Secret Sauce - How is Pilosa Different?

Secret Sauce - How is Pilosa Different?

12/12/2017 • 5 min read

By now, most of us have heard a thousand and one pitches for data products - and if you’re anything like me, you’ve given a few yourself.

Just wading through this surplus of information software is a challenging task; the features and abilities of each product are the summation of hundreds of tiny technical decisions and tradeoffs on a wide, deep tree. Many of them are nearly identical except in a few details that may only be important to very specific use cases, for example two competing SQL databases. Others may inhabit completely separate branches of the tree, finding common ground only at the root such as a document store and a graph database. Some may have nearly identical APIs, but make wildly different performance tradeoffs and so are only appropriate for distinct workloads.

Pilosa is not exempt from this sort of analysis, and it is the product of just as many careful technical decisions and engineering tradeoffs as anything else. However, Pilosa differs in a major way, both technically and philosophically, from every other data product which I have encountered. In this respect, I believe that Pilosa resides in a largely unexplored branch of the technical decisions tree; one it found based on the existing stack that it needed to fit into, and the constraints of the problem which it was originally designed to solve.

The thing that makes Pilosa unique in the big data landscape is that it is an index in a very pure sense. There are other big data products (Elasticsearch comes to mind) which claim to be indexes, and in some sense they are, but there is a key difference. Products like Elasticsearch store all the data you put into them - a complete copy, with all the memory, storage, and processing power that entails. The original notion of an index, however, comes from SQL and pre-SQL mainframe databases. In these systems, an index is an auxiliary datastructure which is created and maintained alongside the original data for the purpose of improving query performance. The crucial difference is that this data structure doesn’t replicate the original dataset, it just contains pointers to it, and because of that it’s much smaller and more manageable than a full copy of the data.

Pilosa’s functionality is analagous to this stricter definition of an index, but instead of maintaining the data structure in memory, or on disk alongside the original data, it makes the index a first class entity in the world of big data and dedicates a logically separate piece of infrastructure to it.

Grizzled database architects will likely balk at this notion, and indeed there are a number of drawbacks to decoupling the index from the datastore. Increased operational complexity, performance degredation due to IPC between components, and consistency issues just to name a few. As we’ve seen time and again though, there is a tipping point in scale where these tradeoffs make sense - it’s not unlike the decision to go from one giant SQL database running dedicated, top of the line hardware to a few dozen Cassandra nodes in the cloud. At some point, one must scale out rather than up, and that means dealing with distributed systems head on.

Once you’ve made the leap, there are a number of clear advantages to a separated, stand alone index:

  • index data from multiple underlying stores
  • scale independently of the data storage layer
  • focus on speed and availability rather than consistency and durability
  • answer many aggregation and statistical queries without ever touching the data store
  • tune hardware and infrastructure choices in a more granular way

Big data tech is pretty bad at indexing. There are a lot of materialized views, denormalized tables, precomputed queries, etc. Most of these are fancy terms for silly hacks which boil down to us having forgotten what indexes really are, and what they’re for. Have you ever written the same data to two different cassandra tables which just had different primary keys? Don’t. Have you ever run an overnight batch job to update a separate set of tables which exists to serve certain kinds of queries? Please stop. A pure index should handle these usage patterns without storing a complete copy of the data.

We posit that databases are really trying to do two jobs which are completely at odds with one another. On one hand, a database should store your data securely and durably - it should be persisted to disk, and preferably replicated in multiple physical locations. On the other hand, today’s databases are also in charge of making the data they store available and queryable in every way imaginable as quickly as possible. These goals are difficult, and in some cases impossible to realize simultaneously. Our vision is to separate these responsibilities into separate tools, so that each can do one job, and do it well.

We’re really just starting this journey, and there are still a lot of unanswered questions. It isn’t always clear how to model one’s data in Pilosa, or how to integrate it into an existing stack. If you have multiple underlying data stores, how do you keep track of them? How do you keep Pilosa consistent with your durable storage if it’s a separate entity? We’re working on answers to these questions and many others over at and I invite you to come collaborate with us. All of our public repositories are released under permissive open source licenses, and we welcome any interaction - from questions about how to use Pilosa, to pull requests fixing spelling mistakes, to feature requests.

Jaffee is a lead software engineer at Pilosa. When he’s not evangelizing independent indexes, he enjoys jiu-jitsu, building mechanical keyboards, and spending time with family. Follow him on Twitter at @mattjaffee.

Banner photo by Caroline Attwood on Unsplash

Get even more from Pilosa

Stay updated on our progress and upcoming events.