this is fine - home

Denormalized indexing with elasticsearch-rails

One of the biggest advantages of using Elasticsearch it is because it’s fast even if you have very complex documents with many attributes coming from different models.

Achieving that requires you to denormalize those models into a single index and it’s your responsibility as a developer to keep it consistent.

That reveals some interesting challenges, let’s take a look.

Blog in 5 minutes

Imagine we have a simple has_many/belongs_to relationship between Posts and Authors. Our end goal is to be able to search by posts from a specific author by its name.

Assuming that you have a basic Rails application with elasticsearch-rails installed and Elasticsearch running, our models will look like this:

# db/migrate/...
class CreateModels < ActiveRecord::Migration[5.1]
  def change
    create_table :authors do |t|
      t.string :name
      t.string :email
      t.timestamps
    end

    create_table :posts do |t|
      t.string :title
      t.text :body
      t.datetime :published_at
      t.references :author, foreign_key: true
      t.timestamps
    end
  end
end

# models/author.rb
class Author < ApplicationRecord
  has_many :posts
end

# models/post.rb
class Post < ApplicationRecord
  include Elasticsearch::Model
  include Elasticsearch::Model::Callbacks

  belongs_to :author
end

The Post model will be our entry point to manage changes in the index. I’m not going to get into details of how the elasticsearch-rails gem works, you can check its documentation on the github repository.

Assuming you imported all posts and users, you can perform full-text search with:

Post.search('example').records.all

That will let you search for every attribute in the Post model, but not by author names.

Extending

Now for the fun part. Let’s add author information in the same index as the posts. This will help us achieve our goal of searching by author name.

You’ll need to define a custom mapping and a how to index it by overriding #as_indexed_json method:

class Post < ApplicationRecord
  # ... snipped

  mapping dynamic: :strict do
    indexes :id,           type: :long
    indexes :title,        type: :text
    indexes :body,         type: :text
    indexes :published_at, type: :date
    indexes :created_at,   type: :date
    indexes :updated_at,   type: :date
    indexes :author do
      indexes :id,   type: :long
      indexes :name, type: :text
    end
  end

  def as_indexed_json(options = {})
    self.as_json(
      options.merge(
        only: [:id, :title, :body, :published_at, :created_at, :updated_at],
        include: { author: { only: [:id, :name] } }
      )
    )
  end
end

After changing this, you must recreate the index and re-import the data:

Post.__elasticsearch__.create_index!(force: true)
Post.import

Then, there is one bug 🐞

If you use your application for a while, you’ll notice that if you change the author of a post, this change won’t be reflected in Elasticsearch.

After some debugging, it turns out that elasticsearch-rails gem only indexes the attributes that changed via ActiveModel::Dirty module. That doesn’t work for our case since author is not an attribute of a post.

Simply put, when you modify the author of a post, the attribute that changes is the author_id. After you save the post, the gem compares which attributes changed against the hash returned by #as_indexed_json. Since our changes are now represented as an author hash, the gem can’t find the author_id there.

There are a couple of ways to solve this:

  1. Drop the Elasticsearch::Model::Callbacks module and then handle the indexing logic yourself
  2. Force a change by adding the author key as a change whenever the author_id changes
  3. Ignoring all changes completely

I choose to go with solution #2, which looks like this:

class Post < ApplicationRecord
  # ... snipped

  before_save :force_index

  def force_index
    if changes['author_id']
      attr = :@__changed_model_attributes
      old_changes = __elasticsearch__.instance_variable_get(attr)
      __elasticsearch__.instance_variable_set(attr, old_changes.merge!('author' => true))
    end
  end
end

It’s a hack, it changes the internals of the elasticsearch-rails gem and I’m not very happy with the solution. I went this way to keep the functionality of indexing only changed attributes however, this can get pretty cumbersome to maintain.

If you don’t care about this optimization, you can go with #3 and always force the index by clearing the @__changed_model_attributes instance variable:

def force_index
  __elasticsearch__.instance_variable_set(:@__changed_model_attributes, nil)
end

With either approach, if you change the author the changes will be reflected in Elasticsearch.

And then, there are two bugs 🐞🐞

After the hint on the previous bug, one would notice that changing the author’s name won’t reflect on Elasticsearch either! That’s because Author model doesn’t know anything about indexing itself the Post index.

This is where keeping the consistency on the index gets tricky. There are numerous ways of solving this, each of them with its own drawbacks. To keep things simple I’m going to suggest one solution that works well and doesn’t use any other dependency other than Elasticsearch itself 🎉🎉🎉.

We’ll use #update_by_query feature which as the name suggests, lets you update various documents that match a query. It has some cool features like being able to work asynchronously, updating documents at its own pace without overloading the cluster and handling conflicts. Check out the documentation here.

Let’s take advantage of that to update all posts that belong to a specific author in the background:

# models/author.rb
class Author < ApplicationRecord
  after_commit :update_relations

  private

  def update_relations
    Post.update_authors(self)
  end
end

# models/post.rb
class Post < ApplicationRecord
  # ... snipped

  def self.update_authors(author, options = {})
    options[:index] ||= index_name
    options[:type]  ||= document_type
    options[:wait_for_completion] ||= false

    options[:body] = {
      conflicts: :proceed,
      query: {
        match: {
          'author.id': author.id
        }
      },
      script: {
        lang:   :painless,
        source: "ctx._source.author.name = params.author.name",
        params: { author: { name: author.name } }
      },
    }

    __elasticsearch__.client.update_by_query(options)
  end
end

The code is quite self-explanatory. Any changes in the Author model will trigger an #update_by_query which performs an update for all posts that match the query:

query: {
  match: {
    'author.id': author.id
  }
}

For each match, it will execute the scripted update defined, which simply sets the author name to the one specified in the params:

script: {
  lang:   :painless,
  source: "ctx._source.author.name = params.author.name",
  params: { author: { name: author.name } }
}

You may want to optimize the #update_relations method to only call #update_authors when necessary. Using params let you easily include more attributes in the future and also avoids potential security issues brought by concatenating strings in the source.

Setting wait_for_completion to false will tell Elasticsearch to perform the update asynchronously. This is good if there is a potential case of an author having tons of posts.

Thinking about conflicts

You may have noticed that I set conflicts: :proceed in the updated body. This is to handle a couple of scenarios:

The post is updated

Imagine the case where we update an author’s name that has one bazillion posts. That will take a while… There is a chance that any of the author’s posts will be updated by somebody else in the meantime.

Before running an #update_by_query, Elasticsearch takes a snapshot of the index and uses the internal versioning scheme to identify such conflicts. If a post is updated after the time when update was “queued” and before it was “run”, the post will have a new version, so the #update_by_query will fail for that post. In this scenario, we’d like to skip such conflicts and proceed.

This means that the last update wins and we have the guarantee that the post will have the latest value for the author’s name.

Multiple updates to the same author

If somebody updates the author once, then immediately regrets this decision and updates it again to something else, there is a chance that the first update will still be running (considering bazillion of posts). If that’s the case, the first update will encounter conflicts, ignore them and move on.

In theory, the second update will always win because it will come after the first one.

Conclusion

Denormalizing data can help you take advantage of Elasticsearch fast querying features, but it has a cost of having to handle concurrent updates to multiple models, which reveals some pretty hard to debug issues and inconsistency.

Note that is a very simple scenario and probably you won’t need Elasticsearch if you don’t have anything other than that. However, the biggest advantage comes when you have to index many different models in the same document and when doing joins in the database becomes prohibitive.


Share this: