With Pith

Ethan Petuchowski

Bigtable Paper Summary

When looking into what Cassandra and HBase are, and their relative strengths and weaknesses, people often seem to think they can get away with the following very succinct characterizations: “Cassandra is like is Dynamo plus Bigtable, and HBase is just Bigtable”. I don’t know much about Dynamo or BigTable because we skipped those papers in my systems courses. So to get started understanding what’s going on with all this mess, I decided to read the Bigtable paper. What follows is a brief summarization/retelling of the Bigtable paper. It follows roughly the form of the paper, especially in that it starts high level, and then digs slightly lower-down into the implementation. It contains basically only and all of the parts of the paper that I found illuminating, but broken down into sentences that are hopefully easier to understand.

What problem are we solving?

Bigtable provides an API for storing and retrieving data.

It is most useful if

  • there is a lot of data coming in at a high rate over time
  • there is no need to join each data table with another
  • data might need to be updated
  • range queries are common

Bigtable is a distributed database. It is a database management system which allows you to define tables, write and update data, and run queries against the stored data. It is similar to a relational database, except that it is not “relational” in the sense denoted by the term “relational database”. Instead, it brings its own type of data model, where instead of storing data in normal two-dimensional table cells, you store it according to a new set of rules that allows for flexibility in the shape of each record, while still enabling overall efficiency.

Go on…

In the Bigtable data model, data is grouped in tables. Each record in one table must have a string identifier unique in that table. Each table is defined to have a set of “column families”. This is where the data goes. A record has values, that is the point of having a record. Each of those values is associated with a timestamp when it was created. This can either be defined by Bigtable or by the user inserting the data. Having two versions of a record means it was updated. Each value has its own key (a string) pointing to it. That key has two components, a “family” and a “qualifier”. Each table has a finite set of families with known names. However, the qualifier segment of a value’s key may be an arbitrary string. There may be any number of anchors for each family in each record. You can hint whether you want Bigtable to prefer disk locality when writing many values in the same column family.

Rows are stored on disk in alphabetically by row key, and for each value, in descending order of timestamps (i.e. most recent first). All reads and writes over a single key are atomic with respect to each other, but not with respect to changes in other rows. (This is something the client must be careful about.) All the rows for a given table are chopped up (dynamically) into “tablets” which each are stored in by exactly one “tablet server” node in the cluster. One can specify garbage collection to either only keep the last n versions, or to only keep everything for a specified duration.

When reading the data, one might e.g. just fetch the data for one column family within a particular range of row names, but get all currently known versions of that data. This type of query is what was optimized by the creators of Bigtable. One might for example want to execute this type of query to feed as input to a MapReduce job. One could do that, and then also be able to enjoy the intentionally efficient writing of MapReduce results into a different Bigtable table.

Bigtable data is stored in the SSTable file format. In this format, each file represents what in Scala would be called a immutable.Map[String, String]. A file is made of blocks, each containing a continuous interval of the keys that is listed in the file’s “block index”. Each SSTable file is stored in Google File System (GFS), which I will not describe in detail here, and is similar to the Hadoop File System (HDFS).

Bigtable relies on Chubby (similar to Apache Zookeeper) to ensure there is “at most one active aster at any time” and for bootstrapping.

A Bigtable instance has a single master node, and a potentially dynamic number of tablet servers. A tablet is a complete alphabetical interval of all the data in a table. The master manages tablet assignment, server cluster membership changes (with help from Chubby), load-balancing of tablets among servers, garbage collection, and schema changes. The tablet server handles read and write requests to its tablets, and splits tablets when they get too big.

Clients only need to communicate with the master to find the relevant tablet servers. The relative amount of this sort of communication compared to the actual data transfers is such that this practice is not a system-wide bottleneck. Clients also cache this data until a server says the information is stale.

Tablet location information (across all tables being managed by a single Bigtable instance) is stored in one big 3-level hierarchical B+-tree type thing (i.e. it’s a sorted n-way tree, where you go down the appropriate pointer from an internal node based on what it says about the interval of row IDs contained in its leaves. The root is stored in Chubby. At the third level I think you have the locations of all the tablets and what keys are owned by each.

As previously mentioned, persistent tablet state is stored in GFS, but what is that “tablet state”. Each write or update is appended a commit log (with a unique mutation identifier to resolve duplication caused by tricky crash scenarios). It also modifies the (copy-on-write) in-memory representation of the current state of this chunk of the table. One can always reconstruct the in-memory representation by playing back the commit log, but ideally most reads are serviced from memory. Every once in a while the in-memory state gets too big, and it is written out as an SSTable into GFS. Every once in a while, multiple SSTables are read back into, and since some might be updates to others, they are merged together, and the sources deleted.

In practice, the authors found that applying a very computationally efficient compression algorithm (rather than one with a top-notch compression ratio) increased overall system efficiency in many cases. They also added bloom filters to the SSTables to reduce the number of unecessary disk reads of non- existent data.

The paper says Google has used Bigtable as a backend for its Google Analytics product, Google Earth, Personalized Search, and storing websites for retrieving results for its Search Engine.

As future work they want to be able to provide better (but not full) support for transactions (I think this is addressed in the Spanner paper released a few years later).

Their lessons learned include

  • “delay adding new features until it is clear how the new features will be used”
  • “the importance of proper system-level monitoring”
  • “the value of simple designs…code and design clarity are of immennse help in code maintenance and debugging”

They conclude by noting that this system bears some resemblance to the C-Store column-oriented database system, for which there is another good paper that I ought to finish reading at some point. They also note that people who are used to “traditional” relational databases find the Bigtable interface awkward, but that it works so much better than the alternatives that people end up using it anyway.


  • Chang, Fay, et al. “Bigtable: A distributed storage system for structured data.” ACM Transactions on Computer Systems (TOCS) 26.2 (2008): 4.