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Sort Order in Column Storage

In a column store, it doesn’t necessarily matter in which order the rows are stored. It’s easiest to store them in the order in which they were inserted, since then inserting a new row just means appending to each of the column files. However, we can choose to impose an order, like we did with SSTables previously, and use that as an indexing mechanism.

Note that it wouldn’t make sense to sort each column independently, because then we would no longer know which items in the columns belong to the same row. We can only reconstruct a row because we know that the A;th item in one column belongs to the same row as the A;th item in another column.

Rather, the data needs to be sorted an entire row at a time, even though it is stored by column. The administrator of the database can choose the columns by which the table should be sorted, using their knowledge of common queries. For example, if queries often target date ranges, such as the last month, it might make sense to make date_key the first sort key. Then the query optimizer can scan only the rows from the last month, which will be much faster than scanning all rows.

A second column can determine the sort order of any rows that have the same value in the first column. For example, if date_key is the first sort key in Figure 3-10, it might make sense for product_sk to be the second sort key so that all sales for the same product on the same day are grouped together in storage. That will help queries that need to group or filter sales by product within a certain date range.

Another advantage of sorted order is that it can help with compression of columns. If the primary sort column does not have many distinct values, then after sorting, it will have long sequences where the same value is repeated many times in a row. A simple run-length encoding, like we used for the bitmaps in Figure 3-11, could compress that column down to a few kilobytes—even if the table has billions of rows.

That compression effect is strongest on the first sort key. The second and third sort keys will be more jumbled up, and thus not have such long runs of repeated values. Columns further down the sorting priority appear in essentially random order, so they probably won’t compress as well. But having the first few columns sorted is still a win overall.

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