April 14, 20236 minute read

From Python Projects to Dagster Pipelines

In part IV of our series, we explore setting up a Dagster project, and the key concept of Data Assets.
Elliot Gunn
Elliot Gunn

In the last three articles, we've covered key concepts that can help you build your first Python project. In Part 1 we looked at understanding what packages are. In Part 2 we discussed managing dependencies in projects big and small, and the value that virtual environments can bring. We then covered how to structure your projects to take advantage of modular programming in Part 3.

Today, we’ll take a look at how you can start your first data engineering project with just a basic understanding of Python.

This guide is most useful if you have some understanding of Python and are just starting with Dagster. It’s also helpful if you’re new to data engineering and want to start somewhere to get a sense of how it works in Python.

In this step-by-step guide, we zoom in on Assets in Dagster to help you understand how you can create successful data engineering pipelines. Along the way, we'll share some more useful tips and tricks for writing clean, maintainable Python code that follows best practices.

Let’s get started!

Table of contents

Data engineering in Python

Data engineering involves building systems that can store, process, and analyze data at scale.

For example, a data engineer might create a pipeline that extracts data from different sources on a fixed schedule, transforms it into a useful format, and loads it into a database for further analysis. This is a traditional ETL task, but they may also build systems that can automatically integrate, clean, validate, and perform complex calculations on the data.

These tools are useful as they help organizations work with large and complex datasets in a way that is fast, reliable, and scalable.

Python is a popular language for data engineering because it has powerful libraries for data manipulation, like pandas and NumPy, and it is also a general-purpose language that can be used for a wide range of tasks.

Dagster is an open-source solution for data orchestration, the process of automating the data pipelines that aggregate, process, and store the information that powers applications and business processes. Data orchestration supports a range of applications, from internal business intelligence to critical customer-facing services. A modern data orchestration process may include machine learning, data science and analytics use cases and range from simple linear data processes that run in a few minutes to massive complex data processing tasks that take many days to execute with work distributed across dozens if not hundreds of individual computers.

Dagster offers several key components to help users build and run their data pipelines, including Assets, Ops, and Jobs.

Assets: An asset is an object in persistent storage, such as a table, file, or persisted machine learning model. They are the primary end-product of a data engineer’s work. In Dagster, Software-defined Assets are a key declarative concept: they are a way of defining this asset in our pipeline code, so that we can easily refer to it and track its dependencies. Assets can be a database table, a file, or a machine learning model. Under the hood, every software-defined asset contains an op (or graph of ops), which is the function that’s invoked to compute its contents. In most cases, the underlying op is invisible to the user.
Ops: Ops are the core unit of computation in most orchestration tools. An individual op performs a relatively simple task, like getting data from one place and storing it somewhere else. Ops can be combined to form a graph, which is a collection of ops that are connected together to create a data pipeline. They are the building blocks for more complicated jobs and assets. Note that in Dagster, while ops are available, the framework emphasises Assets as the main abstraction to build upon.
Jobs: Jobs are a logical, ordered grouping of Dagster Assets or Ops. The core of a job is a "graph" of "ops." Think of a graph as a diagram of how different tasks are connected. The ops are the individual tasks that need to be executed, and they're connected by lines that show which tasks depend on which others. Jobs are the main unit of execution and monitoring in Dagster: When you ‘run a pipeline,’ you ask Dagster to run a Job. In turn, that Job will materialize one or more Assets.

If you would like to explore Assets, Ops and Jobs in more detail, consult the Dagster docs.

Setting up the project's root directory

Once we initiate a new Dagster project, it is important to keep all project folders and files inside a root directory. Root directories are the first or top-most directory in our project’s file system that contains all other folders. This is where we will write our Dagster project code, and it’s important to keep it organized this way for two reasons.

First, the root directory provides a common reference point when using relative paths. This helps ensure that files can be found and referenced consistently, regardless of the location of the files.

Second, when deploying a project, the root directory is often used as the starting point for the packaging and deployment process. This ensures that all required files are included and that the project is deployed in the correct structure.

With this in mind, let’s create a new directory for your project:

mkdir my_dagster_project

We can then change the working directory to our project’s root directory using the cd command:

cd my_dagster_project

Launching a virtual environment

Next, we’ll set up a virtual environment in our root directory, which allows for different versions of Python and libraries to be used in separate projects, without interfering with each other.

We can name the virtual environment anything you want. In this example, we went with .dag-venv .

$ python3 -m venv .dag-venv

Then, activate the virtual environment:

$ source ./.dag-venv/bin/activate

You can use this optional command to confirm the version of Python you are on:

$(dag-venv) python3 --version

For reference, when writing this blogpost, I was on version 3.10.9

Installing Dagster & scaffolding an initial project

Let’s first install Dagster and other Python packages you’ll need by running the following command in your terminal:

# run in a terminal in your favorite python environment
pip install dagster dagit pandas

It’s good practice to verify the version of Dagster installed:

dagster --version

For reference, when writing this blogpost, I was on version 1.2.6 of Dagster.

Dagster provides a helpful “scaffolded” project through the following command:

dagster project scaffold --name dagster-tutorial

We’ve named our project “dagster-tutorial” but you can replace that with any name you prefer.

At this point, you should see a message appear to know that you’re on the right track:

Success! Created dagster-tutorial at /Users/<your_name>/my_dagster_project/dagster-tutorial

What is Scaffolding?

Before we proceed any further, it’s helpful to understand what happens when you run dagster project scaffold --name dagster-tutorial. You’ll notice that this creates a bunch of files in your root directory:

This is a standard Dagster template that makes it easy to get started without having to create all the necessary files from scratch. We call this code scaffolding: the automatic generation of a basic structure or framework of code for a software application. It saves time for developers by providing a starting point for building an application. It can also help ensure consistency and structure in the code, making it easier for developers to understand and maintain the application over time.

What is the setup.py file?

In a previous article, we covered in greater detail how to manage dependencies with different tools. The dagster-tutorial/setup.py file lets us specify any Python packages we will need.

In the setup.py file, you’ll find the following code:

from setuptools import find_packages, setup

    extras_require={"dev": ["dagit", "pytest"]},

Once we have defined our dependencies and libraries, Dagster will automatically manage their installation and execution.

What is the __init__.py file, and where does it sit?

Some of these files are critical for running Dagster. For instance, when you look under the dagster_tutorial folder, you'll find an __init__.py file with the following code:

from dagster import Definitions, load_assets_from_modules

from . import assets

all_assets = load_assets_from_modules([assets])

defs = Definitions(

We’ll explain more about what assets are later, but just for now, this __init__.py file loads assets that we will create shortly for the application to access. The assets themselves are defined in code in the assetys.py file in this same folder and imported with the command from . import assets.

What are Definitions?

Inside the __init__.py file, you'll notice the following lines of code:

defs = Definitions(

The Definitions object, named defs, collects all the functions and pipelines you want to use in your Dagster project for a Code Location. These include assets, schedules, sensors, jobs, resources, executors, and loggers. Putting all these objects into Definitions helps make it easier to manage and organize your code.

Dagster separates user-defined code from system tools like the web server and the daemon. Instead of loading code directly into these tools, Dagster uses a process called serialization to allow the tools to interact with the code. This separation helps to keep the system organized and prevents issues that might arise from different parts of the system interacting with each other directly.

Most importantly, it means that:

  1. the user code can be managed in a clean repository so we can support CI/CD
  2. any errors in the user code will not bring down the Dagster instance.

What is Serialization?

Serialization is the process of converting complex data structures such as objects, lists, and dictionaries into a format that can be easily stored, transmitted or shared.

This is particularly important in data engineering tools because large amounts of data need to be saved, transferred or used across different applications.

How does this work in Dagster? When Dagster uses a “serialization boundary”, this means that any data passed between the user-defined code (e.g. the Definitions object) and system tools is first serialized into a common format that can be easily transmitted across different systems.

Declaring an asset in Dagster

Assets are a crucial component in Dagster. As we explained earlier, an asset is an object in persistent storage, such as a table, file, or persisted machine learning model. A Software-defined Asset is a Dagster object that couples an asset to the function and upstream assets that are used to produce its contents. Software-defined Assets enable a declarative approach to data management, in which code is the source of truth on what data assets should exist and how those assets are computed.

In simple terms, a Software-defined Asset is an object in Dagster that is used to define how data should be stored and computed. It connects the data (asset) to the function that produces it and other data (upstream assets) that are used to create it. Assets are reusable and versioned pieces of data or code that can be used as inputs and outputs in Dagster pipelines. These include SQL scripts, data files, or machine learning models.

With software-defined assets, you can manage your data using a declarative approach, which means that you define what data should exist and how it should be computed through code. This approach helps to keep your data management organized and consistent and ensures that your code is the source of truth for how your data is handled.

When an asset is created or refreshed, we say that it is ‘materialized’ - meaning that a new instance of the asset has been created and committed to storage.

Let’s create two assets to download the top 10 HackerNews stories.

In our Dagster project, let’s add the following code to the dagster-tutorial/dagster_tutorial/assets.py file:

import pandas as pd
import requests

from dagster import Output, asset

def hackernews_top_story_ids():
   Get top stories from the HackerNews top stories endpoint.
   API Docs: https://github.com/HackerNews/API#new-top-and-best-stories
   top_story_ids = requests.get(
   return top_story_ids[:10]

# asset dependencies can be inferred from parameter names
def hackernews_top_stories(context, hackernews_top_story_ids):
   """Get items based on story ids from the HackerNews items endpoint"""
   results = []
   for item_id in hackernews_top_story_ids:
       item = requests.get(f"https://hacker-news.firebaseio.com/v0/item/{item_id}.json").json()

   df = pd.DataFrame(results)


   return Output(value=df)

Now, run the dagster dev command in the terminal. This starts Dagster's user interface:

$ dagster dev

In your browser, navigate to http://localhost:3000/. This is the local address where you can “find” the running Dagster app on your browser.

Under the Deployment tab, click Materialize All to run the pipeline and create your assets. We use the term 'materialized' to describe the process of creating or refreshing an Asset, which means that a new version of the Asset has been created and saved. This pipeline uses the Dagster defaults to save the result to a pickle file on disk.

For the purpose of this tutorial, we will also output the contents of the Pandas dataframe to Dagster’s logging system with the command context.log.info(df). If you click on the “Runs” tab in the top menu, you will see the details of the run, along with the data generated:

Up next…

Building on Python programming best practices, we’ve looked at how assets, and in particular Dagster’s Software-defined Assets, make it easy to construct simple data engineering pipelines.

If you have any questions or need further clarification, feel free to join the Dagster Slack and ask the community for help. Thank you for reading!

Our next article will build on these data engineering concepts and explore how Ops and Jobs fit into more complex pipelines.

We're always happy to hear your feedback, so please reach out to us! If you have any questions, ask them in the Dagster community Slack (join here!) or start a Github discussion. If you run into any bugs, let us know with a Github issue. And if you're interested in working with us, check out our open roles!

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