35% Faster Than The Filesystem

1. Summary

Small blobs (for example, thumbnail images) can be read out of an SQLite database about 35% faster than they can be read from individual files on disk.

Furthermore, a single SQLite database holding 10-kilobyte blobs uses about 20% less disk space than storing the blobs in individual files.

The performance difference arises (we believe) because when reading from an SQLite database, the open() and close() system calls are invoked only once, whereas open() and close() are invoked once for each blob when reading the blobs from individual files. It appears that the overhead of calling open() and close() is greater than the overhead of using the database. The size reduction arises from the fact that individual files are padded out to the next multiple of the filesystem block size, whereas the blobs are packed more tightly into an SQLite database.

2. How These Measurements Are Made

The performance comparison is accomplished using the kvtest.c program found in the SQLite source tree. To compile the test program, first gather the kvtest.c source file into a directory with the SQLite amalgamation source files "sqlite3.c" and "sqlite3.h". Then on unix, run a command like the following:

gcc -Os -I. -DSQLITE_DIRECT_OVERFLOW_READ kvtest.c sqlite3.c  -o kvtest -ldl -lpthread

Or on Windows with MSVC:

cl -I. -DSQLITE_DIRECT_OVERFLOW_READ kvtest.c sqlite3.c

Use the resulting "kvtest" program to generate a test database with 100,000 random blobs, each 10,000 bytes in size using a command like this:

./kvtest init test1.db --count 100k --size 10k

Next, make copies of all the blobs into individual files in a directory using commands like this:

mkdir test1.dir
./kvtest export test1.db test1.dir

At this point, you can measure the amount of disk space used by the test1.db database and the space used by the test1.dir directory and all of its content. On a standard Ubuntu Linux desktop, the database file will be 1,024,512,000 bytes in size and the test1.dir directory will use 1,228,800,000 bytes of space (according to "du -k"), about 20% more than the database.

Measure the performance for reading blobs from the database and from individual files using these commands:

./kvtest run test1.db --count 100k --blob-api
./kvtest run test1.dir --count 100k

Depending on your platform, you should see that reads from the test1.db database file are about 35% faster than reads from individual files in the test1.dir folder.

2.1. Variations

The -DSQLITE_DIRECT_OVERFLOW_READ compile-time option causes SQLite to bypass its page cache when reading content from overflow pages. This helps database reads of 10K blobs run a little faster, but not all that much faster. SQLite still holds a speed advantage over direct filesystem reads without the SQLITE_DIRECT_OVERFLOW_READ compile-time option.

Other compile-time options such as using -O3 instead of -Os or using -DSQLITE_THREADSAFE=0 and/or some of the other recommended compile-time options might help SQLite to run even faster relative to direct filesystem reads.

When constructing the test data, trying varying the size of the blob. The performance advantage will shift toward direct filesystem reads as the size of blobs increase, since the cost of invoking open() and close() will be amortized over more bytes transferred using read(). The break-even point, the point where it becomes faster to read directly from the filesystem, will vary from one system to another. In the other direction, reducing the blob size provide more advantage to database reads. With a 5 KB blob size, reading from the database is twice as fast and uses 60% less space than blobs stored as individual files.

The --blob-api option causes database reads to occur using the sqlite3_blob_open(), sqlite3_blob_reopen(), and sqlite3_blob_read() interfaces instead of using SQL statements. Without the --blob-api option, a separate SQL statement is run to read each blob and the performance of reading from the database is approximately the same as the performance from reading directly from files. This is still a significant finding, since few people would expect a full-featured SQL database to run as fast as direct file reads, and yet SQLite does.

The --random option on the "run" command causes the blobs to be read in a random order. This causes the performance of database reads to decrease. The reason is that the blobs are tightly packed in the database, rather than being padded out to the next block size as when they are stored in the filesystem. Some pages contain parts of adjacent blobs. When the blobs are read sequentially, those pages are only read into memory once and cached and then used to reconstruct adjacent blobs, but when blobs are read in a random order, those pages that share parts of two or more blobs tend to be read multiple times, leading to decreased performance.

The "--mmap SIZE" option on the "run" command causes the database file to be accessed using mmap() instead of via read(). The SIZE argument is the size of the memory mapped region, and should be the size of the database file for maximum performance. Using "--mmap 1G" causes the database reads to be almost twice as fast as disk reads even when the --random option is used.

When --random is used and both --blob-api and --mmap are omitted, reading directly from files on disk is generally a little faster, but reads from the database are still competitive.

3. Other Considerations

Some other SQL database engines advise developers to store blobs in separate files and then store the filename in the database. In that case, where the database must first be consulted to find the filename before opening and reading the file, simply storing the entire blob in the database is gives much faster read performance with SQLite. See the Internal Versus External BLOBs article for more information.

This report only looks at the performance of reads, not writes. Because SQLite implements power-safe ACID transactions we expect that write performance into SQLite will be slower than writing directly to individual files. However, if ACID transactions are disabled via PRAGMA journal_mode=OFF (thus putting SQLite on equal footing with the filesystem) and the sqlite3_blob_write() interface is used, SQLite might well be competitive or even faster than writes to separate files on disk. That is an experiment we have not yet run.

Remember that the relative performance of database reads and reads from the filesystem will depend on both the hardware and the operating system. Please try the tests above on your own system. If you encounter cases there database reads do not perform favorably in comparison to filesystem reads, please report your findings in the SQLite mailing list.

SQLite is in the Public Domain.