DTable – an early performance assessment of a new distributed table implementation

08 December 2021 | Krystian Guliński

In a recent survey conducted within the Julia community, the functionality to process tabular data larger than available RAM came out on top, above all other priorities. While Julia already has some tools for so-called "out-of-core processing", they are not very popular within the community, and have been mostly left unmaintained (e.g. JuliaDB).

The DTable plans to address this popular use case in a composable manner by leveraging the current Julia data ecosystem and our existing distributed computing and memory management capabilities. We hope it's a major step towards a native Julia tool that will handle the out-of-core tabular data processing needs of the Julia community!

  1. What is the DTable?
  2. Why the DTable?
    1. Operations available today
  3. Initial performance comparison (multithreaded)
    1. Benchmark configuration
  4. Basic operations (map, filter, reduce)
    1. Map (single column increment)
    2. Filter
    3. Reduce (single column)
    4. Reduce (all columns)
  5. Grouped operations
    1. Groupby (shuffle)
    2. Grouped reduction (single column)
    3. Grouped reduction (all columns)
  6. Implementation details (for interested users)
  7. Some caveats
  8. Conclusion

What is the DTable?

The DTable is a table structure providing distributed partitioning of data, and parallelization of operations performed on it, in any supported environment. It's built on top of Dagger.jl, which enables it to work in any worker and thread setup by letting Dagger take care of task scheduling and memory management. Any Tables.jl compatible source can be ingested by the DTable, and the DTable can also act as a sink in case you move the data somewhere else (such as to a CSV).

A key feature is that the DTable doesn't use any dedicated structure for storing the table data in memory. Any Tables.jl compatible table type can be used for internal storage, which allows for greater composability with the ecosystem, and all of the advantages of the chosen table type. To further support this goal, the set of operations that can be performed on a DTable is generic and only relies on interfaces offered by Tables.jl.

The diagram below presents a simple visual explanation of how the DTable and GDTable (grouped DTable) are built. Provided table input will be partitioned according to either a chunksize argument or the existing partitioning (using the Tables.partitions interface). After performing a groupby operation the data will be shuffled accordingly and new "chunks" (Dagger partitions) containing only the data belonging to specific keys will be created. Along with an index, these chunks form a GDTable.

Why the DTable?

The DTable aims to excel in two areas:

The goal is to become competitive with similar tools, such as Dask or Spark, so that Julia users can solve and scale their problems within Julia.

By leveraging the composability of the Julia data ecosystem, we can reuse a lot of existing functionality in order to achieve the above goals, and continue improving the solution in the future instead of just creating another monolithic solution.

Operations available today

Below is a list of functionality generally available today. To post suggestions for new operations, please comment in this GitHub issue. In the future we hope to provide a roadmap and priority indicators for planned functionality.

Initial performance comparison (multithreaded)

The benchmarks below present the initial performance assessment of the DTable compared to DataFrames.jl, which is currently the go-to data processing package in Julia, and to Dask - the main competitor to Dagger and the DTable. The DataFrames.jl benchmarks are here to provide a reference to what the performance in Julia looks like today.

Please note that the benchmarks below were specifically prepared with the focus on comparing the same type of processing activities. That means the benchmark code was accordingly adjusted to make sure the packages are doing the same set of operations under the hood.

The table below presents the summary of the results obtained in a one-machine multithreaded environment (exact setup in the next section). Times from every configuration of each benchmark were compared and summarized in the table. Negative values mean a slowdown versus the competitor.

Operationtimes faster than Dasktimes faster than DataFrames.jl
Reduce (single column)
Reduce (all columns)
Groupby (shuffle)17.517.5974.5-974.5
Reduce per group (single column)20.220.2343.0-343.0
Reduce per group (all columns)22.322.3166.1-166.1

Benchmark configuration

Benchmark code and raw results can be found in this repository.

All benchmark runs were performed on a desktop with the following specifications:

All configurations were ran using an environment with 1 worker and 16 threads.

The data used for the experiments was prepared as follows:

The diagram below summarizes the above specifications:

Basic operations (map, filter, reduce)

These three operations are the base for the majority of functionality of any table structure. By looking at their performance, we can get a good grasp of how the table is doing in many common data transformation scenarios.

These basic operations are unaffected by the count of unique values, so the results of these comparisons are not included here.

Map (single column increment)

In the first benchmark we're performing a simple map operation on the full table.

At first glance it's clear that the overhead coming from the partitioning and parallelization present in the DTable and Dask is not paying off in this benchmark. The DataFrames.jl package is leading here with the DTable being on average 2.5 times slower.

At the smaller chunksize (10^6) the DTable is scaling better than its competitor, which isn't greatly affected by that parameter. Overall the DTable managed to offer an average ~4.9 times speedup compared to Dask across all the tested configurations.

DTable command: map(row -> (r = row.a1 + 1,), d)


As the set of values is limited, a simple filter expression was chosen, which filters out approximately half of the records (command below).

In this scenario, the parallelization and partitioning overhead doesn't pay off as well as both DTable and Dask are noticeably slower than DataFrames.jl. When it comes to the comparison of these two implementations, the performance looks very similiar with Dask being on average 1.6 times faster than the DTable.

The scaling of the DTable allows it to catch up to DataFrames at the largest data size. It's possible that this behavior may continue at larger data sizes and eventually provide a speedup versus DataFrames after some threshold.

DTable command: filter(row -> row.a1 < unique_values ÷ 2, d)

Reduce (single column)

The reduce benchmarks are the place where the DTable really shines. This task can easily leverage the partitioning of the data in order to achieve a speed increase.

The DTable has not only managed to successfully perform faster than DataFrames.jl (on average ~2.9 times faster), but it also managed to significantly beat Dask's performance by offering a ~31.1 times speedup.

Please note that both DTable and DataFrames.jl are using OnlineStats.jl to obtain the variance, while Dask is using its own native implementation. All reduction benchmarks in this post are focused on testing the performance of classic reduction functions such as (acc, x) -> acc + x.

In order to compute common statistics DataFrames.jl users should use array functions available in Statistics.jl instead (e.g. mean, var). They provide better performance, but were not used here as they are not classic reduction functions.

DTable command: reduce(fit!, d, cols=[:a1], init=Variance())

Reduce (all columns)

Similarly to the previous benchmark, the DTable is performing here very well by offering a ~3.7 times speedup over DataFrames.jl, and a ~27.1 times speedup over Dask.

Additional parallelization can be enabled in the future for wide tables. As of right now, the DTable is performing the reduction of all columns as a single task.

DTable command: reduce(fit!, d, init=Variance())

Grouped operations

A table shuffle is definitely one of the most demanding operations that can be performed on a table, so that's why it was tackled early to evaluate whether the current technology stack makes it feasible to run such operations.

In the following benchmarks, the performance of groupby (shuffle) and grouped reduce are put to the test. Other operations like map and filter are also available for the GDTable (grouped DTable), but they work in the same way as if they were performed on a DTable, so previously shown benchmarks still apply.

The following benchmarks include results obtained in tests with varying unique_values counts, since the number of them directly affects the number of groups generated through the grouping operation.

Please note that the testing scenarios were adjusted specifically to ensure that the benchmarks are measuring the same type of activity (data shuffle). Most notably, Dask benchmarks use shuffle explicitly instead of groupby to avoid optimized groupby/reduce routines, which do not perform data movement. A better comparison can be performed in the future once the DTable supports these optimizations as well.

Groupby (shuffle)

In this experiment we're looking at shuffle performance in various data configurations. DataFrames.jl doesn't perform data movement on groupby, so its performance is clearly superior to the other two technologies and is just included for reference purposes.

Let's focus on Dask and the DTable, which are performing data movement as part of the shuffle. Across the different data configurations, we can see a common pattern where the DTable is significantly faster than Dask at smaller data sizes, which leads to it offering an average ~17.5 times speedup, but as the data size grows the scaling of Dask is better and it eventually matches the speeds of the DTable.

However, in the more demanding configurations (in which the unique_values count was equal to 10410^4), Dask was repeatedly failing to finish the shuffle above a certain data size (nn > 10810^8). For that reason the following benchmarks will not include results for these failed tests. Those configurations are also excluded from the average performance comparison.

The DTable managed to finish these complex scenarios without any observable hit to scaling, which is a good sign, but future testing needs to be performed on larger data sizes to gain more insight into how well the current shuffle algorithm is performing.

DTable command: Dagger.groupby(d, :a1)

Grouped reduction (single column)

Mimicking the success of reduction benchmarks, the DTable is again performing better here than the direct competition. For the single column reductions, it's an average ~20.2 times speedup over Dask, and their scaling behavior looks very similar.

Contrary to the standard reduction benchmarks, the DTable doesn't offer a speedup compared to DataFrames.jl across all the data sizes. It looks like the current algorithm has a significant overhead that can be observed as a lower bound to the performance at smaller data sizes. For the benchmarks with the smaller unique_values count, the DTable manages to catch up to DataFrames.jl at bigger data sizes. This may indicate that by increasing the data size further, we might eventually reach a point where the DTable provides a performance improvement over DataFrames.jl in this scenario.

DTable command: r = reduce(fit!, g, cols=[:a2], init=Mean())

Grouped reduction (all columns)

The results for the all-columns reduction look very similar to single-column. The DTable managed to offer an average ~22.3 times speeup over Dask.

Again, the DTable is heavily falling behind DataFrames.jl on smaller data sizes due to the significant entry overhead acting as a lower performance bound at smaller data sizes.

DTable command: r = reduce(fit!, g, init=Mean())

Implementation details (for interested users)

The DTable is built on top of Dagger and Tables.jl, and currently resides within the Dagger.jl package. That means it can run in any environment Dagger is capable of running in. You should be able to use the DTable effectively on your local machine in a threaded environment, on a bigger machine with many workers and threads, or have the workload spread around multiple machines and workers in your cluster.

The DTable uses Dagger's new "Eager API", which means that all the parallelized calls are executed using Dagger.spawn and Dagger.@spawn. Memory is managed by Dagger through the usage of MemPool.jl. Upgrades to the related projects in the future will hopefully yield performance and functionality improvements for the DTable.

Because of the dependencies of the DTable on other projects, its focus is completely on delivering Tables.jl compatible algorithms and interfaces to address the growing needs for processing big tabular data.

We hope that the Tables.jl interface will grow to include an even wider range of functionality while still providing great intercompatibility with other Julia packages.

For more details, please visit the Dagger documentation.

Some caveats

There are some pending PRs that haven't been merged into Julia yet that improve the thread safety of Distributed, which directly affects Dagger.jl stability. The user experience may occasionally be interrupted when extensively using the DTable in a threaded or mixed environment by occasional hangs or crashes.

We hope to include all the necessary fixes in future patches to Julia 1.7.


The DTable has successfully passed the proof-of-concept stage and is currently under active development as a part of the Dagger.jl package.

This early performance assessment has confirmed that the DTable has the potential to become a competitive tool for processing tabular data. It managed to perform significantly better than direct competition (Dask) in 6 out of 7 presented benchmarks and in the remaining one it doesn't fall too far behind. While this looks promising there's still a lot of work ahead in order to make the DTable feature-rich and even faster, so keep an eye out for future updates on the project.

Functionality presented as part of this blogpost is generally available as of today. We highly encourage everyone to have a look at the documentation and to try out the examples included! Due to the fact that the DTable is still in early development, it's very much possible to provide feedback and affect the roadmap and future design decisions.