Awkward Zone

four wrenches

Rust, BigData and my laptop

I have been toying and working with BigData tools for years. Data preparation, index building, logs processing, Wikipedia graph analysis… Not necessarily huge datasets, but often in the “awkward zone”, where a scripting language show its limits, but firing up a 20-node cluster does not feel right.

Some things have changed since the early 2000s. Getting access to hundreds or thousands of computer for a few hours at an affordable rate was science-fiction. — Have you read Permutation City, by Greg Egan ? — It’s now a commonplace occurence. We have also access to a variety of software tools to distribute computation on these clusters.

So distributed processing is now both reasonably affordable and easy, providing a very acceptable answer to most problems that would have landed in the “awkward zone” a few years ago.

An unfortunate consequence of making scalability accessible is… we may have, as an industry, become lazy. If we have a scalable solution to a problem, it is tempting to choose the easy way, just throw more hardware at the problem without trying too hard getting a more efficient solution.

It’s a bit of a shame.

The latest figures I could find about Internet energy impact put it somewhere between 3% and 10% of the global energy balance. And that’s heat. Just heat. From a thermodynamic point of view, computers are heaters.

Also… well I think it’s fun. And constraints generates creativity.

So I’ll spend some time trying to explore (again) that good old “awkward zone” that EC2 and Spark have more or less anhilated.

Let’s try and do some BigData on a laptop.

Game changers

Let’s consider our post-EC2, post-Spark world. I think two items bring something new to the table.

Affordable SSD

We have been stuck with the 5-to-15-millisecond latency of spin-disk for years. Charting memory speed and availibility was showing a huge empty zone between RAM and disks. This gap is now closing with SSD — and a few other more exotic contraptions. This is a huge thing. Most of the reasoning for data processing in the previous decade was structured by this strict dichotomy between fast memory and cheap memory. Everything big was I/O bound anyway. Purely sequential access was the only way to go. CPU were usually starved, so expensive compression was often a good option.

We have to reconsider the choices and compromises we did in the previous decade in the light of the SSD characteristics. It will take years. And SSD is just the beginning: now that the spin-disk barrier is crossed, we will see various storage devices with performance characteristics and costs all over the place.


SSDs are here, and they are here to stay. The second game changer is a software one, and it may just be wishful thinking on my part.

Rust is a new language, aiming at being a modern and viable alternative to C and C++ in the “system programming language” niche., one of the driving forces behind Rust, is bored with C++ and wants a new language to write a new Mozilla.

As a language, Rust share characteristics with Scala and Swift, featuring a strong trait-based type system, integration of functionnal idioms in an overall imperative and object language. But Rust has a unique approach to resource management: the implicit ownership and borrowing of resources that we have always worked with have been made explicit in the language. So basically, the Rust developper can write code that will be as efficient as C++ code, as safe as Java, in a language supporting high-level idioms.

Yes, Rust wants it all. The price is a steep learning curve. Progresses are being made to help (error message improvements, smarter borrow-checker) but making friend with the borrow-checker still dominates the Rust beginner experience. And having a difficult time negotiating with the borrow-checker stays a regular occurence when trying to write abstract library code.

The BigData benchmark / Query 2

So to exercice Rust and SSD in the awkward zone, I looked around for examples with documented performance and I found just that.

It focuses on comparing different SQL-like batch processing engines on a 5-nodes EC2 cluster: spark SQL, hive, etc. Redshift, AWS proprietary engine is also included in the bench.

Four queries are included in the bench:

I will focus on the “group-by” query, called… Query 2.

The input is a 30GB table, called “UserVisits”, representing anonymised visits on a web site. The query uses two fields (sourceIP and adRevenue) among a dozen. The query groups visits by a prefix of the sourceIP, and sum adRevenue on these groups. There are three variants for the query with a 8, 10 or 12 bytes prefix length (X). Note that the variant only impacts the size of the result, not the input.

  SELECT SUBSTR(sourceIP, 1, X), SUM(adRevenue)
    FROM uservisits

Full results with graphs are provided in the benchmark page, but let’s focus on this:

Query X group count Hive perf Shark perf
2A 8 2,067,313 730s 83s
2B 10 31,348,913 764s 100s
2C 12 253,890,330 730s 132s

This is running on a cluster made of five 8cores/64GB nodes on EC2.

I have not shown the best-performing solution in the above table. The reason is, as the benchmark page explains, RedShift uses a columned input. As the query we are working on use about 15% of the actual data, we can expect a big speed improvement there. We may consider using a columned format ourselves, but not in this initial test.

The raw input is provided in 2037 “deflated” CSV files.

First iteration

Now one of the interesting things about doing something like that by hand is, there is no framework to dictate how to architect or organize the computation. You’re free.

The result is a table containing 2M or 254M records, each record being a pair (prefix, amount). Our worst case will be a 12bytes prefix, amount a 32-bits float. So each record is 16bytes. Our theorical result size is about 4GB. That’s fine, my laptop has 16GB. Note that I chose not to write the result to Disk in which I differ from the bigdata benchmark.

Rust structures are lean. Rust HashMap will have some overhead, but nothing unreasonable. For the prefixes, I can use [u8;12] fixed arrays. That’s just an array of 12 (unsigned) bytes. No hidden cost. Another option would be an actual String or Vec (a resizable vector) which could be slightly easier to manipulate but they would incur some overhead: Vec is a structure with a pointer to the actual buffer, plus two integer fields for buffer capacity and actual size. String is more or less the same. Three words, 24 bytes. Bigger than the usefull data itself. Let’s not go there.

Actually, I could be more aggressive on the keys. They are ipv4 adresses prefix, so each byte can only be a figure or a dot… this should take half a byte, not one byte. Let’s keep that for later

As my laptop has 4 hyperthreaded cores, I need to parallelize the computation somehow. I picked a work stealing queue, enqueued a job for each input file. Each job scans a file and performs a local aggregation on its own hashmap. Once it’s done it drains its own little HashMap in a big shared HashMap.

And that’s more or less it.

cargo build, run, wait, look at the progress bar for a while.

Mmmm. Frown.


cargo build –release, run, wait, look at the progress bar.


Drum roll… 633s! We are already doing better than a 5-nodes hive cluster. ON A LAPTOP, playing David Bowie songs to cover its fans noise, plugged to a 4K display, running Chrome with a few dozen tabs, and about as many iTerm panes. So not particularly quiet.

That was for the A variant. The C variant runs in 666 (!) seconds.


As I have hinted several times, I plan to detail more iterations in the coming weeks. I will show some code (once it’s cleaned), and do more stuff: play with various input formats and optimize, distribute the computation using timely dataflow on a cluster. This part is done, I just need to write about it :)

And we’ll get way better than these 633s.

Rust and BigData series:

  1. Rust, BigData and my laptop
  2. The rust is in there
  3. Let’s optimize
  4. Hashes to hashes
  5. Embrace the glow cloud
  6. Query2 in timely dataflow
  7. Query2 in differential dataflow