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Memory mapping in kdb+

10 December 2020 | 13 minutes

By Adam Bonham

Memory mapping lies at the heart of how kdb+ interacts with on-disk data, and contributes to the high speeds during data retrieval. It is an important aspect within kdb+, but it is often overlooked given kdb+ does most of the work behind the scenes, and removes the need for developers to consider it. Although the mapping of data happens natively, being aware of how it works, what it applies to, and the different methods available can allow the developer to make better choices when setting up a database and APIs to ensure the best performance is being achieved from kdb+. This blog explores the concept of memory mapping, the ways in which kdb+ will map data, the benefits of anymap, and some memory mapping examples including .Q.MAP.


Memory mapping is a technique which can provide increased speed when accessing data on disk. To access an on-disk file, the data within the file is normally copied into the data buffers of the process. Memory mapping avoids the copying overhead by utilizing an optimized mapping instead.

Memory mapping uses virtual memory, which is a technique for managing memory, and allows secondary memory to be treated as primary memory. By utilizing storage as if it were RAM, it gives the impression of being able to use more RAM than what is available on the machine, by transferring data between RAM and storage.

When a file is memory-mapped its contents are mapped to memory as the name suggests, instead of being copied. This is done by assigning a portion of virtual memory to contain the mapping, which is a byte-for-byte correlation to the memory-mapped resource. When the file data is contained within the process address space, the amount of I/O data movement is decreased by allowing direct access to the file. When the executing process uses the mapping, it can treat the mapped virtual memory as if it were primary memory.  Note that when a kdb+ process updates mapped data, it does not affect the actual data on-disk files, nor does it affect other processes mapping the same files.

Pages (blocks of virtual memory) are loaded on-demand, meaning the pages are copied into memory only when a process is trying to access them, and if they are already absent from memory (known as a page fault). This requires only the pages that are required by the executing process to be loaded, avoiding unnecessary work.

Creating the mapping has an overhead itself, and therefore may not be advantageous in all situations. Memory mapping can be particularly useful for randomly accessing files, and for repeated access of these files. 

Memory mapping in kdb+

Kdb+ can map files in two modes:

  • Immediate mode – the files are mapped into memory immediately.
  • Deferred mode – the files are not immediately mapped, but the operating system is informed the mapping will take place at a future time, which allows optimizations to be made. The files are only mapped when the executing process explicitly tries to access them.

The developer can invoke either immediate or deferred mapping with a simple syntax change, and kdb+ conveniently allows us to inspect what is happening via .Q.w, an in-built function to retrieve memory statistics. 

Given the used and mapped memory will be inspected frequently throughout, a small helper function called getMem is defined

used| 421936
mmap| 0

Immediate mapping

The simplest structure that can be mapped is a vector, though vectors cannot be mapped in a deferred manner. The difference between modes can be illustrated using a splayed table.

Creating a sample splayed table
q)`:tab/ set ([]100000?100;100000?1000f)

To retrieve a file on-disk, the get command is used. This maps the file to memory, it does not load it into memory, assuming it is mappable. When ‘get’ is used on the file path without a trailing slash, the mapping of the file is immediate.

Explicitly assigning the mapped table to a variable ensures the table remains mapped, otherwise it is immediately unmapped.

q)immediate:get`:tab     /No trailing slash

Checking the mmap memory stats proves the data has been mapped as opposed to copied, otherwise mmap would be zero and the used memory would increase substantially.

used| 423104
mmap| 1600032

.Q.s1 allows us to investigate the structure of the table. The result confirms the mapping is immediate as the data values are displayed:

q).Q.s1 immediate
"+`x`x1!(81 96 32 46 99 88 61 54 31 6 25 49 61 76 30 10 37 90 92 69 20 80 62 36 38 68 ..

The table is cleared to reset the memory statistics to compare with deferred mapping.

q)delete immediate from `.


Deferred mapping

One extra character is all that is required to inform kdb+ that a deferred mapping is to be used. By appending a trailing slash to the file path when using the ‘get’ command, the mapping is now deferred. 

used| 421776
mmap| 0
q).Q.s1 deferred

The mmap memory is zero, even though kdb+ has been requested to ‘get’ the data. When inspecting the underlying structure, no data is displayed, but instead a special structure indicating a mapping to the required files.

So is the data there or not? Without explicitly checking the memory/underlying structure, it would be easy to assume the trailing slash has no effect. Referencing the ‘deferred’ variable,

x  x1      
80 587.8718
70 780.8416

The data is displayed on screen immediately.

The difference is that the deferred table is only mapped when the executing process tries to access it, and the mapping/unmapping is carried out every single time it is accessed. This will have an increased overhead, especially compared to repeatedly accessing a table which has been mapped immediately.

Comparing the times of a simple select statement

q)(select from immediate)~select from deferred
q)\t:10 select from immediate
q)\t:10 select from deferred       /overhead of extra system calls


Anymap was introduced in kdb+ 3.6 to allow almost all structures to become mappable. Prior to 3.6, mappable compound lists had the restriction that elements of the list were of the same type, for example, a compound list of longs.

Non-uniformly typed structures, for example, a list of longs and floats, were copied into memory when accessed. 

With anymap this problem is bypassed due to the format in which kdb+ saves the data to disk. The anymap structure is used for compound lists of uniform and non-uniform types. All anymap structures have type 77h.

q)`:a set (til 1000;1000?100f)     
q)type a

Two files have been created


The data is stored within the second file with # appended. The anymap structure within the files provides a format which is mappable, as opposed to previously unmappable non-fixed-width records.

When retrieving the data, it is reconstructed automatically from both files.

used| 421680
mmap| 0
used| 422784
mmap| 24240
q)a    /both vectors mapped
0        1        2        3       4        5        6        7   ..
18.70281 35.95293 48.09078 44.6898 13.16095 63.33324 69.90336 44.18975 ..

Anymap is not restricted to a list of vectors but can also contain dictionaries and tables.

Anymap prevents the whole file being copied, but still requires individual vectors within the file to be copied to the heap when accessing them, when the file is written with set.

used| 422784
mmap| 24240
q)a1:a 0      /extracting the vector of longs from the compound list
used| 430976  
mmap| 24240

This increases the used memory while the whole file is still mapped. 

1: write down

An alternative method of writing the data can prevent this data copy, instead of using set, use 1:

For example,

q)`:b 1: (til 1000;1000?100f)  /replace set with 1:
used| 430976
mmap| 24240
used| 431040
mmap| 48480
q)b1:b 0  
q)getMem[]         /compared with using set, this time the used memory does not increase
used| 431040
mmap| 48480
0        1        2        3       4        5        6        7   ..
18.70281 35.95293 48.09078 44.6898 13.16095 63.33324 69.90336 44.18975 ..
q)b1 /able to access the individual vector without using more memory due to 1: write down
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 ..

Any vector within the mapped structure is available for use with no extra copying overhead using this method.

Flat file tables

The 1: write down is useful for flat file tables. If written with ‘set’, flat file tables are always copied when accessed. 

q)`:t 1: ([]col1:til 10000;col2:10000?300f)

Notice the t## file is also created in this case. Inspecting the file shows it contains the table columns names, as they are stored as symbols.


Anymap and symbols

Symbols are interned strings which can vary in length, due to the non-fixed width records it prevents these vectors from being mapped to memory. 

q)`:syms set 1000000?`3
used| 422336
mmap| 0
used| 8812064
mmap| 0

The name anymap suggests it can map anything, though symbols remain an exception. Using 1: will have no mapping benefits on symbol vectors. If symbols are present in a compound structure, they are enumerated against a file named file##.

q)`:a set (n?1000;n?100f;n?`3)   /third vector is a symbol vector
used| 422352
mmap| 0
q)getMem[]             /mmap increased but so does used
used| 489008
mmap| 24008272

The ## file is equivalent to the sym file in a HDB, it is a symbol vector used to deenumerate the symbols and hence it is copied into memory when the file is loaded, other mappable vectors are mapped as usual.

Symbols are always copied even with anymap, though thankfully kdb+ enforces enumeration of symbols when splaying tables or when using anymap. This means only a single distinct list of all symbols must be copied, and given the symbol data type should be chosen for highly repeating values, the amount of data kdb+ has to copy is kept to a minimum.

Memory mapping considerations

Kdb+ is all about speed, understanding how memory mapping is used within q-sql will help ensure the best performance is achieved.

To explore the effects of memory mapping when using q-sql, a sample splayed table called ‘trade’ is created, whose symbols columns are enumerated using .Q.en.

q)`:trade/ set .Q.en[`:.;trade]

The table can be loaded from disk using \l, which loads the table in a deferred manner.

q)\l .
used| 490016          /increases due to sym file
mmap| 0

All the columns are simple mappable vectors

q)meta trade
c    | t f a
-----| -----
sym  | s    
time | t    
price| f    
size | j 

Number of columns

The number of columns specified in a query will affect how much data is mapped.

Selecting all columns

q)t:select from trade
used| 490816
mmap| 28004144

Selecting a subset of columns, for example, dropping the price and size columns

q)t:select sym, time from trade
used| 490752
mmap| 12004112     

The value of mmap decreases, this is because the columns in a splayed table are only page faulted when required, the columns are accessed only when needed, preventing any unnecessary overhead of mapping extra data that will not be used. kdb+ allows only the smallest subset of data which the query requires to be mapped. Only include the columns needed in queries.

Virtual columns

When using the virtual column i, there is a noticeable difference in the used memory.

q)t:update i:i from trade
used| 8878112
mmap| 28004144

Virtual columns do not exist on disk, and hence are not mapped, but are created on-demand when accessed. Referencing the virtual column therefore leads to greater RAM usage. Only include the virtual column ‘i’ when necessary.

Where constraints

When ‘where’ constraints are added while querying splayed tables, the resulting dataset is copied into RAM as opposed to being mapped.

q)\ts select from trade
8 784
q)t:select from trade where price>100
used| 15169568
mmap| 0

The used memory increases substantially, and at this stage none of the data is mapped.

The further the constraint reduces the dataset, the less memory is used

q)\ts select from trade where price > 150
16 9437984
q)\ts select from trade where price > 200
14 1049280


As shown when comparing deferred and immediate mapping, there is an overhead of having to map and unmap the files every time they are accessed. Having all the files permanently mapped would be advantageous to reduce this overhead. .Q.MAP was added to accommodate this. It can be run after loading a database.

used| 424624
heap| 67108864
peak| 67108864
wmax| 0
mmap| 0
mphy| 2083708928
syms| 934
symw| 44816
used| 434544
heap| 67108864             /heap is unchanged
peak| 67108864
wmax| 0
mmap| 4165159648           /significant increase in mmap
mphy| 2083708928
syms| 976
symw| 48172
Pros and cons
  • .Q.MAP can significantly increase performance by removing the mapping overhead, though .Q.MAP itself may take some time to run. 
  • .Q.MAP will use a large amount of the address space, it should not be used blindly.
  • It is inadvisable to use with a compressed database as decompressed maps will use physical memory and or swap. https://code.kx.com/q/ref/dotq/#qmap-maps-partitions.
  • .Q.MAP opens a handle to all files. The limit on the number of open handles on the server may need to be increased to accommodate this. https://code.kx.com/q/kb/linux-production/#compression

To explore the effects of .Q.MAP, a sample partitioned database is loaded. The database used is partitioned by date and contains two tables, trade, and quote. 

q)\l .
used| 424848  /from the sym file
mmap| 0

When loading the root HDB directory, the sym file is copied into memory (and potentially flat file tables if written down using set), mappable vectors are mapped immediately, and splayed tables are mapped in a deferred manner.

q)\ts select sym, time, price, size, exchange from trade where date=last date
6 3312
q)\ts select sym, time, price, size, exchange from trade where date=last date
6 2896

q)\l .
q)\ts .Q.MAP[]            /has an overhead to run
98 10416
q)\ts select sym, time, price, size, exchange from trade where date=last date
0 2944

The data is returned instantly, outperforming repeated queries in the previous example. When dealing with uncompressed HDBs, .Q.MAP should be considered if increased performance is required


Note: kdb+ 4.0 is used throughout this blog.



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