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If I had all the money I'd ever need, I would still write software - every day. I love putting together the pieces of intricate software puzzles and creating novel and useful solutions for myself and those around me. When I find a solution to a problem which hasn't been well documented, I try to write about it to save the next poor soul from trudging through the same waters. We're all in this together, after all. Jim is a DZone MVB and is not an employee of DZone and has posted 1 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

Understanding HBase and BigTable

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The hardest part about learning Hbase (the open source implementation of Google's BigTable), is just wrapping your mind around the concept of what it actually is.

I find it rather unfortunate that these two great systems contain the words table and base in their names, which tend to cause confusion among RDBMS indoctrinated individuals (like myself).

This article aims to describe these distributed data storage systems from a conceptual standpoint. After reading it, you should be better able to make an educated decision regarding when you might want to use Hbase vs when you'd be better off with a "traditional" database.

It's all in the terminology

Fortunately, Google's BigTable Paper clearly explains what BigTable actually is. Here is the first sentence of the "Data Model" section:

A Bigtable is a sparse, distributed, persistent multidimensional sorted map.

Note: At this juncture I like to give readers the opportunity to collect any brain matter which may have left their skulls upon reading that last line.

The BigTable paper continues, explaining that:

The map is indexed by a row key, column key, and a timestamp; each value in the map is an uninterpreted array of bytes.

Along those lines, the HbaseArchitecture page of the Hadoop wiki posits that:

HBase uses a data model very similar to that of Bigtable. Users store data rows in labelled tables. A data row has a sortable key and an arbitrary number of columns. The table is stored sparsely, so that rows in the same table can have crazily-varying columns, if the user likes.

Although all of that may seem rather cryptic, it makes sense once you break it down a word at a time. I like to discuss them in this sequence: map, persistent, distributed, sorted, multidimensional, and sparse.

Rather than trying to picture a complete system all at once, I find it easier to build up a mental framework piecemeal, to ease into it...


At its core, Hbase/BigTable is a map. Depending on your programming language background, you may be more familiar with the terms associative array (PHP), dictionary (Python), Hash (Ruby), or Object (JavaScript).

From the wikipedia article, a map is "an abstract data type composed of a collection of keys and a collection of values, where each key is associated with one value."

Using JavaScript Object Notation, here's an example of a simple map where all the values are just strings:

"zzzzz" : "woot",
"xyz" : "hello",
"aaaab" : "world",
"1" : "x",
"aaaaa" : "y"


Persistence merely means that the data you put in this special map "persists" after the program that created or accessed it is finished. This is no different in concept than any other kind of persistent storage such as a file on a filesystem. Moving along...


Hbase and BigTable are built upon distributed filesystems so that the underlying file storage can be spread out among an array of independent machines.

Hbase sits atop either Hadoop's Distributed File System (HDFS) or Amazon's Simple Storage Service (S3), while a BigTable makes use of the Google File System (GFS).

Data is replicated across a number of participating nodes in an analogous manner to how data is striped across discs in a RAID system.

For the purpose of this article, we don't really care which distributed filesystem implementation is being used. The important thing to understand is that it is distributed, which provides a layer of protection against, say, a node within the cluster failing.


Unlike most map implementations, in Hbase/BigTable the key/value pairs are kept in strict alphabetical order. That is to say that the row for the key "aaaaa" should be right next to the row with key "aaaab" and very far from the row with key "zzzzz".

Continuing our JSON example, the sorted version looks like this:

"1" : "x",
"aaaaa" : "y",
"aaaab" : "world",
"xyz" : "hello",
"zzzzz" : "woot"

Because these systems tend to be so huge and distributed, this sorting feature is actually very important. The spacial propinquity of rows with like keys ensures that when you must scan the table, the items of greatest interest to you are near each other.

This is important when choosing a row key convention. For example, consider a table whose keys are domain names. It makes the most sense to list them in reverse notation (so "com.jimbojw.www" rather than "") so that rows about a subdomain will be near the parent domain row.

Continuing the domain example, the row for the domain "" would be right next to the row for "" rather than say "" which would happen if the keys were regular domain notation.

It's important to note that the term "sorted" when applied to Hbase/BigTable does not mean that "values" are sorted. There is no automatic indexing of anything other than the keys, just as it would be in a plain-old map implementation.

Published at DZone with permission of Jim Wilson, author and DZone MVB. (source)

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)


Rameshkumar Ramasamy replied on Thu, 2009/07/09 - 7:47am

Thanks a lot Jim!

 This article gives me better understating about HBase.


Keith Thomas replied on Tue, 2009/08/04 - 10:19am

Thanks for the article, just what I was looking for.

Vijay Bhas replied on Fri, 2012/02/24 - 1:45am

This article helps a lot for a beginner like me.



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