A sqlite data layer for dedupe?

January 11, 2023

Right now, the dedupe library ultimately expects data to be represented as a stream of Python dictionaries. This design decision has made the library very flexible, since it does not need to know anything in particular about how the data is originally stored.

However, this design has two important costs. First, it substantially limits the places where dedupe can profitably use parallel processing to take advantage of multiple CPUs. Second, many of the operations of the library could be done much faster if it was able to know more about and therefore cooperate more effectively with the data layer.

If the library was built with the expectation that the data was stored in a sqlite database, the base library could significantly increase the scale of data that could be processed into the tens of millions

Benefits of a sqlite data layer

Costs of interprocess-communication

Blocking is the clearest example or a problem that should be easy to do in parallel, but one where we get no advantage of parallel processing with our current architecture.

Basically, blocking is applying a kind of hash function to thousand or millions of records where order does not matter. The way that we do this now is apply the blocking function to a stream of records represented as python dictionaries, effectively:

block_keys = map(blocking_function, data stream)

which can be easily parallelized as

import multiprocessing

pool = multiprocessing.pool(NUM_PROCESSES)

block_keys = pool.imap_unordered(blocking_function, 
                                 data stream)

But this ends up not being very useful, because of interprocess communication.

Basically, the multiprocessing imap works like this: the parent process will pull a chunk of the data from the data stream, pickled the data to a byte-string, and send the pickled data over a socket to a child process. The child process will listen on the socket, unpickle the chunk of data, apply the block_function, then pickle the resulting block keys, communicate the bytestring back to the parent process, which, finally, deserializes it.

If the actual application of blocking function is computationally cheap, then the all benefits are having more than one core working on the problem overwhelmed by the overhead of all that serializing and deserializing.

If the data is stored in a relational database, we could parallelize by having each process separately connect to the database, pull their own chunk of data from the database, calculate the block keys and write those block keys for the chunk to the database. While we still need to effectively serialize/deserialize in our communication with the database, the number of times we need to pay for that overhead can be hugely reduced and the per-call overhead will also typically be much smaller than pickling/unpickling.

Pushing operations to the data layer

If can build off a relational database, then some of work that that library is currently doing fairly slowly in Python could be done much more quickly in the data layer.

Blocking, again, is clear example.

Many of our blocking functions are very simple. For example, take the first seven characters of the address field. Even with a good parallel processing model, it will be very hard for a Python solution to beat

INSERT INTO block_keys (key, record_id)
    substring(address, 1, 7),

Collateral benefits

While the lowest level dedupe methods operate over streams of dictionaries, the high level API assumes that the data represented as a Python dictionary, necessarily stored in memory. This requirement means that the users of the high level API face a limit in how much data they can process as it has to fit in memory.

Moving to an architecture that requires the data to be stored in a relational database would remove that restriction.

Downsides of a sqlite data layer

Type Inflexibility

Python objects are very flexible, and dedupe has taken advantage of that by having comparators that work over numbers, strings, tuples, and sets.

Relational databases do not have that flexibility. Core sqlite supports floats, integers, and strings, and bytes and that’s basically it.

If we use sqlite as the database layer. Then we will either lose the ability to use compare some types of objects, have to use type adaptation, or represent the data more indirectly.

Type adaptation is another layer of serialization and deserialization on top of the serialization from sqlite data to python objects. Type adaptations are written in Python and can introduce significant overhead.

Collection objects like tuples, arrays, and sets can also be represented in sqlite as normalized tables. This strategy would significantly increase the complexity of the code of serializing and deserializing a record from python to sqlite and back. On the other hand, if the data is represented in a normalized form in the database then some of the dedupe operations over collections could be pushed down into the database layer.

Type adaptation is probably the best near-term strategy.

Table definition generation

if we want to keep something like our existing API, then we need code to automatically convert a Python dictionary of record to a sqlite table, which is going to require inferring a SQL table definition from the Python data.

This is complex. This some reasonable prior art to follow from pandas or sqlite-utils, but we would need to write our own, and it’s a boring and bug-prone piece of functionality.

If we started our library with an existing sqlite table or pandas data frame, then we could side step much of this, but that would be a very big departure from the the existing API and would also impose limits on type flexibility.

Supporting multiple database engines

While i would recommend that the core library be written with sqlite as the database, many users will want a different database engine.

If we support that, then that will be another layer of complexity to manage. Something like sqlalchemy may be able to help some, but we are going to need write engine-specific queries for to take advantage of the different facilities of different engines.

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