Portable dataflows with Ibis and Hamilton

composable data stack
data engineering

Thierry Jean


April 2, 2024


This post showcases how Ibis and Hamilton enable dataflows that span execution over SQL and Python. Ibis is a portable dataframe library to write procedural data transformations in Python and be able to execute them directly on various SQL backends (DuckDB, Snowflake, Postgres, Flink, see full list). Hamilton provides a declarative way to define testable, modular, self-documenting dataflows, that encode lineage and metadata.

Let’s introduce Ibis before exploring how it pairs with Hamilton.

Standalone Ibis

Here’s an Ibis code snippet to load data from a parquet file, compute features, select columns, and filter rows, illustrating typical feature engineering operations.

Reading the code, you’ll notice that:

  • We use “expression chaining”, meaning there’s a series of .method() attached one after another.
  • The variable ibis._ is a special character referring to the current expression e.g., ibis._.pet accesses the column “pet” of the current table.
  • The table method .mutate(col1=, col2=, ...) assigns new columns or overwrites existing ones.
import ibis

url = "https://storage.googleapis.com/ibis-blog-data-public/hamilton-ibis/absenteeism.parquet"
feature_set = (
  ibis.read_parquet(sources=url, table_name="absenteeism")
  .mutate(  # allows us to define new columns
    has_children=ibis.ifelse(ibis._.son > 0, True, False),
    has_pet=ibis.ifelse(ibis._.pet > 0, True, False),
    is_summer_brazil=ibis._.month_of_absence.isin([1, 2, 12]),
    "id", "has_children", "has_pet", "is_summer_brazil",
    "service_time", "seasons", "disciplinary_failure",

Challenge 1 – Maintain and test complex data transformations

Ibis has an SQL-like syntax and supports chaining operations, allowing for powerful queries in a few lines of code. Conversely, there’s a risk of sprawling complexity as expressions are appended, making them harder to test and debug. Preventing this issue requires a lot of upfront discipline and refactoring.

Challenge 2 – Orchestrate Ibis code in production

Ibis alleviates a major pain point by enabling data transformations to work across backends. However, moving from dev to prod still requires some code changes such as changing backend connectors, swapping unsupported operators, adding some orchestration and logging execution, wanting to reuse prior code, etc. This is outside the scope of the Ibis project and is expected to be enabled by other means, which usually means bespoke constructs that turn into technical debt.

What is Hamilton?

Hamilton is a general-purpose framework to write dataflows using regular Python functions. At the core, each function defines a transformation and its parameters indicates its dependencies. Hamilton automatically connects individual functions into a directed acyclic graph (DAG) that can be executed, visualized, optimized, and reported on.

The ABC of Hamilton

How Hamilton complements Ibis

Hamilton was initially developed to structure pandas code for a large catalog of features, and has since been adopted by multiple organizations since, and expanded to cover any python object type (Polars, PySpark, ML Models, Numpy, you custom type, etc). Its syntax encourages users to chunk code into meaningful and reusable components, which facilitates documentation, unit testing, code reviews, and improves iteration speed, and the dev to production process. These benefits directly translate to organizing Ibis code.

Solution 1 – Structure your Ibis code with Hamilton

Now, we’ll refactor the above Ibis code to use Hamilton. Users have the flexibility to chunk code (i.e., what the contents of a function is), at the table or the column-level depending on the needed granularity. This modularity is particularly beneficial to Ibis because:

  • Well-scoped functions with type annotations and docstring are easier to understand for new Ibis users and facilitate onboarding.

  • Unit testing and data validation becomes easier with smaller expressions. These checks become more important when working across backends since the operation coverage varies and bugs may arise.

Table-level dataflow

Table-level operations might feel most familiar to SQL and Spark users. Also, Ibis + Hamilton is reminiscent of dbt for the Python ecosystem.

Working with tables is very efficient when your number of columns/features is limited, and you don’t need full column level lineage. As you want to reuse components, you can progressively breakdown “table-level code” in to “column-level code”.

The initial Ibis code is now 3 functions with type annotations and docstrings. We have a clear sense of the expected external outputs and we could implement schema checks between functions.

from typing import Optional
import ibis
import ibis.expr.types as ir

def raw_table(raw_data_path: str) -> ir.Table:
    """Load parquet from `raw_data_path` into a Table expression
    and format column names to snakecase
    return (
        ibis.read_parquet(sources=raw_data_path, table_name="absenteism")

def feature_table(raw_table: ir.Table) -> ir.Table:
    """Add to `raw_table` the feature columns `has_children`
    `has_pet`, and `is_summer_brazil`
    return raw_table.mutate(
        has_children=(ibis.ifelse(ibis._.son > 0, True, False)),
        has_pet=ibis.ifelse(ibis._.pet > 0, True, False),
        is_summer_brazil=ibis._.month_of_absence.isin([1, 2, 12]),

def feature_set(
    feature_table: ir.Table,
    feature_selection: list[str],
    condition: Optional[ibis.common.deferred.Deferred] = None,
) -> ir.Table:
    """Select feature columns and filter rows"""
    return feature_table[feature_selection].filter(condition)

Table-level lineage with Hamilton

Column-level dataflow

Hamilton was initially built to expose and manage column-level operations, which is most common in dataframe libraries (pandas, Dask, polars).

Column-level code leads to fully-reusable feature definitions and a highly granular level of lineage. Notably, this allows one to trace sensitive data and evaluate downstream impacts of code changes. However, it is more verbose to get started with, but remember that code is read more often than written.

Now, the raw_table is loaded and the columns son, pet, and month_of_absence are extracted to engineer new features. After transformations, features are joined with raw_table to create feature_table.

import ibis
import ibis.expr.types as ir
from hamilton.function_modifiers import extract_columns
from hamilton.plugins import ibis_extensions

# extract specific columns from the table
@extract_columns("son", "pet", "month_of_absence")
def raw_table(raw_data_path: str) -> ir.Table:
    """Load the parquet found at `raw_data_path` into a Table expression
    and format columns to snakecase
    return (
        ibis.read_parquet(sources=raw_data_path, table_name="absenteism")

# accesses a single column from `raw_table`
def has_children(son: ir.Column) -> ir.BooleanColumn:
    """True if someone has any children"""
    return ibis.ifelse(son > 0, True, False)

# narrows the return type from `ir.Column` to `ir.BooleanColumn`
def has_pet(pet: ir.Column) -> ir.BooleanColumn:
    """True if someone has any pets"""
    return ibis.ifelse(pet > 0, True, False).cast(bool)

# typing and docstring provides business context to features
def is_summer_brazil(month_of_absence: ir.Column) -> ir.BooleanColumn:
    """True if it is summer in Brazil during this month

    People in the northern hemisphere are likely to take vacations
    to warm places when it's cold locally
    return month_of_absence.isin([1, 2, 12])

def feature_table(
    raw_table: ir.Table,
    has_children: ir.BooleanColumn,
    has_pet: ir.BooleanColumn,
    is_summer_brazil: ir.BooleanColumn,
) -> ir.Table:
    """Join computed features to the `raw_data` table"""
    return raw_table.mutate(

def feature_set(
    feature_table: ir.Table,
    feature_selection: list[str],
    condition: Optional[ibis.common.deferred.Deferred] = None,
) -> ir.Table:
    """Select feature columns and filter rows"""
    return feature_table[feature_selection].filter(condition)
Using pre-1.0.0 Polars integration -- we will stop supporting this in Hamilton 2.0, so please upgrade your version of polars! Current version: 0.20.31, minimum required version: 1.0.0.

Column-level lineage with Hamilton

Solution 2 – Orchestrate Ibis anywhere

Hamilton is an ideal way to orchestrate Ibis code because it has a very small dependency footprint and will run anywhere Python does (script, notebook, FastAPI, Streamlit, pyodide, etc.) In fact, the Hamilton library only has four dependencies. You don’t need “framework code” to get started, just plain Python functions. When moving to production, Hamilton has all the necessary features to complement Ibis such as swapping components, configurations, and lifecycle hooks for logging, alerting, and telemetry.

A simple usage pattern of Hamilton + Ibis is to use the @config.when function modifier. In the following example, we have alternative implementations for the backend connection, which will be used for computing and storing results. When running your code, specify in your config backend="duckdb" or backend="bigquery" to swap between the two.

# ibis_dataflow.py
import ibis
import ibis.expr.types as ir
from hamilton.function_modifiers import config

# ... entire dataflow definition

def backend_connection__duckdb(
    connection_string: str
) -> ibis.backends.BaseBackend:
    """Connect to DuckDB backend"""
    return ibis.duckdb.connect(connection_string)

def backend_connection__bigquery(
    project_id: str,
    dataset_id: str,
) -> ibis.backends.BaseBackend:
    """Connect to BigQuery backend
    Install dependencies via `pip install ibis-framework[bigquery]`
    return ibis.bigquery.connect(

def insert_results(
    backend_connection: ibis.backends.BaseBackend,
    result_table: ir.Table,
    table_name: str
) -> None:
    """Execute expression and insert results"""

How Ibis complements Hamilton

Performance boost

Leveraging DuckDB as the default backend, Hamilton users migrating to Ibis should immediately find performance improvements both for local dev and production. In addition, the portability of Ibis has the potential to greatly reduce development time.

Atomic data transformation documentation

Hamilton can directly produce a dataflow visualization from code, helping with project documentation. Ibis pushes this one step further by providing a detailed view of the query plan and schemas. See this Ibis visualization for the column-level Hamilton dataflow defined above. It includes all renaming, type casting, and transformations steps (Please open the image in a new tab and zoom in 🔎).

Working across rows with user-defined functions (UDFs)

Hamilton and most backends are designed to work primarily on tables and columns, but sometimes you’d like to operate over a row (think of pd.DataFrame.apply()). However, pivoting tables is costly and manually iterating over rows to collect values and create a new column is quickly inconvenient. By using scalar user-defined functions (UDFs), Ibis makes it possible to execute arbitrary Python code on rows directly on the backend.


Using @ibis.udf.scalar.python creates a non-vectorized function that iterates row-by-row. See the docs to use backend-specific UDFs with @ibis.udf.scalar.builtin and create vectorized scalar UDFs.

For instance, you could embed rows of a text column using an LLM API using your existing data warehouse infrastructure.

import ibis
import ibis.expr.types as ir

def documents(path: str) -> ir.Table:
    """load text documents from file"""
    return ibis.read_parquet(sources=path, table_name="documents")

# function name starts with `_` to prevent being added as a node
def _generate_summary(author: str, text: str, prompt_template: str) -> str:
    """UDF Function to call the OpenAI API line by line"""
    prompt = prompt_template.format(author=author, text=text)
    client = openai.OpenAI(...)
        response = client.chat.completions.create(...)
        return_value = response.choices[0].message.content
    except Exception:
        return_value = ""
    return return_value

def prompt_template() -> str:
    return """summarize the following text from {author} and add
    contextual notes based on it biography and other written work


def summaries(documents: ir.Table, prompt_template: str) -> ir.Table:
    """Compute the UDF against the family"""
    return documents.mutate(

Ibis + Hamilton – a natural pairing

  • What works in dev works in prod: Ibis and Hamilton allows you to write and structure code data transformations that are portable across backends for small and big data alike. The two being lightweight libraries, installing dependencies on remote workers is fast and you’re unlikely to ever encounter dependency conflicts.

  • Maintainable and testable code: Modular functions facilitates writing high quality code and promotes reusability, compounding your engineering efforts. It becomes easier for new users to contribute to a dataflow and pull requests are merged faster.

  • Greater visibility: With Hamilton and Ibis, you have incredible visualizations directly derived from your code. This is a superpower for documentation, allowing users to make sense of a dataflow, and also reason about changes.