DeltaLake: A clever solution to a big (data) problem

9 August 2019

Why Blob Storage Is Risky

Many people use Amazon S3 or equivalent services to replace their relational database data warehouses as blob storage coupled with technologies like the compressed-columnar parquet file format offers a reasonably performant, massively scalable and cheap alternative.

To understand why blob storage can be risky it is important to understand how Apache Spark executes writes to non-transactional storage systems like S3 or other blob storage. To do this we are going use a contrived example where every day a user extracts their bank account transactions to a CSV file named yyyy-MM-dd_transactions.csv:

file date amount description
2019-08-04_transactions.csv 2019-08-04 500.00 Pay
2019-08-04_transactions.csv 2019-08-04 -21.60 Uber Eats
2019-08-05_transactions.csv 2019-08-05 -55.29 Uber Eats
2019-08-05_transactions.csv 2019-08-05 -10.00 Movie Ticket
2019-08-06_transactions.csv 2019-08-06 -12.99 Netflix
2019-08-06_transactions.csv 2019-08-06 -20.00 ATM Withdrawal

After safely applying data types to the data the user wants to write that data as a Parquet file to Amazon S3 (provided by the hadoop-aws library) which is a non-transactional file system.

Parquet Process

The actual process happens in two steps:

  1. The Spark Driver process instructs the Worker processes (in this case 3 workers) to calculate the dataset and write the partition(s) allocated to them to a _temporary file path on S3 and report success/failure to the Driver. Filenames include a UUID to likely avoid collisions.
  2. Assuming all Worker processes report success then the Driver sequentially executes a mv (move) for each temporary file part to move it into the final file path.

This is actually very risky due to the non-ACID properties of S3 (and other blob storage systems) as:

  1. The mv move process is executed by the Driver process is not Atomic (offers no transactional guarantees) meaning that if the network connection is broken or the Driver process crashes partway through the list of files to move then the target path will contain a non-consistent dataset (only a subset of the data will have been moved). Contrast this to a traditional data warehouse with transacitonal guarantees the database not commit the data if the connection was severed before a transaction COMMIT has occured.
  2. While the mv (move) stage is occuring a consumer may read the data and receive a dataset with a non-consistent state as s3 does not provide read-Isolation.
  3. The mv (move) process is executed by the Driver process sequentially so it is an O(n) problem, meaning it will take longer and longer depending on the number of files to move, increasing the risk of the previous non-consistent dataset issues.


There are a few options to solve this problem:

Versioned Dataset

Write the full dataset out each run to a new path like: s3a://blob_store/transactions/${epoch}_transactions.parquet then on success update an external mechanism like the Hive Metastore to store the path to the dataset as latest (essentially the pattern described here).

This solution, whilst not terrible, comes with the drawback of:


DeltaLake is a custom and open source solution developed by Databricks which elegantly sidesteps the problem of not having transactional guarantees in S3 by using versioned _delta_log/index JSON files alongside the parquet to describe which changes (deltas) are required to move from one version of a dataset to the next. This has been included in Arc as the DeltaLakeExtract and DeltaLakeLoad plugin stages.

DeltaLake Process

The actual process happens in three steps (very similar to the normal process):

  1. The Spark Driver process instructs the Worker processes (in this case 3 workers) to first calculate the dataset then write the partition allocated to them to a _temporary parquet file path on S3 and report success/failure to the Driver.
  2. Assuming all Worker processes report success then the Driver sequentially executes a mv (move) to each temporary parquet file part to move it into the correct file path.
  3. Additionally the Driver then writes a JSON file into the _delta_log directory to describe how to transition from one dataset version to the next.

To understand how the JSON pointer works here are the results at each day:

Running on 2019-08-04 produces the first version 00000000000000000000.json.

{"metaData":{"id":"fb6b1664-1c2c-4b8e-b499-301960d4a1b7","format":{"provider":"parquet","options":{}},"schemaString":"{\"type\":\"struct\",\"fields\":[{\"name\":\"date\",\"type\":\"date\",\"nullable\":true,\"metadata\":{\"internal\":false,\"nullable\":true,\"description\":\"transaction date\"}},{\"name\":\"amount\",\"type\":\"decimal(10,2)\",\"nullable\":true,\"metadata\":{\"internal\":false,\"nullable\":true,\"description\":\"transaction amount\"}},{\"name\":\"description\",\"type\":\"string\",\"nullable\":true,\"metadata\":{\"internal\":false,\"nullable\":true,\"description\":\"transaction description\"}},{\"name\":\"_filename\",\"type\":\"string\",\"nullable\":true,\"metadata\":{\"internal\":true}},{\"name\":\"_index\",\"type\":\"integer\",\"nullable\":true,\"metadata\":{\"internal\":true}},{\"name\":\"_errors\",\"type\":{\"type\":\"array\",\"elementType\":{\"type\":\"struct\",\"fields\":[{\"name\":\"field\",\"type\":\"string\",\"nullable\":true,\"metadata\":{}},{\"name\":\"message\",\"type\":\"string\",\"nullable\":true,\"metadata\":{}}]},\"containsNull\":true},\"nullable\":true,\"metadata\":{\"internal\":true}}]}","partitionColumns":[],"configuration":{},"createdTime":1565327751167}}

The part-00000-c5bc4211-f1e5-447b-b6a6-2b06ac214421-c000.snappy.parquet would contain only:

date amount description
2019-08-04 500.00 Pay
2019-08-04 -21.60 Uber Eats

Running on 2019-08-05 with saveMode=Append results in 00000000000000000001.json.


The part-00000-a173a6c3-09f5-443c-a378-b3270b2846da-c000.snappy.parquet would contain only:

date amount description
2019-08-05 -55.29 Uber Eats
2019-08-05 -10.00 Movie Ticket

The important bit to focus on is the add operation which tells DeltaLake to add the data contained in part-00000-a173a6c3-09f5-443c-a378-b3270b2846da-c000.snappy.parquet to the previous version (0) which contains only part-00000-c5bc4211-f1e5-447b-b6a6-2b06ac214421-c000.snappy.parquet. On every 10th write DeltaLake will automatically capture a state snapshot so the maximum number of versions which need to be applied to the last known snapshot are limited. DeltaLake can also remove file parts from the dataset to compute the new state.

The beauty of this is that:

The only real limitation is that to get the full benefit the DeltaLake extract mechanism must be used but it has already been included in Arc as the DeltaLakeExtract stage.