Tiny bit about AWS EMR on big data

Dawid Laszuk published on
4 min, 729 words

One of the recent projects I've worked on involved processing billions of row stored in AWS S3 in terabyte size data. That was the biggest I've worked so far and, even though I don't like the term, it broke through the big data barrier. Just handling the data with popular toolkits, such as scikit-learn or MXNet, created so many problems that it was easier to create our own solutions. But the biggest surprises came from places least expected.

The first surprise came from AWS EMR. With such amount of data, there is no other way than to use a large computation cluster and the EMR is quite easy to set up. Web UI is rather nicely explained and once you know what you want you can use CLI or SDK to do so programmatically. Cool, right? So what are the problems? There are plenty of things that simply don't work as they should or are not mentioned that they work differently. The number the one-click install applications that the EMR supports is rather big and you can see some explanation for any of them. However, nowhere is mentioned that the EMR Spark is a fork of Apache Spark and thus slightly different. It comes with different default settings so the best practices for Apache Spark aren't the same and searching for EMR Spark just doesn't return anything. It took me a while to find out that accessing S3 should be through s3:// or possibly through s3n:// but it's deprecated and slow. It also states that you shouldn't use s3a:// which is, in contrast, is the recommended way of doing with Apache Spark. Oh, and while I'm on the S3...

Another big surprise came from AWS S3 itself. Thinking how global and popular the service is I was surprised to learn that there are actual limitations on the connection. Ok, I wasn't surprised that there are any, but I thought they were much bigger. According to AWS S3 documentation on Request Rate and Performance Considerations one shouldn't exceed 100 PUT/LIST/DELETE or 300 GET requests per second. It is averaged over time so occasional bursts are Ok but do it too often and S3 is going to throttle you. Why this matters? When you are using Spark to save directly to S3, e.g.

    val orders = sparkContext.parallelize(1 to 1000000)

and you are working with hundreds of executors (processes) on small tasks (batches) then you are going to query S3 a lot. Moreover, by default Spark saves output in a temporary directory and once save is done it renames and moves everything. On file system that's almost instantaneous operation but on object storage, such as S3, this is another big read and save, and it takes a significant amount of time. Yes, this can and should be avoided by proper configuration or repartitioned to a smaller number before but learning about this the hard way is not the nicest experience. Moreover, one would expect that the integration between EMR and S3 would be smoother.

Having said all of that I need to highlight that working with Spark and Hadoop on AWS EMR is rather simple. It takes a long time to learn the nuances and proper configuration per task but once that's done the life gets only better. One of features I'm looking forward in the future is a better integration with MXNet. Both MXNet and Tensorflow allow for nice utilization of CPU and GPU clusters so it should be a matter of time for EMR to support that out of the box, right? Hopefully. In the meantime Spark + Hadoop + Ganglia + Zeppelin seems to be all I need for big data processing pipelines.