What is Avro?: Big Data File Format Guide

Aditi Prakash
August 18, 2023
10 min read
Apache Avro is a row-based data serialization format that encodes data in a compact binary format. Avro stores the schema in JSON format alongside the data, enabling efficient processing and schema evolution.

Developed by the Apache Software Foundation, Avro’s unique approach to schema management ensures both backward and forward compatibility.

This guide will unravel the intricacies of Avro, its significance, its implementation details, and its pivotal role in contemporary data operations.

Data serialization is at the heart of modern data processing, enabling seamless communication between applications and systems. Serialization is used to convert complex data structures into a format that can be easily stored, transmitted, and modified.

Apache Avro is a powerful and dynamic data serialization system designed to tackle modern data management challenges. It has become an indispensable tool for businesses, researchers, and engineers.

In this article, we will explore the history of Avro, its key features, and benefits. We’ve also illustrated how to work with Avro and listed several real-life use cases for the framework.

History of Avro

Avro is a data serialization framework developed within the Apache Hadoop ecosystem. It was created to address the need for efficient serialization in the context of big data processing. Avro’s origins and development can be traced back to the early 2000s.

The project’s initial goal was to provide a more efficient and compact way to serialize data for storage and transmission within the Hadoop framework. The existing serialization methods at the time, such as Java Serialization and XML, were not well-suited for the scale of data that Hadoop was designed to handle.

The Avro project was officially announced in 2009 and aimed to provide a solution that could efficiently serialize data, be language-agnostic, support schema evolution, and be fast and compact.

It gained traction quickly within the Hadoop ecosystem due to its compact binary format, which made it suitable for storing and transmitting data in distributed systems.

Over the years, Apache Avro underwent several performance optimizations and security enhancements. This includes support for schema evolution, dynamic typing, and JSON. It also enables cross-language code generation and integration with big data platforms.

All of these features and the framework’s continued development led to its widespread adoption across industries. It became a common choice for data interchange formats and communication protocols in many applications.

The Anatomy of Avro

The Avro data format has two main components - the schema and the serialized data. The schema defines the structure of data. It specifies the fields it contains, including data types, their names, and the relationships between them.

An Avro schema is defined in the JSON format and is necessary for both serialization and deserialization, enabling compatibility and evolution over time. It can be a:

  • A JSON string, which contains the type name, like “int.”
  • A JSON array, which represents a union of multiple data types.
  • A JSON object, which defines a new data type using the format {“type”: “typeName”...attributes...}

Avro supports a range of primitive data types, like string, boolean, int, long, float, double, and bytes, and complex types, including:

  • Record: A record is a complex type that defines a collection of named fields, each with its own type. Records are similar to structures or classes in programming languages.
  • Enum: Enumerations represent a fixed set of symbolic names, often used to represent categorical data.
  • Array: An array is a collection of elements of the same type.
  • Map: A map is a collection of key-value pairs. The keys are strings, and the values can be of any type.
  • Union: Unions represent a choice between several types. Unions enable schema changes, as new fields can be added without breaking compatibility with existing data.
  • Fixed: Fixed represents a fixed-size binary type with a specified number of bytes.
  • Decimal: Decimal represents arbitrary-precision fixed-point decimal numbers.

Avro uses the object container file format. So, an Avro data file stores the schema and the serialized data, which can consist of multiple records. These records are stored in blocks, making it possible to read specific sections of the file without reading the entire dataset. They can also be compressed.

An Avro Object Container File is highly portable and adaptable, allowing data to be read and interpreted by different systems without external schema references.

Benefits of Using Avro

There are four key benefits of using Avro:

Schema evolution

Avro supports forward and backward compatibility for evolving schemas. This means that you can evolve a schema by adding new fields or removing optional fields, and data serialized with the older schema can still be deserialized using the new schema.

Similarly, data serialized with the new schema can be deserialized using the older schema. This backward and forward compatibility ensures that you can seamlessly read and write data using different versions of the schema.

The Avro data format also has versioning mechanisms, such as schema resolution, to enable smooth transitions between different schema versions. This ensures that data pipelines can be upgraded without disrupting existing data.

Compact data storage

Avro uses an efficient binary format, which results in compact serialized data. This efficiency is particularly valuable in big data scenarios where storage and network bandwidth are at a premium. 

Additionally, Avro’s integration with compression algorithms further reduces data size, enhancing storage and transmission efficiency.

The binary serialization format speeds up data serialization and deserialization compared to text-based formats like JSON or XML. This enhanced performance is crucial when dealing with large volumes of data.

Flexibility

Apache Avro is language-agnostic, so data engineers can serialize data in one language and deserialize it in another. This flexibility is critical in modern ecosystems where different components might be written in diverse languages.

Avro can be integrated with many big data tools, like Apache Hadoop, Apache Spark, Apache Kafka, and Apache Flink, making it a versatile choice for data serialization in distributed environments.

In addition, Avro’s compatibility with the JSON format provides a bridge between human-readable and efficient binary serialization, allowing for easy interchange of data between systems.

Dynamic typing

Avro’s support for dynamic typing enables you to work with data that might not conform strictly to a fixed schema. This is useful in situations where data structures evolve more frequently or when you need more flexibility in data representation.

You can also use strongly typed schemas if needed. This can help ensure data consistency and validation, especially in cases where precise data structure is critical.

👋 Say Goodbye to Data Silos. Join Airbyte for Effortless Data Integration
Try FREE for 14 Days

Working with Avro

You can follow these general steps to implement and use Apache Avro:

  • Add Dependencies: Include the Avro library in your project’s dependencies. Avro libraries are available for many programming languages. For Java, you can include the Avro dependency in your Maven or Gradle build file.
  • Define Avro Schema: Create an Avro schema that defines the structure of your data using the JSON format. The schema specifies fields, their types, and optional properties like default values.
  • Code Generation (Optional): Some Avro libraries offer code generation capabilities that create classes corresponding to the schema. This can help you work with Avro data more easily. For example, in Java, you can generate classes using the ‘avro-tools’ JAR.
  • Serialize Data: Use the Avro library to serialize your data based on the defined schema. This will convert your data into a compact binary format according to the schema’s specifications.
  • Deserialize Data: Use the Avro library to deserialize data and read it. The library uses the schema to interpret the binary data correctly and generate usable data objects.

Let’s consider an example in Java to illustrate how to work with the Avro data format:

1. Define Avro Schema (‘user.avsc’):

{
  "type": "record",
  "name": "User",
  "fields": [
    { "name": "id", "type": "int" },
    { "name": "name", "type": "string" },
    { "name": "email", "type": "string" }
  ]
}

2. Generate Java Classes (Optional):

Run the Avro code generation tool to create Java classes based on the schema:

java -jar avro-tools.jar compile schema user.avsc .

3. Serialize and Deserialize (‘Main.java’):

import org.apache.avro.Schema;
import org.apache.avro.file.DataFileReader;
import org.apache.avro.file.DataFileWriter;
import org.apache.avro.io.DatumReader;
import org.apache.avro.io.DatumWriter;
import org.apache.avro.io.JsonDatumReader;
import org.apache.avro.io.JsonDatumWriter;
import org.apache.avro.specific.SpecificData;
import org.apache.avro.specific.SpecificDatumReader;
import org.apache.avro.specific.SpecificDatumWriter;
import org.apache.avro.specific.SpecificRecord;

import java.io.File;
import java.io.IOException;

public class Main {
    public static void main(String[] args) throws IOException {
        // Load the Avro schema
        Schema schema = new Schema.Parser().parse(new File("user.avsc"));

        // Create a User record
        User user = new User();
        user.setId(1);
        user.setName("John Doe");
        user.setEmail("john@example.com");

        // Serialize User data to a file
        DatumWriter datumWriter = new SpecificDatumWriter<>(User.class);
        try (DataFileWriter dataFileWriter = new DataFileWriter<>(datumWriter)) {
            dataFileWriter.create(user.getSchema(), new File("user.avro"));
            dataFileWriter.append(user);
        }

        // Deserialize User data from the file
        DatumReader datumReader = new SpecificDatumReader<>(User.class);
        try (DataFileReader dataFileReader = new DataFileReader<>(new File("user.avro"), datumReader)) {
            while (dataFileReader.hasNext()) {
                User readUser = dataFileReader.next();
                System.out.println(readUser);
            }
        }
    }
}

Integrating Avro with Big Data Tools

You can integrate Avro with several processing and analytics tools:

  • Kafka: Kafka provides Avro serializers and deserializers for producing and consuming Avro data. You must configure the producer and consumer to use the appropriate Avro serializer and deserializer.
  • Spark: When reading data in Spark, you can use the Avro format to read Avro files. Spark’s Avro library will handle the serialization and deserialization for you.
  • Hadoop: Hadoop MapReduce jobs can use Avro for data input and output formats. You’ll configure your job to use Avro’s Input and Output Formats, which handle Avro serialization and deserialization.

The specific steps for a tool will depend on the version you’re using and the programming language you’re working with. Refer to each platform’s official documentation and resources for the most accurate information.

Use Cases and Applications

Here are seven standard applications of Avro:

  • Big Data Processing: Avro is extensively used in big data frameworks like Apache Hadoop and Apache Flink. It enables efficient storage, processing, and data interchange in distributed systems.
  • Data Warehousing and Analytics: Avro is used to store and exchange data in data warehouses, enabling effective data loading and querying. It’s also employed in analytical platforms to support data exploration and reporting.
  • Real-Time Stream Processing: Avro’s compact format and schema change support make it an ideal choice for real-time stream processing platforms like Apache Kafka. It ensures compatibility between producers and consumers as the schema evolves.
  • Event Sourcing and CQRS (Command and Query Responsibility Segregation): In event sourcing architectures, Avro can be used to serialize and store events. It allows systems to evolve while preserving the history of events.
  • Microservices Communication: Microservices architectures often require communication between services. Avro can facilitate data exchange between microservices written in varying languages.
  • Machine Learning Pipelines: Avro can help serialize and transfer data between different stages of an ML pipeline, ensuring consistency and compatibility of data representations.
  • Log Aggregation and Analysis: Avro is suitable for aggregating and analyzing log data generated by various components in a system.

To showcase how the serialization technique helps businesses, let’s look at some real-world examples:

  • E-commerce Platforms: E-commerce platforms use Avro to handle large volumes of customer and transaction data. Avro’s efficiency helps optimize storage and processing, leading to better customer insights and personalized recommendations.
  • Financial Services: Financial institutions leverage Avro for real-time transaction processing, fraud detection, and risk assessment. Avro’s compatibility ensures that evolving financial data structures can be handled without disruption.
  • IoT Applications: Internet of Things (IoT) systems generate massive amounts of data from multiple sensors. Avro’s compactness and schema change support are crucial for efficiently managing and analyzing this data.
  • Healthcare Systems: Healthcare organizations use Avro to manage electronic health records, medical imaging data, and patient information. Avro’s features help ensure the integrity and consistency of patient information.
  • Media and Entertainment: Media companies utilize Avro to handle video and audio metadata, user engagement data, and content distribution information. Avro’s efficiency is particularly valuable in content streaming and distribution platforms.
  • Supply Chain Management: Avro enables supply chain systems to manage and exchange data related to inventory, logistics, and demand forecasting. It helps maintain accurate supply chain records.
  • Gaming Industry: Game developers use Avro to manage player profiles, in-game events, and analytics data. Avro’s flexibility helps accommodate changes in gameplay mechanics and features.

All of these examples highlight how Avro contributes to more streamlined and effective data management, analysis, and communication.

Conclusion

Avro is a robust data serialization framework that plays a crucial role in big data processing and communication. It offers a range of benefits, including compactness, support for schema changes, and integration with big data platforms.

Whether you’re working with massive data pipelines, building real-time streaming applications, or handling data interchange between microservices, Avro provides a versatile solution.

To harness the full potential of Avro, each use case may require a unique approach. By understanding the format’s capabilities, you’ll be better equipped to design robust and efficient data solutions tailored to your specific needs.

You can learn more about data formats, management, and data integration by reading our Content Hub.

Limitless data movement with free Alpha and Beta connectors
Introducing: our Free Connector Program
The data movement infrastructure for the modern data teams.
Try a 14-day free trial