A Map of the Entire Universe

A Map of the Entire Universe

8/25/2017 • 17 min read

… the universe of 65536-bit sets in Roaring, that is. This is one part debugging postmortem, one part documentation, and three parts academic deep dive on the structure that underlies Roaring Bitmaps.


Pilosa uses Roaring Bitmaps for storage of and computation with bitmaps (integer sets) in its distributed bitmap index. Roaring is a core component of Pilosa, which makes it an easy place to look for optimization opportunities. One of those opportunities, adding a new compression technique, was a big undertaking, and it has raised interesting questions.

In this post, I’ll start with a brief explanation of Roaring and how it works. This is important background for understanding “container space”, a two-dimensional plane which can be used to map all integer sets under a given size. Container space is a helpful framework for understanding some of the details of Roaring’s implementation and performance.

This came in handy in debugging and testing. At one point, we started asking more theoretical questions, and that’s when I went down a rabbit hole, with the help of the container space framework. In the process of answering those questions, I produced some pretty pictures that I wanted to share. Feel free to skip to the last section to see those, but I suggest at least skimming the next section for context.

Container Space

Roaring stores large sets of integers by breaking them up into containers that are 216 = 65536 bits long, and it uses a different container type for each container, depending on what’s in it. For example, the set {0, 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 9, 10, 14} has three equivalent representations in Roaring:

RLE container example Small container type example

The set contains nine elements, and in this toy example, we’ll use 16-bit numbers to store them. That means the array representation, a list of integers in the set, uses 9×2 bytes. The uncompressed bitmap, in which one bit is set for each number in the set, uses a constant number of bytes (2 here), regardless of what set it represents. Run-length encoding (RLE) stores the set as a list of runs, where each run contains two 16-bit numbers (the start and end of the run). For this set with four runs, we use (4 runs) × (2 numbers per run) × (2 bytes per number).

Before I get into it, here is a summary of some notation. You can skip this, just refer back to it if you lose track of what the symbols mean.

Container terminology table Container terminology

Roaring switches between these intelligently to minimize storage size. Which container type is smallest? In this example, the uncompressed bitmap is, but the answer depends on the set, and all three types are important in their own way. Originally, with only two container types (uncompressed bitmaps and arrays), deciding when to switch between the two for a given container was trivial: compare the cardinality of the set (N) to a threshold, (MA), and only use an array if N ≤ MA. With the addition of RLE containers, this got more complicated, because now we have to check a new attribute of the set: the run count, the number of runs of ones (NR).

Previously, we only had to decide between two one-dimensional intervals with a single comparison. Now, with both N and NR defining a two-dimensional planar region that I have dubbed container space, each container type corresponds to a subregion with linear boundaries. These regions are illustrated below.

Container type decision Container type decision

M is the maximum number of bits in a container. Note that the figure is not to scale; M is actually much larger than MA and MR. The 2:1 ratio of MA and MR is accurate, however.

There is an impossible region in there. Why is that?

  • The solid black line sloping up-right, the N = NR diagonal, represents sets where every set bit is isolated - all runs are length one. No set can be above this line, as that would mean more runs than set bits (but each run must have at least one bit).

  • The other solid black diagonal line, N = M-NR+1, represents sets where every clear bit is isolated - all runs are as close as possible while still being separate. No set can be above this line, as that would mean more runs than clear bits (which must separate adjacent runs). If you think about the complementary set, it makes sense that both of these constraints must exist.

  • Near the intersection of these two lines are two points, (M/2, M/2) and (M/2+1, M/2), which represent sets with the maximum number of single-bit runs. These are the only cases for which NR = M/2; NR is smaller for all other sets.

The remaining region represents all possible sets, with container type regions indicated by color. What about those boundaries, where do they come from?

  • The line N = MA is the ArrayMaxSize threshold constraint: when cardinality is low enough, an array will always be smaller than a bitmap. Array size is AN, so an array is smaller than a bitmap when AN < M, or N < M/A.

  • The line NR = MR is a similar RunMaxSize threshold constraint. When the number of runs is low enough, an RLE container will always be smaller than a bitmap. RLE size is 2RNR, so an RLE is smaller than a bitmap when 2RNR < M, or NR < M/(2R).

  • Finally, that dotted diagonal line is the boundary between array and RLE: arrays are smaller than runs when AN < 2RNR, or N < 2(R/A)NR. Generally, A = R, so this simplifies to N < 2NR.

I think it’s a pretty diagram. It’s satisfying to see a complex situation condensed into a simple 2-D cartesian representation, even if it ignores important complexity. There is one problem: it’s not symmetric enough!

The above figure represents exactly what Pilosa does to decide a container type, but there is another container type that Pilosa doesn’t use at all: inverse arrays. What if, for dense data, we store an array of the clear bits instead of the set bits? In other words, we store an array of the integers that are NOT in the set, so all other integers in {0, 1, …, 65535} are part of the set. Then the diagram looks like this:

Container type decision with inverse arrays Container type decision with inverse arrays

Beautiful! The utility of the iarray container type is questionable, however, because it’s fundamentally the same as the array type. In other words, you can achieve the same behavior by simply storing the inverse of a set, with a little overhead. Also, the iarray container type is really only useful for very dense data sets, which we don’t see a lot of. If we do, we’ll consider adding support for this new type to Pilosa. Anyway, I’m just glad to know that there is a sort of fundamental mirror symmetry to the diagram.


We made fast progress with the RLE work, but while stress testing it with large imports, we discovered some nasty bugs. For weeks we couldn’t even reproduce them consistently, but eventually we were able to trim those big import jobs down to something more manageable. Only then did we have a chance to diagnose the problem, and before long we figured it out: some of the container type decision logic was flawed.

Before RLE, every time an element was added to or removed from a container, we checked the cardinality threshold, and converted to bitmap or array accordingly. With RLE containers, we introduced a function to handle the new conversions in a single place:

func (c *container) Optimize() {
  if c.isArray() {
    runs := c.arrayCountRuns()
    if runs < c.n/2 {
  } else if c.isBitmap() {
    runs := c.bitmapCountRuns()
    if runs < 2048 {

With some thought we can see that this function, in itself, is incomplete: it can only result in one of two conversion actions: arrayToRun or bitmapToRun. But there are six possible conversions. arrayToBitmap and bitmapToArray were previously being handled elsewhere, but that still leaves runToArray and runToBitmap. To handle all of these possibilities at once, we should have been doing something more like this:

func (c *container) Optimize() {
  runs := c.countRuns()

  // Decide new type.
  var newType byte
  if runs <= RunMaxSize && runs <= c.n/2 {
    newType = ContainerRun
  } else if c.n < ArrayMaxSize {
    newType = ContainerArray
  } else {
    newType = ContainerBitmap

  // Then handle all six conversions.
  if c.isArray() && newType == ContainerBitmap {
  else if ... {

Implementing RLE was a big job, and at least four of our engineers contributed to the branch. Two of us, working independently, updated the file-read/write functions to handle RLE containers, which is why we failed to notice that the logic for deciding container type on file read did not exactly match the logic on write (partly because the latter was hidden inside the innocuous-sounding container.Optimize()). If you’ve implemented a binary file format before, you might be thinking: why is there even any logic at all for deciding a container type while reading a file? That’s a great question, and it’s answered in full by the Roaring storage spec.

TL;DR: back before RLE containers, it was trivial to infer container type from the cardinality, which had to be stored for arrays anyway, so there was no need to have explicit type information in the file. With the addition of RLE, it became necessary to add one extra bit per container to indicate an RLE container, since the cardinality doesn’t tell you anything about that.

Of course, if perfect backward compatibility isn’t critical, there are other, more robust ways to store type information. We chose this route—including the container type explicitly in the “descriptive header” section—to guard against similar bugs in the future. We also fixed the bug, which is the reason these diagrams exist. Once we pinpointed the faulty decision logic, I drew these diagrams to convince myself of the correct behavior. Getting some thorough documentation out of it was a nice bonus.


We wrote a lot of debugging code to track down these bugs. One tool I wanted early was a function randomContainers() to randomly generate a slice of containers with a variety of types. I accomplished this by choosing a random cardinality, and then generating a container with that cardinality. With some parameter tweaking, it was easy to get an acceptable variety.

This lacked elegance. What I wanted was a function randomContainerOfType(type) to generate one container, guaranteed to be a specified type. Stretch goal: the container should be selected uniformly at random from all containers of that type. How might I do that?

One approach: write a function randomContainer(N, Nruns) that generates a random container with a specified cardinality and runCount. Then I can call that within randomContainerOfType(type), using randomly chosen pairs (N, NR) that fall into the correct regions of container space. That whole thing might be wrapped up in randomContainers(), which could generate the three types with equal probability.

How does randomContainer(N, Nruns) work? Since Nruns is known, we should probably generate an RLE container. Remember, Roaring knows how to convert container types, so we can generate it as whatever type is most convenient. We need an RLE container with Nruns, and the total number of set bits among those runs is N. It’s fairly easy to produce a list of runs that satisfies these constraints. We do this by generating the constrained run-lengths for both 1-runs and 0-runs, and converting those to the (start, last) format used internally by Pilosa.

Container generation Random container generation

The process is illustrated here, and later I’ll revisit one last detail about how the x and y values are generated…


Nerd snipe Nerd sniping (xkcd)

Jaffee saw the container space diagram, and made a remark similar to one that I made to myself previously: “That array region is so small, it seems like it’s not even worth the effort.” Of course, areas are deceptive in container space. There is no direct correlation between the size of a region, and the number of sets in the region, or the likelihood of a random set belonging to it. For example, a random bitmap with a bit density of 5% is overwhelmingly likely to be an array, rather than an RLE, if the set bits are distributed uniformly randomly.

Or that’s what I assumed, at least. When someone else posed the question, I was sniped. I had no choice but to validate that assumption. This served to satisfy my curiosity more than anything else, but still, it’s good to know I understand what I’m working on. So, I set out to answer the question “for a randomly chosen bitmap with M = 65536 total bits, what is the probability of falling into each of the three regions of container space?”

I started out small: for M = 8, it’s easy to enumerate all 28 possible sets and just count the number that belong to each point in the space. This produces a low-resolution heatmap, where position corresponds to (N, NR), and color indicates the count for that (N, NR) pair. For such a small M, there is hardly any sense in switching container types, so I left the region boundaries out of the plot.

Heatmap for M=8 Brute force Heatmap for M=8

For M = 256, that doesn’t work, 2256 is way too big. Instead, I sampled random sets and counted their (N, NR) in a 256x128 grid. A million iterations captures a decent portion of the space, and with some tweaking I figured I could fill that out. Note that this one is in logarithmic scale. Greenish pixels, labeled 74 in the color scale on the right, represent counts of 1074.

Heatmap for M=256 Stochastic heatmap for M=256

But I wanted something that would even work for M = 65536. The same sampling approach can be used, but the space is too big. No reasonable number of samples could get a decent picture of the distribution.

Stochastic Heatmap for M=65536 Stochastic Heatmap for M=65536

That thing that looks like a speck of dust on your screen, that’s the result. Zooming in, you can see all the samples are clustered around the center of the space (M/2, M/4) = (32768, 16384).

Zoomed Stochastic Heatmap for M=65536 Stochastic Heatmap for M=65536, zoom view

See, that just seems futile. I realized there was another approach: an analytical solution. I thought about that for a bit, then remembered the work I did on generating random containers, which solves almost the same problem. That is, if I know how to generate a random container given (N, NR), I should be able to count the number of possible outcomes of that event. If I can reduce that to an analytical expression, then I can simply examine that as a function, rather than use Monte Carlo simulation on the impossibly large space.

After a detour through a paper addressing a similar but much more general question, and verification from some helpful stackexchange answerers, I found the expression I needed:

Container Space Expression Analytical form of container space distribution

If you look at the actual randomContainer code, you can see exactly where this comes from: the two randomPartition calls correspond to the two terms in the expression. The truncated permutation obviously chooses one of a binomial-coefficient number of possible events.

So I just needed a way to compute this, accurately and efficiently, for large values of M, N, NR. After another few iterations, I decided that simply summing the values of FM over the appropriate regions was the way to go. The numbers involved are so big that it only makes sense to do this in the logarithmic domain. That means numbers are stored as base-10 exponents, products are sums, and sums are calculated as y + math.log10(1 + 10 ** (x-y)). Since that sidesteps costly bignum binomial-coefficient calculations, it helps with the speed quite a bit. It can even help avoid those log-domain sums in some cases, because 1050 + 1060 ≈ 1060. I’m not looking for exact integer answers here, so I’m not too worried about an approximation that’s only accurate to nine decimal places.

Analytical Heatmap for M=65536 Analytical Heatmap for M=65536

Finally, we come to the motivating question: when choosing one bitmap among all possible bitmaps of length 65536, what is the probability of falling into each of the container type regions? With that expression for FM in hand, it’s a relatively simple matter to count the sets in each region, then divide by the total to get a probability. The answer is even simpler: all sets are bitmaps.

Wait, that doesn’t sound right… Actually, the question was wrong. We made the mistake of trying to look at all possible sets. In that context, the vast majority of them are right in the middle of container space, in that bright yellow spot in the bitmap region. Let’s pick just one point somewhere in the RLE region: sets with cardinality 2000, and 50 runs. There are


(2.28×10274) sets matching this criterion. But that number is inconceivably tiny compared to the number of bitmaps with cardinality 30000 and 10000 runs: 3.69×1017459, a number with about as many digits as there are letters in this blog post.

The numbers for the full regions are equally absurd; The bitmap region contains the vast majority, 2.00×1019728, which is almost exactly the same as the total count. There are approximately 9.96×106651 array sets, and 9.96×106651 RLE sets. Those look the same, which is an interesting clue. Actually, they agree out to the eighth digit, and arrays outnumber RLEs by a small relative margin.

This is what combinatorial explosion looks like in a universe containing 265536 elements. But we don’t have to stop here, we just have to ask different questions.

For example, what happens if we ask the same question about region probabilities, but for a range of different bit depths? That is, Pilosa uses M = 65536, and MA and MR are dictated by the 16-bit array elements. Since we’re off in la-la-land anyway, why not consider what things look like for different values of these parameters?

Container count vs universe size Container count vs universe size

The scale here is a little wonky: the x axis is logarithmic and the y axis doubly logarithmic. That means the gap between the two pairs of lines is huge - a factor of 10165 for M=1024, for example. In short, that means bitmaps dominate in probability for all M. This is why the bitmap and total curves coincide. Why do the array and RLE curves coincide for large M? I’m not sure, but I wonder if there is a simple counting argument to explain this. There is some discrepancy for small M, so the near-equality appears asymptotic.

Getting back to the Pilosa world, what happens if we stick with M = 65536, but restrict bit density? That is, instead of looking at all possible bitmaps, let’s look at a smaller portion of the space: bitmaps with a specific cardinality N. If we do this computation for a range of values of N, we can examine the container type distribution as a function of the bit density.

Container count vs cardinality Container count vs cardinality

Zoomed container count vs cardinality Container count vs cardinality, zoom view

What exactly are we looking at here? The x-axis is cardinality, and the y-axis is the count of all sets, in log scale again. Curves are shown for each of the four types, but we can focus on the first three. This really shows the difference in magnitude between the container types, and reiterates the “everything is a bitmap” result. You can see the behavior on both sides of the ArrayMaxSize threshold: for N < MA, containers can be either arrays or runs, and arrays outnumber runs dramatically. Even at very low cardinality, arrays are more than a googol times more likely than runs. When N > MA, bitmaps replace arrays, and runs are still possible, but again bitmaps outnumber them dramatically.


At this point, my intuitive answer to Jaffee’s question seems to be confirmed: The area of a region in container space does not necessarily correspond to the count of sets belonging to the region. The specific result suggests a new question: if the number of sets in the RLE region is so small, why is THAT worth using as a separate container type?

One problem with the above analysis is that we’re considering a uniform distribution across all sets in the 265536-bit universe. Even when I restricted N, I still used a uniform distribution for NR. I didn’t have any fundamental reason for picking that distribution, it’s just the simplest thing to look at. What if we used some distribution based on real-world data?

Another great question, for another post. There are quite a few variables to consider here: the dataset, the mapping used to index it, and the order data is imported into Pilosa, among others. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve left out any discussion of query speed, which is another area RLE shines. I started looking at the Taxi dataset, where I noticed a number of effects, with a strong dependence on the frame (and the structure of the data contained within). I do have a brief summary of some benchmarks, which demonstrate the value of adding RLE:

RLE Benchmarks Preliminary RLE benchmarks

But there is more work to do, to understand these effects and dependencies fully. That is a different sort of undertaking, which we’ll be exploring as part of several upcoming posts on benchmarks.

Figures were created with LaTeX or plotly, source available here and here.

Alan is a software engineer at Pilosa. When he’s not mapping the universe, you can find him playing with laser cutters, building fidget spinners for his dog, or practicing his sick photography skills. Find him on Twitter @gsnark.

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