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Reasoning About Time

Stream processors often need to deal with time, especially when used for analytics purposes, which frequently use time windows such as “the average over the last five minutes.” It might seem that the meaning of “the last five minutes” should be unambiguous and clear, but unfortunately the notion is surprisingly tricky.

In a batch process, the processing tasks rapidly crunch through a large collection of historical events. If some kind of breakdown by time needs to happen, the batch process needs to look at the timestamp embedded in each event. There is no point in looking at the system clock of the machine running the batch process, because the time at which the process is run has nothing to do with the time at which the events actually occurred.

A batch process may read a year’s worth of historical events within a few minutes; in most cases, the timeline of interest is the year of history, not the few minutes of processing. Moreover, using the timestamps in the events allows the processing to be deterministic: running the same process again on the same input yields the same result (see “Fault tolerance” on page 422).

On the other hand, many stream processing frameworks use the local system clock on the processing machine (the processing time) to determine windowing [79]. This approach has the advantage of being simple, and it is reasonable if the delay between event creation and event processing is negligibly short. However, it breaks down if there is any significant processing lag—i.e., if the processing may happen noticeably later than the time at which the event actually occurred.

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