A New Generation of Search Tools

December 15, 2009

Most search functionality is powered by full-text indices. These indices store information about which documents contain which terms. The technology involved is quite old and simple to understand, but the implementation details are a minefield of complexity. Unfortunately, most implementations were built to solve a specific class of problems and are having trouble meeting the demanding needs of new applications. A new generation of indexing systems is here, heralded by Basho’s Riak Search.


Software like Lucene, Solr, and Sphinx are optimized for class of problems that doesn’t always match up to an application’s requirements. They work very well when the document set they index doesn’t change very much or very often. Adding new documents to the system is expensive. They have highly sophisticated on-disk data structures that provide high query performance at the cost of expensive modification.

For example, Sphinx has limited support for adding new documents to a running system. From their own documentation:

There’s a frequent situation when the total dataset is too big to be reindexed from scratch often, but the amount of new records is rather small. Example: a forum with a 1,000,000 archived posts, but only 1,000 new posts per day.

A typical use of Sphinx is to re-index all the content every day. It can re-index very, very fast, but this means that the latency of a new document being available for searching is a day. This may work for many applications, but most users will expect new content to be searchable immediately.

Solr has sophisticated replication and index merging, but it doesn’t fare very well either for high volume updates. There is a significant lag between the time a document is sent to the indexer and the time the index reflects this new content. Making this lag small has serious performance consequences, and I know of few sites who can manage under 5 minutes; most probably do merges hourly, daily, etc.

The more data you have, the worse these properties become. The bigger your index, the longer it will take to merge. This leads many applications to shard their search indexes in the same way that high-traffic sites shard their databases. Solr has some limited support for this built-in, but for the most part, it is a complex task left up to the application developer.

This is not to say that these projects are poor; on the contrary, they are quite good at what they are made for, and contain many components that are generally useful. Many high-profile sites use them to great success. However, for applications with high volumes of new content, low latency requirements, or massive amounts of data, these tools are a poor fit.

The world needs something better.

The problems I outline above with traditional indexing systems are problems that I face every day at Collecta. We have massive volumes of new data rocketing into our system, and we keep all this data on hand for quite a while. In order to launch quickly and begin iterating, there wasn’t time to invent a new indexing system. We knew the limitations of what we had and planned accordingly, bootstrapping technologically as opposed to financially.

Indexing at Collecta is there to provide historical context; it is only part of our search technology. Our real-time technology is powered by streaming (using XMPP), not indices. As far as I’m aware, we are the only real-time company that is not based on indexing systems, and that fact probably explains why our search results appear in fractions of a second after, not minutes after, content is published.

Our users would not be impressed if the results page showed them nothing until the next time someone mentioned their query term, so we store a historical archive and index it for queries. Unfortunately, the traditional indexing systems fall well short of our needs.

We need something better.

I’ve been following the NoSQL community for some time. Collecta was an early adopter of CouchDB and an early customer of Cloudant. Earlier this year, I began to plan for the development of a new indexing system to better meet our needs. That’s about the time I first met Justin Sheehy of Basho.

I had begun to think about using a [Dynamo](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dynamo_(storage_system)-like system as a basis for a new index. It had a lot of desireable properties that I wanted. Specifically, trading off consistency for search indexes makes the most sense. We already have to live with this trade-off with the other systems which are replicated, even though those systems were not designed upfront with that trade-off in mind.

When I first heard of Riak, I called Justin to learn more. In the course of our conversation, I shared my ideas about a new indexing system, and I asked if such a thing could be built on top of Riak. We had a fruitful conversation and came up with a lot of interesting ideas.

Several weeks later, Justin told me that John Muellerleile was leading a team at Basho that had started experimentally building such a system, and it was showing some promise. What followed was a lot of back and forth on requirements, ideas, and demos over a period of a few months. Each step of the way, we were all growing excited about the possibilities.

The end result of this effort is Riak Search, a new Basho product that should mark the next era of indexing system design. Collecta has gotten a solution to several large pain points, not the least of which is that Riak Search will save us a lot of money and time. Basho has gotten a new product and a new customer.

It gets even better! They even plan to open source a lot of it, a move which we greatly encourage.

I think this technology will work its way in everywhere, and users will get even better search experiences. Developers and administrators will be pleased to stop fighting against the grain of the current solutions and embrace the right tool for the job.

A New Generation of Search Tools - December 15, 2009 - Jack Moffitt