seedsfor loading source data. Do not use seeds to load data from a source system into your warehouse. If it exists in a system you have access to, you should be loading it with a proper EL tool into the raw data area of your warehouse. dbt is designed to operate on data in the warehouse, not as a data-loading tool.
analysisfor storing auditing queries. The
analysisfolder lets you store any queries you want to use Jinja with and version control, but not build into models in your warehouse. There are limitless possibilities here, but the most common use case when we set up projects at dbt Labs is to keep queries that leverage the audit helper package. This package is incredibly useful for finding discrepancies in output when migrating logic from another system into dbt.
testsfor testing multiple specific tables simultaneously. As dbt tests have evolved, writing singular tests has become less and less necessary. It's extremely useful for work-shopping test logic, but more often than not you'll find yourself either migrating that logic into your own custom generic tests or discovering a pre-built test that meets your needs from the ever-expanding universe of dbt packages (between the extra tests in
dbt-expectationsalmost any situation is covered). One area where singular tests still shine though is flexibly testing things that require a variety of specific models. If you're familiar with the difference between unit tests and integration tests in software engineering, you can think of generic and singular tests in a similar way. If you need to test the results of how several specific models interact or relate to each other, a singular test will likely be the quickest way to nail down your logic.
snapshotsfor creating Type 2 slowly changing dimension records from Type 1 (destructively updated) source data. This is covered thoroughly in the dbt Docs, unlike these other folders has a more defined purpose, and is out-of-scope for this guide, but mentioned for completion.
macrosfor DRY-ing up transformations you find yourself doing repeatedly. Like snapshots, a full dive into macros is out-of-scope for this guide and well covered elsewhere, but one important structure-related recommendation is to write documentation for your macros. We recommend creating a
_macros.ymland documenting the purpose and arguments for your macros once they’re ready for use.
One important, growing consideration in the analytics engineering ecosystem is how and when to split a codebase into multiple dbt projects. Our present stance on this for most projects, particularly for teams starting out, is straightforward: you should avoid it unless you have no other option or it saves you from an even more complex workaround. If you do have the need to split up your project, it’s completely possible through the use of private packages, but the added complexity and separation is, for most organizations, a hindrance not a help, at present. That said, this is very likely subject to change! We want to create a world where it’s easy to bring lots of dbt projects together into a cohesive lineage. In a world where it’s simple to break up monolithic dbt projects into multiple connected projects, perhaps inside of a modern monorepo, the calculus will be different, and the below situations we recommend against may become totally viable. So watch this space!
- ❌ Business groups or departments. Conceptual separations within the project are not a good reason to split up your project. Splitting up, for instance, marketing and finance modeling into separate projects will not only add unnecessary complexity, but destroy the unifying effect of collaborating across your organization on cohesive definitions and business logic.
- ❌ ML vs Reporting use cases. Similarly to the point above, splitting a project up based on different use cases, particularly more standard BI versus ML features, is a common idea. We tend to discourage it for the time being. As with the previous point, a foundational goal of implementing dbt is to create a single source of truth in your organization. The features you’re providing to your data science teams should be coming from the same marts and metrics that serve reports on executive dashboards. There are a growing number of tools like fal and Continual.ai that make excellent use of this unified viewpoint.
- ✅ Data governance. Structural, organizational needs — such as data governance and security — are one of the few worthwhile reasons to split up a project. If, for instance, you work at a healthcare company with only a small team cleared to access raw data with PII in it, you may need to split out your staging models into their own project to preserve those policies. In that case, you would import your staging project into the project that builds on those staging models as a private package.
- ✅ Project size. At a certain point, your project may grow to have simply too many models to present a viable development experiment. If you have 1000s of models, it absolutely makes sense to find a way to split up your project.
Overall, consistency is more important than any of these specific conventions. As your project grows and your experience with dbt deepens, you will undoubtedly find aspects of the above structure you want to change. While we recommend this approach for the majority of projects, every organization is unique! The only dogmatic advice we’ll put forward here is that when you find aspects of the above structure you wish to change, think intently about your reasoning and document for your team how and why you are deviating from these conventions. To that end, we highly encourage you to fork this guide and add it to your project’s README, wiki, or docs so you can quickly create and customize those artifacts.
Finally, we emphasize that this guide is a living document! It will certainly change and grow as dbt and dbt Labs evolve. We invite you to join in — discuss, comment, and contribute regarding suggested changes or new elements to cover.