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SSTables and LSM-Trees

In Figure 3-3, each log-structured storage segment is a sequence of key-value pairs. These pairs appear in the order that they were written, and values later in the log take precedence over values for the same key earlier in the log. Apart from that, the order of key-value pairs in the file does not matter.

Now we can make a simple change to the format of our segment files: we require that the sequence of key-value pairs is sorted by key. At first glance, that requirement seems to break our ability to use sequential writes, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

We call this format Sorted String Table, or SSTable for short. We also require that each key only appears once within each merged segment file (the compaction process already ensures that). SSTables have several big advantages over log segments with hash indexes:

1. Merging segments is simple and efficient, even if the files are bigger than the available memory. The approach is like the one used in the mergesort algorithm and is illustrated in Figure 3-4: you start reading the input files side by side, look at the first key in each file, copy the lowest key (according to the sort order) to the output file, and repeat. This produces a new merged segment file, also sorted by key.

Merging several SSTable segments, retaining only the most recent value for each key

Figure 3-4. Merging several SSTable segments, retaining only the most recent value for each key.

76 | Chapter 3: Storage and Retrieval

What if the same key appears in several input segments? Remember that each segment contains all the values written to the database during some period of time. This means that all the values in one input segment must be more recent than all the values in the other segment (assuming that we always merge adjacent segments). When multiple segments contain the same key, we can keep the value from the most recent segment and discard the values in older segments.

2. In order to find a particular key in the file, you no longer need to keep an index of all the keys in memory. See Figure 3-5 for an example: say you’re looking for the key handiwork, but you don’t know the exact offset of that key in the segment file. However, you do know the offsets for the keys handbag and handsome, and because of the sorting you know that handiwork must appear between those two. This means you can jump to the offset for handbag and scan from there until you find handiwork (or not, if the key is not present in the file).

An SSTable with an in-memory index

Figure 3-5. An SSTable with an in-memory index.

You still need an in-memory index to tell you the offsets for some of the keys, but it can be sparse: one key for every few kilobytes of segment file is sufficient, because a few kilobytes can be scanned very quickly.[1]

3. Since read requests need to scan over several key-value pairs in the requested range anyway, it is possible to group those records into a block and compress it before writing it to disk (indicated by the shaded area in Figure 3-5). Each entry of the sparse in-memory index then points at the start of a compressed block. Besides saving disk space, compression also reduces the I/O bandwidth use.

  • [1] If all keys and values had a fixed size, you could use binary search on a segment file and avoid the inmemory index entirely. However, they are usually variable-length in practice, which makes it difficult to tellwhere one record ends and the next one starts if you don’t have an index.
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