Combining Apache Hive with the R language reduced the run time of a practical data analysis script from a couple days to 12 minutes.

Here’s the code.


Researchers have worked with R and Hadoop for many years, i.e. through Hadoop’s streaming interface or RHIPE and deltarho. The approach with Hive described here complements these efforts, while staying mostly higher level.

EDIT 27 Nov 17 Today I stumbled across the RHive package which was archived on CRAN. I’ve briefly looked at the code, and the approach seems similar to what I describe here. It works more interactively, running queries from within an existing R session. The core of the processing uses a for loop in R to process each line for the reduce step. In my experience this approach is much slower than the vectorized approach described in this post, but I haven’t verified this for RHive.

Hive tables are also accessible from R through JDBC. One can use JDBC to load data from Hive directly into a local R session. This approach is excellent for interactive and exploratory data analysis with manageable data sets. However, it won’t work for processing a large amount of data in Hive through R, because it brings the data to the code. The network and the single local R session are a bottleneck. For large data sets it’s much better to bring the code to the data, which is the topic of this post. We’ll see how to run R inside Hive, thus fully utilizing the power of the cluster.

Yesterday’s post showed some of the basics of using Hive with R, along with debugging. This post shows a more realistic use case processing 3 billion rows of traffic sensor data. Hive does the column selection and the group by; R performs the calculation. Each group fits easily in worker memory, so each Hive worker can apply an R script to the data, one group at a time. This technique plays off the strengths of each system. Hive handles storage, column selection, basic filtering, sorting, fault tolerance, and parallelism. R lets us express arbitrary analytic operations through R functions.


This Hive SQL query applies the transformation:

INSERT OVERWRITE TABLE fundamental_diagram
TRANSFORM (station, flow2, occupancy2)
USING "Rscript piecewise_fd.R"
-- The names of all the variables that are produced
  , n_total 
  , n_middle 
  , n_high 
    SELECT station, flow2, occupancy2
    FROM pems 
    CLUSTER BY station
) AS tmp

Hive does the following:

  1. Selects three columns from the table pems. Selecting just the necessary columns for the transform reduces overhead.
  2. Groups the selected columns so that the unique values of the station columns are streamed through the transform in consecutive order. The critical CLUSTER BY station statement guarantees this.
  3. Sends the now grouped output of the three columns as stdin to be processed by the command Rscript piecewise_fd.R.
  4. Reads the results from stdout, overwriting the table fundamental_diagram.


This section explains what the core of the transforming R script piecewise_fd.R does. This script should also work fine for stream processing arbitrary amounts of plain text data. For example, if you have 100 GB of plain text files in a directory you could write:

cat data/* | Rscript piecewise_fd.R > results.tsv

Then be patient. This assumes that the data begins initially grouped by some column, and processing the largest group doesn’t exceed available memory. Some techniques can work around these assumptions, but I won’t mention them here.

Here is piecewise_fd.R:

# Should be larger than the max chunk size that one
# would like to process in memory.
# I checked ahead of time that the largest working chunk is
# around 800K rows.
# So make it larger than 800K.

# These parameters are specific to my particular analysis
col.names = c("station", "flow2", "occ2")
colClasses = c("integer", "integer", "numeric")
GROUP_INDEX = 1L  # Corresponds to grouping by station
SEP = "\t"

multiple_groups = function(queue, g = GROUP_INDEX)
    length(unique(queue[, g])) > 1

# Process an entire group.
# This function will change depending on the analysis to perform.
# grp is one group of the data frame
process_group = function(grp, outfile)
    #... specific to your analysis
    write.table(out, outfile, col.names = FALSE, row.names = FALSE
                , sep = SEP)

# Main stream processing
# The variable queue below is a data frame acting as a FIFO that 
# changes dimensions as it reads data and processes groups 

stream_in = file("stdin")  # NOT stdin()
stream_out = stdout()

# Initialize the queue, a group of rows waiting to be processed.
queue = read.table(stream_in, nrows = CHUNKSIZE, colClasses = colClasses
    , col.names = col.names, na.strings = "\\N")

while(TRUE) {
    while(multiple_groups(queue)) {
        # Pop the first group out of the queue
        nextgrp = queue[, GROUP_INDEX] == queue[1, GROUP_INDEX]
        current = queue[nextgrp, ]
        queue = queue[!nextgrp, ]
        # Using try() allows each function to fail and keep going anyways.
        try(process_group(current, stream_out))

    # Fill up the queue
    nextqueue = read.table(stream_in, nrows = CHUNKSIZE
        , colClasses = colClasses, col.names = col.names, na.strings = "\\N")
    if(nrow(nextqueue) == 0) {
        # This is the last group
        try(process_group(queue, stream_out))
    queue = rbind(queue, nextqueue)

I ran into a few gotcha’s when writing this. Hive represents missing values with \N by default, so one needs to pass na.strings = "\\N" argument to read.table(). Explicitly setting the col.names and colClasses fixed a bug I ran into by ensuring consistency between how the data is stored in Hive and in R. Both of these things can be determined from Hive’s metadata store. Furthermore, very little of this R code is specific to my particular analysis. In the future I would like to generalize and generate this code rather than having to write it all explicitly.

Using try(process_group(...) from the R side allows the process_group() function to fail silently. For this particular use case the analysis fails for about half the groups because of issues in the data. This is completely acceptable for my purposes. However, for something that absolutely must happen with every group you can remove the try() so that the failure will propagate into the SQL query and the table will fail to be written.


This post shows how to use R and Hive for group by, apply operations on large data sets. The primary advantage is that each system does what it’s good at. Making R code parallel and scalable across vast amounts of text data is certainly possible, but writing SQL is easier. Expressing a complex analysis function as a native Hive UDF to process the groups with a GROUP BY is also possible, but using a fast, robust implementation in an R package is easier.

Another advantage of this approach is that it requires minimal installation / configuration. If you have data in Hive and R installed on the cluster then you can use this technique today.

Update: The data came from Caltrans PeMS in the section Data Clearinghouse with Type “Station Raw”. If you just want to look at some samples there are some at my UC Davis site.