Apache-Airflow : A practical guide

Srivathsan K R
6 min readAug 29, 2018

“Data really powers everything that we do.” — Jeff Weiner

In Artificial Intelligence era, Big Data has become the source to solve problems. Gone are those days where data is collected and processed in batches. Real-time data processing is the key for modern business.

Besides Volume Velocity Variety, managing data pipeline has a significant role to play when it comes to availability. The complex part is developing multiple data pipelines to address different use-cases and managing all at one place.

This article explains the usage of an open source platform which can programmatically author, schedule and monitor workflows for data pipelines.

Yes, it is Apache-Airflow developed by Airbnb Engineering

“We chose it because we deal with huge amounts of data. Besides, it sounds really cool.” — Larry Page


  • Introduction
  • Insight
  • Setup
  • Development
  • Deployment
  • Common shortfalls
  • Conclusion


Airflow framework can be used to build workflows. A workflow could be anything from a simple linux command to a complex hive queries, a python script to a Docker file. Workflow comprises one or more tasks which are connected by Directed Acyclic Graph. Workflow which is called as DAG in Airflow, can be executed manually or it can be automated with schedulers like cron. Success and failure of DAG can be monitored, controlled and re-triggered. DAG state can be alerted with SMTP, Slack and other systems.

“With data collection, ‘the sooner the better’ is always the best answer.” — Marissa Mayer


Airflow is developed in Python. It has following concepts

DAG: Connects independent tasks and executes in specified sequence.
Task: Logical unit of code.
Operator: Template to wrap and execute task. BashOperator is used to execute bash script, PythonOperator is used to execute python code.

“The world is one big data problem. There’s a bit of arrogance in that, and a bit of truth as well.”–Andrew McAfee


This section explains how to install airflow in MacOS High Sierra

Install Python

Download and install python from official website:
I am using python 3.6
To test if the installation is successful

python -V
Python 3.6.X

Now install Airflow and its dependencies using pip

pip install apache-airflow==1.9.0
pip install apache-airflow[celery]
pip install mysqlclient

Install RabbitMQ

RabbitMQ website recommends installation via homebrew

Default username and password for rabbitmq server is guest

brew update
brew install rabbitmq

Add bin path to environment

$ vi .bash_profile

To start Rabbitmq server in background

rabbitmq-server -detached

To check the status of Rabbitmq server

rabbitmqctl status

Install MySQL

Download MySQL for mac(.dmg) here
During installation process, set password for root user (I have selected legacy week password policy)
After installation follow these steps to create airflow database

mysql -u root -p
mysql> CREATE DATABASE airflow CHARACTER SET utf8 COLLATE utf8_unicode_ci;
mysql> create user 'airflow'@'localhost' identified by 'airflow';
mysql> grant all privileges on * . * to 'airflow'@'localhost';
mysql> flush privileges;

Initialize Airflow

First we have to initialize airflow with the below command

airflow initdb

This creates airflow directory in home path with cfg files and logs folder. Create dags folder in airflow directory.

mkdir -p ~/airflow/dags/

We have to set these configurations before running our first airflow code

vi ~/airflow/airflow.cfg
executor = CeleryExecutor
sql_alchemy_conn = mysql://airflow:airflow@localhost:3306/airflow
broker_url = amqp://guest:guest@localhost:5672/

Here SequentialExecutor is default executor which can execute one DAG at a time. We use CeleryExecutor to execute multiple DAGs in parallel.
Default database is sqlite which is not scalable. So we use mysql
CeleryExecutor requires RabbitMQ server which is configured in broker url

Now initialize airflow again to use MySQL as primary DB

airflow initdb

This creates necessary tables in MySQL airflow database

Now start airflow, worker and scheduler

airflow webserver
airflow worker
airflow scheduler

Hit the URL


Congrats!! Airflow is up and running 😆

Airflow home page

“Data is the new science. Big Data holds the answers.” — Pat Gelsinger


Its time to get our hands dirty. We will write our first DAG python code using PythonOperator

from airflow.operators import PythonOperator
from airflow.models import DAG
from datetime import datetime, timedelta
args = {'owner':'srivathsan', 'start_date' : datetime(2018, 10, 1), 'retries': 2, 'retry_delay': timedelta(minutes=1) }dags = DAG('test_dag', default_args = args)def print_context(val):
def print_text():
t1 = PythonOperator(task_id='multitask1',op_kwargs={'val':{'a':1, 'b':2}}, python_callable=print_context, dag = dags)t2 = PythonOperator(task_id='multitask2', python_callable=print_text, dag=dags)t2.set_upstream(t1)

Let us walk through line by line

args is a dict of key value pairs passed as input to DAG

dags is an instance of DAG with dag name ‘My_first_dag’ and args as parameter

print_context() and print_text() are two python functions executed by DAG task

t1 and t2 are PythonOperators with task_id as task name, op_kwargs as arguments passed to function and python_callable

t2.set_upstream(t1) considers t1 and t2 as vertices and connects as directed graph


Deploying Airflow is the easiest task

cp airflow_test.py ~/airflow/dags/

Copy the airflow python file and paste in airflow/dags/ folder

Airflow will recognise changes in dags folder and populates new DAG in webUI

test_dag in Airflow UI

To execute test_dag click play(>) button in Links column

test_dag after execution

After DAG execution, UI shows number of times the DAG executed in DAG Runs column and count of tasks executed in Recent Tasks column circled in green color indicating success.

We can view task dependency graph and code by selecting DAG name in DAG column

test_dag Graph View shows two tasks
code of test_dag

We can see the output of test_dag tasks by selecting task name -> View Log

Selecting multitask1
Selecting View Log shows output of multitask1 highlighted in log

Now we have seen basic example of Airflow. There are many features to explore. Some of the notable features are

  • XComs — Cross communication between DAGs
  • Authentication and Authorisation — User management to login and access DAGs
  • Schedulers — Schedule DAG to execute like cron job
  • SMTP , Slack— To alert with automated email for success and failures
  • Retries and Retry delay — Automate retry in case of failure and delay time between two retry attempts

“There were 5 Exabytes of information created between the dawn of civilization through 2003, but that much information is now created every 2 days.” — Eric Schmidt

Common shortfalls

Most common pitfalls worth noticing before start

  • pip install apache-airflow==1.9.0
    Notice its apache-airflow. Package name used to be airflow till 1.8 and renamed to apache-airflow after releasing to Apache community
  • args = {‘owner’:’srivathsan’, ‘start_date’ : datetime(2018, 10, 1), ‘retries’: 2, ‘retry_delay’: timedelta(minutes=1) }
    These are few arguments passed to DAG() while creating dag instance. Avoid using datetime.now() because airflow scheduler requires only past datetime. Not present datetime.
  • Make sure to start airflow webserver, airflow worker and airflow scheduler before executing a DAG. You can also put these services in background.
    nohup airflow webserver >> ~/airflow/logs/webserver.log &
    nohup airflow worker >> ~/airflow/logs/worker.log &
    nohup airflow scheduler $* >> ~/airflow/logs/scheduler.log &

“Everything is going to be connected to cloud and data… All of this will be mediated by software.” — Satya Nadella


simple and scalable platform with scheduling, monitoring and fault-tolerant capabilities in one word is Apache-Airflow. Credit goes to Airbnb for open source contribution and AirbnbEng team for designing and architecting fabulous framework.

Apache-Airflow — https://airflow.apache.org/
Airflow github — https://github.com/apache/incubator-airflow
Airbnb Engineering — https://airbnb.io/

Happy Learning 😃