From Arrow to pandas at 10 Gigabytes Per Second

apache arrow

December 27, 2016

In this post I discuss some recent work in Apache Arrow to accelerate converting to pandas objects from general Arrow columnar memory.

Challenges constructing pandas DataFrame objects quickly

One of the difficulties in fast construction of pandas DataFrame object is that the “native” internal memory structure is more complex than a dictionary or list of one-dimensional NumPy arrays. I won’t go into the reasons for this complexity, but it’s something we’re hoping to do away with as part of the pandas 2.0 effort. There are two layers of complexity:

  • pandas’s memory representation for a particular data type may change depending on the presence of null values. Boolean data becomes dtype=object while integer data becomes dtype=float64.

  • Upon calling pandas.DataFrame, internally pandas will “consolidate” the input by copying into its internal two-dimensional block structure. Constructing the precise block structure is the only true way to do zero-copy DataFrame construction.

To give you an idea of the overhead introduced by consolidation, let’s look at a benchmark. Consider the setup code, in which we create a dict of 100 float64 arrays constituting a gigabyte of data:

import numpy as np
import pandas as pd
import pyarrow as pa

type_ = np.dtype('float64')
DATA_SIZE = (1 << 30)
NCOLS = 100
NROWS = DATA_SIZE / NCOLS / np.dtype(type_).itemsize

data = {
    'c' + str(i): np.random.randn(NROWS)
    for i in range(NCOLS)

Then, we create a DataFrame with pd.DataFrame(data):

>>> %timeit df = pd.DataFrame(data)
10 loops, best of 3: 132 ms per loop

(For those who are counting, that’s 7.58 GB/second just to do an internal memory copy.)

An important thing to remember is that, here, we have already constructed pandas’s “native” memory representation (nulls would be NaN in the arrays), but as a collection of 1D arrays.

Converting from Arrow columnar memory to pandas

Apache Arrow, a project I’ve been heavily involved with since its genesis early in 2016, is a language-agnostic in-memory columnar representation and collection of tools for interprocess communication (IPC) . It supports nested JSON-like data and is designed as a building-block for creating fast analytics engines.

Compared with pandas, Arrow has a more precise representation of null values in a bitmap that is separate from the values. So, zero-copy conversion even to a dict-of-arrays representation suitable for pandas requires more effort.

One of my major goals in working on Arrow is to use it as a high-bandwidth IO pipe for the Python ecosystem. We can talk to the JVM, database systems, and many different file formats by using Arrow as the columnar interchange format. For this use case, it’s important to be able to get back a pandas DataFrame as fast as possible.

Over the last month I’ve done some engineering to construct pandas’s native internal block structure to achieve high bandwidth to Arrow memory. If you’ve been following the Feather file format, this work is all closely interrelated.

Let’s return to the same gigabyte of data from above, and be sure to add some nulls:

>>> df = pd.DataFrame(data)
>>> df.values[::5] = np.nan

Now, let’s convert the DataFrame to an Arrow table, which constructs the Arrow columnar representation:

>>> table = pa.Table.from_pandas(df)
>>> table
<pyarrow.table.Table at 0x7f18ec65abd0>

To go back to pandas-land, call the table’s to_pandas method. This supports a multithreaded conversion, so let’s do a single-threaded conversion for comparison:

>>> %timeit df2 = table.to_pandas(nthreads=1)
10 loops, best of 3: 158 ms per loop

This is 6.33 GB/s, or about 20% slower than purely memcpy-based construction. On my desktop, I can use all 4 cores to go even faster:

>>> %timeit df2 = table.to_pandas(nthreads=4)
10 loops, best of 3: 103 ms per loop

At 9.71 GB/s, this is not far from saturating the main memory bandwidth on my consumer desktop hardware (but I am not an expert on this).

The performance benefits of multithreading can be more dramatic on other hardware. While the performance ratio on my desktop is only 1.53, on my (also quad-core) laptop it is 3.29.

Note that numeric data is a best-case scenario; string or binary data would come with additional overhead while pandas continues to use Python objects in its memory representation.

Implications and roadmap

Since Arrow arrays, record batches (multiple arrays of the same length), and tables (collections of record batches) can be easily zero-copy constructed from many different sources, it is a flexible and efficient way to move tabular data around between systems. By having high speed conversion to pandas, we can pay a small conversion cost (5-10 GB/s is usually negligible compared with the IO performance of other media) to obtain a fully-fledged pandas DataFrame.

In a separate blog post, I’ll go into some of the technical details of Arrow’s low-overhead (and as often as possible: zero-copy) C++ IO subsystem.

As we forge ahead on the pandas 2.0 roadmap, we hope to further reduce the overhead (to zero, in some cases) in interacting with columnar memory like Arrow. A simpler memory representation will also make it easier for other applications to interact with pandas at a low-level.