Using Hadoop with R: It Depends.

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by Bill Jacobs, Director Technical Sales, Microsoft Advanced Analytics

In the course of working with our Hadoop users, we are often asked, what's the best way to integrate R with Hadoop?

The answer, in nearly all cases is, It depends.                                        

Alternatives ranging from open source R on workstations, to parallelized commercial products like Revolution R Enterprise and many steps in between present themselves.  Between these extremes, lie a range of options with unique abilities scale data, performance, capability and ease of use.

And so, the right choice or choices depends on your data size, budget, skill, patience and governance limitations.

In this post, I’ll summarize the alternatives using pure open source R and some of their advantages.  In a subsequent post, I’ll describe the options for achieving even greater scale, speed, stability and ease of development by combining open source and commercial technologies. 

These two posts are written to help current R users who are novices at Hadoop understand and select solutions to evaluate. 

As with most thing open source, the first consideration is of course monetary.  Isn’t it always?  The good news is that there are multiple alternatives that are free, and additional capabilities under development in various open source projects.

We see generally 4 options for building R to Hadoop integration using entirely open source stacks. 

Open Source Option 1:  Install R on workstations and connect to data in Hadoop.

This baseline approach’s greatest advantage is simplicity and cost.  It’s free.  End to end free.  What else in life is?

Through packages Revolution contributed to open source including rhdfs and rhbase, R users can directly ingest data from both the hdfs file system and the hbase database subsystems in Hadoop.  Both connectors are part of the RHadoop package created and maintained by Revolution and are a go-to choice.

Additional options exist as well.  The RHive package executes Hive’s HQL SQL-like query language directly from R, and provides functions for retrieving metadata from Hive such as database names, table names, column names, etc. 

The rhive package, in particular, has the advantage that its data operations some work to be pushed down into Hadoop, avoiding data movement and parallelizing operations for big speed increases. Similar “push-down” can be achieved with rhbase as well.  However, neither are particularly rich environments, and invariably, complex analytical problems will reveal some gaps in capability.

Beyond the somewhat limited push-down capabilities, R’s best at working on modest data sampled from hdfs, hbase or hive, and in this way, current R users can get going with Hadoop quickly. 

Open Source Option 2:  Install R on a shared server and connect to Hadoop. 

Once you tire of R’s memory barriers on your laptop the obvious next path is a shared server.  With today’s technologies, you can equip a powerful server for only a few thousand dollars, and easily share it between a few users.  Using Windows or Linux with 256GB, 512GB of RAM, R can be used to analyze files in to the hundreds of gigabytes, albeit not as fast as perhaps you’d like.

Like option 1, R on a shared server can also leverage push-down capabilities of the rhbase and rhive packages to achieve parallelism and avoid data movement.  However, as with workstations, the pushdown capabilities of rhive and rhbase are limited.

And of course, while lots of RAM keeps the dread out of memory exhustion at bay, it does little for compute performance, and depends on sharing skills learned [or perhaps not learned] in kindergarten.  For these reasons, consider a shared server to be a great add-on to R on workstations but not a complete substitute.

Open Source Option 3:  Utilize Revolution R Open

Replacing the CRAN download of R with the R distribution: Revolution R Open (RRO) enhances performance further.  RRO is, like R itself, open source and 100% R and free for the download.  It accelerates math computations using the Intel Math Kernel Libraries and is 100% compatible with the algorithms in CRAN and other repositories like BioConductor. No changes are required to R scripts, and the acceleration the MKL libraries offer varies from negligible to an order of magnitude for scripts making intensive use of certain math and linear algebra primitives.  You can anticipate that RRO can double your average performance if you’re doing math operations in the language.

As with options 1 and 2, Revolution R Open can be used with connectors like rhdfs, and can connect and push work down into Hadoop through rhbase and rhive.

Open Source Option 4:  Execute R inside of MapReduce using RMR2.

Once you find that your problem set is too big, or your patience is being taxed on a workstation or server and the limitations of rhbase and rhive push down are impeding progress, you’re ready for running R inside of Hadoop. 

The open source RHadoop project that includes rhdfs,  rhbase and plyrmr also includes a package rmr2 that enables R users to build Hadoop map and reduce operations using R functions.  Using mappers, R functions are applied to all of the data blocks that compose an hdfs file, an hbase table or other data sets, and the results can be sent to a reducer, also an R function, for aggregation or analysis.  All work is conducted inside of Hadoop but is built in R.

Let’s be clear.  Applying R functions on each hdfs file segment is a great way to accelerate computation.  But for most, it is the avoidance of moving data that really accentuates performance.  To do this, rmr2 applies R functions to the data residing on Hadoop nodes rather than moving the data to where R resides.

While rmr2 gives essentially unlimited capabilities, as a data scientist or statistician, your thoughts will soon turn to computing entire algorithms in R on large data sets.  To use rmr2 in this way complicates development, for the R programmer because he or she must write the entire logic of the desired algorithm or adapt existing CRAN algorithms.  She or he must then validate that the algorithm is accurate and reflects the expected mathematical result, and write code for the myriad corner cases such as missing data. 

rmr2 requires coding on your part to manage parallelization.  This may be trivial for data transformation operations, aggregates, etc., or quite tedious if you’re trying to train predictive models or build classifiers on large data.

While rmr2 can be more tedious than other approaches, it is not untenable, and most R programmers will find rmr2 much easier than resorting to Java-based development of Hadoop mappers and reducers.  While somewhat tedious, it is a) fully open source, b) helps to parallelize computation to address larger data sets, c) skips painful data movement, d) is broadly used so you’ll find help available, and e), is free.  Not bad. 

rmr2 is not the only option in this category – a similar package called rhipe is also and provides similar capabilities.  rhipe is described here and here and is downloadable from GitHub.

Summary and Outlook for pure open source options.

The range of open source-based options for using R with Hadoop is expanding.  The Apache Spark community, for example is rapidly improving R integration via the predictably named SparkR. Today, SparkR provides access to Spark from R much as rmr2 and rhipe do for Hadoop MapReduce do today. 

We expect that, in the future, the SparkR team will add support for Spark’s MLLIB machine learning algorithm library, providing execution directly from R. Availability dates haven’t been widely published.

Perhaps the most exciting observation is that R has become “table stakes” for platform vendors.  Our partners at Cloudera, Hortonworks, MapR and others, along with database vendors and others, are all keenly aware of the dominance of R among the large and growing data science community, and R’s importance as a means to extract insights and value from the burgeoning data repositories built atop Hadoop.

In a subsequent post, I’ll review the options for creating even greater performance, simplicity, portability and scale available to R users by expanding the scope from open source only solutions to those like Revolution R Enterprise for Hadoop.

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