How to Choose a Data Format

March 8th, 2016

It’s easy to become overwhelmed when it comes time to choose a data format. Picture it: you have just built and configured your new Hadoop Cluster. But now you must figure out how to load your data. Should you save your data as text, or should you try to use Avro or Parquet? Honestly, the right answer often depends on your data. However, in this post I’ll give you a framework for approaching this choice, and provide some example use cases.

There are different data formats available for use in the Hadoop Distributed File System (HDFS), and your choice can greatly impact your project in terms of performance and space requirements. The findings provided here are based on my team’s past experiences, as well as tests that we ran comparing read and write execution times with files saved in text, Apache Hadoop’s SequenceFile, Apache Avro, Apache Parquet, and Optimized Row Columnar (ORC) formats.

More details on each of these data formats, including characteristics and an overview on their structures, can be found here.

Where to start?

There are several considerations that need to be taken into account when trying to determine which data format you should use in your project; here, we discuss the most important ones you will encounter: system specifications, data characteristics, and use case scenarios.

System specifications

Start by looking at the technologies you’ve chosen to use, and their characteristics; this includes tools used for ETL(Extract, Transform and Load) processes as wells as tools used to query and analyze the data. This information will help you figure out which format you’re able to use.

Not all tools support all of the data formats, and writing additional data parsers and converters will add unwanted complexity to the project. For example, as of the writing of this post, Impala does not offer support for ORC format; therefore, if you are planning on running the majority of your queries in Impala then ORC would not be a good candidate. You can, instead, use the similar RCFile format, or Parquet.

You should also consider the reality of your system. Are you constrained on storage or memory? Some data formats can compress more than others. For example, datasets stored as Parquet and ORC with snappy compression can reduce their size to a quarter of the size of their uncompressed text format counterpart, and Avro with deflate compression can achieve similar results. However, writing into any of these formats will be more memory intensive, and you might have to tune the memory settings in your system to allocate more memory. There are many options that can be tweaked to adapt your system, and it is often desirable to run some tests in your system before fully committing to using a format. We will talk about some of the tests that you can run in a later section of this post.

Characteristics and size of the data

The next consideration is around the data you want to process and store in your system. Let’s look at some of the aspects that can impact performance in a data format.

How is your raw data structured?

Maybe you have regular text format or csv files and you are considering storing them as such. While text files are readable by humans, easy to troubleshoot, and easy to process, they can impact the performance of your system because they have to be parsed every time. Text files also have an implicit format (each column is a certain value) and if you are not careful documenting this, it can cause problems down the line.

If your data is in an xml and json format, then you might run into some issues with file splitability in HDFS. Splitability determines the ability to process parts of a file independently which in turn enables parallel processing in Hadoop, therefore if your data is not splittable we lose the parallelism that allows fast queries. More advanced data formats (Sequence, Avro, Parquet, ORC) offer splitability regardless of the compression codec.

What does your pipeline look like, and what steps are involved?

Some of the file formats were optimized to work in certain situations. For example, Sequence files were designed to easily share data between Map Reduce (MR) jobs, so if your pipeline involves MR jobs then Sequence files make an excellent option. In the same vein, columnar data formats such as Parquet and ORC were designed to optimize query times; if the final stage of your pipeline needs to be optimized, using a columnar file format will increase speed while querying data.

How many columns are being stored and how many columns are used for the analysis?

Columnar data formats like Parquet and ORC offer an advantage (in terms of querying speed) when you have many columns but only need a few of those columns for your analysis since Parquet and ORC increase the speed at which the queries are performed. However, that advantage can be foregone if you still need all the columns during search, in which case you could experiment within your system to find the fastest alternative. Another advantage of columnar files is in the way they compress the data, which saves both space and time.

Does your data change over time? If it does, how often does it happen and how does it change?

Knowing whether your data changes often is important because then we have to consider how a data format handles schema evolution. Schema evolution is the term used for denoting when the structure of a file has changed after being previously stored with a different structure, such changes in structure can include the change of data type for a column, the addition of columns, and the removal of columns. Text files do not explicitly store the schema, so when a new person joins the project is up to them to figure out what columns and column values the data has. If your data changes suddenly (addition of columns, deletion of columns, changes on the data types) then you need to figure out how to reconcile older data and new data with the format.

Certain file formats handle the schema evolution more elegantly than others. For example, at the moment Parquet only allows the addition of new columns at the end of columns and it doesn’t handle deletion of columns, whereas Avro allows for addition, deletion, and renaming of multiple columns. If you know your data is bound to change often (maybe developers add new metrics every few months to help tracking usage of an app) then Avro will be a good option. If your data doesn’t change often or won’t change, schema evolution is not needed.

Additional things to keep in mind with schema evolution are the trade-offs of keeping track of the newer schemas. If the schema for a data format like Avro or Parquet needs to be specified (rather than extracted from the data) then we will require more effort storing and creating the schema files.

Use case scenarios

Each of the data formats has its own strengths, weaknesses, and trade-offs, so the decision on which format to use should be based on your specific use cases and systems.

If your main focus is to be able to write data as fast as possible and you have no concerns about space, then it might be acceptable to just store your data in text format with the understanding that query times for large data sets will be longer.

If your main concern is being able to handle evolving data in your system, then you can rely on Avro to save schemas. Keep in mind, though, that when writing files to the system Avro requires an pre-populated schema, which might involve some additional processing at the beginning.

Finally, if your main use case is analysis of the data and you would like to optimize the performance of the queries, then you might want to take a look at a columnar format such as Parquet or ORC because they offer the best performance in queries, particularly for partial searches where you are only reading specific columns. However, the speed advantage might decrease if you are reading all the columns.

There is a pattern in the mentioned uses cases: if a file takes longer to write, it is because it has been optimized to increase speed during reads.


We have already discussed how choosing the right data format for your system depends on several factors; to provide a more comprehensive explanation, we set out to empirically compare the different data formats in terms of performance for writing and reading files.

We created some quantitative tests comparing the following five data formats available in the Hadoop ecosystem:

– Text
– Sequence
– Avro
– Parquet

Our test measure execution times for a couple different exploratory queries, using the following technologies:

– Hive
– Impala

We tested against three different datasets:

  • Narrow dataset – 10,000,000 rows of 10 columns resembling an Apache log file
  • Wide dataset – 4,000,000 rows of 1000 columns composed by the first few columns of personal identification data and the rest set by random numbers and booleans.
  • Wide dataset large – 1TB of the wide dataset and 302,924,000 rows.

Full results of the testing along with the appropiate code that you can try on your own system can be found here.

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