# On Time Series

## Is it even a thing?

Time Series is on its way to becoming a buzzword in the Information Technology circles. This has to do with the looming Internet of Things which shall cause the Great Reversal of Internet whereby upstream flow of data produced by said Things is expected to exceed the downstream flow. Much of this data is expected to be of the Time Series kind.

This, of course, is a money-making opportunity of the Big Data proportions all over again, and I predict we’re going to see a lot of Time Series support of various shapes and forms appearing in all manners of (mostly commercial) software.

But is there really such a thing as the problem specifically inherent to Time Series data which warrants a specialized solution? I’ve been pondering this for some time now, and I am still undecided. This here is my attempt at arguing that TS is not a special problem and that it can be done by using a database like PostgreSQL.

## Influx of data and write speeds

One frequently cited issue with time series data is that it arrives in large volumes at a steady pace which renders buffered writes useless. The number of incoming data streams can also be large typically causing a disk seek per stream and further complicating the write situation. TS data also has a property where often more data is written than read because it’s possible for a datapoint to be collected and examined only once, if ever. In short, TS is very write-heavy.

But is this unique? For example logs have almost identical properties. The real question here is whether our tried and true databases such as PostgreSQL are ill-equipped to deal with large volumes of incoming data requiring an alternative solution.

When considering incoming data I am tempted to imagine every US household sending it, which, of course, would require massive infrastructure. But this (unrealistic) scenario is not a TS data problem, it’s one of scale, the same one from which the Hadoops and Cassandras of this world were born. What is really happening here is that TS happens to be yet another thing that requires the difficult to deal with “big data” infrastructure and reiterates the need for an easy-to-setup horizontally scalable database (which PostgreSQL isn’t).

## The backfill problem

This is the problem of having to import vast amounts of historical data. For example OpenTSDB goes to great lengths to optimize back-filling by structuring it in specific ways and storing compressed blobs of data.

But just like the write problem, it’s not unique to TS. It is another problem that is becoming more and more pertinent as our backlogs of data going back to when we stopped using paper keep growing and growing.

## Downsampling

Very often TS data is used to generate charts. This is an artifact of the human brain being spectacularly good at interpreting a visual representation of a relationship between streams of numbers while nearly incapable of making sense of data in tabular form. When plotting, no matter how much data is being examined, the end result is limited to however many pixels are available on the display. Even plotting aside, most any use of time series data is in an aggregated form.

The process of consolidating datapoints into a smaller number (e.g. the pixel width of the chart), sometimes called downsampling, involves aggregation around a particular time interval or simply picking every Nth datapoint.

As an aside, selecting every Nth row of a table is an interesting SQL challenge, in PostgreSQL it looks like this (for every 100th row):

Aggregation over a time interval similar to how InfluxDB does it with the GROUP BY time(1d) syntax can be easily achieved via the date_trunc('day', time).

Another aspect of downsampling is that since TS data is immutable, there is no need to repeatedly recompute the consolidated version. It makes more sense to downsample immediately upon the receipt of the data and to store it permanently in this form. RRDTool’s Round-Robin database is based entirely on this notion. InfluxDB’s continuous queries is another way persistent downsampling is addressed.

Again, there is nothing TS-specific here. Storing data in summary form is quite common in the data analytics world and a “continuous query” is easily implemented via a trigger.

## Derivatives

Sometimes the data from various devices exists in the form of a counter, which requires the database to derive a rate by comparing with a previous datapoint. An example of this is number of bytes sent over a network interface. Only the rate of change of this value is relevant, not the number itself. The rate of change is the difference with the previous value divided over the time interval passed.

Referring to a previous row is also a bit tricky but perfectly doable in SQL. It can accomplished by using windowing functions such as lag().

## Expiration

It is useful to downsample data to a less granular form as it ages, aggregating over an ever larger period of time and possibly purging records eventually. For example we might want to store minutely data for a week, hourly for 3 months, daily for 3 years and drop all data beyond 3 years.

Databases do not expire rows “natively” like Cassandra or Redis, but it shouldn’t be too hard to accomplish via some sort of a periodic cron job or possibly even just triggers.

## Heartbeat and Interval Filling

It is possible for a time series stream to pause, and this can be interpreted in different ways: we can attempt to fill in missing data, or treat it as unknown. More likely we’d want to start treating it as unknown after some period of silence. RRDTool addresses this by introducing the notion of a heartbeat and the number of missed beats before data is treated as unknown.

Regardless of whether the value is unknown, it is useful to be able to fill in a gap (missing rows) in data. In PostgreSQL this can be accomplished by a join with a result set from the generate_series() function.

## Data Seclusion

With many specialized Time Series tools the TS data ends up being secluded in a separate system not easily accessible from the rest of the business data. You cannot join your customer records with data in RRDTool or Graphite or InfluxDB, etc.

## Conclusion

If there is a problem with using PosgreSQL or some other database for Time Series data, it is mainly that of having to use advanced SQL syntax and possibly requiring some cookie-cutter method for managing Time Series, especially when it is a large number or series and high volume.

There is also complexity in horizontally scaling a relational database because it involves setting up replication, sharding, methods for recovery from failure and balancing the data. But these are not TS-specific problems, they are scaling problems.

Having written this up, I’m inclined to think that perhaps there is no need for a specialized “Time Series Database”, instead it can be accomplished by an application which uses a database for storage and abstracts the users from the complexities of SQL and potentially even scaling, while still allowing for direct access to the data via the rich set of tools that a database like PostgreSQL provides.