Introduction to Apache Spark

August 5, 2020

The modern world is no stranger to Big Data. Over the last 2 years, we generated about 90% of all data ever created. We can trace the origins of Big Data to when database management systems became increasingly common – between 1970-2000. Storage, warehousing (storing large amounts of heterogeneous data together), and analytics were all mainly performed on relational database management systems (RDBMS), which managed structured and homogenous data. However, the growth of Internet use since the early 2000s changed the volume, velocity, variety, and veracity of the data. 80-90% of the data generated today is unstructured. This means that searching, deriving insights from, and managing this data is extremely challenging.


The Apache Hadoop software library is a framework that allows for the distributed processing of large data sets across clusters of computers using simple programming models. The two main features of Hadoop are distributed storage (Hadoop Distributed File System) and cluster computing (MapReduce).

HDFS is:

  • Schemaless, with no predefined structure
  • Durable, capable of handling component failure without human intervention
  • Automated, balancing disk space consumption throughout the cluster.

Hadoop MapReduce is a software framework for easily writing applications to parallel process big data on large clusters (thousands of nodes in a distributed setup) of inexpensive hardware in a reliable, fault-tolerant manner. HDFS and MapReduce form the fundamental components of the Hadoop ecosystem, which was developed with the goal to make the entire world wide web searchable.


MapReduce is implemented on top of HDFS, which has already divided the input files as key-value pairs within its cluster nodes. MapReduce performs three functions on the distributed data:

  • Map: Worker nodes (Nodes that are responsible for computation) apply the “map” function on the input file present in its local system simultaneously, and write the outputs in temporary storage.
  • Shuffle: All data associated with the same output key are grouped into the same worker nodes by redistributing/shuffling them between nodes.
  • Reduce: Worker nodes process the output per key, in parallel.

Example: img

While Hadoop MapReduce was revolutionary for economically processing large datasets linearly, it doesn’t perform if complicated or fast, real time processing is required.

MapReduce’s architecture means that results from a MapReduce job need to be stored in the disk before it can be used again. This makes it inherently space inefficient at performing iterative processes. MapReduce is also a low-level framework, meaning that a number of other technologies need to be used on top of it to generalize its use, making it complex to implement.

Enter Spark

Apache Spark is an open-source distributed general-purpose cluster-computing engine. Spark runs 100x faster than MapReduce, and provides an easy-to-use programming interface to program entire clusters with implicit data parallelism and fault tolerance, with support for Java, Scala, Python, R, and SQL. It can access many data sources and run on diverse setups. Spark performs efficient batch-processing as well as streaming, and can combine streaming with analytics and SQL in the same application. Spark has 4 built-in libraries - Spark Core, Spark SQL and Dataframes, Spark Streaming, MLLib, and GraphX.

The variance in computation speed of Spark compared to MapReduce comes from the architectural difference of the frameworks. MapReduce reads and writes intermediate results of its computation on disk, which results in considerable latency for iterative processes that need the results from the previous function to carry on. Spark, on the other hand, processes data in-memory, and only when it is not sufficient, it spills to disk.

Therefore, as long as there is enough RAM, Spark can perform up to 100 times faster than MapReduce. Iterative algorithms such as Machine Learning and Graph algorithms are greatly impacted by Spark, due to the frequent reuse of data.


Spark uses Resilient Distributed Datasets (RDDs), a read-only multiset of the data. A multiset is a set that contains multiple instances of the same element. This RDD is distributed across the cluster of machines. Dataframe and Dataset APIs are provided as an abstraction on top of these RDDs. These RDDs are processed in a restricted form of shared memory where a fixed interval is given to the distributed programs to execute, enabling the use of iterative and non-linear programming techniques.

Cluster Manager, which allocates resources, is required for Spark. Spark supports Spark native cluster manager which can also run on a single machine, YARN, Kubernetes, or Mesos. It also needs a distributed storage system, and can work well most of the distributed storage systems present. It can also work on local file system on a single computer for development/testing purposes.

Spark segregates its nodes into Drivers and Workers. Driver nodes have a driver program which creates a SparkContext object. Worker nodes have processes that run computations and store data called executors. SparkContext connects to cluster manager and executors, and coordinates between them. SparkContext assigns tasks to executors, to run in parallel. Driver schedules tasks on executors and sends application code. img


Apache Spark is a cutting-edge solution to big data computation, and provides APIs to alleviate the difficulties involved in coding distributed processes. It is also faster than its alternative, MapReduce, attributed mainly to an architectural difference in memory management. This advantage in speed of computation can be observed in iterative and non-linear programming paradigms.

Spark can run on a wide range of storage setups and cluster managers. Spark’s Python API Pyspark is the simplest, and the most popular ways to get started with Spark. In an upcoming article, we will learn to use Spark by exploring RDD programming concepts using Spark Core library to derive useful insights from large datasets in a fast and efficient manner.

About the author

Keerthi V

Keerthi V is a senior at JSS Science and Technology University and a Data Engineering Intern at redBus. Her key interests include Data Science and Web Development. When she’s not coding, she’s probably running or baking pizzas.

This article was contributed by a student member of Section's Engineering Education Program. Please report any errors or innaccuracies to