Demo geospatial and timeseries queries on 250k unique devices

The last significant features we shipped dealt with out-of-order data ingestion, and we focused our efforts on hitting the highest write-throughput that we could achieve for that release. Our latest feature highlight adds space as a new dimension that our database can manage and allows users to work with data sets that have spatial and time components.

We shipped an initial implementation with software release version 6.0.5, and we've updated our demo instance so anyone can test these features out. To help with running queries on this sort of data, we've included an example data set which simulates 250,000 moving objects, and we've provided examples in the SQL editor to demo common types of queries.

This blog post is mainly for people who work with geospatial data struggling with performance, are looking for new tooling, or need to track changes in geodata over time. This post should also be interesting for those who want to read about how we added geospatial support to our time series database from a technical perspective.

What are geohashes?

Geohashes work by dividing the Earth into 32 separate grids, and each grid is assigned an alphanumeric character. We can increase the precision by sub-dividing each grid into 32 again and adding a new alphanumeric character. The result is a base32 alphanumeric string that we call a geohash, with greater precision obtained with longer-length strings.

An illustration showing two maps with different geohash precision levels applied

To support geospatial data, we added a new geohash type which would allow special handling of geohashes. We'll take a look at the syntax we introduced in the language additions section below, but first, let's get an idea of what a geohash represents in terms of geographic area, we can take a few examples and compare the resulting grid size:

TypeExampleArea (precision)
geohash(1c)u5,000km × 5,000km
geohash(3c)u33156km × 156km
geohash(6c)u33d8b1.22km × 0.61km
geohash(12c)u33d8b12123437.2mm × 18.6mm

Mapping geohashes

To place geohashes on a map, we need to know the bounding coordinates of the corners of each grid. There's a very helpful script by Chris Veness that allows users to input latitude and longitude coordinates and maps the equivalent geohash. In this case, the precision of the returned geohash is based on the decimal places of the lat/long coordinates.

The inverse calculation from geohash to latitude and longitude follows a similar logic but instead requires creating a bounding box comprising four corners of the grid. To calculate the geohash bounding box and place it on a map, we can use a function similar to this example:

# calculates the lat long bounds of a geohash
def bounds(geohash):
base32 = '0123456789bcdefghjkmnpqrstuvwxyz'
evenBit = True
latMin = -90
latMax = 90
lonMin = -180
lonMax = 180

for char in geohash:
idx = base32.index(char)
for n in range(4, -1, -1):
bitN = idx >> n & 1
if evenBit:
# longitude
lonMid = (lonMin+lonMax) / 2
if (bitN == 1):
lonMin = lonMid
lonMax = lonMid
# latitude
latMid = (latMin+latMax) / 2
if (bitN == 1):
latMin = latMid
latMax = latMid
evenBit = not evenBit

bounds = {'sw': (latMin, lonMin), 'ne': (latMax, lonMax)}
return bounds

# {'sw': (48.85744571685791, 2.3514175415039062), 'ne': (48.85748863220215, 2.3514604568481445)}

Once we have the coordinates in latitude and longitude, we can use standard mapping tools to visualize geohashes by creating bounding boxes like the following example, which uses plotly via Python:

An example geohash plotted on a map using plotly via Python

QuestDB geohash syntax and storage

The syntax we chose for column definitions follows the format geohash(<precision>) where precision can be between one and twelve characters or directly binary values. Precision is specified as n{units} where units may be either c for char or b for bits (c being shorthand for 5 x b). For example, the geohash u33d8b is represented by six characters, so we can store this in a geohash(6c) column.

We decided against using strings to represent geohash values as this is inefficient for both storage and value comparison, so we chose to add geohash literals. The literal syntax that we use has the format of a single # hash prefixing the geohash value for chars and two ## hashes for binary:

-- Create two geohash columns with different precision
CREATE TABLE geo_data (g5c geohash(5c), g29b geohash(29b));
-- Inserting geohash literals
INSERT INTO geo_data VALUES(#u33d8, ##10101111100101111111101101101)
-- Querying by geohash
SELECT * FROM geo_data WHERE g5c = #u33d8;

In terms of storage for geohash values internally, we use four different categories based on how much storage each geohash would require. We break geohashes down into the following types internally:

  • Up to 7-bit geohashes are stored as 1 byte
  • 8-bit to 15-bit geohashes are stored in 2 bytes
  • 16-bit to 31-bit geohashes are stored in 4 bytes
  • 32-bit to 60-bit geohashes are stored in 8 bytes

There may be cases where you need the control over storage provided by binary values but would prefer to work with character-formatted geohashes. We can do this by including a suffix in the format /{bits} where bits is the number of bits from 1-60. This way, you can choose specific binary column precision for storage, but the values passed around use char notation with lower precision:

-- insert a 5-bit geohash into a 4 bit column
INSERT INTO my_geo_data VALUES(#a/4)
-- insert a 20-bit geohash into an 18 bit column
INSERT INTO my_geo_data VALUES(#u33d/18)

Optimizing for common usage patterns

Adding space as a dimension was one side of the problem, but we considered that many use cases would track moving objects, and common usage patterns would likely require more than optimized storage and ingestion only. Tracking moving objects, for instance, is a different problem than stationary entities with a fixed location (like a lookup table). We wanted to enable users to have performant query execution on the change of location of an entity over time. Optimizing these kinds of queries has two obvious solutions:

  1. perform a geohash lookup first, then search these results by time, or
  2. search the data by time range, then perform a geohash search within the results

We benchmarked these scenarios and chose a time-based search first, followed by geohash lookup for performance reasons, as we avoid scanning all non-indexed rows first. Because timestamp columns are already indexed, we leverage high-performance time-based search and filter the resulting (smaller) data sets. The most significant performance penalty that we incur is lifting data from the disk in the first place, so we try to avoid this.

Functions and operators

We focused on internal optimizations for the first() and last() functions used in aggregate queries to make them execute faster. The optimization is currently restricted to SAMPLE BY queries, and the functions need to be called on symbol types with an index. The result is that there is a faster execution time when you would like to retrieve the first or last-known value for a given object (symbol) within an aggregate bucket.

To illustrate why this is useful, one example on our demo instance uses SAMPLE BY 15m to split the results into 15-minute aggregate buckets. When we use the last(lat) function here, we avoid lifting all data from the disk for the lat column, but instead read the row ID based on the timestamp index and instead pick the last value within our aggregate bucket:

SELECT time, last(lat) lat, last(lon) lon, geo6 FROM pos

In order to take a snapshot of moving objects within a certain area, we introduced a within operator which evaluates if a comma-separated list of geohashes is equal to or within another geohash. This operator works on LATEST BY queries on indexed columns, the device_id column in this snippet, for example:

WHERE geo6 within(#ezz, #u33d8);

The implementation of within was designed to be used with additional time-based filtering, so that we can efficiently sample data sets in terms of time and space. The query performance of slicing time and space in this way should be fast enough to power real-time mapping tools which make use of UI sliders to jog through slices of time:

WHERE geo6 within(#wtq)
AND time < '2021-09-19T00:00:00.000000Z';

We wanted high-performance prefix-based searches that can execute across hundreds of thousands of unique values for this operator. To perform this in a non-naive way, have a 'map-reduce' approach which splits keys into groups and performs operations upon such groups in parallel. For within, a task processing queue slices a range of geohashes, and our worker pool performs prefix matching:

Vanilla C++ implementation
template<typename T>
void filter_with_prefix_generic_vanilla(
const T *hashes,
int64_t *rows,
int64_t rows_count,
const int64_t *prefixes,
int64_t prefixes_count,
int64_t *out_filtered_count
) {
int64_t i = 0; // input index
int64_t o = 0; // output index
for (; i < rows_count; ++i) {
const T current_hash = hashes[to_local_row_id(rows[i] - 1)];
bool hit = false;
for (size_t j = 0, sz = prefixes_count/2; j < sz; ++j) {
const T hash = static_cast<T>(prefixes[2*j]);
const T mask = static_cast<T>(prefixes[2*j+1]);
hit |= (current_hash & mask) == hash;
if (hit) {
rows[o++] = rows[i];
*out_filtered_count = o;

We use SIMD across most of our subsystems and use this method for any bulk data processing. The prefix matching illustrated above has vectorized equivalent so that we can perform this search operation massively in parallel:

SIMD execution of prefix matching
template<typename T, typename TVec, typename TVecB>
void filter_with_prefix_generic(
const T *hashes,
int64_t *rows,
int64_t rows_count,
const int64_t *prefixes,
int64_t prefixes_count,
int64_t *out_filtered_count
) {
int64_t i = 0; // input index
int64_t o = 0; // output index

constexpr int step = TVec::size();
const int64_t limit = rows_count - step + 1;

for (; i < limit; i += step) {
MM_PREFETCH_T0(rows + i + 64);
TVec current_hashes_vec;
for (int j = 0; j < TVec::size(); ++j) {
current_hashes_vec.insert(j, hashes[to_local_row_id(rows[i + j] - 1)]);

TVecB hit_mask(false);
for (size_t j = 0, size = prefixes_count / 2; j < size; ++j) {
const T hash = static_cast<T>(prefixes[2 * j]); // narrow cast for int/short/byte cases
const T mask = static_cast<T>(prefixes[2 * j + 1]);
TVec target_hash(hash); // broadcast hash
TVec target_mask(mask); // broadcast mask
hit_mask |= (current_hashes_vec & target_mask) == target_hash;

uint64_t bits = to_bits(hit_mask);
if (bits != 0) {
while(bits) {
auto idx = bit_scan_forward(bits);
rows[o++] = rows[i + idx];
bits &= ~(1ull << idx);
// for loop same as previous example...
*out_filtered_count = o;

One of the benefits of SIMD-based data processing is that we do not have to rely on external indexes. This follows our original ethos of not introducing additional data structures until absolutely necessary.

What we learned

As we began working with geospatial data sets, we found that there tends to be a lot of data noise in specific scenarios. Specifically, we saw noisy data when objects send location updates but are not moving for a particular time. Our initial implementation does not solve this completely, but we are looking at ways to add mechanisms that discard similar entries within certain bounds to eliminate duplication of records.

When adding our test data set with 250k objects, we estimated the number of unique symbols that QuestDB could easily handle was 100k or less before encountering performance issues. The example data set we are currently using shows that we can store and query up to 250k unique symbol values or more.

Adding support for geospatial data was a great challenge for us, and we think we found novel approaches for the storage model and optimizations for common usage patterns that yielded surprisingly good performance results. We're happy to share our findings, and we're eagerly awaiting feedback on these features, which you can try directly on our live demo or via our latest releases.

If you have have feedback or questions about this article, feel free ask in our Slack Community or browse the project on GitHub where we welcome contributions of all kinds.

Download QuestDB Open source under Apache 2.0. Blazing fast ingest. SQL analytics.