Key Ideas

Here are some of the key ideas & principles behind Fennel's architecture that allow it to meet its design goals:

Async Rust (using Tokio)

All Fennel services are written in Rust with tight control over CPU and memory footprints. Further, since feature engineering is a very IO heavy workload on both read and write sides, Fennel heavily depends on async Rust to release CPU for other tasks while one task is waiting on some resource. For instance, each job in Fennel's streaming system gets managed as an async task enabling many jobs to share the same CPU core with minimal context switch overhead. This enables Fennel to efficiently utilize all the CPU available to it.

Python Native; Embedded Python

Fennel is one of the very few Python native streaming systems out there and that's a natural consequence of its primary design goal of focusing on the ease of use. Use of Python (vs say SQL) also makes it easy to write unit tests, decompose code in function/class units, write native Python as UDFs etc.

But this requires lot of back and forth between Python land (which is bound by GIL) and the rest of the Rust system. Fennel handles this by embedding a Python interpreter inside Rust binaries (via PyO3). This enables Fennel to cross the Python/Rust boundary very cheaply, while still being async.

PEP 684 further allows Fennel to eliminate GIL bottleneck by embedding multiple Python sub-interpreters in Rust threads.

Read Write Separation; Provides Read Side Indices

It is rather common for people to do use streaming engine to output data into a data sink and then build an index on top of that sink for low latency production serving. Similarly, on the feature engineering side, the computation is somewhat divided across read & write sides.

Under this lens, there is a continuum between write side & read side computation with various applications choosing their own combination of the two. Recognizing this common pattern, unlike most other compute systems out there, Fennel provides read side indices and computation out of the box.

This is one of the most critical architecture decision that differentiates Fennel from many other similar systems. You can read about this in more detail here.

Exposes Only Dataframe API

Some streaming systems like Flink or Bytewax support streams of arbitrary things including, for instance, a stream of numbers or words. Sometimes, as in the case of Flink, a higher level dataframe API is exposed on top of the lower level stream API.

Fennel takes a different route - it only exposes a dataframe API i.e. all streams are "rows" of data with a schema, mandatory time field and zero or more key fields. This makes Fennel less useful for some lower level streaming tasks but easier/friendlier for data engineering/data science tasks that typically work on 2d dataframes.

Kappa Architecture

Fennel uses a Kappa like architecture to operate on both streaming and batch data via the same programming model. This enables Fennel to maintain a single code path to power all data operations and have the same pipeline declarations work seamlessly in both realtime and batch sources. This side-steps a lot of issues intrinsic to the Lambda architecture, which is the most mainstream alternative to Kappa.

Once again, this makes Fennel easier to use, especially when dealing with mixture of batch and streaming data. However it does come at a cost - more complexity has to be pushed deep in the internals of Fennel.

CDC Awareness

Fennel transparently handles change data capture records aka CDC without exposing those details to the end user (i.e. the end user still specifies the computation declaratively and Fennel translates it into computation over stream of inserts & deletes).

Long Watermarks; Eager Emissions; Eventual Corrections

Most streaming systems buffer input data for a while (say until the window closes) and only then emit the final results. This has two downsides:

  1. The results are delayed
  2. Often, this temporary state needs to be kept in RAM

Both of these are fine with short windows. However, over time, it has been noticed that in several real world applications, the data can continue getting updated for very long periods (e.g. 30 days for financial transaction data). Clearly, it's a bad idea to delay results by 30 days OR store 30 days worth of state in RAM.

Fennel's streaming engine is built for these very long watermark periods. In particular, Fennel operators emit results eagerly whenever they encounter new data - even before the window has closed. But to handle changes due to new arriving data, Fennel remembers some state on Disk (not RAM) and then emits corrections later. These corrections themselves look like CDC data stream. This way, Fennel chooses to keep small delay times low and small memory footprint by trading off on the volume of updates.

Hybrid Materialized Views

To reduce read latencies, data on the write path is pre-materialized and stored in datasets. The main downside of materializing views is that it may lead to wasted computation and storage for data that is never read. Fennel's read write separation minimizes this downside by giving control to the end user for what computation to pre-materialize and what computation to on the read path.

Minimal Sync Communication for Horizontal Scaling

Every single subsystem within Fennel is designed with horizontal scalability in mind. While ability to scale out is usually desirable, if not done well, lots of independent nodes can lead to inter-node overheads leading to capacity of the system not growing linearly with hardware capacity. It also creates failure modes like cascades of failures.

Fennel minimizes these by reducing cross-node sync communication - it does so by keeping some local state with each node (which needs no communication), keeping global metadata in centrally accessible Postgres, and making all communication async - within node communication via async Rust channels and cross-node communication via Kafka (vs sync RPCs)

Transmit Objects & Protobufs; Not Raw Code

During commit, Fennel client doesn't send raw source files to the server. Instead, Python objects are converted to protobufs which are then sent to the server. This is a subtle but important distinction - the code submitted to Fennel may come from any place, maybe scattered throughout a repo, or maybe dynamically generated at runtime. This choice also keeps the door open for us to extend Fennel in other languages (e.g. Typescript, Java), which we intent to do at some point in time.

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