Optimizing SQL Queries

After you write a query in STMO, you can make big steps to improve performance by understanding how data is stored, what databases are doing under the covers, and what you can change about your query to take advantage of those two pieces.

Note that this advice is most relevant for the Presto, Athena, and Presto-Search data sources, as well as Spark SQL and Spark notebooks in general.

TL;DR: What to do for quick improvements

  • Switch to Athena
  • Filter on a partitioned column† (even if you have a LIMIT)
  • Select the columns you want explicitly (Don't use SELECT *)
  • Use approximate algorithms: e.g. approx_distinct(...) instead of COUNT(DISTINCT ...)

† Partitioned columns can be identified in the Schema Explorer in re:dash. They are the first few columns under a table name, and their name is preceded by a [P].

Some Explanations

There are a few key things to understand about our data storage and these databases to learn how to properly optimize queries.

What are these databases?

The databases we use are not traditional relational databases like PostgreSQL or MySQL. They are distributed SQL engines, where the data is stored separately from the cluster itself. They include multiple machines all working together in a coordinated fashion. This is why the clusters can get slow when there are lots of competing queries - because the queries are sharing resources.

Note that Athena is serverless, which is why we recommend people use that when they can.

How does this impact my queries?

What that means is that multiple machines will be working together to get the result of your query. Because there is more than one machine, we worry a lot about Data Shuffles: when all of the machines have to send data around to all of the other machines.

For example, consider the following query, which gives the number of rows present for each client_id:

SELECT client_id, COUNT(*)
FROM main_summary
GROUP BY client_id

The steps that would happen are this:

  1. Each machine reads a different piece of the data, and parses out the client_id for each row. Internally, it then computes the number of rows seen for each client_id, but only for the data that it read.
  2. Each machine is then given a set of client_ids to aggregate. For example, the first machine may be told to get the count of client1. It will then have to ask every other machine for the total seen for client1. It can then aggregate the total.
  3. Given that every client_id has now been aggregated, each machine reports to the coordinator the client_ids that it was responsible for, as well as the count of rows seen for each. The coordinator is responsible for returning the result of the query to the client, which in our example is STMO.

A similar process happens on data joins, where different machines are told to join on different keys. In that case, data from both tables needs to be shuffled to every machine.

Why do we have multiple databases? Why not use Athena for everything?

Great question! Presto is something we control, and can upgrade it at-will. Athena is currently a serverless version of Presto, and as such doesn't have all of the bells and whistles. For example, it doesn't support lambda expressions or UDFs, the latter of which we use in the Client Count Daily dataset.

Key Takeaways

  • Use Athena, since it doesn't have the resource constraints that Presto or Spark do.
  • Use LIMIT. At the end of a query all the data needs to be sent to a single machine, using LIMIT will reduce that amount and possible prevent an out of memory situation.
  • Use approximate algorithms. These mean less data needs to be shuffled, since we can use probabilistic data structures instead of the raw data itself.
  • Specify large tables first in a JOIN operation. In this case, small tables can be sent to every machine, eliminating one data shuffle operation. Note that Spark supports a broadcast command explicitly.

How is the data stored?

The data is stored in columnar format. Let's try and understand that with an example.

Traditional Row Stores

Consider a completely normal CSV file, which is actually an example of a row store.


When this data is stored to disk, you could read an entire record in a consecutive order. For example if the first " was stored at block 1 on disk, then a sequential scan from 1 will give the first row of data: "ted",27,6.0. Keep scanning and you'll get \n"Emm... and so on.

So for the above, the following query will be fast:

FROM people
WHERE name == 'Ted'

Since the database can just scan the first row of data. However, the following is more difficult:

FROM people

Now the database has to read all of the rows, and then pick out the name column. This is a lot more overhead!

Columnar Stores

Columnar turns the data sideways. For example, we can make a columnar version of the above data, and still store it in CSV:


Pretty easy! Now let's consider how we can query the data when it's stored this way.

FROM people
WHERE name == "ted"

This query is pretty hard! We have to read all of the data now, because the (name, age, height) isn't stored together.

Now let's consider our other query:

FROM people

Suddenly, this is easy! We don't have to check in as many places for data, we can just read the first few blocks of disks sequentially.

Data Partitions

We can improve performance even further by taking advantage of partitions. These are entire files of data that share a value for a column. So for example, if everyone in the people table lived in DE, then we could add that to the filename: /country=DE/people.csv.

From there, our query engine would have to know how to read that path, and understand that it's telling us that all of those people share a country. So if we were to query for this:

FROM people
WHERE country == 'US'

The database wouldn't have to even read the file! It could just look at the path and realize there was nothing of interest.

Our tables are often partitioned by date, e.g. submission_date_s3.

Key Takeaways

  • Limit queries to a specific few columns you need, to reduce the amount of data that has to be read
  • Filter on partitions to prune down the data you need