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RCP 11 - The stream data type

Author: Salvatore Sanfilippo <>
Creation date: 2016-06-04
Update date: 2017-02-07
Status: open
Version: 1.2
Implementation: none


  • Time vs number of messages eviction policies.


  • Version 1.0 (2016-06-04): Initial version.
  • Version 1.1 (2016-06-22): Message format change and messages acknowledges.
  • Version 1.2 (2017-02-07): Proposal mostly rewritten. Many important changes to make the data structure also a good fit for time series.


The Stream data structure should provide a way to model time series and other data, with an API that can be used as a vanilla abstract data structure, but also with streaming functionalities. The streaming functionalities should allow different clients to efficiently read the same stream of messages, and allow clients to start reading again after a disconnection starting from the last message received. Moreover it should be possible for the clients to inspect past messages if needed. Since the data structure should also work well for time series, including IOT (Internet Of Things) data collection, sensors and other similar use cases, the messages created into a stream are structured into a set of field-value pairs, and are keyed by an unique identifier that is related to the insertion time of the entry. The structure should allow to efficiently query for ranges of times as well.

The use cases covered by streams have some overlapping with Lists and Pub/Sub, and even sorted sets in the case of time series.

However these pre-existing primitives in Redis are not efficient at modeling the features exposed above, for the following reasons:

  • Lists cannot be accessed efficiently in the middle, since the seek complexity is O(N).
  • There is no notion of offset in the list, so if old elements are evicted, there is no longer a way for clients to read only new elements, or to rewind to a past known position.
  • A log is inherently more compact and memory efficient, since we don't need to account for removal of elements in the middle.
  • Pub/Sub has no efficient way to persist an history of messages. There were ideas to implement such a feature, but it always looks far fetched since the whole Pub/Sub mechanism in Redis is designed towards fire-and-forget workloads.
  • Pub/Sub has a cost which is related to the number of clients listening for a given channel.
  • There is no consumer group concept in lists and Pub/Sub, which is a very interesting abstraction in order to have groups of clients that receive different messages, yet another group can receive the same set of messages if needed. If you are not familiar with Kafka, consumer groups are sets of clients sharing the offset of the latest consumed offset, so that all the clients in the same group will receive different messages. Yet each of these clients can independently rewind if they want to consume the same messages again.
  • Sorted sets do not allow to add repeating elements. Scores must be computed client side and do not work well enough as messages IDs. The memory usage is bigger than needed for most use cases where certain sorted sets features (like rank operations) are useless. There is no automatic entries eviction, nor blocking operations are supported.

In comparison, streams should have the following characteristics:

  • Clients should have control on what they want to read, it should be possible to rewind back in time, consumer groups should be implemented.
  • Blocking operations should be provided so that a client may block waiting for entires having an offset greater than a given one.
  • Each entry in the log should have an unique offset that remains the same if old entries are evicted.
  • Memory efficiency should be very good in order to take a big amount of history in memory without problems. Since the data structure should not have a big overhead due to nodes and pointers of other data structures, this should be possible.
  • Efficient access of elements in the middle should be possible even with many millions of entires. Let's say that with 100 million entries still to seek in the middle should not be obviously slow.
  • It should be possible to gradually evict old entries.
  • The log should be efficiently persisted on RDB and AOF files to avoid to be ephemeral like Pub/Sub is.

Messages are ordered collections of field-value pairs

A message in a Redis Stream is conceptually similar to a Redis Hash, it is composed of multiple field-value pairs. However such field-value pairs are in this case ordered, and are usually small both in the number of fields and items size, while the Hash data type supports easily tens of millions of elements per key without noticeable performance issues.

This is very clear in the API. In order to add data to the stream we specify fields and names like in the case of an hash:

TAPPEND key sensor 01 temperature 35.6
> 1486475519747.0

Entry IDs

Each added entry has an ID that works as a logical offset inside the stream, the format of the entry ID is the time in milliseconds when the entry was added followed by a dot and a counter which is just an incremental number that marks entries added in the same millisecond.


If after a clock skew, an entry is added when the current time is smaller than the last entry in the stream, the entry is added by reusing the previous entry time stamp and incrementing just the entry counter. So entries are guaranteed to monotonically always increase semantically.

However note that we do not imply here that there is such a guarantee when the system loses data because of a restart, a fail over or other conditions, entries IDs are just always incrementing from the point of view of the current content of the stream key.

The internal representation of the offset is a 128 bit number which is actually stored as two uint64_t numbers:

struct stream_offset_t {
    uint64_t ms;
    uint64_t seq;

So the same milliseconds can account for 2^64-1 entries.

Commands introduced

TAPPEND command

TAPPEND key field value ... field value
> 1486475519748.3

TAPPEV key (COUNT|TIME) <count> field value ... field value
> 1486475519747.0

This command creates a new stream at key if it does not already exist, and adds the specified entry at the end of the log. It returns the offset at which the entry was stored.

The TAPPEV command is just an append and evict command that can be used in order to remove older entries so that the total entry count is N or that only entries having less than the specified number of milliseconds of age are left (the age is computed according to their offset).

The TAPPEV variant may not include any field-value list, in order to just evict.

TREAD command

TREAD key <last-received-entry-ID> <count> [BLOCK <milliseconds>] [GROUP <name> <ttl>] [RETRY <rerty-ms> <expire-ms>] [WITHINFO]

Read count messages starting from the next message after last-received. The command returns an array of messages, where each message contains the ID and the message itself.

[["1486475519748.3","key","val", ...],["1486475519747.0","key","val"]]

The following are the options the TWRITE command supports:


If the WITHINFO option is passed, the first element of the reply is an array that specifies the first and last offset available in the stream.

By using a COUNT of 0 it is possible to obtain just the informations, in order to start reading only the new data in the next call, or to fetch the available history, and so forth.

When the user requests an offset which does not exist, the missing messages are reported as NULL entries.

BLOCK <milliseconds>

The BLOCK <ms> option blocks if there are no messages having an offset greater or equal the specified offset, and unblocks the client returning data as soon as messages are available with such an offset. This is useful in order to read messages and block again until new messages are available.

When BLOCK is used, the last-received_entry-ID can be specified as an empty string to signal we just want entries starting from the next one that will arrive, without any history.

GROUP <name> <ttl>

The GROUP option implements consumer groups, in a similar fashion as Kafka. Instead in order to provide messages to the client the offset to use is read from the group meta data stored inside the stream structure. The group is updated to the new offset at the same time, so that the next client asking for messages with the same group will receive new messages and so forth.

The basic idea of groups is to return a different subset of a stream of messages to different clients participating to the same group.

The group TTL is used in order to destroy the group when the specified amount of milliseconds have elapsed without any request in that group. When a group is used with a different TTL compared to the past one, the group TTL is set to the new value.

Normally when a GROUP option is passed, the last-received-entry-ID is set to the empty string, and is up to the group to decide what entries to return to the client. In this case, the group will just serve new entries that will arrive in the stream, without serving any history.

However it is possible for the client to still pass the last-received-entry-ID option when GROUP is used: if the group was not known before, such an ID will be used as the initial offset of the group. Otherwise if the group already exists the option is ignored. This way if clients in a group want some history they could use TREAD in order to get the stream informations and request some history.

Note that the GROUP option must play well with BLOCK: when multiple clients are blocked with the same group we must guarantee that the one that we serve first will return as the last one in the queue of clients blocked, so that we can efficiently route the messages evenly to all the clients that are participating to the group.

RETRY <retry-ms> <expire-ms>

If a retry time is specified, and only if also a group name is specified, the returned messages need to be acknowledged, otherwise they'll be provided to clients of the specified group after the amounts of milliseconds specified (or more). Clients must acknowledge messages using the TACK command documented later.

The expire time provided gives a time to live for messages that are not acknowledged in time. After the expire time elapses, the message is no longer retained in the list of pending messages and gets destroyed instead.

Basically you can think at messages served with RETRY as messages that are not just returned to the client, but also memorized in a group specific list of pending messages. The TACK command will remove them from that pending list, otherwise the messages will be re-scheduled for delivery.

Pending messages in groups are both persisted on disk and replicated to slaves.

TACK command

TACK key groupname id1 id2 ... idN

The TACK command just remove the messages from the pending list. IDs not in the pending list are ignored.

TRANGE command

TRANGE key start-id end-id [COUNT <count>]

The TRANGE command is able to just fetch entries between two IDs. The IDs can be just specified as unix times in milliseconds without requiring the entry count, in order to just make time range queries.

Streams internal representation

The data structure used to represent streams should:

  • Be memory efficient.
  • Allow the eviction of old entries in a very fast way.
  • Allow efficient seek in the middle.
  • Support logical message offsets.
  • Permit the sequential traversal both ways without overhead in order to return messages and in order to efficiently persist the structure.

After evaluating different candidates, my initial proposal is to use a skiplist with the following special characteristics:

  • Double linked skiplist, so that it's possible to traverse elements sequentially in both directions. We already use a similar trick for sorted sets.
  • Each skiplist node is actually a macro node, composed of 100-1000 (actual value configurable) stream messages. This is a fundamental point in order to reduce memory usage, make eviction of old messages very fast since the number of allocations is small even for millions of messages, and to also guarantee very fast seek times, since log(N) will be very small even with very large streams, so that seek will be effectively be constant time (even at 100 million messages we'll use 100k nodes).

Macro nodes will be represented by Listpacks.

Public design process

This Redis feature will be handled via a public design process:

  1. This draft is published at as a sticky post.
  2. Feedbacks are encouraged into the comments.
  3. I'll carefully listen to all the feedbacks and reply. We'll try to find alternatives together to shortcomings in this design.
  4. At the end I'll evaluate all the feedbacks, and write a new version of this spec.
  5. I'll write a first implementation of the data type for users to test in real world to find new possible issues.


This proposal originates from an user hint:

During the morning (CEST) of May 20th 2016 I was spending some time in the #redis channel on IRC. At some point Timothy Downs, nickname forkfork wrote the following messages:

<forkfork> the module I'm planning on doing is to add a transaction log style data type - meaning that a very large number of subscribers can do something like pub sub without a lot of redis memory growth
<forkfork> subscribers keeping their position in a message queue rather than having redis maintain where each consumer is up to and duplicating messages per subscriber

Now this is not very far from what Apache Kafka provides, from the point of view of an abstract data structure. At the same time it is somewhat similar to what Redis lists and Pub/Sub already provide in one way or the other. All this functionality overlapping in the past prevented me from considering such a data structure.

However after Timothy message I started to think about it. Such a simple data structure actually allows users to model problems using Redis that are currently very hard to model both using lists and Pub/Sub.