Tips and Tricks

Apache Airflow: Definition, Architecture Overview, Use Cases

In today’s data-driven landscape, efficient workflow management is crucial. Apache Airflow has emerged as a vital tool that addresses this need by offering a robust platform for scheduling, orchestrating, and monitoring workflows. This article delves into the various aspects of Apache Airflow, from its fundamental architecture to its range of features, and evaluates its strengths and limitations.

What is Apache Airflow?

Apache Airflow is an open-source platform that provides the necessary infrastructure for orchestrating complex computational workflows and data processing pipelines, in a programmatically created, scheduled, and maintainable manner. Created by Airbnb in 2014, Apache Airflow has been incubated under the Apache Software Foundation since 2016 and has rapidly gained traction within the community for its scalability, ease-of-use, and extensibility.

Airflow was initially developed at Airbnb to manage the company’s increasingly complex workflows. It was an alternative to available tools at the time, which often required hard-coding of workflows and lacked extensibility. Seeing the tool’s potential for broader applications, Airbnb decided to open-source it. Since then, Apache Airflow has seen constant growth and improvements, resulting in its current stable and extensive version.

One of the distinguishing features of Apache Airflow is the use of Directed Acyclic Graphs (DAGs) to describe the workflow. Each node in the DAG represents a task, and the edges between nodes represent dependencies among these tasks. This makes it easier to visualize and understand complex workflows, as well as to ensure tasks execute in the correct order and handle task dependencies programmatically.

Key Functionalities

  • Task Dependency Management: Enables specifying complex inter-task dependencies easily.
  • Dynamic Workflow Generation: Allows the programmatic generation of DAGs based on parameters and external configurations.
  • Extensible Operators: Provides the capability to define custom operators, making it adaptable to almost any workflow.
  • Scheduling: Comes with a powerful scheduler that allows time-based and event-based triggering of tasks.

By breaking down workflows into manageable tasks connected through a DAG and providing a suite of utilities for task scheduling, logging, and monitoring, Apache Airflow provides a rich set of functionalities designed to assist in creating, maintaining, and visualizing complex workflows with ease.

Key Components and Architecture

The architecture of Apache Airflow is modular and built around several key components that interact closely with each other. Understanding these elements and their interactions is crucial for effectively leveraging Airflow’s capabilities.


  1. Scheduler: Orchestrates the execution of jobs on a trigger or schedule. The Scheduler chooses how to prioritize the running and execution of tasks within the system.
  1. Worker Nodes: Execute the operations defined in each DAG. In a distributed setting, multiple worker machines perform the operations in parallel.
  1. Metadata Database: Stores credentials, connections, history, and configuration. The database saves credentials for external systems, logs, and even serialized versions of DAGs.
  1. Web Server: A web-based UI for monitoring and administrating. The Web Server provides a detailed view of DAGs, task states, and task logs.
ComponentInteraction DescriptionCode or Configuration
SchedulerPolls for any tasks that need to be executed and places them in a queue`airflow scheduler`
Worker NodesPicks up those tasks and runs them. Once done, it records the status in the Metadata DatabaseTask code in DAG script
Metadata DatabaseHolds state and configuration data, fed by both the Scheduler and Worker NodesPostgreSQL, MySQL setups
Web ServerReads from the Metadata Database to display state and task-related informationWeb-based UI

Code Snippet to Initialize Scheduler and Web Server

# Initialize the database

airflow db init

# Start the web server, default port is 8080

airflow webserver --port 8080

# Start the scheduler

airflow scheduler

Example DAG Script

from airflow import DAG

from airflow.operators.dummy import DummyOperator

from airflow.operators.python import PythonOperator

from datetime import datetime, timedelta

default_args = {

    'owner': 'me',

    'depends_on_past': False,

    'retries': 1,

    'retry_delay': timedelta(minutes=5),


with DAG(




    start_date=datetime(2023, 1, 1),

) as dag:

    start = DummyOperator(task_id='start')

    def print_hello():

        print("Hello World")

    task_hello = PythonOperator(task_id='print_hello', python_callable=print_hello)

    start >> task_hello

In sum, the Scheduler and Worker Nodes operate the defined tasks in the DAG, while the Metadata Database tracks these operations. The Web Server, on the other hand, offers an interface for human interaction and real-time monitoring. This synergistic architecture makes Airflow a robust and reliable system for workflow management.

Features of Apache Airflow

Apache Airflow is equipped with a broad range of features that contribute to its popularity as a workflow orchestration tool. These features make it easier to design, schedule, and monitor complex workflows, which is critical in today’s increasingly data-centric enterprises. Here are the notable features:

DAG Visualization

Airflow provides intuitive graphical visualizations for Directed Acyclic Graphs (DAGs), allowing you to visualize task dependencies, their current status, and other runtime metrics right from the Web Server UI.


Airflow is designed to be highly extensible through custom operators, executors, and hooks. This enables you to create functionality that suits the specific requirements of your workflow.

Example: Creating a Custom Operator

from airflow.models import BaseOperator

from airflow.utils.decorators import apply_defaults

class MyCustomOperator(BaseOperator):


    def __init__(self, my_param, *args, **kwargs):

        super(MyCustomOperator, self).__init__(*args, **kwargs)

        self.my_param = my_param

    def execute(self, context):

        print(f"My custom parameter is: {self.my_param}")

Dynamic Pipeline Creation

Airflow supports dynamic pipeline generation, meaning DAGs can be generated programmatically. This enables conditional logic within workflows, making it easier to create highly dynamic task pipelines.

Example: Dynamic Task Generation

from airflow import DAG

from airflow.operators.dummy_operator import DummyOperator

from datetime import datetime, timedelta

default_args = {

    'owner': 'airflow',

    'start_date': datetime(2023, 1, 1),


with DAG('dynamic_dag', default_args=default_args, schedule_interval=timedelta(days=1)) as dag:

    start = DummyOperator(task_id='start')

    for i in range(5):

        task = DummyOperator(task_id=f'run_task_{i}')

        start >> task

Logging and Monitoring

Airflow provides rich logging features that capture stdout and stderr outputs of your tasks, accessible both from the metadata database and the Web Server UI. This makes it easier to debug issues and monitor task execution.

Data Partitioning and Parallel Execution

Airflow can partition data and execute tasks in parallel across multiple worker nodes. This is essential for accelerating large-scale data pipelines.

Task Retries

Built-in task retries and delay configuration allow for handling of transient failures in the tasks, reducing the need for manual intervention when failures occur.

These diverse features, from dynamic pipeline creation to robust logging and monitoring, make Apache Airflow a versatile tool well-suited for complex workflow orchestration in varied environments.

Expert Opinions

In my years of experience working with workflow orchestration tools, Apache Airflow stands out for several reasons. Firstly, its modular architecture is a standout feature that grants unprecedented flexibility. Whether you’re managing simple data transformations or orchestrating complex machine learning pipelines, Airflow’s customizable architecture can adapt to your specific requirements.

Another noteworthy feature is the robust Scheduler. In an era where real-time data analytics is indispensable, a dependable scheduler is a game-changer. Airflow’s Scheduler is not just reliable but also remarkably versatile, supporting a range of triggers and schedules. This gives you the ability to finely tune your workflows down to the smallest details.


Q: Is Apache Airflow suitable for small businesses?

A: Yes, its modular architecture allows it to be scalable to fit the needs of businesses of all sizes.

Q: Can Apache Airflow be used for real-time data processing?

A: While primarily designed for batch processing, it can be configured for near real-time processing.

Q: How does Apache Airflow differ from traditional ETL tools?

A: Unlike traditional ETL tools, Airflow provides greater flexibility, allows dynamic workflow generation, and offers extensive customizability.


Apache Airflow stands as a robust and flexible solution for workflow management in the modern data landscape. Its architecture and features are designed to meet the complex requirements of data orchestration, making it a go-to tool for data engineers.

Check out our comprehensive guide and training modules to get started with Apache Airflow today.