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High Performance Spark by Rachel Warren, Holden Karau

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Chapter 1. Introduction to High Performance Spark

This chapter provides an overview of what we hope you will be able to learn from this book and does its best to convince you to learn Scala. Feel free to skip ahead to Chapter 2 if you already know what you’re looking for and use Scala (or have your heart set on another language).

What Is Spark and Why Performance Matters

Apache Spark is a high-performance, general-purpose distributed computing system that has become the most active Apache open source project, with more than 1,000 active contributors.1 Spark enables us to process large quantities of data, beyond what can fit on a single machine, with a high-level, relatively easy-to-use API. Spark’s design and interface are unique, and it is one of the fastest systems of its kind. Uniquely, Spark allows us to write the logic of data transformations and machine learning algorithms in a way that is parallelizable, but relatively system agnostic. So it is often possible to write computations that are fast for distributed storage systems of varying kind and size.

However, despite its many advantages and the excitement around Spark, the simplest implementation of many common data science routines in Spark can be much slower and much less robust than the best version. Since the computations we are concerned with may involve data at a very large scale, the time and resources that gains from tuning code for performance are enormous. Performance does not just mean run faster; often at this scale it means getting something to run at all. It is possible to construct a Spark query that fails on gigabytes of data but, when refactored and adjusted with an eye toward the structure of the data and the requirements of the cluster, succeeds on the same system with terabytes of data. In the authors’ experience writing production Spark code, we have seen the same tasks, run on the same clusters, run 100× faster using some of the optimizations discussed in this book. In terms of data processing, time is money, and we hope this book pays for itself through a reduction in data infrastructure costs and developer hours.

Not all of these techniques are applicable to every use case. Especially because Spark is highly configurable and is exposed at a higher level than other computational frameworks of comparable power, we can reap tremendous benefits just by becoming more attuned to the shape and structure of our data. Some techniques can work well on certain data sizes or even certain key distributions, but not all. The simplest example of this can be how for many problems, using groupByKey in Spark can very easily cause the dreaded out-of-memory exceptions, but for data with few duplicates this operation can be just as quick as the alternatives that we will present. Learning to understand your particular use case and system and how Spark will interact with it is a must to solve the most complex data science problems with Spark.

What You Can Expect to Get from This Book

Our hope is that this book will help you take your Spark queries and make them faster, able to handle larger data sizes, and use fewer resources. This book covers a broad range of tools and scenarios. You will likely pick up some techniques that might not apply to the problems you are working with, but that might apply to a problem in the future and may help shape your understanding of Spark more generally. The chapters in this book are written with enough context to allow the book to be used as a reference; however, the structure of this book is intentional and reading the sections in order should give you not only a few scattered tips, but a comprehensive understanding of Apache Spark and how to make it sing.

It’s equally important to point out what you will likely not get from this book. This book is not intended to be an introduction to Spark or Scala; several other books and video series are available to get you started. The authors may be a little biased in this regard, but we think Learning Spark by Karau, Konwinski, Wendell, and Zaharia as well as Paco Nathan’s introduction video series are excellent options for Spark beginners. While this book is focused on performance, it is not an operations book, so topics like setting up a cluster and multitenancy are not covered. We are assuming that you already have a way to use Spark in your system, so we won’t provide much assistance in making higher-level architecture decisions. There are future books in the works, by other authors, on the topic of Spark operations that may be done by the time you are reading this one. If operations are your show, or if there isn’t anyone responsible for operations in your organization, we hope those books can help you.

Spark Versions

Spark follows semantic versioning with the standard [MAJOR].[MINOR].[MAINTENANCE] with API stability for public nonexperimental nondeveloper APIs within minor and maintenance releases. Many of these experimental components are some of the more exciting from a performance standpoint, including Datasets—Spark SQL’s new structured, strongly-typed, data abstraction. Spark also tries for binary API compatibility between releases, using MiMa2; so if you are using the stable API you generally should not need to recompile to run a job against a new version of Spark unless the major version has changed.


This book was created using the Spark 2.0.1 APIs, but much of the code will work in earlier versions of Spark as well. In places where this is not the case we have attempted to call that out.

Why Scala?

In this book, we will focus on Spark’s Scala API and assume a working knowledge of Scala. Part of this decision is simply in the interest of time and space; we trust readers wanting to use Spark in another language will be able to translate the concepts used in this book without presenting the examples in Java and Python. More importantly, it is the belief of the authors that “serious” performant Spark development is most easily achieved in Scala.

To be clear, these reasons are very specific to using Spark with Scala; there are many more general arguments for (and against) Scala’s applications in other contexts.

To Be a Spark Expert You Have to Learn a Little Scala Anyway

Although Python and Java are more commonly used languages, learning Scala is a worthwhile investment for anyone interested in delving deep into Spark development. Spark’s documentation can be uneven. However, the readability of the codebase is world-class. Perhaps more than with other frameworks, the advantages of cultivating a sophisticated understanding of the Spark codebase is integral to the advanced Spark user. Because Spark is written in Scala, it will be difficult to interact with the Spark source code without the ability, at least, to read Scala code. Furthermore, the methods in the Resilient Distributed Datasets (RDD) class closely mimic those in the Scala collections API. RDD functions, such as map, filter, flatMap, reduce, and fold, have nearly identical specifications to their Scala equivalents.3 Fundamentally Spark is a functional framework, relying heavily on concepts like immutability and lambda definition, so using the Spark API may be more intuitive with some knowledge of functional programming.

The Spark Scala API Is Easier to Use Than the Java API

Once you have learned Scala, you will quickly find that writing Spark in Scala is less painful than writing Spark in Java. First, writing Spark in Scala is significantly more concise than writing Spark in Java since Spark relies heavily on inline function definitions and lambda expressions, which are much more naturally supported in Scala (especially before Java 8). Second, the Spark shell can be a powerful tool for debugging and development, and is only available in languages with existing REPLs (Scala, Python, and R).

Scala Is More Performant Than Python

It can be attractive to write Spark in Python, since it is easy to learn, quick to write, interpreted, and includes a very rich set of data science toolkits. However, Spark code written in Python is often slower than equivalent code written in the JVM, since Scala is statically typed, and the cost of JVM communication (from Python to Scala) can be very high. Last, Spark features are generally written in Scala first and then translated into Python, so to use cutting-edge Spark functionality, you will need to be in the JVM; Python support for MLlib and Spark Streaming are particularly behind.

Why Not Scala?

There are several good reasons to develop with Spark in other languages. One of the more important constant reasons is developer/team preference. Existing code, both internal and in libraries, can also be a strong reason to use a different language. Python is one of the most supported languages today. While writing Java code can be clunky and sometimes lag slightly in terms of API, there is very little performance cost to writing in another JVM language (at most some object conversions).4


While all of the examples in this book are presented in Scala for the final release, we will port many of the examples from Scala to Java and Python where the differences in implementation could be important. These will be available (over time) at our GitHub. If you find yourself wanting a specific example ported, please either email us or create an issue on the GitHub repo.

Spark SQL does much to minimize the performance difference when using a non-JVM language. Chapter 7 looks at options to work effectively in Spark with languages outside of the JVM, including Spark’s supported languages of Python and R. This section also offers guidance on how to use Fortran, C, and GPU-specific code to reap additional performance improvements. Even if we are developing most of our Spark application in Scala, we shouldn’t feel tied to doing everything in Scala, because specialized libraries in other languages can be well worth the overhead of going outside the JVM.

Learning Scala

If after all of this we’ve convinced you to use Scala, there are several excellent options for learning Scala. Spark 1.6 is built against Scala 2.10 and cross-compiled against Scala 2.11, and Spark 2.0 is built against Scala 2.11 and cross-compiled against Scala 2.10 until Spark 2.3 and may add 2.12 in the future. Depending on how much we’ve convinced you to learn Scala, and what your resources are, there are a number of different options ranging from books to massive open online courses (MOOCs) to professional training.

For books, Programming Scala, 2nd Edition, by Dean Wampler and Alex Payne can be great, although much of the actor system references are not relevant while working in Spark. The Scala language website also maintains a list of Scala books.

In addition to books focused on Spark, there are online courses for learning Scala. Functional Programming Principles in Scala, taught by Martin Ordersky, its creator, is on Coursera as well as Introduction to Functional Programming on edX. A number of different companies also offer video-based Scala courses, none of which the authors have personally experienced or recommend.

For those who prefer a more interactive approach, professional training is offered by a number of different companies, including Lightbend (formerly Typesafe). While we have not directly experienced Typesafe training, it receives positive reviews and is known especially to help bring a team or group of individuals up to speed with Scala for the purposes of working with Spark.


Although you will likely be able to get the most out of Spark performance if you have an understanding of Scala, working in Spark does not require a knowledge of Scala. For those whose problems are better suited to other languages or tools, techniques for working with other languages will be covered in Chapter 7. This book is aimed at individuals who already have a grasp of the basics of Spark, and we thank you for choosing High Performance Spark to deepen your knowledge of Spark. The next chapter will introduce some of Spark’s general design and evaluation paradigms that are important to understanding how to efficiently utilize Spark.

1 From http://spark.apache.org/.

2 MiMa is the Migration Manager for Scala and tries to catch binary incompatibilities between releases.

3 Although, as we explore in this book, the performance implications and evaluation semantics are quite different.

4 Of course, in performance, every rule has its exception. mapPartitions in Spark 1.6 and earlier in Java suffers some severe performance restrictions that we discuss in “Iterator-to-Iterator Transformations with mapPartitions”.

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