Sketching the last year

Sketching is an area of big-data science that has been getting a lot of attention lately. I personally am very excited about this.  Sketching analytics has been a primary focus of our platform and one of my personal interests for quite a while now. Sketching as an area of big-data science has been slow to unfold, (thanks Strata for declining our last two proposals on sketching talks!), but clearly the tide is turning. In fact, our summarizer technology, which relies heavily on our implementation of Distinct Value (DV) sketches, has been in the wild for almost a year now (and, obviously we were working on it for many months before that).

Fast, But Fickle

The R&D of the summarizer was fun but, as with most technical implementations, it’s never as easy as reading the papers and writing some code. The majority of the work we have done to make our DV sketches perform in production has nothing to do with the actual implementation.  We spend a lot of time focused on how we tune them, how we feed them, and make them play well with the rest of our stack.

Likewise, setting proper bounds on our sketches is an ongoing area of work for us and has led down some very interesting paths.  We have gained insights that are not just high level business problems, but very low level watchmaker type stuff.  Hash function behaviors and stream entropy alongside the skewness of data-sets themselves are areas we are constantly looking into to improve our implementations. This work has helped us refine and find optimizations around storage that aren’t limited to sketches themselves, but the architecture of the system as a whole.

Human Time Analytics

Leveraging DV sketches as more than just counters has proven unbelievably useful for us. The DV sketches we use provide arbitrary set operations. This comes in amazingly handy when our customers ask “How many users did we see on Facebook and on AOL this month that purchased something?” You can imagine how far these types of questions go in a real analytics platform. We have found that DV counts alongside set operation queries satisfy a large portion of our analytics platforms needs.

Using sketches for internal analytics has been a blast as well. Writing implementations and libraries in scripting languages enables our data-science team to perform very cool ad-hoc analyses faster and in “human-time”. Integrating DV sketches as custom data-types into existing databases has proven to be a boon for analysts and engineers alike.

Reap The Rewards

Over the course of the year that we’ve been using DV sketches to power analytics, the key takeaways we’ve found are: be VERY careful when choosing and implementing sketches; and leverage as many of their properties as possible.  When you get the formula right, these are powerful little structures. Enabling in-memory DV counting and set operations is pretty amazing when you think of the amount of data and analysis we support. Sketching as an area of big-data science seems to have (finally!) arrived and I, for one, welcome our new sketching overlords.

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