From a user's perspective, TimescaleDB exposes what look like singular tables, called hypertables. A hypertable is the primary point of interaction with your data, as it provides the standard table abstraction that you can query via standard SQL. Creating a hypertable in TimescaleDB takes two SQL commands: CREATE TABLE (with standard SQL syntax), followed by SELECT create_hypertable().

Virtually all user interactions with TimescaleDB are with hypertables. Inserting, updating, or deleting data, querying data via SELECTs, altering tables, adding new columns or indexes, JOINs with other tables or hypertables, and so forth can (and should) all be executed on the hypertable.

However, hypertables are actually an abstraction or virtual view of many individual tables that actually store the data, called chunks.

Partitioning in hypertables with chunks

Chunks are created by partitioning a hypertable's data into one (or potentially multiple) dimensions. All hypertables are partitioned by the values belonging to a time column, which may be in timestamp, date, or various integer forms. If the time partitioning interval is one day, for example, then rows with timestamps that belong to the same day are co-located within the same chunk, while rows belonging to different days belong to different chunks.

TimescaleDB creates these chunks automatically as rows are inserted into the database. If the timestamp of a newly inserted row belongs to a day not yet present in the database, TimescaleDB creates a new chunk corresponding to that day as part of the INSERT process. Otherwise, TimescaleDB determines the existing chunks to which the new rows belong, and insert the rows into the corresponding chunks. The interval of a hypertable's partitioning can also be changed over time (for example, to adapt to changing workload conditions, so in one example, a hypertable could initially create a new chunk per day and then change to a chunk every 6 hours as the workload increases).

A hypertable can be partitioned by additional columns as well -- such as a device identifier, server or container id, user or customer id, location, stock ticker symbol, and so forth. Such partitioning on this additional column typically employs hashing (mapping all devices or servers into a specific number of hash buckets), although interval-based partitioning can be employed here as well. We sometimes refer to hypertables partitioned by both time and this additional dimension as "time and space" partitions.

This time-and-space partitioning is primarily used for distributed hypertables. With such two-dimensional partitioning, each time interval is also partitioned across multiple nodes comprising the distributed hypertables. In such cases, for the same hour, information about some portion of the devices are stored on each node. This allows multi-node TimescaleDB to parallelize inserts and queries for data during that time interval.

Each chunk is implemented using a standard database table. (In PostgreSQL internals, the chunk is actually a "child table" of the "parent" hypertable.) A chunk includes constraints that specify and enforce its partitioning ranges, for example, that the time interval of the chunk covers ['2020-07-01 00:00:00+00', '2020-07-02 00:00:00+00'), and all rows included in the chunk must have a time value within that range. Any space partitions are reflected as chunk constraints as well. As these ranges and partitions are non-overlapping, all chunks in a hypertable are disjoint in their partitioning dimensional space.

Knowledge of chunks' constraints are used heavily in internal database operations. Rows inserted into a hypertable are "routed" to the right chunk based on the chunks' dimensions. And queries to a hypertable use knowledge of these chunks' constraints to only "push down" a query to the proper chunks: If a query specifies that time > now() - interval '1 week', for example, the database only executes the query against chunks covering the past week, and excludes any chunks before that time. This happens transparently to the user, however, who simply queries the hypertable with a standard SQL statement.

Benefits of Hypertables and Chunks

This chunk-based architecture benefits many aspects of time-series data management. These includes:

  • In-memory data. Chunks can be configured (based on their time intervals) so that the recent chunks (and their indexes) fit in memory. This helps ensure that inserts to recent time intervals, as well as queries to recent data, typically accesses data already stored in memory, rather than from disk. But TimescaleDB doesn't require that chunks fit solely in memory (and otherwise error); rather, the database follows LRU caching rules on disk pages to maintain in-memory data and index caching.

  • Local indexes. Indexes are built on each chunk independently, rather than a global index across all data. This similarly ensures that both data and indexes from the latest chunks typically reside in memory, so that updating indexes when inserting data remains fast. And TimescaleDB can still ensure global uniqueness on keys that include any partitioning keys, given the disjoint nature of its chunks, that is, given a unique (device_id, timestamp) primary key, first identify the corresponding chunk given constraints, then use one of that chunk's index to ensure uniqueness. But this remains simple to use with TimecaleDB's hypertable abstraction: Users simply create an index on the hypertable, and these operations (and configurations) are pushed down to both existing and new chunks.

  • Easy data retention. In many time-series applications users often only want to retain raw data only for a certain amount of time, usually because of cost, storage, compliance, or other reasons. With TimescaleDB, users can quickly delete chunks based on their time ranges (for example, all chunks whose data has timestamps more than 6 months old). Even easier, users can create a data retention policy within TimescaleDB to make this automatic, which employs its internal job-scheduling framework. Chunk-based deletion is fast -- it's simply deleting a file from disk -- as opposed to deleting individual rows, which requires more expensive "vacuum" operations to later garbage collect and defragment these deleted rows.

  • Age-based compression, data reordering, and more. Many other data management features can also take advantage of this chunk-based architecture, which allows users to execute specific commands on chunks or employ hypertable policies to automate these actions. These include TimescaleDB's native compression, which convert chunks from their traditional row-major form into a layout that is more columnar in nature, while employing type-specific compression on each column. Or data reordering, which asynchronously rewrites data stored on disk from the order it was inserted into an order specified by the user based on a specified index. By reordering data based on (device_id, timestamp), for example, all data associated with a specific device becomes written contiguously on disk, making "deep and narrow" scans for a particular device's data much faster.

  • Instant multi-node elasticity. TimescaleDB supports horizontally scaling across multiple nodes. Unlike traditional one-dimensional database sharding, where shards must be migrated to a newly added server as part of the process of expanding the cluster, TimescaleDB supports the elastic addition (or removal) of new servers without requiring any immediate rebalancing. When a new server is added, existing chunks can remain at their current location, while chunks created for future time intervals are partitioned across the new set of servers. The TimescaleDB planner can then handle queries across these reconfigurations, always knowing which nodes are storing which chunks. Server load subsequently can be rebalanced either by asynchronously migrating chunks or handled via data retention policies if desired.

  • Data replication. Chunks can be individually replicated across nodes transactionally, either by configuring a replication factor on a distributed hypertable (which occurs as part of a 2PC transaction at insert time) or by copying an older chunk from one node to another to increase its replication factor, for example, after a node failure (coming soon).

  • Data migration. Chunks can be individually migrated transactionally. This migration can be across tablespaces (disks) residing on a single server, often as a form of data tiering; for example, moving older data from faster, more expensive disks to slower, cheaper storage. This migration can also occur across nodes in a distributed hypertable, for example, in order to asynchronous rebalance a cluster after adding a server or to prepare for retiring a server (coming soon).

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