Exploring Stateful Streaming with Apache Spark

13 minute read

Update (01.08.2017): Spark v2.2 has recently come out with a new abstraction for stateful streaming called mapGroupsWithState which I’ve recently blogged about. I highly recommend checking it out.


Apache Spark is composed of several modules, each serving different purposes. One of it’s powerful modules is the Streaming API, which gives the developer the power of working with a continuous stream (or micro batches to be accurate) under an abstraction called Discretized Stream, or DStream.

In this post, I’m going to dive into a particular property of Spark Streaming, it’s stateful streaming API. Stateful Streaming enables us to maintain state between micro batches, allowing us to form sessionization of our data.

Disclaimer - One should have basic understanding of how Spark works and the general understanding of the DStream abstraction in order to follow the flow of this post. If not, go ahead and read this, don’t worry, I’ll wait…

Welcome back! let’s continue.

Understanding via an example

In order to understand how to work with the APIs, let’s create a simple example of incoming data which requires us to sessionize. Our input stream of data will be that of a UserEvent type:

case class UserEvent(id: Int, data: String, isLast: Boolean)

Each event describes a unique user. We identify a user by his id, and a String representing the content of the event that occurred. We also want to know when the user has ended his session, so we’re provided with a isLast flag which indicates the end of the session.

Our state, responsible for aggregating all the user events, will be that of a UserSession type:

case class UserSession(userEvents: Seq[UserEvent])

Which contains the sequence of events that occurred for a particular user. For this example, we’ll assume our data source is a stream of JSON encoded data consumed from Kafka.

Our Id property will be used as the key, and the UserEvent will be our value. Together, we get a DStream[(Int, UserEvent)].

Before we get down to business, two key important key points:

1. Checkpointing is preliminary for stateful streaming

From the Spark documentation:

A streaming application must operate 24/7 and hence must be resilient to failures unrelated to the application logic (e.g., system failures, JVM crashes, etc.). For this to be possible, Spark Streaming needs to checkpoint enough information to a fault- tolerant storage system such that it can recover from failures.

Sparks mechanism of checkpointing is the frameworks way of guaranteeing fault tolerance through the lifetime of our spark job. When we’re operating 24/7, things will fail that might not be directly under our control, such as a network failure or datacenter crashes. To promise a clean way of recovery, Spark can checkpoint our data every interval of our choosing to a persistent data store, such as Amazon S3, HDFS or Azure Blob Storage, if we tell it to do so.

Checkpointing is a feature for any non-stateful transformation, but it is mandatory that you provide a checkpointing directory for stateful streams, otherwise your application won’t be able to start.

Providing a checkpoint directory is as easy as calling the StreamingContext with the directory location:

val sparkContext = new SparkContext()
val ssc = new StreamingContext(sparkContext, Duration(4000))

One important thing to be noted is that checkpointed data is only useable as long as you haven’t modified existing code, and is mainly suitable to recover from job failure. Once you’ve modified your code (i.e uploaded a new version to the spark cluster), the checkpointed data is no longer compatible and must be deleted in order for your job to be able to start.

2. Key value pairs in the DStream

A common mistake is to wonder why we’re not seeing stateful transformation methods (updateStateByKey and mapWithState as we’ll soon see) when working with a DStream. Stateful transformations require that we operate on a DStream which encapsulates a key value pair, in the form of DStream[(K, V)] where K is the type of the key and V is type the value. Working with such a stream allows Spark to shuffle data based on the key, so all data for a given key can be available on the same worker node and allow you to do meaningful aggregations.

Ok, we’re ready. Let’s go write some code.

A Brief Look At The Past

Until Spark 1.6.0, the sole stateful transformation available was PairDStreamFunctions.updateStateByKey.

The signature for the simplest form (which we’ll look at) looks like this:

def updateStateByKey[S](updateFunc: (Seq[V], Option[S])  Option[S])

updateStateByKey requires a function which accepts:

  1. Seq[V] - The list of new values received for the given key in the current batch
  2. Option[S] - The state we’re updating on every iteration.

For the first invocation of our job, the state is going to be None, signaling it is the first batch for the given key. After that it’s entirely up to us to manage it’s value. Once we’re done with a particular state for a given key, we need to return None to indicate to Spark we don’t need the state anymore.

A naïve implementation for our scenario would look like this:

def updateUserEvents(newEvents: Seq[UserEvent],
                    state: Option[UserSession]): Option[UserSession] = {
  Append the new events to the state. If this the first time we're invoked for the key
  we fallback to creating a new UserSession with the new events.
  val newState = state
    .map(prev => UserSession(prev.userEvents ++ newEvents))

If we received the `isLast` event in the current batch, save the session to the underlying store and return None to delete the state.
Otherwise, return the accumulated state so we can keep updating it in the next batch.
  if (newEvents.exists(_.isLast)) {
  } else newState

At each batch, we want to take the state for the given user and concat both old events and new events into a new Option[UserSession]. Then, we want to check if we’ve reached the end of this users session, so we check the newly arrived sequence for the isLast flag on any of the UserEvents. If we received the last message, we save the user action to some persistent storage, and then return None to indicate we’re done. If we haven’t received an end message, we simply return the newly created state for the next iteration.

Our Spark DAG (Directed Acyclic Graph) looks like this:

val kafkaStream =
      KafkaUtils.createDirectStream[String, String, StringDecoder, StringDecoder](ssc, kafkaParams, topics)


The first map is for parsing the JSON to a tuple of (Int, UserEvent), where the Int is UserEvent.id. Then we pass the tuple to our updateStateByKey to do the rest.

Caveats of updateStateByKey

  1. A major downside of using updateStateByKey is the fact that for each new incoming batch, the transformation iterates the entire state store, regardless of whether a new value for a given key has been consumed or not. This can effect performance especially when dealing with a large amount of state over time. There are various technics to improving performance, but this still is a pain point.

  2. No built in timeout mechanism - Think what would happen in our example, if the event signaling the end of the user session was lost, or hadn’t arrived for some reason. One upside to the fact updateStateByKey iterates all keys is that we can implement such a timeout ourselves, but this should definitely be a feature of the framework.

  3. What you receive is what you return - Since the return value from updateStateByKey is the same as the state we’re storing. In our case Option[UserSession], we’re forced to return it downstream. But what happens if once the state is completed, I want to output a different type and use that in another transformation? Currently, that’s not possible.

Introducing mapWithState

mapWithState is updateStateByKeys successor released in Spark 1.6.0 as an experimental API. It’s the lessons learned down the road from working with stateful streams in Spark, and brings with it new and promising goods.

mapWithState comes with features we’ve been missing from updateStateByKey:

  1. Built in timeout mechanism - We can tell mapWithState the period we’d like to hold our state for in case new data doesn’t come. Once that timeout is hit, mapWithState will be invoked one last time with a special flag (which we’ll see shortly).

  2. Partial updates - Only keys which have new data arrived in the current batch will be iterated. This means no longer needing to iterate the entire state store at every batch interval, which is a great performance optimization.

  3. Choose your return type - We can now choose a return type of our desire, regardless of what type our state object holds.

  4. Initial state - We can select a custom RDD to initialize our stateful transformation on startup.

Let’s take a look at the different parts that form the new API.

The signature for mapWithState:

mapWithState[StateType, MappedType](spec: StateSpec[K, V, StateType, MappedType])

As opposed to the updateStateByKey that required us to pass a function taking a sequence of messages and the state in the form of an Option[S], we’re now required to pass a StateSpec:

Abstract class representing all the specifications of the DStream transformation mapWithState operation of a pair DStream (Scala) or a JavaPairDStream (Java). Use the StateSpec.apply() or StateSpec.create() to create instances of this class.

Example in Scala:

// A mapping function that maintains an integer state and return a String
def mappingFunction(key: String, value: Option[Int], state: State[Int]): Option[String] = {
  // Use state.exists(), state.get(), state.update() and state.remove()
  // to manage state, and return the necessary string

val spec = StateSpec.function(mappingFunction)

The interesting bit is StateSpec.function, a factory method for creating the StateSpec. it requires a function which has the following signature:

mappingFunction: (KeyType, Option[ValueType], State[StateType]) => MappedType

mappingFunction takes several arguments. Let’s construct them to match our example:

  1. KeyType - Obviously the key type, Int
  2. Option[ValueType] - Incoming data type, Option[UserEvent]
  3. State[StateType] - State to keep between iterations, State[UserSession]
  4. MappedType - Our return type, which can be anything. For our example we’ll pass an Option[UserSession].

Differences between mapWithState and updateStateByKey

  1. The value of our key, which previously wasn’t exposed.
  2. The incoming new values in the form of Option[S], where previously it was a Seq[S].
  3. Our state is now encapsulated in an object of type State[StateType]
  4. We can return any type we’d like from the transformation, no longer bound to the type of the state we’re holding.

(There exists a more advanced API where we also receive a Time object, but we won’t go into that here. Feel free to check out the different overloads here).

Exploring state management with the State object

Previously, managing our state meant working with an Option[S]. In order to update our state, we would create a new instance and return that from our transformation. When we wanted to remove the state, we’d return None. Since we’re now free to return any type from mapWithState, we need a way to interact with Spark to express what we wish to do with the state in every iteration. For that, we have the State[S] object.

There are several methods exposed by the object:

  1. def exists(): Boolean - Checks whether a state exists
  2. def get(): S - Get the state if it exists, otherwise it will throw java.util.NoSuchElementException. (We need to be careful with this one!)
  3. def isTimingOut(): Boolean - Whether the state is timing out and going to be removed by the system after the current batch.
  4. def remove(): Unit - Remove the state if it exists.
  5. def update(newState: S): Unit - Update the state with a new value
  6. def getOption(): Option[S] - Get the state as an scala.Option.

Which we will soon see.

Changing our code to conform to the new API

Let’s rebuild our previous updateUserEvents to conform to the new API. Our new method signature now looks like this:

def updateUserEvents(key: Int, value: Option[UserEvent], state: State[UserSession]): Option[UserSession]

Instead of receiving a Seq[UserEvent], we now receive each event individually.

Let’s go ahead and make those changes:

def updateUserEvents(key: Int,
                     value: Option[UserEvent],
                     state: State[UserSession]): Option[UserSession] = {
  Get existing user events, or if this is our first iteration
  create an empty sequence of events.
  val existingEvents: Seq[UserEvent] =

  Extract the new incoming value, appending the new event with the old
  sequence of events.
  val updatedUserSession: UserSession =
      .map(newEvent => UserSession(newEvent +: existingEvents))

Look for the end event. If found, return the final `UserSession`,
If not, update the internal state and return `None`
  updatedUserSession.userEvents.find(_.isLast) match {
    case Some(_) =>
    case None =>

For each iteration of mapWithState:

  1. In case this is our first iteration the state will be empty. We need to create it and append the new event. if it isn’t, we already have existing events, extract them from the State[UserSession] and append the new event with the old events.
  2. Look for the isLast event flag. If it exists, remove the UserSession state and return an Option[UserSession]. Otherwise, update the state and return None

The choice to return Option[UserSession] the transformation is up to us. We could of chosen to return Unit and send the complete UserSession from mapWithState as we did with updateStateByKey. But, I like it better that we can pass UserSession down the line to Another transformation to do more work as needed.

Our new Spark DAG now looks like this:

val stateSpec = StateSpec.function(updateUserEvents _)


But, there’s one more thing to add. Since we don’t save the UserSession inside the transformation, we need to add an additional transformation to store it in the persistent storage. For that, we can use foreachRDD:

  .foreachRDD { rdd =>
    if (!rdd.isEmpty()) {
      rdd.foreach(maybeUserSession => maybeUserSession.foreach(saveUserSession))

(If the connection to the underlying persistent storage is an expensive one which you don’t want to open for each value in the RDD, consider using rdd.foreachPartition instead of rdd.foreach (but that is beyond the scope of this post)

Finishing off with timeout

In reality, when working with large amounts of data we have to shield ourselves from data lose. With our current implementation if the isLast even doesn’t show, we’ll end up with that users actions “stuck” in the state.

Adding a timeout is simple:

  1. Add the timeout when constructing our StateSpec.
  2. Handle the timeout in the stateful transformation.

The first step is easily achieved by:

import org.apache.spark.streaming._
val stateSpec =
    .function(updateUserEvents _)

(Minutes is a Sparks wrapper class for Scala’s Duration class.)

For our updateUserEvents, we need to monitor the State[S].isTimingOut flag to know we’re timing out. Two things I want to mention in regards to timing out:

  1. It’s important to note that once a timeout occurs, our value argument will be None (explaining why we recieve an Option[S] instead of S for value. More on that here).
  2. If mapWithState is invoked due to a timeout, we must not call state.remove(), that will be done on our behalf by the framework. From the documentation of State.remove:

State cannot be updated if it has been already removed (that is, remove() has already been called) or it is going to be removed due to timeout (that is, isTimingOut() is true).

Let’s modify the code:

def updateUserEvents(key: Int,
                     value: Option[UserEvent],
                     state: State[UserSession]): Option[UserSession] = {
  def updateUserSession(newEvent: UserEvent): Option[UserSession] = {
    val existingEvents: Seq[UserEvent] =

    val updatedUserSession = UserSession(newEvent +: existingEvents)

    updatedUserSession.userEvents.find(_.isLast) match {
      case Some(_) =>
      case None =>

  value match {
    case Some(newEvent) => updateUserSession(newEvent)
    case _ if state.isTimingOut() => state.getOption()

I’ve extracted the updating of the user actions to a local method, updateUserSession, which we call if we’re invoked as a result of a new incoming value. Otherwise, we’re timing out we need to return user events we’ve accumulated thus far.

Wrapping Up

I hope I’ve managed to convey the general use of Spark’s stateful streams. Stateful streams, especially the new mapWithState transformation bring a lot of power to the end-users who wish to work with stateful data with Spark while enjoying the guarantee Spark brings of resiliency, distribution and fault tolerance.

There are still improvements to be made in the forth coming Spark 2.0.0 release and beyond such as state versioning, which will enable us to label our accumulated data, and only persist a subset of the state we store. If you’re interested in more, see the “State Store for Streaming Aggregation” proposal.

You can find a full working repository with the code on GitHub if you want to play around.

Additionally, there is great comparison of updateStateByKey and mapWithState performance characteristics in this DataBricks post.