Scalability Considerations for Impala

This section explains how the size of your cluster and the volume of data influences SQL performance and schema design for Impala tables. Typically, adding more cluster capacity reduces problems due to memory limits or disk throughput. On the other hand, larger clusters are more likely to have other kinds of scalability issues, such as a single slow node that causes performance problems for queries.

A good source of tips related to scalability and performance tuning is the Impala Cookbook presentation. These slides are updated periodically as new features come out and new benchmarks are performed.

SQL Operations that Spill to Disk

Certain memory-intensive operations write temporary data to disk (known as spilling to disk) when Impala is close to exceeding its memory limit for a particular node.

Several SQL clauses and constructs require memory allocations that could activat the spilling mechanism:

  • when a query uses a GROUP BY clause for columns with millions or billions of distinct values, Impala keeps a similar number of temporary results in memory, to accumulate the aggregate results for each value in the group.

  • When large tables are joined together, Impala keeps the values of the join columns from one table in memory, to compare them to incoming values from the other table.

  • When a large result set is sorted by the ORDER BY clause, each node sorts its portion of the result set in memory.

  • The DISTINCT and UNION operators build in-memory data structures to represent all values found so far, to eliminate duplicates as the query progresses.

The result is a query that completes successfully, rather than failing with an out-of-memory error. The tradeoff is decreased performance due to the extra disk I/O to write the temporary data and read it back in. Thus, while this feature improves reliability and reduces memory usage, you should optimize your queries, system parameters, and hardware configuration to make this spilling a rare occurrence.

Added in: This feature was added to the ORDER BY clause in Impala 1.4 for CDH 4, and in CDH 5.1. This feature was extended to cover join queries, aggregation functions, and analytic functions in Impala 2.0 for CDH 4, and in CDH 5.2.

Avoiding queries that spill to disk:

Because the extra I/O can impose significant performance overhead on these types of queries, try to avoid this situation by using the following steps:

  1. Detect how often queries spill to disk, and how much temporary data is written. Refer to the following sources:
    • The output of the PROFILE command in the impala-shell interpreter. This data shows the memory usage for each host and in total across the cluster. The BlockMgr.BytesWritten counter reports how much data was written to disk during the query.
    • The Impala Queries dialog in Cloudera Manager. You can see the peak memory usage for a query, combined across all nodes in the cluster.
    • The Queries tab in the Impala debug web user interface. Select the query to examine and click the corresponding Profile link. This data breaks down the memory usage for a single host within the cluster, the host whose web interface you are connected to.
  2. Use one or more techniques to reduce the possibility of the queries spilling to disk:
    • Increase the Impala memory limit if practical, for example, if you can increase the available memory by more than the amount of temporary data written to disk on a particular node. Remember that in Impala 2.0 and later, you can issue SET MEM_LIMIT as a SQL statement, which lets you fine-tune the memory usage for queries from JDBC and ODBC applications.
    • Increase the number of nodes in the cluster, to increase the aggregate memory available to Impala and reduce the amount of memory required on each node.
    • Increase the overall memory capacity of each data node at the hardware level.
    • On a cluster with resources shared between Impala and other Hadoop components, use resource management features to allocate more memory for Impala. See Integrated Resource Management with YARN for details.
    • If the memory pressure is due to running many concurrent queries rather than a few memory-intensive ones, consider using the Impala admission control feature to lower the limit on the number of concurrent queries. By spacing out the most resource-intensive queries, you can avoid spikes in memory usage and improve overall response times. See Admission Control and Query Queuing for details.
    • Tune the queries with the highest memory requirements, using one or more of the following techniques:
      • Run the COMPUTE STATS statement for all tables involved in large-scale joins and aggregation queries.
      • Minimize your use of STRING columns in join columns. Prefer numeric values instead.
      • Examine the EXPLAIN plan to understand the execution strategy being used for the most resource-intensive queries. See Using the EXPLAIN Plan for Performance Tuning for details.
      • If Impala still chooses a suboptimal execution strategy even with statistics available, or if it is impractical to keep the statistics up to date for huge or rapidly changing tables, add hints to the most resource-intensive queries to select the right execution strategy. See Query Hints in Impala SELECT Statements for details.
    • If your queries experience substantial performance overhead due to spilling, enable the DISABLE_UNSAFE_SPILLS query option. This option prevents queries whose memory usage is likely to be exorbitant from spilling to disk. See DISABLE_UNSAFE_SPILLS Query Option (CDH 5.2 or higher only) for details. As you tune problematic queries using the preceding steps, fewer and fewer will be cancelled by this option setting.

Testing performance implications of spilling to disk:

To artificially provoke spilling, to test this feature and understand the performance implications, use a test environment with a memory limit of at least 2 GB. Issue the SET command with no arguments to check the current setting for the MEM_LIMIT query option. Set the query option DISABLE_UNSAFE_SPILLS=true. This option limits the spill-to-disk feature to prevent runaway disk usage from queries that are known in advance to be suboptimal. Within impala-shell, run a query that you expect to be memory-intensive, based on the criteria explained earlier. A self-join of a large table is a good candidate:

select count(*) from big_table a join big_table b using (column_with_many_values);

Issue the PROFILE command to get a detailed breakdown of the memory usage on each node during the query. The crucial part of the profile output concerning memory is the BlockMgr portion. For example, this profile shows that the query did not quite exceed the memory limit.

   - BlockWritesIssued: 1
   - BlockWritesOutstanding: 0
   - BlocksCreated: 24
   - BlocksRecycled: 1
   - BufferedPins: 0
   - MaxBlockSize: 8.00 MB (8388608)
   - MemoryLimit: 200.00 MB (209715200)
   - PeakMemoryUsage: 192.22 MB (201555968)
   - TotalBufferWaitTime: 0ns
   - TotalEncryptionTime: 0ns
   - TotalIntegrityCheckTime: 0ns
   - TotalReadBlockTime: 0ns

In this case, because the memory limit was already below any recommended value, I increased the volume of data for the query rather than reducing the memory limit any further.

Set the MEM_LIMIT query option to a value that is smaller than the peak memory usage reported in the profile output. Do not specify a memory limit lower than about 300 MB, because with such a low limit, queries could fail to start for other reasons. Now try the memory-intensive query again.

Check if the query fails with a message like the following:

WARNINGS: Spilling has been disabled for plans that do not have stats and are not hinted
to prevent potentially bad plans from using too many cluster resources. Compute stats on
these tables, hint the plan or disable this behavior via query options to enable spilling.

If so, the query could have consumed substantial temporary disk space, slowing down so much that it would not complete in any reasonable time. Rather than rely on the spill-to-disk feature in this case, issue the COMPUTE STATS statement for the table or tables in your sample query. Then run the query again, check the peak memory usage again in the PROFILE output, and adjust the memory limit again if necessary to be lower than the peak memory usage.

At this point, you have a query that is memory-intensive, but Impala can optimize it efficiently so that the memory usage is not exorbitant. You have set an artificial constraint through the MEM_LIMIT option so that the query would normally fail with an out-of-memory error. But the automatic spill-to-disk feature means that the query should actually succeed, at the expense of some extra disk I/O to read and write temporary work data.

Try the query again, and confirm that it succeeds. Examine the PROFILE output again. This time, look for lines of this form:

- SpilledPartitions: N

If you see any such lines with N greater than 0, that indicates the query would have failed in Impala releases prior to 2.0, but now it succeeded because of the spill-to-disk feature. Examine the total time taken by the AGGREGATION_NODE or other query fragments containing non-zero SpilledPartitions values. Compare the times to similar fragments that did not spill, for example in the PROFILE output when the same query is run with a higher memory limit. This gives you an idea of the performance penalty of the spill operation for a particular query with a particular memory limit. If you make the memory limit just a little lower than the peak memory usage, the query only needs to write a small amount of temporary data to disk. The lower you set the memory limit, the more temporary data is written and the slower the query becomes.

Now repeat this procedure for actual queries used in your environment. Use the DISABLE_UNSAFE_SPILLS setting to identify cases where queries used more memory than necessary due to lack of statistics on the relevant tables and columns, and issue COMPUTE STATS where necessary.


You might wonder, why not leave DISABLE_UNSAFE_SPILLS turned on all the time. Whether and how frequently to use this option depends on your system environment and workload.

DISABLE_UNSAFE_SPILLS is suitable for an environment with ad hoc queries whose performance characteristics and memory usage are not known in advance. It prevents "worst-case scenario" queries that use large amounts of memory unnecessarily. Thus, you might turn this option on within a session while developing new SQL code, even though it is turned off for existing applications.

Organizations where table and column statistics are generally up-to-date might leave this option turned on all the time, again to avoid worst-case scenarios for untested queries or if a problem in the ETL pipeline results in a table with no statistics. Turning on DISABLE_UNSAFE_SPILLS lets you "fail fast" in this case and immediately gather statistics or tune the problematic queries.

Some organizations might leave this option turned off. For example, you might have tables large enough that the COMPUTE STATS takes substantial time to run, making it impractical to re-run after loading new data. If you have examined the EXPLAIN plans of your queries and know that they are operating efficiently, you might leave DISABLE_UNSAFE_SPILLS turned off. In that case, you know that any queries that spill will not go overboard with their memory consumption.

Limits on Query Size and Complexity

There are hardcoded limits on the maximum size and complexity of queries. Currently, the maximum number of expressions in a query is 2000. You might exceed the limits with large or deeply nested queries produced by business intelligence tools or other query generators.

If you have the ability to customize such queries or the query generation logic that produces them, replace sequences of repetitive expressions with single operators such as IN or BETWEEN that can represent multiple values or ranges. For example, instead of a large number of OR clauses:

WHERE val = 1 OR val = 2 OR val = 6 OR val = 100 ...

use a single IN clause:

WHERE val IN (1,2,6,100,...)

Scalability Considerations for Impala I/O

Impala parallelizes its I/O operations aggressively, therefore the more disks you can attach to each host, the better. Impala retrieves data from disk so quickly using bulk read operations on large blocks, that most queries are CPU-bound rather than I/O-bound.

Because the kind of sequential scanning typically done by Impala queries does not benefit much from the random-access capabilities of SSDs, spinning disks typically provide the most cost-effective kind of storage for Impala data, with little or no performance penalty as compared to SSDs.

Resource management features such as YARN, Llama, and admission control typically constrain the amount of memory, CPU, or overall number of queries in a high-concurrency environment. Currently, there is no throttling mechanism for Impala I/O.

Scalability Considerations for Table Layout

Due to the overhead of retrieving and updating table metadata in the metastore database, try to limit the number of columns in a table to a maximum of approximately 2000. Although Impala can handle wider tables than this, the metastore overhead can become significant, leading to query performance that is slower than expected based on the actual data volume.

To minimize overhead related to the metastore database and Impala query planning, try to limit the number of partitions for any partitioned table to a few tens of thousands.