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Apache Airflow Overview: What It Is and How It Works

apache airflow architecture

What Is Airflow

Apache Airflow is an open-source platform to programmatically author, schedule, and monitor workflows. It was originally created by Airbnb and was later donated to the Apache Software Foundation. Airflow is used to orchestrate complex workflows, such as ETL (extract, transform, load) pipelines and machine learning models. It provides a user-friendly interface to design and monitor workflows, as well as the ability to scale to thousands of tasks.

How Is Airflow Used

Airflow is used to automate and manage workflows in a variety of contexts. It is commonly used in the following industries:

  • Data engineering: Airflow is used to build and manage ETL pipelines for data warehouses, data lakes, and other data storage systems.
  • Machine learning: Airflow is used to automate the training and deployment of machine learning models, as well as to monitor the accuracy of the models over time.
  • Finance: Airflow is used to automate financial reporting and risk analysis.
  • eCommerce: Airflow is used to automate processes such as inventory management and fraud detection.

Why Not Use a CronJob?

A CronJob is a Unix utility that allows you to schedule tasks to be executed at regular intervals. While CronJobs can be used to automate simple tasks, they are not well-suited for more complex workflows. Airflow offers a number of advantages over CronJobs:

  • Flexibility: Airflow allows you to build complex workflows with multiple dependencies and branching logic, while CronJobs are limited to simple sequential tasks.
  • Scalability: Airflow is designed to scale to thousands of tasks, while CronJobs may struggle with large workloads.
  • Monitoring: Airflow provides a user-friendly interface to monitor the status and progress of your workflows, while CronJobs do not have this capability.
  • Collaboration: Airflow allows multiple users to access and collaborate on workflows, while CronJobs do not have this capability.

What Is Airflow: The Features You Should Know

Airflow was created by the engineering team at Airbnb in 2015 and released as an open-source project in 2016. It is written in Python and has become a go-to tool for managing and scheduling data pipelines in the data science and analytics industry.

Some of the key features of Apache Airflow include:

  • Scheduling: Airflow allows users to schedule their data pipelines to run at specific intervals or on specific triggers, such as data availability or the completion of another task.
  • Monitoring: Airflow has a web-based UI that allows users to monitor their data pipelines in real-time and track the status of each task. It also has alerts and notifications to alert users of any issues or failures in the pipeline.
  • Extensibility: Airflow has a plug-in architecture that allows users to extend its functionality by adding custom operators, hooks, and integrations with other tools and platforms.
  • Scalability: Airflow can handle large-scale data pipelines and can be deployed on a distributed environment, such as a cluster of machines or a cloud platform.

Apache Airflow Architecture

Airflow is based on a message-passing architecture, where tasks and workflows are represented as directed acyclic graphs (DAGs). A DAG is a collection of tasks that are linked together and can be executed in a specific order. Each task in a DAG is represented as an operator, and the dependencies between tasks are defined by the edges between the operators.

Airflow has a central scheduler that monitors the DAGs and triggers the execution of tasks based on their schedules and dependencies. The scheduler also assigns tasks to worker nodes in a distributed environment, where the tasks are actually executed. The worker nodes communicate with the scheduler through a message queue, and the results of the tasks are stored in a metadata database.

Airflow also has a web server that serves the web UI and API, allowing users to interact with the platform and access the results of their pipelines. The web server also serves as a platform for extensions and plug-ins, which can be added to customize the functionality of the platform.

Airflow Pros and Cons

There are many advantages to using Apache Airflow for your workflow management needs:

  • Flexibility: Airflow is highly customizable and allows you to define your own workflows using Python code. This means that you can adapt it to fit your specific needs and requirements.
  • Scalability: Airflow is designed to scale to handle large workloads, making it suitable for use in organizations with high levels of data processing needs.
  • Open source: Airflow is an open-source platform, meaning that you can access the source code and make changes or improvements as needed.
  • Community support: Airflow has a large community of users and developers, meaning that you can get help and support when you need it.

However, there are also some potential drawbacks to using Apache Airflow:

  • Learning curve: Airflow requires a certain level of programming knowledge, particularly in Python. This can be a barrier for users who are not familiar with coding.
  • Complexity: Airflow is a powerful tool, but this can also make it difficult to learn and use. It may take some time to get comfortable with the platform and understand how to use it effectively.
  • Integration: Airflow does not natively support integration with all types of systems and tools. You may need to use additional software or write custom code to connect Airflow to your other systems.

The Core Concepts of Apache Airflow

Before diving into using Apache Airflow, it’s important to understand some of the core concepts that form the foundation of the platform.

  • DAGs: A DAG (Directed Acyclic Graph) is a collection of tasks that make up a workflow. A DAG specifies the dependencies between tasks and the order in which they should be executed.
  • Operators: Operators are the components of a DAG that represent a single task. They define what action should be taken when the task is executed. Airflow provides a variety of built-in operators, or you can create your own custom operators using Python code.
  • Executors: Executors are the components of Airflow that actually run the tasks in a DAG. Airflow supports a variety of executors, including local executors, Celery executors, and Kubernetes executors.

A Quick Example of a Typical Airflow Code

Here is a simple example of a DAG in Airflow, which defines a task to print “Hello, World!” to the console:

from airflow import DAG
from airflow.operators.python_operator import PythonOperator
def hello_world():
print("Hello, World!")

dag = DAG(
     start_date=datetime(2020, 1, 1)

hello_task = PythonOperator(

In this example, we define a DAG with the ID “hello_world_dag” and a schedule interval of one hour. The DAG has a single task, which is defined using the PythonOperator class. This task will print “Hello, World!” to the console every hour when it is run.

Creating Your First DAG: A Step-by-Step Guide

A DAG, or directed acyclic graph, is a type of graph that consists of vertices (or nodes) connected by edges, where the edges have a direction and the graph has no cycles (i.e., it is acyclic). DAGs are commonly used in data processing and analysis, as they provide a visual representation of the dependencies between tasks and can help to optimize the order in which those tasks are executed.

In this guide, we will walk you through the process of creating your first DAG using the popular Python library Airflow. We will assume that you have already installed Airflow and set up your environment, but if you need help with that, you can refer to the documentation.

Step 1: Import the required libraries

First, we need to import the necessary libraries. In this case, we will need the DAG class from Airflow and the datetime module from Python’s standard library:

from airflow import DAG
from datetime import datetime, timedelta

Step 2: Define default arguments

Next, we will define a dictionary of default arguments that we can use to specify the default parameters for our DAG. These arguments include the start date, the frequency with which to run our tasks (in this case, daily), and any other parameters that we want to specify as defaults:

default_args = {
     'owner': 'me',
     'start_date': datetime(2022, 1, 1),
     'depends_on_past': False,
     'retries': 1,
     'retry_delay': timedelta(minutes=5),
     'email_on_failure': False,
     'email_on_retry': False

Step 3: Instantiate the DAG

Now we can instantiate the DAG by calling the DAG constructor and passing in the DAG ID, default arguments, and any other desired parameters. For example:

dag = DAG(
     description='My first DAG',

Step 4: Define your tasks

Next, we need to define the tasks that we want to include in our DAG. In Airflow, a task is a unit of work that needs to be executed.

1 Comment

  1. February 14, 2023

    I agree with your point of view, your article has given me a lot of help and benefited me a lot. Thanks. Hope you continue to write such excellent articles.


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