First Look at Open Table Format

TL; DR : I wrote a simple notebook how to create a Delta Table using PySpark, delete some rows and run some Queries using DuckDB.

When you write a record in a database, Like SQL Server, SQLite, it needs to store it somewhere, usually that location was your Disk, your local storage system is a very powerful system, you can write, read, modify existing file etc and it is very fast , so this problem was already solved 50 years ago. Why we should care about data lake Table Format (Delta, Iceberg etc).

The Internet happened

Internet tech company start getting massive amount of data generated by the exponential use of the internet, saving data in the local disk of Big Database is just too expensive, there was a need for a separate approach.

Separation of Storage and Compute

The solution was very simple separate the computer that run Queries from the system that store data, and both can be scaled independently, if you don’t need to run Analytical Queries fine just turn it off and keep adding data to your storage system. That was a genius idea!!! ( I think Google MapReduce was first then Yahoo basically copied the idea by creating the Open Source Hadoop, but it was slow then Spark tool over)


Another important event, in 2006, AWS, released S3, a massive Object store, basically you can save your files for a very low cost, but there is a catch, the files are immutable, you can’t simply open a file and do some modification and save it.

Basically, you can only add and delete files.

Table format solved this limitation by using some tricks, for example you want to delete some records, the DB will just add a new file with all the records and later when you read it, you just ignore those records. (it is called Merge on Read)

Another Approach is the DB will simply write a new file that don’t contains the delete records, and tag the existing file, so when you read it later, you will read the new file, as an example, if you have a table with 1 million records and want to delete 1 record, the DB will write a new file with 999999 records, that’s seems not very efficient to me !!!

Proprietary Table Format

Commercial DB Vendor like BigQuery (Capacitor), Snowflake (PAX) use it internally since day one, but it is Proprietary, you can’t read it using your Own Query Engine, although BigQuery provide an API that talk directly to the storage.

My understanding At that time Open Source system (Hadoop, Spark ) used a very simple table format called Hive, something that looks like this

But it did have a lot of problems, basically no ACID support , as an example, if someone is adding files when you are reading the table, you will get wrong results,  if you overwrite a table and your script timeout for any reason, your table will be corrupted ( I learn it the hard way).

Open Source Table Format

Open Source developers understood that they need to do something about it and they knew commercial DB vendors have already solved this problem, the result was those three Major format.

But at the very basic level, Table Storage Format is just a folder that contains

  • Data (usually) in a parquet format
  • Meta Data that contains the statistics of every file and its location

Something like this, Obviously the exact implementation details different for every format

Because it is open source, you will always find some developers who will build something slightly different, see databend as example, and even new Proprietary vendors , see FireBolt F3

I don’t delete why Should I care

That’s a respectable statement, even if all you do is read only and never delete, one may argue a folder of parquet file with a decent hive type partition is all you need, I still think even in that use case, Table Format maybe worth it, listing a directory is extremely slow operation and cost money, instead you can just read a metadata file and knows exactly the location of every file, not only that, some Query Engine are smart enough to read the statistics from the metadata file and skips files that don’t contains the Data needed for the Query.

Another example if you want to count the total records of a table or the min/max potentially you can just read it from the metadata and it will take millisecond.

Which one is better?

If you google it, you will find all kind of articles why one table format is better than the others, it is a very technical subject and I don’t know enough to comment on it, but my impression is Delta is rather controlled by Databricks ( and some features are still proprietary) which make the other vendors a bit suspicious and hence they are more into the Iceberg camp. (Snowflake, Trino, Dremio and to a less extend BigQuery)

Should you care about Table Format ?

Actually we should not, I never cared where SQL Server save its data, it is just there, and this is exactly what happening with Data Lake Vendors, they are slowly turning into a classical DW approach, surprisingly nowadays the best practise is to read the table using a catalog as there is no way to have a proper row level security, column masking just by reading from files. ( it is a bit ironic, it is like 2010 again)

Another interesting twist, Cloud DW vendors like Snowflake are adding support for Open Storage format as a native table, see this excellent presentation , Trino and Dremio has already a solid write and read support for Iceberg.

Microsoft and Google approach is to use Spark for Writing the Table Format and use their DW offering for read, I find this approach rather lazy. maybe it is just a workaround till they have a native support.

I suspect we will see a commoditization of open Table format this coming year(s), and users will just go back caring about what really matter;

Cost, Performance and Concurrency.


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