Popular File Formats for Hadoop/HDFS


Hadoop is an ecosystem including many tools to store and process big data. HDFS is one that is used for storage, and it’s a special file system different than the one used on our desktop machines. We are not going to explain why it’s special, instead, we will introduce several special file formats supported by HDFS.

Text/CSV Files

CSV file is the most commonly used data file format. It’s the most readable and also ubiquitously easy to parse. It’s the choice of format to use when export data from an RDBMS table. However, human readable does not mean it’s machine readable. It has three major drawbacks when used for HDFS. First of all, all lines in a CSV file is a record, therefore, we should not include any headers or footers. In other word, CSV file cannot be stored in HDFS with any meta data. Second of all, CSV file has very limited support for schema evolution. Because the fields for each record are ordered, we are not able to change the orders. We can only append new fields to the end of each line. Last, CSV file does not support block compression which many other file formats support. The whole file has to be compressed and decompressed for reading, adding a significant read performance cost to the files.

JSON Files

JSON is in text format that stores meta data with the data, so it fully supports schema evolution. You can easily add or remove attributes for each datum. However, because it’s text file, it doesn’t support block compression.

Avro Files

Avro File is serialized data in binary format. It uses JSON to define data types, therefore it is row based. It is the most popular storage format for Hadoop. Avro stores meta data with the data, and it also allows specification of independent schema used for reading the files. Therefore, you can easily add, delete, update data fields by just creating a new independent schema. Also, Avro files are splittable, support block compression and enjoys a wide arrange of tool support within Hadoop ecosystem.

Sequence Files

Sequence files are binary files with a CSV-like structure. It does not store meta data, nor does it support schema evolution, but it does support block compression. Due to its unreadability, they are mostly used for intermediate data storage within a sequence of MapReduce jobs.

ORC Files

RC files or Record Columnar files are columnar file format. It’s great for compression and best for query performance, with the sacrifice of cost of more memory and poor write performance. ORC are optimized RC files that works better with Hive. It compresses better, but still does not support schema evolution. It is worthwhile to note that OCR is a format primarily backed by Hortonworks, and it’s not supported by Cloudera Impala.

Parquet Files

Paquet file format is also a columnar format. Just like ORC file, it’s great for compression with great query performance. It’s especially efficient when querying data from specific columns. Parquet format is computationally intensive on the write side, but it reduces a lot of I/O cost to make great read performance. It enjoys more freedom than ORC file in schema evolution, that it can add new columns to the end of the structure. It is also backed by Cloudera and optimized with Impala.

Since Avro and Parquet have so much in common, let’s review a little bit more of both. When choosing a file format to use with HDFS, we need to consider read performance and write performance. Because the nature of HDFS is to store data that is write once, read multiple times, we want to emphasize on the read performance. The fundamental difference in terms of how to use either format is this: Avro is a Row based format. If you want to retrieve the data as a whole, you can use Avro. Parquet is a Column based format. If your data consists of lot of columns but you are interested in a subset of columns, you can use Parquet.

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