A Brief History of Log Structured Merge Trees

LSMs have been around for the past two decades, popularized by their usage inside Google infrastructure. As Google infrastructure has been cloned outside Google, the usage of LSMs to store sorted data has as well. I’ve been searching for a history of log-structured merge trees, for a while. Not finding one, this is my best shot at writing a start. While I asked people at my workplace for their personal recollections from their time at Google, all errors are solely my own. I welcome any and all input you might have, and will make an effort to keep this updated.

In search of more information on why Google developed LSMs, I posed this question to Ben Darnell, who proved to be a wealth of information. One of the first things he said that the SSTable file format preceded the LSM, which surprised me. SSTables always seemed to me like they were custom designed to be used as the basic building block of an LSM[1]. Apparently, MapReduce (~2002) used a flat collection of SSTables. This makes sense to me: if you use MapReduce to build secondary indexes, then there’s no size expectation for the output of any given reducer, as the distribution of secondary index keys is not predictable from your distribution of input keys (after all - why are you building a secondary index in the first place?). SSTables were kept sorted to facilitate incremental construction, that could then be merged on the way out: if you don’t know how many KVs you’re going to receive as a reducer, you can construct an SSTable up to the size that you can sort in-memory, and then output it to disk, and start on a new one, in a memoryless fashion. With k SSTables, you can then stream your output with k iterators. Neat[3].

The idea to put these SSTables in a log-structured fashion to recover log(n) time search while maintaining log(n) iterators came later, with BigTable (~2004). The BigTable paper describes this, although it doesn’t pay much attention to the big-O analysis (the section on Compactions does not, for example, explain what the compaction strategy is).

While we think of LevelDB as the main LSM implementation, LevelDB was designed after BigTable as an embedded “BigTable-lite” implementation, for storing Key-Value metadata in Google Chrome. This was eventually open-sourced as “the” key-value store, so it’s retroactively gained the status of the defacto LSM implementation.

Throughout all of this history, it wasn’t clear to me why you would want to do all of this! By ~2004, we already had several mature BTree based database engines, and it seems like Google reinvented a fairly significant wheel. The reason seems to be that Google’s infrastructure (namely Google File System) was designed for appending files, and had atrocious non-append mutation performance. BTree writes are heavily mutating, and thus a non-starter if you’re going to write your BTree pages to GFS.

So it seems that the engineering efforts to productionize LSMs came out of an artifact of GFS’s design focus on append-only writes at expense of random writes. I’ve heard some drunken chatter at SOSPs past that “LevelDB was optimized for the IO profile of spinning disks”, but I believe that it’s GFS’s IO profile that’s the reason (which is similar to spinning disks of having much better contiguous read and write performance to random reads and writes). And from the Google File System paper, they say this is because the dominant paradigm is that their files are very large, and for very large files, appending is the only realistic way to ever modify them.

Facebook forked LevelDB as RocksDB, and invested some heavy resources into productionizing it to perform better on SSDs. I’m not the most familiar with RocksDB, but I believe this involved a lot of work on making the engine lock-free to allow continuous multi-threaded compactions[2]. Mark Callaghan from Facebook has a performance comparison of LSMs versus BTrees, who’s conclusion is that RocksDB (the chosen LSM) has better compression and less write-amplification than InnoDB (the chosen BTree), at the trade-off of having worse space amplification, and performing worse on scans (as opposed to point lookups) due to not being able to use SSTable Bloom Filters. While this comparison is careful to note the advantages and disadvantages of individual LSM and BTree implementations, I do quibble with the title. These performance profiles aren’t inherent to LSMs or BTrees: as Vijay Chidambaram’s research group shows, LSM write/space amplification performance is all about the specific compaction strategy. PebblesDB (their LevelDB fork), achieves much better write amplification at the cost of worse space amplification. This paper is contrasted by some work from Facebook’s RocksDB team where they explicitly say they tune RocksDB to keep space amplification down. So perhaps it’s merely quibbling about compaction strategy.

Anyway, we’ve veered off trail here, but that’s how these projects evolve too! The end result after all of this is that RocksDB has turned into a rock solid, battle tested key-value storage engine that has been used in some form or the other at two of the largest internet companies in the world. So, strangely, if you had to pick a storage engine to use for your single-node key-value needs, it turns out to be the best option! There aren’t many battle tested BTree based storage engines out there that aren’t tied quite closely to specific database implementations.

I’ve come to the conclusion that LSMs and BTrees are essentially equivalent at this point. For whatever tradeoffs there may be for particular implementations (e.g. InnoDB vs RocksDB) there’s a different compaction strategy that gets to the other’s performance. It just so happens that the peculiarities of GFS (perhaps it all came down to spinning disks back around ~2005?) resulted in Google investing heavily in LSM based storage infrastructure. Google open-sourced their work, and that allowed the rest of the world to take advantage of LSMs, and there are no comparable open-source BTree libraries with as much battle-testing, so new projects build off RocksDB, even if a BTree would be just as good.


[1] The best concise explanation of the SSTable file format is found in Martin Kleppmann’s Designing Data Intensive Applications.

[2] I have no idea why continuous multi-thread compactions results in better SSD performance, and eagerly await your email explaining this.

[3] As an aside, MapReduce was designed for index building, not for computing PageRank. It seems every year there’s an SOSP or OSDI paper that builds some distributed graph processing framework (it’s better now, but good God was 2012 a bleak year) and then beats the dead horse of comparing PageRank computation versus MapReduce and claiming 10x speedups. But Google never used MapReduce to compute PageRank, but rather to perform gigantic inverted index construction. Somehow “Google = computing PageRank” got conflated with “Google runs on MapReduce”, providing a conveniently sandbagged comparison point for everyone’s and their mother’s graph processing framework.

Edit (2/25/2018): Ben clarifies that there may have been a time when MapReduce was used to compute PageRank - mainly because it already existed, and Pregel wasn’t built yet. But again, this was an instance of using an existing hammer, not any claim that it was the optimal hammer for the task. So the point stands that everyone knows its a poor tool for the job of running graph computations and systems builders should stop comparing their graph computation systems against it.