Schema and type system for creating sortable byte[]
Latest commit d26d690 Jan 30, 2013 @ndimiduk clean up build warnings


This project serializes a wide range of simple and complex key data types into a sort-order preserving byte encoding. Sorting the serialized byte arrays produces the same ordering as the natural sort order of the underlying data type. The project can be used to generate byte-valued serialized keys for sorted key-value data stores such as HBase.

TODO: documentation needs to be updated with what is changed wrt the original Orderly library

  • maven build
  • support for fixed and variable length byte arrays. Fixed length "as is", variable length using a BCD encoding
  • support for explicitly disabling termination, for example useful when building rowkeys to be used for prefix searching


The goal of this project is to produce extremely space efficient byte serializations for common data types while ensuring that the resulting byte array sorts correctly. As a consequence, we provide types optimized for many different situations (32-bit variable length unsigned integers, 64-bit fixed signed integers, etc) so that you do not pay for features that you do not use.

In contrast to more ad-hoc sortable byte serialization designs, we support all values for included types. For example, our double precision floating point encoding supports NaNs, positive/negative zero, subnormals, etc, while our String encoding supports NULLs, the empty string, etc. This is done without compromising space efficiency, usually by taking advantage of the underlying encoding format (i.e. IEEE-745 for doubles, UTF-8 for Strings). Each RowKey class has a JavaDoc precisely describing its serialization format.

RowKeys may be a primitive (single-value) type or complex (composite) type composed of many values. Complex types are themselves composed of other complex types and primitive types.

Supported Primive Types

We support a wide range of primitive (single-value) types:

(i) Variable-Length Integers (Int, IntWritable, Long, LongWritable) Variable-length 32-bit integer, and 64-bit longs encoded in a sort order preserving variable length format similar in design to Zig-Zag encoding. Both signed and unsigned integer types are supported.

Small absolute values such as -1 or 17 take up 1 byte, larger absolute values such as 65536 or 2^28 require more bytes. The maximum length of
a variable-length integer is 5 bytes, and a variable-length long is 9 bytes. NULL values are supported without decreasing the range of supported integers or negatively impacting the space efficiency of the encoding.

(ii) Fixed-Width Integers (Int, IntWritable, Long, LongWritable) Fixed-length 32-bit integers and 64-bit longs are serialized directly to the byte array in big endian order. Both signed and unsigned types are supported. This is the only row key type that does not support null values. Useful only when common values are very large (>2^28 for integers, >2^59 for longs), otherwise variable-length integers are much more space efficient.

(iii) Floating Point (Float, FloatWritable, Double, DoubleWritable) Fixed-length 32-bit float and 64-bit double floating point numbers. Null values are supported at no additional space cost by reserving a NaN value unused by Java (it is stripped out by NaN canonicalization during Double.doubleToLongBits). Correctly sorts all values, including subnormals, infinity, positive and negative zero, etc.

(iv) BigDecimal Variable-length bigdecimal format. Scale is encoded as a variable length integer, and the significand is encoded as a variable-length binary coded decimal string. Supports all BigDecimal values, as well as NULL.

(v) String types (Text, UTF-8 byte array, String) Variable-length format for storing UTF-8 strings. Correctly handles sorting all valid UTF-8 strings, as well as empty string and NULL values. NULLs and string terminators are encoded when necessary by using leveraging invalid UTF-8 header bytes, although in many cases they can be omitted from the serialization entirely (see Section 3).

Complex (Composite) Types

Currently, the supported complex type is a struct (record) key, which is used to create a composite key. The struct key is composed a fixed number of field row keys (which may be any valid row key type, including another struct).

For example, let us suppose the user wants a key composed of a timestamp, username, and spam score. The timestamps should be sorted in descending order (so that it is easy to always retrieve the most recent score from the database). For this representation, we could create a struct with three primitive field row keys: a LongWritable with descending sort order, a UTF-8 string, and a float.

For convenience, a StructBuilder class is provided to build struct keys more easily, and a StructIterator class is provided to iterate over the fields of a serialized struct.

Important Row Key Methods

All row key types are subclasses of type RowKey, and the following methods: (i) get serialized length - Given an object to be serialized, returns the length of the object's serialized representation (so you can allocate storage space) (ii) serialize (writing a type to an immutablebyteswritable or byte array) (iii) deserialize (reading a type from immutablebyteswritable or byte
array) (iv) skip (skipping over a serialized type in an immutablebyteswritable without deserialization the object)

Usage Guidelines

(1) Prefer Writable or byte types (IntWritable, UTF8, Text) to immutable object (Integer, Long, String) types. The latter cannot be re-used across multiple serialization/deserialization operations. If you have a MapReduce job reading/writing millions or billions of keys, you'll want to use non-immutable types to reduce the number of object instantations. For more information, each RowKey class JavaDoc has a usage section describing its performance characteristics for object instantiation and byte array copying.

(2) Use the most precise format you require...but no more precise For variable-length integers, you will gain slightly more efficient storage by using unsigned integer types instead of signed types (if your integers are unsigned), and using 32-bit integer types instead of 64-bit longs.

However, do not use a 32-bit variable-length integer type unless you are certain that all your values, for the lifetime of your application, will fit in 32-bits. The variable-length long encoding is very efficient, and when compared to the 32-bit integer encoding the cost the additional cost is modest at best (a single bit of overhead for 3/4/5-byte integer encodings, and no overhead for 1 and 2 byte encodings). When in doubt about the range of values you will store, use a signed or unsigned long type. Signed types have 1 additional bit of overhead in comparison to unsigned types (for all integer encoding lengths).

(3) Ascending sort results in slightly smaller encodings for strings, bigdecimals, and any NULL value encoding when mustTerminate is false. This is because when performing ascending sort, we can omit trailing end-of-string or null value bytes and just use the end of the byte array as an implicit terminator as described in the RowKey class's JavaDoc. If you don't have a strong preference on your sort order, ascending sort (in the above situations) results in slightly more efficient encodings. The worst case difference in serialization overhead between ascending and descending order is a single byte per serialized RowKey.

Additional Documentation

All public classes have JavaDocs, which can be built by typing 'ant javadoc'. Start with the JavaDoc for the RowKey class, and if you are going to use a composite (complex) key, also read the JavaDoc for the StructRowKey class. Each RowKey subclass JavaDoc describe the class, its serialization format, and performance characteristics.

A set of example classes using the RowKey APIs are provided in src/examples. These classes demonstrate correct API usage, and are a good starting point for writing your own clients. The examples can be compiled by typing 'ant compile-example', and are also built as part of the 'jar' and 'package' ant tasks.