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Integrate with dbt Semantic Layer using best practices

Semantic Layer
Best practices


    To fit your tool within the world of the Semantic Layer, dbt Labs offers some best practice recommendations for how to expose metrics and allow users to interact with them seamlessly.

    This is an evolving guide that is meant to provide recommendations based on our experience. If you have any feedback, we'd love to hear it!

    πŸ“Ή Learn about the dbt Semantic Layer with on-demand video courses!

    Explore our dbt Semantic Layer on-demand course to learn how to define and query metrics in your dbt project.

    Additionally, dive into mini-courses for querying the dbt Semantic Layer in your favorite tools: Tableau, Hex, and Mode.


    To build a dbt Semantic Layer integration:

    • We offer a JDBC API and GraphQL API. Refer to the dedicated dbt Semantic Layer API for more technical integration details.

    • Familiarize yourself with the dbt Semantic Layer and MetricFlow's key concepts. There are two main objects:

      • Semantic models β€” Nodes in your semantic graph, connected via entities as edges. MetricFlow takes semantic models defined in YAML configuration files as inputs and creates a semantic graph that you can use to query metrics.
      • Metrics β€” Can be defined in the same YAML files as your semantic models, or split into separate YAML files into any other subdirectories (provided that these subdirectories are also within the same dbt project repo).

    Connection parameters​

    The dbt Semantic Layer APIs authenticate with environmentId, SERVICE_TOKEN, and host.

    We recommend you provide users with separate input fields with these components for authentication (dbt Cloud will surface these parameters for the user).

    Exposing metadata to dbt Labs​

    When building an integration, we recommend you expose certain metadata in the request for analytics and troubleshooting purpose.

    Please send us the following header with every query:

    'X-dbt-partner-source': 'Your-Application-Name'

    Additionally, it would be helpful if you also included the email and username of the person generating the query from your application.

    Use best practices when exposing metrics​

    Best practices for exposing metrics are summarized into five themes:

    • Governance β€” Recommendations on how to establish guardrails for governed data work.
    • Discoverability β€” Recommendations on how to make user-friendly data interactions.
    • Organization β€” Organize metrics and dimensions for all audiences, use saved queries.
    • Query flexibility β€” Allow users to query either one metric alone without dimensions or multiple metrics with dimensions.
    • Context and interpretation β€” Contextualize metrics for better analysis; expose definitions, metadata, lineage, and freshness.

    Governance and traceability​

    When working with more governed data, it's essential to establish clear guardrails. Here are some recommendations:

    • Aggregations control β€” Users shouldn't generally be allowed to modify aggregations unless they perform post-processing calculations on Semantic Layer data (such as year-over-year analysis).

    • Time series alignment and using metric_time β€” Make sure users view metrics across the correct time series. When displaying metric graphs, using a non-default time aggregation dimension might lead to misleading interpretations. While users can still group by other time dimensions, they should be careful not to create trend lines with incorrect time axes.

      When looking at one or multiple metrics, users should use metric_time as the main time dimension to guarantee they are looking at the right time series for the metric(s).

      As such, when building an application, we recommend exposing metric_time as a separate, "special" time dimension on its own. This dimension is always going to align with all metrics and be common across them. Other time dimensions can still be looked at and grouped by, but having a clear delineation between the metric_time dimension and the other time dimensions is clarifying so that people do not confuse how metrics should be plotted.

      Also, when a user requests a time granularity change for the main time series, the query that your application runs should use metric_time as this will always give you the correct slice. Related to this, we also strongly recommend that you have a way to expose what dimension metric_time actually maps to for users who may not be familiar. Our APIs allow you to fetch the actual underlying time dimensions that makeup metric_time (such as transaction_date) so you can expose them to your users.

    • Units consistency β€” If units are supported, it's vital to avoid plotting data incorrectly with different units. Ensuring consistency in unit representation will prevent confusion and misinterpretation of the data.

    • Traceability of metric and dimension changes β€” When users change names of metrics and dimensions for reports, it's crucial to have a traceability mechanism in place to link back to the original source metric name.


    • Consider treating metrics as first-class objects rather than measures. Metrics offer a higher-level and more contextual way to interact with data, reducing the burden on end-users to manually aggregate data.

    • Easy metric interactions β€” Provide users with an intuitive approach to:

      • Search for Metrics β€” Users should be able to easily search and find relevant metrics. Metrics can serve as the starting point to lead users into exploring dimensions.
      • Search for Dimensions β€” Users should be able to query metrics with associated dimensions, allowing them to gain deeper insights into the data.
      • Filter by Dimension Values β€” Expose and enable users to filter metrics based on dimension values, encouraging data analysis and exploration.
      • Filter additional metadata β€” Allow users to filter metrics based on other available metadata, such as metric type and default time granularity.
    • Suggested metrics β€” Ideally, the system should intelligently suggest relevant metrics to users based on their team's activities. This approach encourages user exposure, facilitates learning, and supports collaboration among team members.

    By implementing these recommendations, the data interaction process becomes more user-friendly, empowering users to gain valuable insights without the need for extensive data manipulation.


    We recommend organizing metrics and dimensions in ways that a non-technical user can understand the data model, without needing much context:

    • Organizing dimensions β€” To help non-technical users understand the data model better, we recommend organizing dimensions based on the entity they originated from. For example, consider dimensions like user__country and product__category.

      You can create groups by extracting user and product and then nest the respective dimensions under each group. This way, dimensions align with the entity or semantic model they belong to and make them more user-friendly and accessible. Additionally, we recommending adding a label parameter to dimensions in order to define the value displayed in downstream tools.

    • Organizing metrics β€” The goal is to organize metrics into a hierarchy in our configurations, instead of presenting them in a long list.

      This hierarchy helps you organize metrics based on specific criteria, such as business unit or team. By providing this structured organization, users can find and navigate metrics more efficiently, enhancing their overall data analysis experience.

    • Using saved queries β€” The dbt Semantic Layer has a concept of saved queries which allows users to pre-build slices of metrics, dimensions, filters to be easily accessed. You should surface these as first class objects in your integration. Refer to the JDBC and GraphQL APIs for syntax.

    Query flexibility​

    Allow users to query either one metric alone without dimensions or multiple metrics with dimensions.

    • Allow toggling between metrics/dimensions seamlessly.

    • Be clear on exposing what dimensions are queryable with what metrics and hide things that don’t apply. (Our APIs provide calls for you to get relevant dimensions for metrics, and vice versa).

    • Only expose time granularities (monthly, daily, yearly) that match the available metrics.

      • For example, if a dbt model and its resulting semantic model have a monthly granularity, make sure querying data with a 'daily' granularity isn't available to the user. Our APIs have functionality that will help you surface the correct granularities
    • We recommend that time granularity is treated as a general time dimension-specific concept and that it can be applied to more than just the primary aggregation (or metric_time).

      Consider a situation where a user wants to look at sales over time by customer signup month; in this situation, having the ability to apply granularities to both time dimensions is crucial. Our APIs include information to fetch the granularities for the primary (metric_time) dimensions, as well as all time dimensions.

      You can treat each time dimension and granularity selection independently in your application. Note: Initially, as a starting point, it makes sense to only support metric_time or the primary time dimension, but we recommend expanding that as your solution evolves.

    • You should allow users to filter on date ranges and expose a calendar and nice presets for filtering these.

      • For example, last 30 days, last week, and so on.

    Context and interpretation​

    For better analysis, it's best to have the context of the metrics close to where the analysis is happening. We recommend the following:

    • Expose business definitions of the metrics as well as logical definitions.

    • Expose additional metadata from the Semantic layer (measures, type parameters).

    • Use the Discovery API to enhance the metric and build confidence in its accuracy:

      • Check if the metric is fresh and when it was last updated.
      • Include lineage information to understand the metric's origin.
    • Allow for creating other metadata that’s useful for the metric. We can provide some of this information in our configuration (Display name, Default Granularity for View, Default Time range), but there may be other metadata that your tool wants to provide to make the metric richer.

    Transparency and using compile​

    For transparency and additional context, we recommend you have an easy way for the user to obtain the SQL that MetricFlow generates. Depending on what API you are using, you can do this by using our compile parameter. This is incredibly powerful and emphasizes transparency and openness, particularly for technically inclined users.

    Where filters and optimization​

    In the cases where our APIs support either a string or a filter list for the where clause, we always recommend that your application utilizes the filter list in order to gain maximum pushdown benefits. The where string may be more intuitive for users writing queries during testing, but it will not have the performance benefits of the filter list in a production environment.

    Understand stages of an integration​

    These are recommendations on how to evolve a Semantic Layer integration and not a strict runbook.

    Stage 1 - The basic

    Stage 2 - More discoverability and basic querying

    • Support listing metrics defined in the project
    • Listing available dimensions based on one or many metrics
    • Querying defined metric values on their own or grouping by available dimensions
    • Display metadata from Discovery API and other context
    • Expose saved queries, which are pre-built metrics, dimensions, and filters that Semantic Layer developers create for easier analysis. You can expose them in your application. Refer to the JDBC and GraphQL APIs for syntax.

    Stage 3 - More querying flexibility and better user experience (UX)

    • More advanced filtering
      • Time filters with good presets/calendar UX
      • Filtering metrics on a pre-populated set of dimension values
    • Make dimension values more user-friendly by organizing them effectively
    • Intelligent filtering of metrics based on available dimensions and vice versa

    Stage 4 - More custom user interface (UI) / Collaboration

    • A place where users can see all the relevant information about a given metric
    • Organize metrics by hierarchy and more advanced search features (such as filter on the type of metric or other metadata)
    • Use and expose more metadata
    • Querying dimensions without metrics and other more advanced querying functionality
    • Suggest metrics to users based on teams/identity, and so on.