Introducing the Kids-First ETL

Mar. 19, 2018


This blog introduces how the Kids-First ETL(ETL for short) is designed with Scala’s functional programming features. The ETL presents an attempt to apply mixed programming paradigms(FP and OOP) to a complex data processing application.


The ETL consists of a set of consecutive data transformations. Transformations are grouped into logical units which are modelled as Processors. Processors join together to form a Pipeline, which is the top level abstraction of the ETL. The Pipleline manages Processors and global resources through Context.

Each Processor manages subordinate but important abstractions for the purpose of separation of concerns. These abstractions serve as functions taking specific inputs and returning as an output the results of transformation.

  • source: defines how to load the processor-specific data
  • transform: defines how to make the processor-specific data transformations
  • sink: defines if and how transformed data is written to external storage
  • output: defines how to pass the transformed data to the next processor in the Pipeline
  • context: maintains the processor-scoped resources for the execution of the current Processor
  • step: defines the smallest transformation unit executed in a finer-grained way
  • inject: creates the instances of the above abstractions in a non-invasive way

We can see how all of these transformations work in the following Class diagram:

Kids-First ETL Classes

Most of the processors have been defined in Scala as abstract functions of a single variable that return a single result: in other words, functions with a Scala type signature of Function1[-T1,+R]

Functional programming in Scala

Scala is both a Functional and Object-Oriented programming language. In Scala, functions are first-class language constructs and are part of the type system. Functions can be:

  • Assigned to variables
  • Passed as parameters to functions, constructors, etc
  • Returned as results of functions
  • Written as function literals.

In functional programming, a function is required to be pure, which means forbidding changing-state and mutable data. If the execution of a function depends on not only the inputs, but also the context, the function is said to be impure. Impure functions are usually caused by functions with side effects, or hidden internal behaviour..

For the ETL process, we have used several of the Scala functional features.


Scala encourages developers to define immutable data structures and variables. Immutability helps keep control of the application states, avoid unexpected values, and avoid concurrent state issues. Collection types defined in the package scala.collection.immutable are immutable. Some functions in those types return a new instance of the same type instead of altering the collection in-place. This feature makes the method chaining possible. For example:

List("Jan", "Feb", "Mar", ..)
    .filter(m => {???})  // filter the element based on a predicate
    .map(m => {???})     // transform the element to another type
    .collect(m => {???}) // collect all of the elements into a new collection instance

Another interesting and powerful language construct is case classes as the following definition:

case class Address(number:Int, street:String, city:String, province:String)

The Scala compiler automatically generates some convenient functions with implicit syntax when using case classes:

  • A factory method with the name of the class. This means that, for example, you can write Address(661, "University Ave", "Toronto", "ON") to construct a Address object. Under the hood, the apply(...) method generated in the companion object makes this magic possible.
  • All arguments in the parameter list of a case class implicitly get a val prefix
  • The “natural” implementations of methods toString, hashCode, and equals
  • A copy method, which is useful for making a new instance of the class that is the same as another one except that one or two attributes are different. For example:
    val addr = Address(661, "University Ave", "Toronto", "ON")
    val new_addr = addr.copy(province = "Ontario")

Higher-order functions

In Scala, a function can be defined in the standard way:

def plusOne(x:Int):Int = {x + 1}

or as a functional literal:

val func = (x:Int) => x + 1

Basicaly, a higher-order function can have one the three forms:

  • one or more of its parameters is a function, and it returns some value
  • it returns a function, but none of its parameters are a function
  • both of the above

Functions like map, filter or flatMap which are defined in the collection “types” are examples of the first form of higher-order function. In the section Implementation Details we will examine how the ETL uses the other two types, especially function composition to make function chaining possible.

Pattern Matching

Pattern Matching in Scala is amazingly powerful. Here are some examples:

  • wildcard, varable, constructor patterns:
    expr match {
      case Address(number, street, _, _) => println(s"${number}, ${street}")

    With a single match statement, we can check that the type of an object is an Address, extract the number and street fields as variables, and then print out those values separated by a comma. The equivalent code in Java would require more lines of codes, declarations, and casting of objects to achieve the same effect.

  • constant patterns:
    expr match {
      case 10 => "ten"
      case false => "false"
      case "hello" => "hi!"
      case Nil => "the empty list"
      case _ => "something else"
  • sequence patterns:
    list match {
      case List(0, _, _) => println("the list starts with 0")
      case _ => 
  • typed patterns:
    expr match {
      case s: String => s.length
      case m: Map[_, _] => m.size
      case _ => -1
  • variable binding:
case class Company(addr: Address, contact:String)

company match {
    case Company(oicr @ Address(661, "University Ave", "Toronto", "ON"), _) => println(oicr)
    case _ =>

Under the hood, the Scala compiler generates the apply(...) function for case class, which makes the pattern matching magic possible

Handling errors without exceptions

The Scala way to handle exceptions is to represent failures and exceptions with ordinary values, and the developers can write higher-order functions that abstract out common patterns of error handling and recovery.

The Try class is defined for this purpose. A Try[T] represents a computation that may result in a value of type T. If the computation is successful, a Success[T] is returned. Or a Failture[T] is returned. We can make use of the pattern matching as the following:

val computation = Try(....)
computation match {
    case Success(ret) => { logic for successful operation }
    case Failture(failed) => { error handling } 

Implementation Details

This section explains how the Kids-First ETL applies Scala’s functional features.

Kids-First ETL Pipeline

Data Models

The ETL uses ScalaPB, a Scala implementation of Google Protocol Buffers, as the representation of the internal data model. Protocol Buffers are language-neutral, platform-neutral extensible mechanisms for serializing structured data. It ensures that all exchanged data follows predefined formats and increases data consistency.

ScalaPB is built on top of the Protocol Buffer compiler and has many advantages over other protocols that are useful for our ETL process, including:

  • Support for both proto2 and proto3. The ETL uses proto2 because some fields of the source data are optional and only proto2 supports the keywords optional and required.
  • Support for SparkSQL
  • Support for converting to and from JSON. The ETL uses this to directly generate JSON strings.
  • Support for generating case classes for all messages. Applying case classes to Spark Dataset is intuitive, so that no extra Encoders are needed.
  • Support for introspection of generated case classes


Context holds globally shared resources like SparkSession, PostgresQL, and Elasticsearch and is defined like this:

object Context extends ContextTrait with ClasspathURLEnabler{
  lazy val (hdfs, rootPath) = getHDFS()
  lazy val sparkSession = getSparkSession()
  lazy val postgresql = getPostgresql()
  lazy val esClient = getESClient()


Processor is the key abstraction in the ETL and is defined like this:

trait Processor[I, O] extends Function1[I, O]{
  override def apply(input: I): O = {
  def process(input:I): O

The Processor is derived from Scala’s Function1[-T1, +R] which basically means that a Processor is just a function. Any concrete Processor fills its logic by overriding the function process(input:I):O. Technically, a Processor could be implemented in any direct or indirect way. However, the reference implementations follow this convention:

A Processor is composed of source, transform, sink and output. A transform can be composed of Steps. The ProcessorContext and StepContext hold shared resources for a Processor and a Step respectively.

Source, transform, sink and output are types, but the ETL doesn’t describe the respective base interfaces. Instead, they are all derived from Scala Function1[-T1, +R]. This means that a Processor can be implemented in a very consistent and simple way like this:

class FileCentricProcessor(context: FileCentricContext,
                           source: Repository => DatasetsFromDBTables,
                           transform: DatasetsFromDBTables => Dataset[FileCentric],
                           sink: Dataset[FileCentric] => Unit,
                           output: Unit => (String,Repository)) extends Processor[Repository, (String,Repository)]{

  override def process(input: Repository):(String,Repository) = {


A very useful function for our ETL processing is Scala’s andThen function defined in Scala Function1[-T1, +R], which allows function calls to be changed together sequentially rather than nested together.

inject in Processor

Another convention in Processor is:

Every Processor provides a dependency injection module backed by Google Guice. At runtime, the Pipeline will load all of the inject module instances annotated with @GuiceModule(name = “…”) and instantiate the corresponding components

An inject module has its base class defined as the following:

abstract class ProcessorInjectModule(val sparkSession: SparkSession,
                                     val hdfs: HDFS,
                                     val appRootPath: String,
                                     val config: Option[Config]) extends AbstractModule{
  type CONTEXT
  type SOURCE
  type SINK
  type OUTPUT

  def getContext(): CONTEXT
  def getProcessor(): PROCESSOR

  def getSource(context: CONTEXT): SOURCE
  def getSink(context: CONTEXT): SINK
  def getTransformer(context: CONTEXT): TRANSFORMER
  def getOutput(context: CONTEXT): OUTPUT


An implementation module should provide the concrete type definitions for all the type *** declarations. For example:

@GuiceModule(name = "download")
class DownloadInjectModule(sparkSession: SparkSession,
                           hdfs: HDFS,
                           appRootPath: String,
                           config: Option[Config]) extends ProcessorInjectModule(sparkSession, hdfs, appRootPath, config) {
  type CONTEXT = DownloadContext
  type PROCESSOR = DownloadProcessor
  type SOURCE = DownloadSource
  type SINK = DownloadSink
  type TRANSFORMER = DownloadTransformer
  type OUTPUT = DownloadOutput

transform and step in Processor

As you can guess, Step is also a Scala Function1[-T1, +R]. It is the smallest executable unit in the ETL and performs a very specific data transformation logic.

case class Step[I, O](val description: String, val handler: StepExecutable[I, O], val posthandler: StepExecutable[O, O] = DefaultPostHandler[O]()) extends Function1[I, O] {
  override def apply(input: I): O = {

abstract class StepExecutable[-I, +O] extends Function1[I, O] with Serializable {
  override def apply(v1: I): O = {

  def process(input: I):O
  def ctx():StepContext

Step itself is a case class composed of a description, a handler, and a posthandler. Step’s behavior is defined through StepExecutable, which is a Scala Function1[-T1, +R] of course.

Let’s take a look at how to chain Steps together:

class FileCentricTransformer(val context: FileCentricContext) {

  def transform(input: DatasetsFromDBTables): Dataset[FileCentric] = {

    ... ...
        Step[Dataset[Participant], Dataset[Participant]]("01. merge Study into Participant", new MergeStudy(ctx), posthandler1("step1")),
        Step[Dataset[Participant], Dataset[Participant]]("02. merge Demographic into Participant", new MergeDemographic(ctx), posthandler1("step2")),
        Step[Dataset[Participant], Dataset[Participant]]("03. merge Diagnosis into Participant", new MergeDiagnosis(ctx), posthandler1("step3")),
        Step[Dataset[Participant], Dataset[Participant]]("04. compute HPO reference data and then merge Phenotype into Participant", new MergePhenotype(ctx), posthandler1("step4")),
        Step[Dataset[Participant], Dataset[Participant]]("05. merge 'availableDataTypes' into Participant", new MergeAvailableDataTypesForParticipant(ctx), posthandler1("step5")),
        Step[Dataset[Participant], Dataset[Participant]]("06. merge family member into Participant", new MergeFamilyMember(ctx), posthandler1("step6"))
        val ph = (filename:String) => new WriteKfModelToJsonFile[GfId_Participants](ctx)
        Step[Dataset[Participant], Dataset[GfId_Participants]]("07. merge Sample, Aliquot into Participant", new MergeSampleAliquot(ctx), ph("step7"))
      Step[Dataset[GfId_Participants], Dataset[FileCentric]]("08. build final FileCentric", new BuildFileCentricNew(ctx), posthandler2)



This time, we don’t use the andThen function only but instead we compose the pipeline from the Function.chain function. The difference is that Function.chain accepts a sequence of Function1[-T1, +R] calls which have the same input and output types. andThen is used to chain functions with different input and output types.


A Pipeline defines the workflow and is responsible for creating Processors through their injects.


The Kids-First ETL is an attempt to combine both FP and OOP paradigms to build large-scale, data-intensive, and distributed applications. Although it only uses a small set of Scala’s functional features, the FP helps simplify the design and implementation and provides a beneficial supplement to OOP.

Next Steps

Here are some potential enhancements we could do in the future.

  • FileCentricProcessor and ParticipantCentricProcessor share some common Steps. These Steps could be upgraded into a common Processor.
  • Currently, the execution order of Processors is hard-coded in the Pipeline. A nice future enhacement would be to make the Pipeline programmable by defining operators within Pipeline that accept Processor(s) as input and determine how to execute the Processor(s).


Functional Programming in Scala

Programming in Scala

The Neophyte’s Guide to Scala

Grant Guo, Senior Software Developer
Passionate back-end developer interested in applying distributed data computation software to domains, forever curious about new things.