Understanding the Differences Between a Data Inventory and a Data Catalog

Discover the differences between a data inventory and a data catalog, along with what you need to know to select the right tool for your business. Learn more.
Last updated
February 20, 2024
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Data inventories and data catalogs are both very important tools when it comes to data management. While these terms may sometimes get confused with one another, they serve different purposes. In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at the differences between a data inventory and a data catalog, along with what you need to know to select the right tool for your business.

A Brief Overview

Both of these tools are used in metadata management, but it’s important to differentiate the two when you’re assessing your data stack. There are some key differences between the two, and your organization should likely be using both tools to ensure your data is organized, and the quality of your data is maintained. With that being said, let’s dive into a definition for data inventory first.

What is a data inventory?

A data inventory is a detailed record of all data assets within an organization, including their type and location. Creating a data inventory is typically a manual process that the IT team needs to do to find and map data assets so that you have a full view of the data assets at your disposal. This not only helps with compliance but also helps to identify potential data quality issues. Put simply, a data inventory is primarily used to identify all of an organization's data and assign technical metadata to define it better.

What is a data catalog?

Generally, a data catalog can be considered a bit more comprehensive than a data inventory. Data catalogs are centralized repositories that organize and categorize all types of metadata, including technical and business metadata. A data catalog is used to allow an organization’s users to more easily search and discover data, which improves data democratization, governance and integrity.

Key Differences To Pay Attention To

With both tools defined, let’s take a look at some of the key differences between data inventories and data catalogs. Here are the factors that set these two apart:

  • Types of metadata — A major difference between data catalogs and data inventories are the types of data they keep track of. While a data inventory only organizes technical metadata, data catalogs typically include more detailed information such as technical, business, social and operational metadata.
  • Key users — The IT team puts together a data inventory, and they are also the primary team members who utilize the data inventory. Data catalogs, on the other hand, are intended to be used by both technical and business users in an organization. Data catalogs are meant to enable easier usage of data throughout an organization.
  • Implementation process — An organization’s IT team typically puts together a data inventory which is a manual process. A data catalog can be built using automated software tools, which can also help maintain the data catalog on an ongoing basis.
  • Primary use case — The primary purpose of a data inventory is for an organization to identify all of its data assets, mostly for compliance purposes. The primary use case of a data catalog is to make an organization’s data searchable and discoverable. Both are also used to improve data quality, improve governance and improve data accuracy.

When Should You Use an Inventory or Catalog?

Now that we understand the difference between data inventory and data catalog let’s discuss when each of these tools should be used. While some organizations can get by with just the simple high-level data overview provided by a data inventory, most organizations can benefit from the features and capabilities that a data catalog offers.

Generally, a data inventory is the first step for most data management processes. You can’t organize and manage your data without knowing what data assets you have. Taking an inventory of all these data assets and assigning them technical metadata will help you drastically improve your data management capabilities if you didn’t already have an inventory. 

Once your data management needs grow, as most organizations do as they scale, a data catalog can help you leverage your data and make the most of it. With the centralized repository that you get with a data catalog, you’ll have a single source of truth for your data assets that store all the necessary metadata that makes your data searchable and easier to discover. Data inventories can handle simple data management tasks, but data catalogs will help you unlock your data’s true potential.

With that being said, you may have noticed that it’s not a bad idea to use a data inventory and data catalog in tandem. A data inventory can complement a data catalog and help you improve your data quality and accuracy to an even finer degree.

Tips for Selecting the Right Tool

Typically, an organization may already have a data inventory in place for compliance reasons. If this is the case, you may have already learned how having only a data inventory can limit your data management and discovery capabilities. With that in mind, it may be time to implement a data catalog in your processes. A data catalog can vastly improve your data management, but it can be difficult to choose the right tool from the various options available.

Here are some tips to help you choose the right tool:

  • Assess your data assets — This is where your data inventory will come in handy. When choosing a data catalog, you will want to do a full assessment of your data assets. Consider your data sources, data formats and the other tools you already use in your data stack. That will help you determine the volume and complexity of your data and help you choose the best data catalog to handle it.
  • Consider your budget — As with any decision involving new tools, you will need to keep your budget in mind. However, modern data catalog solutions have become more affordable and accessible in recent years. Everyone from small businesses to enterprise-level companies can utilize a data catalog, but you should still have a budget in mind.
  • Look for intuitive tools — Data catalog tools should help to democratize data in your organization, making it more accessible, searchable and easy to discover. Technical and business users alike should be able to feel comfortable using a data catalog tool.
  • Look for automated options — Some data catalog tools come equipped with AI to help automate many of your data management processes. These automated workflows will not only make your team more productive, but they will help to improve the quality of data as well.
  • Review the features — Take a look at the capabilities and features that a data catalog tool offers. Some data catalog tools are made better than others. You want to ensure your tool improves data discovery, but some tools can also help with data governance, lineage and other data management tasks.

By following these tips, you'll be better equipped to select the right tool for your organization's data management needs.

Try Secoda for Free

If you’re ready to implement a data catalog in your data management stack, consider Secoda as your solution. Secoda's features make it an all-in-one data management tool. Secoda serves as an AI-powered data search, cataloging, lineage and documentation platform that enables your team to be more efficient, leverage the power of your company’s data and improve data-driven decision-making. Try Secoda for free today to see what an AI data catalog can do for your business.

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