Real Time Dashboards

Citus provides real-time queries over large datasets. One workload we commonly see at Citus involves powering real-time dashboards of event data.

For example, you could be a cloud services provider helping other businesses monitor their HTTP traffic. Every time one of your clients receives an HTTP request your service receives a log record. You want to ingest all those records and create an HTTP analytics dashboard which gives your clients insights such as the number HTTP errors their sites served. It’s important that this data shows up with as little latency as possible so your clients can fix problems with their sites. It’s also important for the dashboard to show graphs of historical trends.

Alternatively, maybe you’re building an advertising network and want to show clients clickthrough rates on their campaigns. In this example latency is also critical, raw data volume is also high, and both historical and live data are important.

In this section we’ll demonstrate how to build part of the first example, but this architecture would work equally well for the second and many other use-cases.

Running It Yourself

There will be code snippets in this tutorial but they don’t specify a complete system. There’s a github repo with all the details in one place. If you’ve followed our installation instructions for running Citus on either a single or multiple machines you’re ready to try it out.

Data Model

The data we’re dealing with is an immutable stream of log data. We’ll insert directly into Citus but it’s also common for this data to first be routed through something like Kafka. Doing so has the usual advantages, and makes it easier to pre-aggregate the data once data volumes become unmanageably high.

We’ll use a simple schema for ingesting HTTP event data. This schema serves as an example to demonstrate the overall architecture; a real system might use additional columns.

-- this is run on the coordinator

CREATE TABLE http_request (
  site_id INT,
  ingest_time TIMESTAMPTZ DEFAULT now(),

  url TEXT,
  request_country TEXT,
  ip_address TEXT,

  status_code INT,
  response_time_msec INT

SELECT create_distributed_table('http_request', 'site_id');

When we call create_distributed_table we ask Citus to hash-distribute http_request using the site_id column. That means all the data for a particular site will live in the same shard.

The UDF uses the default configuration values for shard count. We recommend using 2-4x as many shards as CPU cores in your cluster. Using this many shards lets you rebalance data across your cluster after adding new worker nodes.


Citus Cloud uses streaming replication to achieve high availability and thus maintaining shard replicas would be redundant. In any production environment where streaming replication is unavailable, you should set citus.shard_replication_factor to 2 or higher for fault tolerance.

With this, the system is ready to accept data and serve queries! We’ve provided a data ingest script you can run to generate example data. Once you’ve ingested data, you can run dashboard queries such as:

  date_trunc('minute', ingest_time) as minute,
  COUNT(1) AS request_count,
  SUM(CASE WHEN (status_code between 200 and 299) THEN 1 ELSE 0 END) as success_count,
  SUM(CASE WHEN (status_code between 200 and 299) THEN 0 ELSE 1 END) as error_count,
  SUM(response_time_msec) / COUNT(1) AS average_response_time_msec
FROM http_request
WHERE site_id = 1 AND date_trunc('minute', ingest_time) > now() - interval '5 minutes'
GROUP BY minute;

The setup described above works, but has two drawbacks:

  • Your HTTP analytics dashboard must go over each row every time it needs to generate a graph. For example, if your clients are interested in trends over the past year, your queries will aggregate every row for the past year from scratch.
  • Your storage costs will grow proportionally with the ingest rate and the length of the queryable history. In practice, you may want to keep raw events for a shorter period of time (one month) and look at historical graphs over a longer time period (years).


You can overcome both drawbacks by rolling up the raw data into a pre-aggregated form. Here, we’ll aggregate the raw data into a table which stores summaries of 1-minute intervals. In a production system, you would probably also want something like 1-hour and 1-day intervals, these each correspond to zoom-levels in the dashboard. When the user wants request times for the last month the dashboard can simply read and chart the values for each of the last 30 days.

CREATE TABLE http_request_1min (
      site_id INT,
      ingest_time TIMESTAMPTZ, -- which minute this row represents

      error_count INT,
      success_count INT,
      request_count INT,
      average_response_time_msec INT,
      CHECK (request_count = error_count + success_count),
      CHECK (ingest_time = date_trunc('minute', ingest_time))

SELECT create_distributed_table('http_request_1min', 'site_id');

-- indexes aren't automatically created by Citus
-- this will create the index on all shards
CREATE INDEX http_request_1min_idx ON http_request_1min (site_id, ingest_time);

This looks a lot like the previous code block. Most importantly: It also shards on site_id and uses the same default configuration for shard count and replication factor. Because all three of those match, there’s a 1-to-1 correspondence between http_request shards and http_request_1min shards, and Citus will place matching shards on the same worker. This is called co-location; it makes queries such as joins faster and our rollups possible.

co-location in citus

In order to populate http_request_1min we’re going to periodically run the equivalent of an INSERT INTO SELECT. We’ll run a function on all the workers which runs INSERT INTO SELECT on every matching pair of shards. This is possible because the tables are co-located.

-- this function is created on the workers
CREATE FUNCTION rollup_1min(p_source_shard text, p_dest_shard text) RETURNS void
AS $$
  -- the dest shard will have a name like: http_request_1min_204566, where 204566 is the
  -- shard id. We lock using that id, to make sure multiple instances of this function
  -- never simultaneously write to the same shard.
  IF pg_try_advisory_xact_lock(29999, split_part(p_dest_shard, '_', 4)::int) = false THEN
    -- N.B. make sure the int constant (29999) you use here is unique within your system

  EXECUTE format($insert$
    INSERT INTO %2$I (
      site_id, ingest_time, request_count,
      success_count, error_count, average_response_time_msec
    ) SELECT
      date_trunc('minute', ingest_time) as minute,
      COUNT(1) as request_count,
      SUM(CASE WHEN (status_code between 200 and 299) THEN 1 ELSE 0 END) as success_count,
      SUM(CASE WHEN (status_code between 200 and 299) THEN 0 ELSE 1 END) as error_count,
      SUM(response_time_msec) / COUNT(1) AS average_response_time_msec
    FROM %1$I
      date_trunc('minute', ingest_time)
        > (SELECT COALESCE(max(ingest_time), timestamp '10-10-1901') FROM %2$I)
      AND date_trunc('minute', ingest_time) < date_trunc('minute', now())
    GROUP BY site_id, minute
    ORDER BY minute ASC;
  $insert$, p_source_shard, p_dest_shard);
$$ LANGUAGE 'plpgsql';

Inside this function you can see the dashboard query from earlier. It’s been wrapped in some machinery which writes the results into http_request_1min and allows passing in the name of the shards to read and write from. It also takes out an advisory lock, to ensure there aren’t any concurrency bugs where the same rows are written multiple times.

The machinery above which accepts the names of the shards to read and write is necessary because only the coordinator has the metadata required to know what the shard pairs are. It has its own function to figure that out:

-- this function is created on the coordinator
CREATE FUNCTION colocated_shard_placements(left_table REGCLASS, right_table REGCLASS)
RETURNS TABLE (left_shard TEXT, right_shard TEXT, nodename TEXT, nodeport INT4) AS $$
    nodename, nodeport
  FROM pg_dist_shard a
  JOIN pg_dist_shard b USING (shardminvalue)
  JOIN pg_dist_placement p ON (a.shardid = p.shardid)
  JOIN pg_dist_node n ON (p.groupid = n.groupid)
  WHERE a.logicalrelid = left_table AND b.logicalrelid = right_table;
$$ LANGUAGE 'sql';

Using that metadata, every minute it runs a script which calls rollup_1min once for each pair of shards:

#!/usr/bin/env bash

QUERY=$(cat <<END
  SELECT * FROM colocated_shard_placements(
    'http_request'::regclass, 'http_request_1min'::regclass

COMMAND="psql -h \$2 -p \$3 -c \"SELECT rollup_1min('\$0', '\$1')\""

psql -tA -F" " -c "$QUERY" | xargs -P32 -n4 sh -c "$COMMAND"


There are many ways to make sure the function is called periodically and no answer that works well for every system. If you’re able to run cron on the same machine as the coordinator, and assuming you named the above script, you can do something as simple as this:

* * * * * /some/path/

The dashboard query from earlier is now a lot nicer:

  request_count, success_count, error_count, average_response_time_msec
FROM http_request_1min
WHERE site_id = 1 AND date_trunc('minute', ingest_time) > date_trunc('minute', now()) - interval '5 minutes';

Expiring Old Data

The rollups make queries faster, but we still need to expire old data to avoid unbounded storage costs. Once you decide how long you’d like to keep data for each granularity, you could easily write a function to expire old data. In the following example, we decided to keep raw data for one day and 1-minute aggregations for one month.

-- another function for the coordinator
CREATE OR REPLACE FUNCTION expire_old_request_data() RETURNS void
AS $$
  SET citus.all_modification_commutative TO TRUE;
  PERFORM master_modify_multiple_shards(
            'DELETE FROM http_request WHERE ingest_time < now() - interval ''1 day'';');
  PERFORM master_modify_multiple_shards(
            'DELETE FROM http_request_1min WHERE ingest_time < now() - interval ''1 month'';');
$$ LANGUAGE 'plpgsql';


The above function should be called every minute. You could do this by adding a crontab entry on the coordinator node:

* * * * * psql -c "SELECT expire_old_request_data();"

That’s the basic architecture! We provided an architecture that ingests HTTP events and then rolls up these events into their pre-aggregated form. This way, you can both store raw events and also power your analytical dashboards with subsecond queries.

The next sections extend upon the basic architecture and show you how to resolve questions which often appear.

Approximate Distinct Counts

A common question in http analytics deals with approximate distinct counts: How many unique visitors visited your site over the last month? Answering this question exactly requires storing the list of all previously-seen visitors in the rollup tables, a prohibitively large amount of data. A datatype called hyperloglog, or HLL, can answer the query approximately; it takes a surprisingly small amount of space to tell you approximately how many unique elements are in a set you pass it. Its accuracy can be adjusted. We’ll use ones which, using only 1280 bytes, will be able to count up to tens of billions of unique visitors with at most 2.2% error.

An equivalent problem appears if you want to run a global query, such as the number of unique ip addresses which visited any of your client’s sites over the last month. Without HLLs this query involves shipping lists of ip addresses from the workers to the coordinator for it to deduplicate. That’s both a lot of network traffic and a lot of computation. By using HLLs you can greatly improve query speed.

First you must install the hll extension; the github repo has instructions. Next, you have to enable it:

-- this part must be run on all nodes

-- this part runs on the coordinator
ALTER TABLE http_request_1min ADD COLUMN distinct_ip_addresses hll;

When doing our rollups, we can now aggregate sessions into an hll column with queries like this:

  site_id, date_trunc('minute', ingest_time) as minute,
  hll_add_agg(hll_hash_text(ip_address)) AS distinct_ip_addresses
FROM http_request
WHERE date_trunc('minute', ingest_time) = date_trunc('minute', now())
GROUP BY site_id, minute;

Now dashboard queries are a little more complicated, you have to read out the distinct number of ip addresses by calling the hll_cardinality function:

  request_count, success_count, error_count, average_response_time_msec,
  hll_cardinality(distinct_ip_addresses) AS distinct_ip_address_count
FROM http_request_1min
WHERE site_id = 1 AND ingest_time = date_trunc('minute', now());

HLLs aren’t just faster, they let you do things you couldn’t previously. Say we did our rollups, but instead of using HLLs we saved the exact unique counts. This works fine, but you can’t answer queries such as “how many distinct sessions were there during this one-week period in the past we’ve thrown away the raw data for?”.

With HLLs, this is easy. You’ll first need to inform Citus about the hll_union_agg aggregate function and its semantics. You do this by running the following:

-- this should be run on the workers and coordinator
  sfunc = hll_union_trans,
  stype = internal,
  finalfunc = hll_pack

Now, when you call SUM over a collection of HLLs, PostgreSQL will return the HLL for us. You can then compute distinct ip counts over a time period with the following query:

FROM http_request_1min
WHERE ingest_time BETWEEN timestamp '06-01-2016' AND '06-28-2016';

You can find more information on HLLs in the project’s GitHub repository.

Unstructured Data with JSONB

Citus works well with Postgres’ built-in support for unstructured data types. To demonstrate this, let’s keep track of the number of visitors which came from each country. Using a semi-structure data type saves you from needing to add a column for every individual country and ending up with rows that have hundreds of sparsely filled columns. We have a blog post explaining which format to use for your semi-structured data. The post recommends JSONB, here we’ll demonstrate how to incorporate JSONB columns into your data model.

First, add the new column to our rollup table:

ALTER TABLE http_request_1min ADD COLUMN country_counters JSONB;

Next, include it in the rollups by adding a clause like this to the rollup function:

  site_id, minute,
  jsonb_object_agg(request_country, country_count)
    site_id, date_trunc('minute', ingest_time) AS minute,
    count(1) AS country_count
  FROM http_request
  GROUP BY site_id, minute, request_country
) AS subquery
GROUP BY site_id, minute;

Now, if you want to get the number of requests which came from america in your dashboard, your can modify the dashboard query to look like this:

  request_count, success_count, error_count, average_response_time_msec,
  country_counters->'USA' AS american_visitors
FROM http_request_1min
WHERE site_id = 1 AND ingest_time = date_trunc('minute', now());


This article shows a complete system to give you an idea of what building a non-trivial application with Citus looks like. Again, there’s a github repo with all the scripts mentioned here.