Why You Might Be Misusing Sparks Streaming API

4 minute read

Disclaimer: Yes, I know the topic is controversial a bit, and I know most of this information is conveyed in Sparks documentation for it’s Streaming API, yet I felt the urge to write this piece after seeing this mistake happen many times over.

More often than not I see a question on StackOverflow from people who are new to Spark Streaming which look roughly like this:

Question: “I’m trying to do XYZ but it’s not working, what can I do? Here is my code:”

val sparkContext = new SparkContext("MyApp")
val streamingContext = new StreamingContext(sparkContext, Seconds(4))

val dataStream = streamingContext.socketTextStream("", 1337)
dataStream.foreachRDD { rdd => 
  // Process RDD Here

Uhm, ok, what’s wrong with that?

When I started learning Spark my first landing point was an explanation about how RDDs (Resilient Distributed DataSets) work. The usual example was a word count where all the operations were performed on an RDD. I think it is safe to assume this is the entry point for many others who learn Spark (although today DataFrame\Sets are becoming the go to approach for beginners).

When one makes the leap to working with Spark Streaming, it may be a little bit unclear what the additional abstraction of a DStream means. This causes a lot of people to seek something they can grasp, and the most familiar method they encounter is foreachRDD, which takes an RDD as input and yields Unit (a result of a typical side effecting method). Then, they can again work on the RDD level which they already feel comfortable with and understand. That is missing the point of DStreams entirely, which is why I want to give a brief look into what we can do on the DStream itself without peeking into the underlying RDD.

Enter DStream

DStream is Sparks abstraction over micro-batches. It uses streaming sources, be that a network socket, Kafka or Kinesis (and the likes) providing us with a continuious flow of data that we read at every batch interval assigned to the StreamingContext.

In order to work with the DStream API, we must understand how the abstraction works. DStream is basically a sequence of RDDs. At a given batch interval a single RDD is consumed and passed through all the transformations we supply to the DStream. When we do:

val dataStream = streamingContext.socketTextStream("", 1337)
 .flatMap(_.split(" "))
 .filter(_ == "")
 .map((word, 1L))

That means we apply flatMap, filter, map and count onto the underlying RDD itself as well! There are at least as many of these transformations on DStream as there are for RDD, and these are the transformations we should be working with in our Streaming application. There is a comprehensive list of all the operations on the Spark Streaming documentation page under Transformations on DStreams

More operations on key value pairs

Similar to the PairRDDFunctions which brings in (implicitly) transformations on pairs inside an RDD, we have the equivalent PairDStreamFunctions with many such methods, primarly:

  • combineByKey - Combine elements of each key in DStream’s RDDs using custom functions.
  • groupByKey - Return a new DStream by applying groupByKey on each RDD
  • mapValues - Return a new DStream by applying a map function to the value of each key-value pairs in ‘this’ DStream without changing the key.
  • mapWithState - Return a MapWithStateDStream by applying a function to every key-value element of this stream, while maintaining some state data for each unique key.
  • reduceByKey - Return a new DStream by applying reduceByKey to each RDD. The values for each key are merged using the supplied reduce function. org.apache.spark.Partitioner is used to control the partitioning of each RDD.

And many more for you to enjoy and take advantage of.

Thats awesome! So why do I need foreachRDD at all?

Similar to RDDs, when Spark builds its graph of execution we distinguish between regular transformations and output transformations. The former are lazily evaluated when building the graph while the latter play a role in the materialization of the graph. If our DStream graph had only regular transformations applied to it, we would get an exception at runtime saying there’s no output transformation defined.

foreachRDD is useful when we’ve finished extracting and transforming our dataset, and we now want to load it to an external source. Let’s say I want to send transformed messages to RabbitMQ as part of my flow, I’ll iterate the underlying RDD partitions and send each message:

  foreachRDD { rdd: RDD[String] =>
    val rabbitClient = new RabbitMQClient()
    rdd.foreachPartition { partition: Iterator[String] =>
      partition.foreach(msg => rabbitClient.send(msg))

transformedDataStream is an arbitrary DStream after we’ve performed all our transformation logic on it. The result of all these transformations a DStream[String]. Inside foreachRDD, we get a single RDD[String] where we then iterate each of it’s partitions creating a RabbitMQClient to send each message inside the partition iterator.

There are several more of these output transformations listed on the Spark Streaming documentation page which are very useful.

Wrapping up

Spark Streamings DStream abstraction provides powerfull transformation for processing data in a streaming fashion. When we do stream processing in Spark, we’re processing many individual micro-batched RDDs which we can reason about in our system flowing one after the ever. When we apply transformations on the DStream it percolates all the way down to each RDD that is passed through without us needing to apply the transformations on it by ourselves. Finally, the use of foreachRDD should be kept to when we want to take of our transformed data and perform some side effecting operation to it, mostly things like sending data over the wire to a database, pub-sub and the likes. Use it wisely and only when you truely need to!