Four Methods of Change Data Capture

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Click to learn more about author Joe deBuzna.

As its name suggests, Change Data Capture (CDC) techniques are used to identify changes. CDC can be the basis to synchronize another system with the same incremental changes, or to store an audit trail of changes. The audit trail may subsequently be used for other uses e.g. to update a data warehouse or to run analyses across the changes e.g. to identify patterns of changes. In this blog post, I will describe the four common methods to perform CDC: Date_Modified, DIFF, Triggers, and Log-Based Change Data Capture. I will also share some of the challenges with each method.


Many transactional applications keep track of metadata in every row including who created and/or most-recently modified the row, as well as when the row was created and last modified. The approach to CDC in such an environment is to keep track of when changes are extracted, and in a subsequent run filter on the DATE_MODIFIED column to only retrieve rows that were modified since the most recent time data was extracted. This approach has a few challenges that may or may not be a concern, depending on the application:

  • Data deletes are a challenge because there is no DATE_MODIFIED for a deleted row (unless deletes are logical and update a flag in the row indicates the row was deleted). The extreme case of delete is truncate table which is uncommon in transactional applications but does occur sometimes.
  • DATE_MODIFIED must be available on all tables and must be reliably set. Database triggers may be a good way to set the values but these may introduce overhead on the transactional application.
  • Extracting the changes uses a lot of resources. Of course DATE_MODIFIED may be indexed to lower the impact of the select statement at the cost of storing (and continuously updating) the additional index.

Using DATE_MODIFIED for CDC works well for traditional data warehouse applications that are populated using Extract, Transform and Load (ETL) jobs, when the source tables don’t process deletes.

2. Diff

The diff method for change data capture compares the current state of the data with previous state of the data to identify what changed. Challenges with this approach include:

  • To perform the diff requires a lot of resources to compute the differences between the data, and resource consumption grows at least linearly with the growth in data volume.
  • CDC cannot be performed in real-time because the diff realistically takes too many resources to perform all the time.

Compared to the DATE_MODIFIED CDC method the diff method does not have the challenge with deleted rows. The diff method works well for low data volumes.

3. Triggers

Database triggers can be used to perform CDC in shadow tables. The shadow tables may store the entire row to keep track of every single column change, or only the primary key is stored as well as the operation type (insert, update or delete). The use of database triggers to perform CDC also has a few challenges:

  • Firing the trigger, and storing the row changes in a shadow table, introduces overhead. In an extreme case CDC may introduce 100% overhead on the transaction i.e. instead of .1 second it may take .2 seconds to complete a transaction.
  • The lower-overhead alternative to only store the primary key of the table requires a join back to the source table to retrieve the changes which (1) increases the load to retrieve the changes, and (2) loses intermediate changes if multiple changes took place on the same row.
  • Should the source application perform a truncate then chances are the trigger won’t fire and changes are not recorded. Also, if changes are made to tables then triggers and shadow tables may also have to be modified, recreated and/or recompiled which introduces extra overhead to manage and maintain the database.

CDC using database triggers lowers the overhead to extract the changes but increases the overhead to record the changes.

4. Log-based Change Data Capture

Transactional databases store all changes in a transaction log in order to recover the committed state of the database should the database crash for whatever reason. Log-based CDC takes advantage of this aspect of the transactional database to read the changes from the log. The challenges with log-based CDC are:

  • Interpreting the changes in the transaction log is difficult because there are no documented standards on how the changes are stored (i.e. transaction logs from different database vendors are completely different), and there are many scenarios that must all be considered and tested (e.g. consider clustered databases, rollbacks and savepoints, many different ways to perform inserts, updates and deletes, etc.).
  • Database vendors may not provide an interface to the transaction logs – documented or not – and even if there is one it may be relatively slow and/or resource intensive.
  • Most databases have been optimized to only use internal identifiers to recover database row changes which is insufficient to perform CDC and record the changes on a different system. Supplemental logging of primary key columns is required to retrieve the context of the updates. The introduction of supplemental logging will increase the volume of data written to the transaction logs but generally only by a small percentage, and generally, there is very little if any measurable performance impact on the transactional application.

Benefits of Log-Based Change Data Capture

The biggest benefit of log-based change data capture is the asynchronous nature of CDC: changes are captured independent of the source application performing the changes. Dedication and smart software engineers can take care of the biggest challenges. Log-based CDC is generally considered the superior approach to change data capture that can be applied to all possible scenarios including systems with extremely high transaction volumes.

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