Dominic Williams

Occasionally useful posts about RIAs, Web scale computing & miscellanea

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10 steps to upgrade a Cassandra node

with 2 comments

The following steps might prove interesting to those with a new Cassandra cluster who are wondering how to upgrade, or to those investigating Cassandra who are interested in what an online upgrade looks like. The good news for those in production, is that if your cluster has a replication factor (RF) of at least 3, read and write operations (with the exception of rarely used ConsistencyLevel.All operations) will be able to continue uninterrupted throughout the upgrade process i.e. you don’t need to put up a “down for maintenance” sign!!

This process should be performed on every node in the cluster in sequence to effect a rolling upgrade. Once you are comfortable with the process, and the number of nodes in your cluster starts to climb, you will want to script much of it.

1. Open a ssh window to the Cassandra node.
$ ssh

2. Visit The homepage has a link to the latest tar.gz package download. Copy the url of that link

3. Change folder to /opt and then download the upgrade package.
$ cd /opt
$ wget…cassandra/0.7.4/apache-cassandra-0.7.4-bin.tar.gz

4. Unpack the package and enter its configuration folder
$ tar xvf apache-cassandra-0.7.4-bin.tar.gz
$ cd /opt/apache-cassandra-0.7.4/conf

5. Backup the default configuration (sometimes the format changes). Copy in the existing configuration.
$ mv cassandra.yaml cassandra.yaml.bak
$ cp /opt/cassandra/conf/cassandra.yaml .

6. Edit the environment configuration script. This often changes so don’t copy in the existing script. You need to configure heap size to be ~50% RAM on server and new heap size to be 100MB * no. CPUs
$ vim cassandra.yaml
…then, for example for server with 6GB RAM and 6CPUs

7. Create a link to jna.jar from Cassandra’s lib folder (JNA or “Java Native Access” enables Cassandra to directly access native libraries. Without this capability, certain operations such as snapshotting using nodetool are more likely to fail with OOM).
$ cd /opt/apache-cassandra-0.7.4/lib
$ ln -s /usr/share/java/jna.jar .

8. Shutdown the Cassandra software running on the current node. This will not interrupt the cluster in any way.
$ pkill -f ‘java.*cassandra’

9. Change to the “opt” folder and change the soft link the Cassandra distribution
$ cd /opt
$ rm cassandra
$ ln -s /opt/apache-cassandra-0.7.4 cassandra

10. Restart Cassandra
$ cd /opt/cassandra/bin
$ ./cassandra

After restarting Cassandra, you should watch the startup messages to ensure the node comes up without difficulty.

Written by dominicwilliams

March 26, 2011 at 9:23 pm

Cassandra: Up and running quickly in Java using Pelops

with 52 comments


In Greek mythology Cassandra is captured by the triumphant king Agamemnon after the fall of Troy, with whom she has two sons, Pelops and Teledamus. This Java client library is Pelop’s namesake nicknamed “Cassandra’s beautiful son” because it offers a beautiful way to code against the Cassandra database. This is a quick introduction to the library.

You can find the open source code here


Pelops was born to improve the quality of Cassandra code across a complex commercial project that makes extensive use of the database. The main objectives the library are:

  • To faithfully expose Cassandra’s API in a manner that is immediately understandable to anyone:
    simple, but beautiful
  • To completely separate low-level concerns such as connection pooling from data processing code
  • To eliminate “dressing code”, so that the semantics of data processing stand clear and obvious
  • To accelerate development through intellisense, function overloading and powerful high-level methods
  • To implement strategies like load balancing based upon the per node running operation count
  • To include robust error handling and recovery that does not mask application-level logic problems
  • To track the latest Cassandra releases and features without causing breaking changes
  • To define a long-lasting paradigm for those writing client code

Up and running in 5 minutes

To start working with Pelops and Cassandra, you need to know three things:

  1. How to create a connection pool, typically once at startup
  2. How to write data using the Mutator class
  3. How to read data using the Selector class.

It’s that easy!

Creating a connection pool

To work with a Cassandra cluster, you need to start off by defining a connection pool. This is typically done once in the startup code of your application. Sometimes you will define more than one connection pool. For example, in our project, we use two Cassandra database clusters, one which uses random partitioning for data storage, and one which uses order preserving partitioning for indexes. You can create as many connection pools as you need.

To create a pool, you need to specify a name, a list of known contact nodes (the library can automatically detect further nodes in the cluster, but see notes at the end), the network port that the nodes are listening on, and a policy which controls things like the number of connections in your pool.

Here a pool is created with default policies:

    new String[] { "", "", ""},
    new Policy());

Using a Mutator

The Mutator class is used to make mutations to a keyspace (which in SQL speak translates as making changes to a database). You ask Pelops for a new mutator, and then specify the mutations you wish to make. These are sent to Cassandra in a single batch when you call its execute method.

To create a mutator, you must specify the name of the connection pool you will use and the name of the keyspace you wish to mutate. Note that the pool determines what database cluster you are talking to.

Mutator mutator = Pelops.createMutator("Main", "SupportTickets");

Once you have the mutator, you start specifying changes.

 * Write multiple sub-column values to a super column...
 * @param rowKey                    The key of the row to modify
 * @param colFamily                 The name of the super column family to operate on
 * @param colName                   The name of the super column
 * @param subColumns                A list of the sub-columns to write
mutator. writeSubColumns(
    UuidHelper.newTimeUuidBytes(), // using a UUID value that sorts by time
        mutator.newColumn("category", "videoPhone"),
        mutator.newColumn("reportType", "POOR_PICTURE"),
        mutator.newColumn("createdDate", NumberHelper.toBytes(System.currentTimeMillis())),
        mutator.newColumn("capture", jpegBytes),
        mutator.newColumn("comment") ));

 * Delete a list of columns or super columns...
 * @param rowKey                    The key of the row to modify
 * @param colFamily                 The name of the column family to operate on
 * @param colNames                  The column and/or super column names to delete

After specifying the changes, you send them to Cassandra in a single batch by calling execute. This takes the Cassandra consistency level as a parameter.


Note that if you need to know a particular mutation operation has completed successfully before initiating some subsequent operation, then you should not batch your mutations together. Since you cannot re-use a mutator after it has been executed, you should create two or more mutators, and execute them with at least a QUORUM consistency level.

Browse the Mutator class to see the methods and overloads that are available

Using a Selector

The Selector class is used to read data from a keyspace. You ask Pelops for a new selector, and then read data by calling its methods.

Selector selector = Pelops.createSelector("Main", "SupportTickets");

Once you have a selector instance, you can start reading data using its many overloads.

 * Retrieve a super column from a row...
 * @param rowKey                        The key of the row
 * @param columnFamily                  The name of the column family containing the super column
 * @param superColName                  The name of the super column to retrieve
 * @param cLevel                        The Cassandra consistency level with which to perform the operation
 * @return                              The requested SuperColumn
SuperColumn ticket = selector.getSuperColumnFromRow(

assert ticketId.equals(

// enumerate sub-columns
for (Column data : ticket.columns) {
    String name =;
    byte[] value = data.value;

 * Retrieve super columns from a row
 * @param rowKey                        The key of the row
 * @param columnFamily                  The name of the column family containing the super columns
 * @param colPredicate                  The super column selector predicate
 * @param cLevel                        The Cassandra consistency level with which to perform the operation
 * @return                              A list of matching columns
List<SuperColumn> allTickets = selector.getSuperColumnsFromRow(
    Selector.newColumnsPredicateAll(true, 10000),

 * Retrieve super columns from a set of rows.
 * @param rowKeys                        The keys of the rows
 * @param columnFamily                   The name of the column family containing the super columns
 * @param colPredicate                   The super column selector predicate
 * @param cLevel                         The Cassandra consistency level with which to perform the operation
 * @return                               A map from row keys to the matching lists of super columns
Map<String, List<SuperColumn>> allTicketsForFriends = selector.getSuperColumnsFromRows(
    Arrays.asList(new String[] { "matt", "james", "dom" }, // the friends
    Selector.newColumnsPredicateAll(true, 10000),

 * Retrieve a page of super columns composed from a segment of the sequence of super columns in a row.
 * @param rowKey                        The key of the row
 * @param columnFamily                  The name of the column family containing the super columns
 * @param startBeyondName               The sequence of super columns must begin with the smallest super column name greater than this value. Pass null to start at the beginning of the sequence.
 * @param orderType                     The scheme used to determine how the column names are ordered
 * @param reversed                      Whether the scan should proceed in descending super column name order
 * @param count                         The maximum number of super columns that can be retrieved by the scan
 * @param cLevel                        The Cassandra consistency level with which to perform the operation
 * @return                              A page of super columns
List<SuperColumn> pageTickets = getPageOfSuperColumnsFromRow(
    lastIdOfPrevPage, // null for first page
    Selector.OrderType.TimeUUIDType, // ordering defined in this super column family
    true, // blog order
    10, // count shown per page

There are a huge number of selector methods and overloads which expose the full power of Cassandra, and others like the paginator methods that make otherwise complex tasks simple. Browse the Selector class to see what is available here

Other stuff

All the main things you need to start using Pelops have been covered, and with your current knowledge you can easily feel your way around Pelops inside your IDE using intellisense. Some final points it will be useful to keep in mind if you want to work with Pelops:

  • If you need to perform deletions at the row key level, use an instance of the KeyDeletor class (call Pelops.createKeyDeletor).
  • If you need metrics from a Cassandra cluster, use an instance of the Metrics class (call Pelops.createMetrics).
  • To work with Time UUIDs, which are globally unique identifiers that can be sorted by time – which you will find to be very useful throughout your Cassandra code – use the UuidHelper class.
  • To work with numbers stored as binary values, use the NumberHelper class.
  • To work with strings stored as binary values, use the StringHelper class.
  • Methods in the Pelops library that cause interaction with Cassandra throw the standard
    Cassandra exceptions defined here.

The Pelops design secret

One of the key design decisions that at the time of writing distinguishes Pelops, is that the data processing code written by developers does not involve connection pooling or management. Instead, classes like Mutator and Selector borrow connections to Cassandra from a Pelops pool for just the periods that they need to read and write to the underlying Thrift API. This has two advantages.

Firstly, obviously, code becomes cleaner and developers are freed from connection management concerns. But also more subtly this enables the Pelops library to completely manage connection pooling itself, and for example keep track of how many outstanding operations are currently running against each cluster node.

This for example, enables Pelops to perform more effective client load balancing by ensuring that new operations are performed against the node to which it currently has the least outstanding operations running. Because of this architectural choice, it will even be possible to offer strategies in the future where for example nodes are actually queried to determine their load.

To see how the library abstracts connection pooling away from the semantics of data processing, take a look at the execute method of Mutator and the tryOperation method of Operand. This is the foundation upon which Pelops greatly improves over existing libraries that have modelled connection management on pre-existing SQL database client libraries.


That’s all. I hope you get the same benefits from Pelops that we did.

Written by dominicwilliams

June 11, 2010 at 12:31 pm

Locking and transactions over Cassandra using Cages

with 43 comments


Anyone following my occasional posts will know that me and my team are working on a new kids game / social network called We are trying to break new ground with this project in many ways, and to support the data intensive nature of what we are trying to do we eventually selected the Cassandra database after working with several others.

This post is about a library we are using with Cassandra called Cages. Using Cages, you can perform much more advanced data manipulation and storage over a Cassandra database. This post explains why and gives some more information.

You can find Cages here

Brief Background

For those that aren’t already familiar with Cassandra (skip this if you are), it can be described as the best representative of a new breed of fast, easily scalable databases. Write operations are evenly spread across a cluster of machines, removing the bottleneck found in traditional SQL database clusters, and it can continue operating even when some nodes are lost or partitioned. The cluster is symmetric in the sense there is no master node, nodes communicate with each other using a P2P protocol and can be easily added and removed by an administrator.

In order to deliver these characteristics,  which are particularly valuable to Web 2.0 enterprises but also will likely prove useful in other industries too, Cassandra offers what is known as a NoSQL model. This model is significantly different to a traditional SQL model, and many coming from more traditional database backgrounds will more easily understand Cassandra as a highly scalable, highly resilient distributed structured storage engine. While NoSQL offers some unique advantages to developers when compared to SQL, it is also the case that whereas in SQL complex operations can be specified in a single statement that is either executed or not (i.e. that have ACID properties), in Cassandra complex operations on data must usually be comprised from several different operations, which can only be made reliable individually.

What Cages is for?

In many cases, websites and systems can be built against Cassandra without regard to ACID issues. Data storage and manipulation can be limited to operations against single rows (and for those that don’t know, rows in NoSQL models are really like multi-level hash tables which can contain hierarchical “ready-joined” data, and generally offer many more possibilities than SQL rows). Where a mutation of these rows must be reliable, or immediately seen by other clients of the database, Cassandra allows the developer to choose from a range of consistency levels that specify the tradeoff between performance, safety of storage and the timeliness with which data becomes visible to all.

This system is undeniably very effective, but when the systems you are building involve complex data structures and manipulation, you can still quickly reach situations where your logical operations necessarily involve several individual Cassandra read and write operations across multiple rows. Cassandra does not get involved in managing the safety and reliability of operations at the higher logical level, which means guaranteeing the logical consistency of your data can require some extra work. Some people, particularly those wedded to SQL databases, advocate storing some parts of your data in traditional SQL databases. For us though, it is most definitely preferable to develop and use Cages!

What is Cages?

Cages is a new Java library that provides distributed synchronization functionality, and soon additional functionality for things like transactions, by using the services of a ZooKeeper server or cluster. ZooKeeper is a very active project and the system is currently widely used. It started life as a Yahoo Research project, see here and is now an important Apache project, see Cages has wide application, but its development will be very much driven by needs in relation to Cassandra.

Using Cages for locking

Cages offers three locking classes, ZkReadLock, ZkWriteLock and ZkMultiLock.

Single path locking

The simplest application of Cages can be to enforce correct updates on data values inside Cassandra (or some other NoSQL database). For example, you may have issues with that old chestnut, the Lost Update Problem. This happens where you read the data with one operation, modify the data and then write it back with a second operation. Problems occur when another client performs the same operation simultaneously, such that the last client to write back the modified value will overwrite the modifications made by the other.

Thus in its most simple form, two clients wish to donate some money to a bank balance. Both simultaneously read the same bank balance value B1. The first client adds donation D1, and writes back (B1 + D1). The second client adds donation D2, and writes back (B1 + D2). Unfortunately bank balance B2 = B1 + D2, and donation D1 has been lost.

Cages provides an easy fix:

    void depositMoney(int amount) {
        ZkWriteLock lock = new ZkWriteLock(“/accounts/” + accountId + “/balance”);
        try {
            // 1. Read the balance
            // 2. Update the balance
            // 3. Write the balance back
        } finally {

Note that the paths passed to the lock classes can represent actual data paths within a NoSQL model, or can simply represent logical control over parts of a wider data model (so long as your application faithfully adheres to the rules you set).

Multi path locking

The Lost Update Problem is the most simple locking scenario where Cages can be applied. In our case, while many parts of our system even use Cassandra without locking, often with low consistency levels for maximum performance, there are several areas where we necessarily perform complex operations over contended data that involve numerous individual read and write operations. To begin with, we decided to treat the cases by nesting the ZkReadLock and ZkWriteLock single path locking primitives. However, there is a problem doing this in a distributed environment.

It is a simple fact that in a distributed environment, many situations where you acquire single path locks in a nested manner can result in deadlock. For example, if one operation sequentially tries to acquire R(P1) then W(P2), and a second operation simultaneously tries to acquire R(P2) then W(P1), deadlock will likely result: the first operation will acquire R(P1) and the second operation will acquire R(P2), but then the first operation will block waiting to acquire W(P2) and the second operation will block waiting to acquire W(P1).

Avoiding these problems with single path locks is no simple matter. For a start, the logical detection of closed wait graphs (deadlock) in the distributed environment is difficult and expensive to perform. The simplest approach to solving the problem is to try to acquire locks with a timeout, such that if you get into a deadlock situation, your acquire() calls throw an exception and you abandon your attempt. The problem here though is that your code has to handle the exception, and possibly rollback parts of the operation performed earlier under the protection of the outer lock.

For all these reasons, when an operation needs to acquire locks over multiple paths in the distributed environment, ZkMultiLock is the class to use.

ZkMultiLock allows you to specify any number of read and write locks over paths, which may then all be acquired “simultaneously”. If your operation can acquire all the locks it needs together at the outset using ZkMultiLock, this avoids any possibility of deadlock. This provides slightly worse performance where multiple paths are specified and locks on the paths are highly contended. But in practice, locks are rarely that highly contended, and you just need to guard against the disaster of simultaneously running operations interfering with each other and corrupting data. Because of the dangers of deadlock, in the Fight My Monster project have mandated that only ZkMultiLock can be used unless there are very special reasons, a situation we have not yet encountered.

    void executeTrade(long lotId, String sellerId, String buyerId) {
        // In the following we need to hold write locks over both the seller and buyer's account balances
        // so they can be checked and updated correctly. We also want a lock over the lot, since the value
        // of lots owned might be used in conjunction with the bank balance by code considering the
        // total worth of the owner. Acquiring the required locks simultaneously using ZkMultiLock avoids
        // the possibility of accidental deadlock occurring between this client code and other client code
        // contending access to the same data / lock paths.
        ZkMultiLock mlock = new ZkMultiLock();
        mlock.addWriteLock("/Bank/accounts/" + sellerId);
        mlock.addWriteLock("/Bank/accounts/" + buyerId);
        mlock.addWriteLock("/Warehouse/" + lotId);
        try {
            // 1. check buyer has sufficient funds
            // 2. debit buyer's account
            // 3. credit seller's account
            // 4. change ownership of goods
        } finally {

Transactions for Cassandra

Transactions are a planned feature at the time of writing, 12/5/2010. It should be too long before they make it into the library, so I will explain a bit about them here.

Locking allows you to synchronize sequences of read and write (mutation) operations across rows stored on your Cassandra cluster. However, the locking classes do not solve the problem that occurs when part way through a complex operation your client machine expires, leaving the data inside the distributed database in a logically inconsistent state. For many applications the likelihood of this occurring is low enough for the locking classes alone to be sufficient. But there may be a small number of operations within applications for which data simply must be logically consistent, and even a very rare failure is unacceptable. This is where transactions come in.

For those that are interested, the following explains how they will work.

A new ZkTransaction class will provide the functionality, and it will need to be used in conjunction with the ZkMultiLock class. ZkTransaction will provide a simplified version of the Cassandra Thrift API that allows a series of data mutation operations to be specified. Client operations wil will proceed by first specifying the necessary locks that must be held, and then specifying the set of data mutations that must be performed by the transaction. When the transaction has been specified, it’s commit() method must be called passing the ZkMultiLock instance as a parameter.

At this point, internally Cages will add a reference to a transaction node created on ZooKeeper from each single path lock node held. The ZkTransaction instance reads from Cassandra the current values of the data it is required to modify, and writes it into the transaction node as a “before” state. Once this is done, it sets about applying the data mutations specified in the necessary sequence of individual Cassandra read and write (mutate) operations. Once all operations are performed, the references to the transaction node from within the locks are removed, and then finally the transaction node itself is deleted – the transaction has now been committed, and the developer can release() the ZkMultiLock.

ZkTransaction can provide a guarantee of consistency for Cages clients because if during the execution of the sequence of individual Cassandra mutation operations the client machine suddenly dies, Cages will immediately revoke the locks the client holds. From this point any instances of ZkReadLock, ZkWriteLock or ZkMultiLock wishing to acquire the released paths must first rollback the transaction node by returning the relevant data to its original “before” state specified. The key point is that any processes that need to see the data in a logically consistent state, and therefore always acquire locks referencing the data in question before accessing it, will always see it as such. This provides a form of ACID for complex operations against a Cassandra database.

    void executeTrade(long lotId, String sellerId, String buyerId) {
        ZkMultiLock mlock = new ZkMultiLock();
        mlock.addWriteLock("/Bank/accounts/" + sellerId);
        mlock.addWriteLock("/Bank/accounts/" + buyerId);
        mlock.addWriteLock("/Warehouse/" + lotId);
        try {
            // 1. check that buyer has sufficient funds
            // ....

            // 2. perform mutations using transaction object
            ZkTransaction transaction = new ZkTransaction(NoSQL.Cassandra);
            try {
                // 2. debit buyer's account
                transaction.insert(buyerId, "accounts", bytes("balance"), bytes(newBalance));
                // 3. credit seller's account
                // ...
                // 4. change ownership of goods
                // ...
            } finally {
        } finally {

Scalability and hashing ZooKeeper clusters

It is worth saying first off that a three node ZooKeeper cluster using powerful machines should be able to handle a considerable workload, and that where usage of locking and transactions is limited on an as-needed basis, such a setup will be able to provide for the needs of many Internet scale applications. However, it is easy to conceive of Cassandra being applied more widely outside of typical Web 2.0 norms where usage of locking and transactions is much heavier, and therefore the scalability of ZooKeeper must be examined.

The main issue is that for the purposes described it is not desirable to scale ZooKeeper clusters beyond three nodes. The reason for this is that while adding nodes scales up read performance, write performance actually starts degrading because of the need to synchronize write operations across all members, and therefore clustering really offers availability rather than performance. A good overview of the actual performance parameters can be found here The question then, is what to do where ZooKeeper becomes a bottleneck.

The solution we suggest is simply to run more than one ZooKeeper cluster for the purposes of locking and transactions, and simply to hash locks and transactions onto particular clusters. This will be the final feature added to Cages.

Note: since I wrote the above Eric Hauser kindly drew my attention to the new “Observers” feature in ZooKeeper 3.3. This may greatly raise the limit at which hashing to separate 3 node clusters becomes necessary. I am hoping to collate performance information and tests in the near future so people have more of an idea what to expect. See

That’s it. Hope it was interesting. Please bear with me as Cages develops further over the coming weeks and feel free to test and report.

Final note

Check out the comments too because there are already useful several clarifications and expansions there.

Written by dominicwilliams

May 12, 2010 at 10:10 pm

Cassandra: RandomPartitioner vs OrderPreservingPartitioner

with 20 comments

When building a Cassandra cluster, the “key” question (sorry, that’s weak) is whether to use the RandomPartitioner (RP), or the OrderPreservingPartitioner (OPP). These control how your data is distributed over your nodes. Once you have chosen your partitioner, you cannot change without wiping your data, so think carefully!

For Cassandra newbies, like me and my team of HBasers wanting to try a quick port of our project (more on why in another post) nailing the exact issues is quite daunting. So here is a quick summary.

What OPP gives you

Using OPP provides you with two obvious advantages over RP:
1. You can perform range slices. That is you can scan over ranges of your rows as though you were moving a cursor through a traditional index. For example, if you are using user ids as your keys, you could scan over the rows for users whose names begin with J e.g. jake, james, jamie etc
2. You can store real time full text indexes inside Cassandra, which are built using the aforementioned feature e.g. see Lucandra
3. If you screw up, you can scan over your data to recover/delete orphaned keys

***UPDATE*** Since v6 you *can* now scan your keys when using RP, although obviously not in any particular order. Typically you request a page of rows starting with the empty/”” key, and then use the apparently random end key from the page as the start key when you request another page. At the time of writing, this method only seems to work with KeyRange not TokenRing. If you are using Java to access Cassandra read the change log for v0.804 of Pelops.

Given that Web applications typically need/benefit from the above, the question is why would you *not* use OPP. The answer is a nuanced one about load balancing.

The problem with OPP

With both RP and OPP, by default Cassandra will tend to evenly distribute individual keys and their corresponding rows over the nodes in the cluster. The default algorithm is nice and simple: every time you add a new node, it will assign a range of keys to that node such that it takes responsibility for half the keys stored on the node that currently stores the most keys (more on options for overriding the default behaviour later).

The nuance is, that this simple default algorithm will tend to lead to good load balancing when RP is used, but not necessarily when OPP is used.

The reason is that although the algorithm succeeds in assigning key ranges such that as your cluster scales nodes receive roughly similar numbers of keys, with OPP on any given node those keys are unlikely to be drawn equally from the different column families present within your database…

If the distribution of keys used by individual column families is different, their sets of keys will not fall evenly across the ranges assigned to nodes. Thus nodes will end up storing preponderances of keys (and the associated data) corresponding to one column family or another. If as is likely column families store differing quantities of data with their keys, or store data accessed according to differing usage patterns, then some nodes will end up with disproportionately more data than others, or serving more “hot” data than others. <yikes!>

By contrast, when using RP the distribution of the keys occuring within individual column families does not matter. This is because an MD5 hash of keys is used as the “real” key by the system for the purposes of locating the key and data on nodes (the MD5 hashes randomly map any input key to a point in the 0..2**127 range). The result is that the keys from each individual column family are spread evenly across the ranges/nodes, meaning that data and access corresponding to those column families is evenly distributed across the cluster.

If you must have OPP

You may quite reasonably feel that you must have the range scan features that come with OPP, for example because you want to use Lucandra. The question then becomes how you can you ameliorate the aforementioned problems with load balancing.

The best you can do, is to identify the data upon which you do not need to perform range scans. This data can then be randomly distributed across your cluster using a simple idiom where the key is actually written as <MD5(ROWKEY)>.<ROWKEY>

But be clear, the items whose keys must be undecorated (because you wish to perform range scans over them), may still not map evenly onto the key ranges held by the nodes. The only recourse you have then, is to consider manually specifying the key ranges assigned to nodes. This is typically done when you bootstrap a new node, but you can also rebalance an existing cluster by simply decomissioning nodes, deleting their data, and then bootstrapping them back in. To do this safely, you obviously have to do this one at a time, but then I’m sure I didn’t have to tell you that…

You can see where this is going now right? You’ve just made a whole load of work for yourself, and anyway, even if you have the time, if you have lots of different column families with widely differing key distributions then getting load balancing right is going to be a nightmare.

This is the basic reason that fully seasoned Cassandra heads, in my experience, seem to prefer RD *unless* a mono use setup is proposed, for example where a cluster is used simply to store a full-text index with Lucandra.

If you have a database with a seriously heterogeneous set of column families, and need range scans, you might now be thinking you should actually be using HBase, which is designed for this. That would not be a bad choice (!), but there are good reasons for hanging with Cassandra if you can, which I will cover in a future post. Read on…

If you must use RP (very likely)

So having delved a little more deeply into the implications of OPP, you decide you really should go with RP. But, what to do with those indexes you need?

Well, first of all there is a really simple if brutal solution: simply store your index inside a single column family row as a series of columns. Since Cassandra can in principle cope with millions of columns, this is perfectly possible. Although it is true each index won’t be distributed across your whole cluster, the load will at the least be distributed across the nodes holding the replicas. If you use a typical replication factor (RF) of 3 the load associated with each index will be shared by 3 nodes etc.

In the vast majority of cases, this will be enough, and it will be sufficient that the rest of your data is properly balanced across your cluster.

But, I hear you saying, this is too brutal. Your index is too massive to fit on 3 nodes, is extremely hot and this just won’t work. You moved to Cassandra because you want your load distributed across your entire cluster. Period.

This is a perfectly reasonably point of view.

The only solution in this case is to build an index system over the top of the simple hashmap provided. We are taking this approach, and it will be elaborated with some sample code in a later post.

Basic indexing strategy for RP

For those that need to know the basic strategy now, here it is: you need to start off with the simple approach where you store your entire index using columns under a single key. As the number of columns grows past some threshold you define, the columns should be split such that half the entries are migrated to a new key/row. Thus the index is split across the cluster evenly.

Each range can be stored under a key named in a predictable way, for example <INDEX>.<SPLIT NO.> The start and end index entries stored in each split should themselves be stored in a dedicated column family that is used to record index meta information using the same key name, ensuring that the meta information is also distributed.

You can then progressively test the existence of splits simply by attempting to open the key for the meta that would be used to describe the split. If you can retrieve the meta information, you know that the split also exists. It won’t be necessary to cache this information to make the process reasonably performant – Cassandra already caches data in memory, and also uses Bloom filters to determine whether or not a requested row exists (Bloom filters enable a Cassandra node to rapidly determine whether it holds a key without traversing its list of keys).

There you have it, an index offering range scans fully distributed over your cluster!

Full text search sanity check

Implementing a full text index will of course involve more work than a simple left-side/ISAM style index, although the principles are the same. Given the existence of Lucandra though, I would suggest that before proceeding to create your full text index using the described approach, you first examine another possibility: running your full text searches off a dedicated cluster.

If you are running in the cloud, for example on EC2 or Rackspace Cloud, you can start your dedicated full text search cluster at low cost on small instances that can be scaled up if necessary later. Otherwise, consider virtualization or configuring Cassandra to run two clusters in parallel on the same nodes (more on this possibility in a later post).

The beauty of open source is that many problems have already been solved for you, and Lucandra is too good an opportunity to miss is you need full text search on Cassandra.

Written by dominicwilliams

February 22, 2010 at 10:56 pm