Comparison to PySpark

Spark is a popular distributed computing tool with a decent Python API PySpark. Spark is growing to become a dominant name today in Big Data analysis alongside Hadoop, for which MRJob is possibly the dominant Python layer.

Dask has several elements that appear to intersect this space and we are often asked, “How does Dask compare with Spark?”

Answering such comparison questions in an unbiased and informed way is hard, particularly when the differences can be somewhat technical. This document tries to do this; we welcome any corrections.

Summary

Apache Spark is an all-inclusive framework combining distributed computing, SQL queries, machine learning, and more that runs on the JVM and is commonly co-deployed with other Big Data frameworks like Hadoop. It was originally optimized for bulk data ingest and querying common in data engineering and business analytics but has since broadened out. Spark is typically used on small to medium sized cluster but also runs well on a single machine.

Dask is a parallel programming library that combines with the Numeric Python ecosystem to provide parallel arrays, dataframes, machine learning, and custom algorithms. It is based on Python and the foundational C/Fortran stack. Dask was originally designed to complement other libraries with parallelism, particular for numeric computing and advanced analytics, but has since broadened out. Dask is typically used on a single machine, but also runs well on a distributed cluster.

Generally Dask is smaller and lighter weight than Spark. This means that it has fewer features and instead is intended to be used in conjunction with other libraries, particularly those in the numeric Python ecosystem.

User-Facing Differences

Scale

Spark began its life aimed at the thousand node cluster case. As such it thinks well about worker failures and integration with data-local file systems like the Hadoop FileSystem (HDFS). That being said, Spark can run in standalone mode on a single machine.

Dask began its life building out parallel algorithms for numerical array computations on a single computer. As such it thinks well about low-latency scheduling, low memory footprints, shared memory, and efficient use of local disk. That being said dask can run on a distributed cluster, making use of HDFS and other Big Data technologies.

Java Python Performance

Spark is written in Scala, a multi-paradigm language built on top of the Java Virtual Machine (JVM). Since the rise of Hadoop, Java based languages have steadily gained traction on data warehousing tasks and are good at managing large amounts of heterogeneous data such as you might find in JSON blobs. The Spark development team is now focusing more on binary and native data formats with their new effort, Tungsten.

Dask is written in Python, a multi-paradigm language built on top of the C/Fortran native stack. This stack benefits from decades of scientific research optimizing very fast computation on numeric data. As such, dask is already very good on analytic computations on data such as you might find in HDF5 files or analytic databases. It can also handle JSON blob type data using Python data structures (which are surprisingly fast) using the cytoolz library in parallel.

Java Python Disconnect

Python users on Spark sometimes express frustration by how far separated they are from computations. Some of this is inevitable; distributed debugging is a hard problem. Some of it however is due to having to hop over the JVM. Spark workers spin up JVMs which in turn spin up Python processes. Data moving back and forth makes extra trips both through a distributed cluster and also through extra serialization layers (see py4j) and computation layers. Limitations like the Java heap size and large Java stack traces come as a surprise to users accustomed to native code execution.

Dask has an advantage for Python users because it is itself a Python library, so serialization and debugging when things go wrong happens more smoothly.

However, Dask only benefits Python users while Spark is useful in a variety of JVM languages (Scala, Java, Clojure) and also has limited support in Python and R. New Spark projects like the DataFrame skip serialization and boxed execution issues by forgoing the Python process entirely and instead have Python code drive native Scala code. APIs for these libraries tend to lag a bit behind their Scala counterparts.

Scope

Spark was originally built around the RDD, an unordered collection allowing repeats. Most spark add-ons were built on top of this construct, inheriting both its abilities and limitations.

Dask is built on a lower-level and more general construct of a generic task graph with arbitrary data dependencies. This allows more general computations to be built by users within the dask framework. This is probably the largest fundamental difference between the two projects. Dask gives up high-level understanding to allow users to express more complex parallel algorithms. This ended up being essential when writing complex projects like dask.array, datetime algorithms in dask.dataframe or non-trivial algorithms in machine learning.

Developer-Facing Differences

Graph Granularity

Both Spark and Dask represent computations with directed acyclic graphs. These graphs however represent computations at very different granularities.

One operation on a Spark RDD might add a node like Map and Filter to the graph. These are high-level operations that convey meaning and will eventually be turned into many little tasks to execute on individual workers. This many-little-tasks state is only available internally to the Spark scheduler.

Dask graphs skip this high-level representation and go directly to the many-little-tasks stage. As such one map operation on a dask collection will immediately generate and add possibly thousands of tiny tasks to the dask graph.

This difference in the scale of the underlying graph has implications on the kinds of analysis and optimizations one can do and also on the generality that one exposes to users. Dask is unable to perform some optimizations that Spark can because Dask schedulers do not have a top-down picture of the computation they were asked to perform. However, dask is able to easily represent far more complex algorithms and expose the creation of these algorithms to normal users.

Dask.bag, the equivalent of the Spark.RDD, is just one abstraction built on top of dask. Others exist. Alternatively power-users can forego high-level collections entirely and jump straight to direct low-level task scheduling.

Coding Styles

Both Spark and Dask are written in a functional style. Spark will probably be more familiar to those who enjoy algebraic types while dask will probably be more familiar to those who enjoy Lisp and “code as data structures”.

Conclusion

Spark is mature and all-inclusive. If you want a single project that does everything and you’re already on Big Data hardware then Spark is a safe bet, especially if your use cases are typical ETL + SQL and you’re already using Scala.

Dask is lighter weight and is easier to integrate into existing code and hardware. If your problems vary beyond typical ETL + SQL and you want to add flexible parallelism to existing solutions then dask may be a good fit, especially if you are already using Python and associated libraries like NumPy and Pandas.

If you are looking to manage a terabyte or less of tabular CSV or JSON data then you should forget both Spark and Dask and use Postgres or MongoDB.