Spark 101: What Is It, What It Does, and Why It Matters

Recently, a new name has entered many of the conversations about big data. Some people see the popular newcomer Apache Spark™ as a more accessible and more powerful replacement for Hadoop, the original technology of choice for big data. Others recognize Spark as a powerful complement to Hadoop and other technologies, with its own set of strengths, quirks and limitations.

Spark, like other big data tools, is powerful, capable, and well-equipped for tackling a range of data challenges. It is also not necessarily the best choice for every data processing task. You can learn more about Spark in the ebook Getting Started with Apache Spark: From Inception to Production. In this blog post, I’ll go into more detail about what Spark is, who uses Spark, and how it’s different from other data processing engines.

What Is Spark?

Spark is a general-purpose data processing engine that is suitable for use in a wide range of circumstances. Application developers and data scientists incorporate Spark into their applications to rapidly query, analyze, and transform data at scale. Tasks most frequently associated with Spark include interactive queries across large data sets, processing of streaming data from sensors or financial systems, and machine learning tasks.

Spark began life in 2009 as a project within the AMPLab at the University of California, Berkeley. More specifically, it was born out of the necessity to prove out the concept of Mesos, which was also created in the AMPLab. Spark was first discussed in the Mesos white paper Mesos: A Platform for Fine-Grained Resource Sharing in the Data Center, written most notably by Benjamin Hindman and Matei Zaharia.

Spark became an incubated project of the Apache Software Foundation in 2013, and it was promoted early in 2014 to become one of the Foundation’s top-level projects. Spark is currently one of the most active projects managed by the Foundation, and the community that has grown up around the project includes both prolific individual contributors and well-funded corporate backers such as Databricks, IBM, and China’s Huawei.

From the beginning, Spark was optimized to run in memory. It helps process data far more quickly than alternative approaches like Hadoop’s MapReduce, which tends to write data to and from computer hard drives between each stage of processing. Spark’s proponents claim that Spark’s running in memory can be 100 times faster than Hadoop MapReduce, and also 10 times faster when processing disk-based data in a way similar to Hadoop MapReduce itself. This comparison is not entirely fair, not least because raw speed tends to be more important to Spark’s typical use cases than it is to batch processing, at which MapReduce-like solutions still excel.

What Does Spark Do?

Spark is capable of handling several petabytes of data at a time, distributed across a cluster of thousands of cooperating physical or virtual servers. It has an extensive set of developer libraries and APIs and supports languages such as Java, Python, R, and Scala; its flexibility makes it well-suited for a range of use cases. Spark is often used alongside Hadoop’s data storage module — HDFS — but it can integrate equally well with other popular data storage subsystems such as HBase, Cassandra, MapR-DB, MongoDB and Amazon’s S3.

Typical use cases include:

  • Stream processing: From log files to sensor data, application developers are increasingly having to cope with “streams” of data. This data arrives in a steady stream, often from multiple sources simultaneously. While it is certainly feasible to store these data streams on disk and analyze them retrospectively, it can sometimes be sensible or important to process and act upon the data as it arrives. Streams of data related to financial transactions, for example, can be processed in real time to identify — and refuse — potentially fraudulent transactions.
  • Machine learning: As data volumes grow, machine learning approaches become more feasible and increasingly accurate. Software can be trained to identify and act upon triggers within well-understood data sets before applying the same solutions to new and unknown data. Spark’s ability to store data in memory and rapidly run repeated queries makes it a good choice for training machine learning algorithms. Running broadly similar queries again and again, at scale, significantly reduces the time required to go through a set of possible solutions in order to find the most efficient algorithms.
  • Interactive analytics: Rather than running pre-defined queries to create static dashboards of sales, production-line productivity, or stock prices, business analysts and data scientists want to explore their data by asking a question, viewing the result, and then either altering the initial question slightly or drilling deeper into results. This interactive query process requires systems such as Spark that are able to respond and adapt quickly.
  • Data integration: Data produced by different systems across a business is rarely clean or consistent enough to simply and easily be combined for reporting or analysis. Extract, transform, and load (ETL) processes are often used to pull data from different systems, clean and standardize it, and then load it into a separate system for analysis. Spark (and Hadoop) are increasingly being used to reduce the cost and time required for this ETL process.

Who Uses Spark?

A wide range of technology vendors have been quick to support Spark, recognizing the opportunity to extend their existing big data products into areas where Spark delivers real value, such as interactive querying and machine learning. Well-known companies such as IBM and Huawei have invested significant sums in the technology, and a growing number of startups are building businesses that depend in whole or in part upon Spark. For example, in 2013 the Berkeley team responsible for creating Spark founded Databricks, which provides a hosted end-to-end data platform powered by Spark. The company is well-funded, having received $47 million across two rounds of investment in 2013 and 2014, and Databricks employees continue to play a prominent role in improving and extending the open source code of the Apache Spark project.

The major Hadoop vendors have all moved to support Spark alongside their existing products, and each vendor is working to add value for its customers. Elsewhere, IBM, Huawei, and others have all made significant investments in Apache Spark, integrating it into their own products and contributing enhancements and extensions back to the Apache project. Web-based companies like Chinese search engine Baidu, e-commerce operation Alibaba Taobao, and social networking company Tencent all run Spark-based operations at scale, with Tencent’s 800 million active users reportedly generating over 700 TB of data per day for processing on a cluster of more than 8,000 compute nodes.

In addition to those web-based giants, pharmaceutical company Novartis depends upon Spark to reduce the time required to get modeling data into the hands of researchers, while ensuring that ethical and contractual safeguards are maintained.

What Sets Spark Apart?

There are many reasons to choose Spark, but three are key:

  • Simplicity: Spark’s capabilities are accessible via a set of rich APIs, all designed specifically for interacting quickly and easily with data at scale. These APIs are well documented and structured in a way that makes it straightforward for data scientists and application developers to quickly put Spark to work.
  • Speed: Spark is designed for speed, operating both in memory and on disk. Using Spark, a team of people from Databricks tied for first place with a team from University of California, San Diego in the 2014 Daytona Gray Sort 100TB Benchmark challenge. The challenge involves processing a static data set; the Databricks team was able to process 100 terabytes of data stored on solid-state drives in just 23 minutes, and the previous winner took 72 minutes by using Hadoop and a different cluster configuration. Spark can perform even better when supporting interactive queries of data stored in memory. In those situations, there are claims that Spark can be 100 times faster than Hadoop’s MapReduce.
  • Support: Spark supports a range of programming languages, including Java, Python, R, and Scala. Although often closely associated with HDFS, Spark includes native support for tight integration with a number of leading storage solutions in the Hadoop ecosystem and beyond. Furthermore, the Apache Spark community is large, active, and international. A growing set of commercial providers including Databricks, IBM, and all of the main Hadoop vendors deliver comprehensive support for Spark-based solutions.


In this blog post, you learned about Spark, what it does, and what sets it apart from other data processing engines.

Originally published at