Tips and Tricks

What is Amazon Athena? Comprehensive Tutorial

Amazon Athena is a serverless, interactive query service that makes it easy to analyze data directly from Amazon S3 using standard SQL. With Athena, you don’t need to worry about managing infrastructure, provisioning servers, or handling complex ETL processes; instead, you can quickly start querying data stored in various formats, from CSV and JSON to Parquet and ORC. It integrates seamlessly with other AWS services, such as AWS Glue for schema management and Amazon QuickSight for data visualization.

In this comprehensive tutorial, we will explore the ins and outs of Amazon Athena. You’ll learn about its core features, how to set up and connect to your data, and how to write efficient queries to uncover meaningful insights. We’ll delve into practical use cases, optimization techniques, and strategies for managing costs. 

What is Amazon Athena?

Amazon Athena is a fully managed, serverless query service that allows you to analyze data stored in Amazon S3 using SQL. Its serverless nature means there’s no infrastructure to manage, making it easy to analyze data without configuring, maintaining, or scaling servers. This flexibility allows analysts and engineers to focus on extracting insights instead of managing databases or data warehouses.

Athena uses a pay-per-query pricing model where users are charged based on the amount of data scanned by each query. This model is particularly advantageous because it eliminates upfront infrastructure costs and allows for highly flexible scaling. With Athena’s automatic scaling, users can efficiently handle varying workloads, whether running simple queries on a small dataset or complex analytics on petabytes of information.

Architecture of Amazon Athena
The Architecture of Amazon Athena Usage

The service works by connecting directly to data stored in Amazon S3 and supports a wide range of data formats, including plain text (CSV and TSV), JSON, Parquet, and ORC. Athena uses a schema-on-read approach, meaning that the data structure is applied at query time. This makes it easy to analyze diverse data sets without preprocessing or extensive data transformations.

Athena integrates seamlessly with other AWS services, most notably AWS Glue Data Catalog, which provides a unified metadata repository for managing tables and schemas. This integration enables automatic schema discovery and streamlines the query process. It can also connect to business intelligence tools such as Amazon QuickSight for visualization and reporting, creating a comprehensive end-to-end analytics workflow.

Athena prioritizes security by providing encryption at rest and in transit and integrates with AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM) for granular access control. For logging and auditing, it is fully compatible with AWS CloudTrail, enabling detailed monitoring of data access and queries.

Overall, Amazon Athena serves as a versatile platform for data engineers and analysts to run ad hoc queries, explore data lakes, and derive insights quickly, without the complexities of traditional data infrastructure.

Key features and benefits

1. Serverless Architecture

Athena operates as a fully managed, serverless service. There is no need to provision, configure, or manage servers, which greatly reduces the operational overhead. The service automatically scales to match your query demands, whether you’re analyzing small datasets or petabytes of information. You only pay for the data scanned by your queries, allowing for cost-effective data exploration.

2. SQL Compatibility

Athena supports ANSI SQL, making it accessible to analysts, developers, and data scientists familiar with SQL syntax. This compatibility reduces the learning curve and allows users to run complex queries directly on data stored in Amazon S3. Advanced features like JOINs, window functions, and subqueries are supported, offering powerful data exploration capabilities.

3. Seamless Integration with Amazon S3

Since Athena queries data directly from Amazon S3, there is no need to move data into a separate database or warehouse. It natively supports a wide range of file formats like CSV, JSON, Avro, Parquet, and ORC. This flexibility allows you to store data in its raw form and choose the most efficient format for querying.

4. Schema-on-Read

Athena uses a schema-on-read approach, meaning data is structured when a query is run rather than when it’s ingested. This enables you to analyze unstructured or semi-structured data without prior schema definitions, providing quick insights across diverse datasets.

5. Integration with AWS Glue Data Catalog

Athena is integrated with AWS Glue Data Catalog, which acts as a centralized metadata repository for all your data assets. This allows Athena to automatically detect and handle schema changes while providing a unified view of all your data tables and partitions.

6. Built-In Security and Compliance

Athena provides security features to safeguard your data:

  • Supports encryption of data at rest and in transit.
  • Works with AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM) to grant fine-grained permissions.
  • Integrates with AWS CloudTrail to log and monitor all query activity.

7. BI and ML Integration

Athena integrates seamlessly with AWS services like Amazon QuickSight for business intelligence and visualization, as well as with machine learning tools for predictive analytics. This allows you to directly apply models to your data and visualize insights using dashboards.

Amazon Athena Best Practice

1. Optimize data partitioning

Partitioning helps reduce query costs by limiting the amount of data scanned. Organize your data by logical partitions like date, region, or category.

Example: Creating a partitioned table


  product_id STRING,

  amount FLOAT,

  region STRING






LOCATION 's3://your-bucket/sales/';

Tip: After creating the table, run MSCK REPAIR TABLE to load all partitions into the Glue Data Catalog:

MSCK REPAIR TABLE sales_data; 

2. Choose the right file format

Using efficient file formats like Parquet or ORC can greatly improve query performance and reduce storage costs due to their columnar structure and built-in compression.

Example: Creating a table with parquet format


  product_id STRING,

  amount FLOAT



LOCATION 's3://your-bucket/parquet-data/';

Tip: Convert existing data to columnar formats for better query performance. This can be achieved using AWS Glue ETL jobs.

3. Use compression to minimize storage costs

Athena can query compressed files, reducing data storage costs and improving query speeds. Gzip and Snappy are popular options.

Example: Querying Gzip-compressed data


  product_id STRING,

  amount FLOAT





LOCATION 's3://your-bucket/gzip-data/'

TBLPROPERTIES ("skip.header.line.count"="1");

Ensure the file extensions match the compression format (e.g., .gz for Gzip).

4. Leverage partition projection

Partition projection improves query performance by predefining partition metadata, eliminating the need for runtime partition enumeration.

Example: Setting up partition projection


  request_id STRING,

  status_code INT




LOCATION 's3://your-bucket/logs/'







5. Secure your data

Encryption and access control are vital for securing data in Amazon Athena. Use server-side encryption (SSE) or client-side encryption (CSE) for data at rest, and restrict data access via AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM).

Example: Applying server-side encryption with S3

Bucket: your-bucket


Tip: Use AWS CloudTrail to log and monitor all query activity.

6. Monitor and analyze query performance

Use the Athena Console to monitor query execution times and errors. Additionally, integrates with AWS CloudWatch to track query activity.

Example: Monitoring queries in CloudWatch

  • Create a CloudWatch rule to trigger an alarm if a query takes longer than expected.
  • Configure alerts based on metrics like QueryScannedBytes or QueryCompletionTime.

To further explore the capabilities of Amazon Athena, sign up at the Data Engineer Academy. DE Academy offers a comprehensive coaching program to guide you through best practices, optimization techniques, and real-world data analysis projects.


Amazon Athena is a critical tool for data engineers, analysts, and data scientists working on projects that require scalable and efficient querying of vast datasets. Whether you’re building ETL pipelines, exploring data lakes, or performing ad hoc analytics, Athena’s serverless architecture provides the flexibility and power needed to handle the task.

It excels in projects where quickly gaining insights is crucial, such as business intelligence, real-time analytics, and machine learning. With its compatibility with standard SQL and seamless integration into the AWS ecosystem, Athena simplifies data workflows while reducing the operational overhead of managing infrastructure.

For professionals focused on optimizing their data engineering projects or enhancing their skills in serverless analytics, understanding Amazon Athena is essential. The Data Engineer Academy offers specialized courses designed to equip you with the expertise needed to fully leverage Athena in diverse, real-world scenarios.