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This section is a high level overview of concepts, technology choices, and implementation details that are at work in Riak.

What is Riak

Simply put, Riak is a distributed, scalable, open source key/value store. We like to say that Riak is the most powerful open-source, distributed database you’ll ever put into production. Riak scales predictably and easily and simplifies development by giving users the ability to quickly prototype, test, and deploy their applications.

Basics and History

Riak is based on technology originally developed by Basho Technologies to run a Salesforce automation business. There was more interest in the datastore technology than the applications built on it so Basho decided to build a business around Riak itself.

Riak is heavily influenced by Dr. Eric Brewer’s CAP Theorem and Amazon’s Dynamo Paper. Most of the core team comes from Akamai which informed Riak’s focus on operational ease and fault tolerance.

The Riak APIs

The team that wrote Riak is also responsible for the Erlang REST framework Webmachine, so it’s not surprising Riak uses a REST API for one of the two ways you can access data in Riak. Storage operations use HTTP PUTs or POSTs and fetches use HTTP GETs. Storage operations are submitted to a pre-defined URL which defaults to ‘/riak’.

In addition to HTTP, Riak also ships with a fully-featured Protocol Buffers API. This is a simple binary protocol based on the library Google’s open source project of the same name.

Client Libraries

Basho and the Riak community support and develop a wide variety of client libraries that connect to Riak.

Currently Basho supports libraries for Ruby, Java, Erlang, Python, PHP, and C/C++.

The Riak Community writes and supports client libraries for languages and frameworks like Node.js, Go, Groovy, Haskell, and much more.

Buckets, Keys, and Values

Buckets and keys are the only way to organize data inside of Riak. Data is stored and referenced by bucket/key pairs. Each key is attached to a unique value that can be any data type.


Central to any Riak cluster is a 160-bit integer space which is divided into equally-sized partitions.

Physical servers, referred to in the cluster as “nodes,” run a certain number of virtual nodes, or “vnodes”. Each vnode will claim a partition on the ring. The number of active vnodes is determined by the number of physical nodes in the cluster at any given time.

As a rule, each node in the cluster is responsible for 1/(total number of physical nodes) of the ring. You can determine the number of vnodes on each node by calculating (number of partitions)/(number of nodes). More simply put, a ring with 32 partitions, composed of four physical nodes, will have approximately eight vnodes per node. This setup is represented in the diagram below.

Riak Ring

Nodes can be added and removed from the cluster dynamically and Riak will redistribute the data accordingly.

Riak is designed, from the ground up, to run in a distributed environment. Core operations, such as read/writing data and executing MapReduce jobs, actually become faster when more Riak nodes are added to a cluster.

No master node

All nodes in a Riak cluster are equal. Each node is fully capable of serving any client request. This is possible due to the way Riak uses consistent hashing to distribute data around the cluster.

Storage implications

Riak communicates bucket information around the cluster using a gossip protocol. In general, large numbers of buckets within a Riak cluster is not a problem. In practice, there are two potential restrictions on the maximum number of buckets a Riak cluster can handle.

First, buckets which use a non-standard set of properties will force Riak to gossip more data around the cluster. The additional data can slow processing and place an upper limit on performance. Second, some backends store each bucket as a separate entity. This can cause a node to run out of resources such as file handles. These resource restrictions might not impact performance but they can represent another limit on the maximum number of buckets.


Replication is built into the core of Riak’s architecture. Riak controls how many replicas of a datum are stored via a setting called the “N value”. This value has a per-node default but can be overridden on each bucket. Riak objects inherit the N value of their parent bucket. All nodes in the same cluster should agree on and use the same N value.

For example, here is a depiction of what happens when n_val = 3 (This is the default setting). When you store a datum in a bucket with an N value of three, the datum will replicated to three separate partitions on the Riak Ring.

Riak Data Distribution

Riak uses a technique called ‘hinted handoff’ to compensate for failed nodes in a cluster. Neighbors of a failed node will pick up the slack and perform the work of the failed node allowing the cluster to continue processing as usual. This can be considered a form of self-healing.

Reading, Writing, and Updating Data

Using the Riak APIs, Riak objects can be fetched directly if the client knows the bucket and key. This is the fastest way to get data out of Riak.

R Value

Riak allows the client to supply an “R value” on each direct fetch. The R value represents the number of Riak nodes which must return results for a read before the read is considered successful. This allows Riak to provide read availability even when nodes are down or laggy.

Read Failure Tolerance

Subtracting R from N will tell you the number of down or laggy nodes a Riak cluster can tolerate before becoming unavailable for reads. For example, an 8 node cluster with an N of 8 and a R of 1 will be able to tolerate up to 7 nodes being down before becoming unavailable for reads.

Link Walking

Riak can also return objects based on links stored on the object. Link walking can be used to return a set of related objects from a single request.

Vector Clocks

Each update to a Riak object is tracked by a vector clock. Vector clocks allow Riak to determine causal ordering and detect conflicts in a distributed system.

Conflict Resolution

Riak has two ways of resolving update conflicts on Riak objects. Riak can allow the last update to automatically “win” or Riak can return both versions of the object to the client. This gives the client the opportunity to resolve the conflict on its own.

W Value

Riak’s API allows the client to supply a “W value” on each update. The W value represents the number of Riak nodes which must report success before an update is considered complete. This allows Riak to provide write availability even when nodes are down or laggy.

Write Failure Tolerance

Subtracting W from N will tell you the number of down or laggy nodes a Riak cluster can tolerate before becoming unavailable for writes. For example, an 8 node cluster with an N of 8 and a W of 2 will be able to tolerate up to 6 nodes being down before becoming unavailable for writes.

Local Disk Storage and Pluggable Backends

Riak uses a backend API to interact with its storage subsystem. The API allows Riak to support multiple backends which can be selected based on use-cases. See Choosing a backend for a full list of what we currently support. The two most heavily-used backend are Bitcask and LevelDB.

As of the 0.12 release, Bitcask is the default backend for Riak. Bitcask is a simple yet powerful local key/value store that serves as Riak’s low latency, high throughput storage back end.

LevelDB is an open source library release by Google. It has different production properties than Bitcask and is required if you’re planning to use Riak’s Using Secondary Indexes functionality.


MapReduce in Riak allows you to process your data in real time in parallel utilizing the hardware resources of your entire cluster. MapReduce jobs are described in JSON using a set of nested hashes describing the inputs, phases, and timeout for a job. A job can consist of an arbitrary number of Map and Reduce phases. For this reason, MapReduce in Riak can be thought of as a real time “mini-Hadoop”. A job is submitted via HTTP and the results are returned in JSON-encoded form. (A Protocol Buffers interface is also supported.)

Secondary Indexes

Version 1.0 of Riak added support for Using Secondary Indexes. This feature allows a developer to tag a Riak value with one or more field/value pairs. The object is indexed under these field/value pairs, and the application can later query the index to retrieve a list of matching keys.

Indexes are set on an object-by-object basis, there is no schema. The indexes are defined at the time the object is written. To change the indexes for an object, simply write the object with a different set of indexes.

Indexing is real time and atomic; the results show up in queries immediately after the write operation completes, and all indexing occurs on the partition where the object lives, so the object and its indexes stay in sync.

Indexes can be stored and queried via the HTTP interface or the Protocol Buffers interface. Additionally, index results can feed directly into a MapReduce operation, allowing further filtering and processing of index query results.

Riak Search

Using Search is a distributed, easily-scalable, failure-tolerant, realtime, full-text search engine built around Riak Core and tightly integrated with Riak KV.

Riak Search allows you to find and retrieve your Riak objects using the objects’ values. When a Riak KV bucket has been enabled for Search integration (by installing the Search pre-commit hook), any objects stored in that bucket are also indexed seamlessly in Riak Search.

Commit Hooks

Commit Hooks are invoked before or after a value is persisted and can greatly enhance the functionality of any application. Commit hooks can:

Post-commit hooks are notified after the fact and should not modify the riak_object. Updating riak_objects in post-commit hooks can cause nasty feedback loops which will wedge the hook into an infinite cycle unless the hook functions are carefully written to detect and short-circuit such cycles.

Pre- and post-commit hooks are defined on a per-bucket basis and are stored in the target bucket’s properties. They are run once per successful response to the client.

Links and Link Walking

Links are metadata that establish one-way relationships between objects in Riak. They can be used to loosely model graph like relationships between objects in Riak.