Here at Aggregate Knowledge we spend a lot of time thinking about how to do analytics on a massive amount of data. Rob recently posted about building our streaming datastore and the architecture that helps us deal with “big data”. Given a streaming architecture, the obvious question for the data scientist is “How do we fit in?”. Clearly we need to look towards streaming algorithms to match the speed and performance of our datastore.

A streaming algorithm is defined generally as having finite memory – significantly smaller than the data presented to it – and must process the input in one pass. Streaming algorithms start pretty simple, for instance counting the number of elements in the stream:

counter = 0 for event in stream: counter += 1

While eventually `counter`

will overflow (and you can be somewhat clever about avoiding that) this is way better than the non-streaming alternative.

elements = list(stream) counter = len(elements)

Pretty simple stuff. Even a novice programmer can tell you why the second method is way worse than the first. You can get more complicated and keep the same basic approach – computing the mean of a floating point number stream is almost as simple: keep around `counter`

as above, and add a new variable, `total_sum += value_new`

. Now that we’re feeling smart, what about the quantiles of the stream? Ah! Now that *is* harder.

While it may not be immediately obvious, you can prove (as Munro and Paterson did in 1980) that computing exact quantiles of a stream requires memory that is at least linear with respect to the size of the stream. So, we’re left approximating a solution to the quantiles problem. A first stab might be sampling where you keep every 1000th element. While this isn’t horrible, it has it’s downsides – if your stream is infinite, you’ll still run out of space. It’s a good thing there are much better solutions. One of the first and most elegant was proposed by Cormode and Muthukrishnan in 2003 where they introduce the Count-Min sketch data structure. (A nice reference for sketching data structures can be found here.)

Count-Min sketch works much like a bloom filter. You compose `k`

empty tables and `k`

hash functions. For each incoming element we simply hash it through each function and increment the appropriate element in the corresponding table. To find out how many times we have historically seen a particular element we simply hash our query and take the MINIMUM value that we find in the tables. In this way we limit the effects of hash collision, and clearly we balance the size of the Count-Min sketch with the accuracy we require for the final answer. Heres how it works:

The Count-Min sketch is an approximation to the histogram of the incoming data, in fact it’s really only probabilistic when hashes collide. In order to compute quantiles we want to find the “mass” of the histogram above/below a certain point. Luckily Count-Min sketches support range queries of the type “`select count(*) where val between 1 and x;`

“. Now it is just a matter of finding the quantile of choice.

To actually find the quantiles is slightly tricky, but not that hard. You basically have to perform a binary search with the range queries. So to find the first decile value, and supposing you kept around the the number of elements you have seen in the stream, you would binary search through values of x until the return count of the range query is 1/10 of the total count.

Pretty neat, huh?