Submit New Event

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Submit News Feature

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Contribute a Blog

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Sign up for Newsletter

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Mar 11, 2015

Towards Out-of-core DataFrames


This work is supported by Continuum Analyticsand the XDATA Programas part of the Blaze Project

This post primarily targets developers. It is on experimental code that isnot ready for users.

tl;dr Can we build dask.frame? One approach involves indexes and a lotof shuffling.

Dask arrays work

Over the last two months we’ve watched the creation ofdask, a task scheduling specification, anddask.array a project toimplement the out-of-core nd-arrays using blocked algorithms.(blogposts:1,2,3,4,5,6).This worked pretty well. Dask.array is available on the main conda channel and on PyPIand, for the most part, is a pleasant drop-in replacement for a subset of NumPyoperations. I’m really happy with it.

conda install dask
pip install dask

There is still work to do, in particular I’d like to interact with people whohave real-world problems, but for the most part dask.array feels ready.

On to dask frames

Can we do for Pandas what we’ve just done for NumPy?

Question: Can we represent a large DataFrame as a sequence of in-memory DataFrames andperform most Pandas operations using task scheduling?

Answer: I don’t know. Lets try.

Naive Approach

If represent a dask.array as an N-d grid of NumPy ndarrays, then maybe we shouldrepresent a dask.frame as a 1-d grid of Pandas DataFrames; they’re kind of like arrays.

dask.arrayNaive dask.frame

This approach supports the following operations:

  • Elementwise operations df.a + df.b
  • Row-wise filtering df[df.a > 0]
  • Reductions df.a.mean()
  • Some split-apply-combine operations that combine with a standard reductionlike df.groupby('a').b.mean(). Essentially anything you can do withdf.groupby(...).agg(...)

The reductions and split-apply-combine operations require some cleverness.This is how Blaze works now and how it does the does out-of-core operations inthese notebooks:Blaze and CSVs,Blaze and Binary Storage.

However this approach does not support the following operations:

  • Joins
  • Split-apply-combine with more complex transform or apply combine steps
  • Sliding window or resampling operations
  • Anything involving multiple datasets

Partition on the Index values

Instead of partitioning based on the size of blocks we instead partition onvalue ranges of the index.

Partition on block sizePartition on index value

This opens up a few more operations

  • Joins are possible when both tables share the same index. Because we haveinformation about index values we we know which blocks from one side need tocommunicate to which blocks from the other.
  • Split-apply-combine with transform/apply steps are possible when the grouperis the index. In this case we’re guaranteed that each group is in the sameblock. This opens up general df.gropuby(...).apply(...)
  • Rolling or resampling operations are easy on the index if we share a smallamount of information between blocks as we do in dask.array for ghostingoperations.

We note the following theme:

Complex operations are easy if the logic aligns with the index

And so a recipe for many complex operations becomes:

  1. Re-index your data along the proper column
  2. Perform easy computation

Re-indexing out-of-core data

To be explicit imagine we have a large time-series of transactions indexed bytime and partitioned by day. The data for every day is in a separate DataFrame.

Block 1
credit name
2014-01-01 00:00:00 100 Bob
2014-01-01 01:00:00 200 Edith
2014-01-01 02:00:00 -300 Alice
2014-01-01 03:00:00 400 Bob
2014-01-01 04:00:00 -500 Dennis

Block 2
credit name
2014-01-02 00:00:00 300 Andy
2014-01-02 01:00:00 200 Edith

We want to reindex this data and shuffle all of the entries so that now wepartiion on the name of the person. Perhaps all of the A’s are in one blockwhile all of the B’s are in another.

Block 1
time credit
Alice 2014-04-30 00:00:00 400
Alice 2014-01-01 00:00:00 100
Andy 2014-11-12 00:00:00 -200
Andy 2014-01-18 00:00:00 400
Andy 2014-02-01 00:00:00 -800

Block 2
time credit
Bob 2014-02-11 00:00:00 300
Bob 2014-01-05 00:00:00 100

Re-indexing and shuffling large data is difficult and expensive. We need tofind good values on which to partition our data so that we get regularly sizedblocks that fit nicely into memory. We also need to shuffle entries from allof the original blocks to all of the new ones. In principle every old blockhas something to contribute to every new one.

We can’t just call DataFrame.sort because the entire data might not fit inmemory and most of our sorting algorithms assume random access.

We do this in two steps

  1. Find good division values to partition our data. These should partitionthe data into blocks of roughly equal size.
  2. Shuffle our old blocks into new blocks along the new partitions found instep one.

Find divisions by external sorting

One approach to find new partition values is to pull out the new indexfrom each block, perform an out-of-core sort, and then take regularly spacedvalues from that array.

  1. Pull out new index column from each block
  2. indexes = [block['new-column-index'] for block in blocks]
  3. Perform out-of-core sort on thatcolumn
  4. sorted_index = fancy_out_of_core_sort(indexes)
  5. Take values at regularly spaced intervals, e.g.
  6. partition_values = sorted_index[::1000000]

We implement this using parallel in-block sorts, followed by a streaming mergeprocess using the heapq module. It works but is slow.

Possible Improvements

This could be accelerated through one of the following options:

  1. A streaming numeric solution that works directly on iterators of NumPyarrays (numtoolz anyone?)
  2. Not sorting at all. We only actually need approximate regularly spacedquantiles. A brief literature search hints that there might be some goodsolutions.


Now that we know the values on which we want to partition we ask each block toshard itself into appropriate pieces and shove all of those pieces into aspill-to-disk dictionary. Another process then picks up these pieces and callspd.concat to merge them in to the new blocks.

For the out-of-core dict we’re currently usingChest. Turns out that serializingDataFrames and writing them to disk can be tricky. There are several goodmethods with about an order of magnitude performance difference between them.

This works but my implementation is slow

Here is an example with snippet of the NYCTaxi data (this is small)

In [1]: import dask.frame as dfr

In [2]: d = dfr.read_csv('/home/mrocklin/data/trip-small.csv', chunksize=10000)

In [3]: d.head(3) # This is fast
medallion hack_license \
0 89D227B655E5C82AECF13C3F540D4CF4 BA96DE419E711691B9445D6A6307C170
1 0BD7C8F5BA12B88E0B67BED28BEA73D8 9FD8F69F0804BDB5549F40E9DA1BE472
2 0BD7C8F5BA12B88E0B67BED28BEA73D8 9FD8F69F0804BDB5549F40E9DA1BE472

vendor_id rate_code store_and_fwd_flag pickup_datetime \
0 CMT 1 N 2013-01-01 15:11:48
1 CMT 1 N 2013-01-06 00:18:35
2 CMT 1 N 2013-01-05 18:49:41

dropoff_datetime passenger_count trip_time_in_secs trip_distance \
0 2013-01-01 15:18:10 4 382 1.0
1 2013-01-06 00:22:54 1 259 1.5
2 2013-01-05 18:54:23 1 282 1.1

pickup_longitude pickup_latitude dropoff_longitude dropoff_latitude
0 -73.978165 40.757977 -73.989838 40.751171
1 -74.006683 40.731781 -73.994499 40.750660
2 -74.004707 40.737770 -74.009834 40.726002

In [4]: d2 = d.set_index(d.passenger_count, out_chunksize=10000) # This takes some time

In [5]: d2.head(3)
medallion \
0 3F3AC054811F8B1F095580C50FF16090
1 4C52E48F9E05AA1A8E2F073BB932E9AA
1 FF00E5D4B15B6E896270DDB8E0697BF7

hack_license vendor_id rate_code \
0 E00BD74D8ADB81183F9F5295DC619515 VTS 5
1 307D1A2524E526EE08499973A4F832CF VTS 1
1 0E8CCD187F56B3696422278EBB620EFA VTS 1

store_and_fwd_flag pickup_datetime dropoff_datetime \
0 NaN 2013-01-13 03:25:00 2013-01-13 03:42:00
1 NaN 2013-01-13 16:12:00 2013-01-13 16:23:00
1 NaN 2013-01-13 15:05:00 2013-01-13 15:15:00

passenger_count trip_time_in_secs trip_distance \
0 0 1020 5.21
1 1 660 2.94
1 1 600 2.18

pickup_longitude pickup_latitude dropoff_longitude \
0 -73.986900 40.743736 -74.029747
1 -73.976753 40.790123 -73.984802
1 -73.982719 40.767147 -73.982170

0 40.741348
1 40.758518
1 40.746170

In [6]: d2.blockdivs # our new partition values
Out[6]: (2, 3, 6)

In [7]: d.blockdivs # our original partition values
Out[7]: (10000, 20000, 30000, 40000, 50000, 60000, 70000, 80000, 90000)

Some Problems

  • First, we have to evaluate the dask as we go. Every set_index operation (andhence many groupbys and joins) forces an evaluation. We can no longer, as inthe dask.array case, endlessly compound high-level operations to form more andmore complex graphs and then only evaluate at the end. We need to evaluate aswe go.
  • Sorting/shuffling is slow. This is for a few reasons including theserialization of DataFrames and sorting being hard.
  • How feasible is it to frequently re-index a large amount of data? When do wereach the stage of “just use a database”?
  • Pandas doesn’t yet release the GIL, so this is all single-core. See post onPyData and the GIL.
  • My current solution lacks basic functionality. I’ve skippedthe easy things to first ensure sure that the hard stuff is doable.


I know less about tables than about arrays. I’m ignorant of the literature andcommon solutions in this field. If anything here looks suspicious then pleasespeak up. I could really use your help.

Additionally the Pandas API is much more complex than NumPy’s. If anyexperienced devs out there feel like jumping in and implementing fairlystraightforward Pandas features in a blocked way I’d be obliged.