Riak KV Application Guide

So you’ve decided to build an application using Riak as a data store. We think that this is a wise choice for a broad variety of use cases. But using Riak isn’t always straightforward, especially if you’re used to developing with relational databases like like MySQL or PostgreSQL or non-persistent key/value stores like Redis. So in this guide, we’ll walk you through a set of questions that should be asked about your use case before getting started. The answer to those questions may inform decisions about which Riak features you should use, what kind of replication and conflict resolution strategies you should employ, and perhaps even how parts of your application should be built.

What Kind of Data Are You Storing?

This is an important initial question for two reasons:

  1. Not all data is a good fit for Riak. If your data isn’t a good fit, we would advise that you seek out a storage system that better suits your needs.
  2. The kinds of data that you’re storing should guide your decision both about how to store and access your data in Riak and about which Riak features would be helpful (and which ones might even be harmful).

Good Fits for Riak

Riak tends to be an excellent choice if you’re dealing with any of the following:

  • Immutable data — While Riak provides several means of resolving conflicts between different replicas of objects, those processes can lead to slower performance in some cases. Storing immutable data means that you can avoid those processes altogether and get the most out of Riak.
  • Small objects — Riak was not built as a store for large objects like video files or other BLOBs. We built Riak CS for that. Riak is great, however, for JSON, log files, sensor data, HTML files, and other objects that tend to run smaller than 1 MB.
  • Independent objects — Objects that do not have interdependencies on other objects are a good fit for Riak’s eventually consistent nature.
  • Objects with “natural” keys — It is almost always advisable to build keys for objects out of timestamps, usernames, or other “natural” markers that distinguish that object from other objects. Data that can be modeled this way fits nicely with Riak because Riak emphasizes extremely fast object lookup.
  • Data compatible with Riak Data Types — If you’re working with mutable data, one option is to run basic CRUD operations on that data in a standard key/value fashion and either manage conflict resolution yourself or allow Riak to do so. But if your data can be modeled as a counter, set, or map, you should seriously consider using Riak Data Types, which can speed application development and transfer a great deal of complexity away from the application and to Riak itself.

Not-so-good Fits for Riak

Riak may not such be a good choice if you use it to store:

  • Objects that exceed 1-2MB in size — If you will be storing a lot of objects over that size, we would recommend checking out Riak CS instead, as Riak CS was built to solve this problem. Storing large objects in Riak will typically lead to substandard performance.
  • Objects with complex interdependencies — If your data cannot be easily denormalized or if it requires that objects can be easily assembled into and accessible as larger wholes—think columns or tables—then you might want to consider a relational database instead.


If it sounds like Riak is a good choice for some or all of your application’s data needs, move on to the next sections, where you can find out more about which Riak features are recommendable for your use case, how you should model your data, and what kinds of data modeling and development strategies we recommend.

Which Features Should You Consider?

Basic CRUD key/value operations are almost always the most performant operations when using Riak. If your needs can be served using CRUD operations, we recommend checking out our tutorial on key/value modeling for some basic guidelines. But if basic CRUD key/value operations don’t quite suffice for your use case, Riak offers a variety of features that may be just what you’re looking for. In the sections immediately below, you can find brief descriptions of those features as well as relevant links to Basho documentation.

Riak Search provides you with Apache Solr-powered full-text indexing and querying on top of the scalability, fault tolerance, and operational simplicity of Riak. Our motto for Riak Search: Write it like Riak. Query it like Solr. That is, you can store objects in Riak like normal and run full-text queries on those objects later on using the Solr API.

  • Using Search — Getting started with Riak Search
  • Search Details — A detailed overview of the concepts and design consideration behind Riak Search
  • [Search Schema][usage search schema] — How to create custom schemas for extracting data from Riak Search
  • When you need a rich querying API — Riak Search gives you access to the entirety of Solr’s extremely broad API, which enables you to query on the basis of wildcards, strings, booleans, geolocation, ranges, language-specific fulltext, and far more. You can even use Search in conjunction with Riak Data Types (documentation coming soon).

Search is preferred for querying

In general, you should consider Search to be the default choice for nearly all querying needs that go beyond basic CRUD/KV operations. If your use case demands some sort of querying mechanism and you’re in doubt about what to use, you should assume that Search is the right tool for you.

  • When deep pagination is needed — At the moment, you should consider secondary indexes instead of Search if your use case requires deep pagination. This will be changed, however, in a future release of Riak, at which point you should consider Search the default choice for all querying needs.
  • In large clusters — In clusters larger than 8-10 nodes, you may experience slower performance when using Search. In clusters of that size, we would recommend using Search in a limited fashion, setting up a separate, dedicated cluster for Search data, or finding another solution.

Riak Data Types

When performing basic K/V operations, Riak is agnostic toward the actual data stored within objects. Beginning with Riak 2.0, however, you now have access to operations-based objects based on academic research on CRDTs. Riak Data Types enable you to update and read counters, sets, and maps directly in Riak, as well as registers and flags inside of Riak maps.

The beauty of Riak Data Types is that all convergence logic is handled by Riak itself according to deterministic, Data Type-specific rules, which means that your application doesn’t need to reason about siblings. In many cases, this can unburden applications of the need to handle object convergence on their own.


Riak Data Types can be used in conjunction with Riak Search, meaning that the data stored in counters, sets, and maps can be indexed and searched just like any other data in Riak. Documentation on Data Types and Search is coming soon.

When to Use Riak Data Types

  • When your data fits — If the data that you’re storing can be modeled as one of the five available types, Riak Data Types could be a very good option. Please note that in many cases there may not be a 1:1 correspondence between the five available types and the data that you’d like to store, but there may be workarounds to close the gap. Most things that can be stored as JSON, for example, can be stored as maps (though with modifications).
  • When you don’t need to reason about siblings — If your use case doesn’t require that your application have access to siblings and allows for sibling convergence logic to take place at the Riak level rather than at the application level, then Riak Data Types are well worth exploring.

When Not to Use Riak Data Types

  • When you need to provide your own convergence logic — If your application needs to have access to all sibling values, then Riak Data Types are not a good choice because they by definition do not produce siblings.
  • When your data just doesn’t fit — While the five existing Data Types allow for a great deal of flexibility and a wide range of use cases, they don’t cover all use cases. If you have data that requires a modeling solution that can’t be covered, you should stick to standard K/V operations.
  • When object size is of significant concern — Riak Data Types behave much like other Riak objects, but they tend to carry more metadata than normal Riak objects, especially maps. In most cases the metadata payload will be a small percentage of the object’s total size, but if you want to keep objects as lean as possible, it may be better to stick to normal K/V operations.


Riak’s MapReduce feature enables you to perform batch processing jobs in a way that leverages Riak’s distributed nature. When a MapReduce job is sent to Riak, Riak automatically distributes the processing work to where the target data lives, which can reduce network bandwidth. Riak comes equipped with a set of default MapReduce jobs that you can employ, or you can write and run your own MapReduce jobs in Erlang.

  • Using MapReduce — A general guide to using MapReduce
  • Advanced MapReduce — A more in-depth guide to MapReduce, including code samples and implementation details

When to Use MapReduce

  • Batch processing only — You should use MapReduce only when truly truly necessary. MapReduce jobs are very computationally expensive and can degrade performance in production clusters. You should restrict MapReduce usage to infrequent batch processing operations, preferably carried out at times when your cluster is experiencing load that is well below average.

When Not to Use MapReduce

  • When another Riak feature will do — Before even considering using MapReduce, you should thoroughly investigate Riak Search or secondary indexes as possible solutions to your needs.

In general, you should not think of MapReduce as, for example, Hadoop within Riak. While it can be useful for certain types of non-primary-key-based queries, it is neither a “Big Data” processing tool nor an indexing mechanism nor a replacement for Riak Search. If you do need a tool like Hadoop or Apache Spark, you should consider using Riak in conjunction with a more suitable data processing tool.

Secondary Indexes (2i)

Using basic key/value operations in Riak sometimes leads to the following problem: how do I know which keys I should look for? Secondary indexes (2i) provide a solution to this problem, enabling you to tag objects with either binary or integer metadata and then query Riak for all of the keys that share specific tags. 2i is especially useful if you’re storing binary data that is opaque to features like Riak Search.

When to Use Secondary Indexes

  • When you require deep pagination — At the moment, 2i’s deep pagination capabilities are more performant than those offered by Search if you require pagination of more than 3-5 pages. This will change, however, in the future, at which point we will recommend using Search instead.

When Not to Use Secondary Indexes

  • For most querying purposes — If your use case does not involve deep pagination, we recommend Search over 2i for all querying purposes.
  • If you’re using Bitcask — 2i is available only in the LevelDB backend. If you’d like to use Bitcask or the Memory backend, you will not be able to use 2i.

Mixed Approach

One thing to always bear in mind is that Riak enables you to mix and match a wide variety of approaches in a single cluster. You can use basic CRUD operations for some of your data, index some of your data to be queried by Riak Search, use Riak Data Types for another subset, etc. You are always free to use a wide array of Riak features—or you can use none at all and stick to key/value operations.

How Should You Model Your Data?

It’s difficult to offer universally applicable data modeling guidelines because data models differ so markedly from use case to use case. What works when storing user data, for example, might be a poor fit when working with sensor data. Nonetheless, there’s a variety of material in our documentation that might be helpful when thinking about data modeling:

Data Types

One feature to always bear in mind when using Riak is Riak Data Types. If some or all of your data can be modeled in accordance with one of the available Data Types—flags (similar to Booleans), registers (good for storing small binaries or text snippets), counters, sets, or maps—you might be able to streamline application development by using them as an alternative to key/value operations. In some cases, it might even be worthwhile to transform your data modeling strategy in accordance with To see if this feature might be a good fit for your application, we recommend checking out the following documentation:

What are Your Consistency Requirements?

Riak has traditionally been thought of as an eventually consistent, AP system, i.e. as a system that favors availability and partition tolerance over data consistency. In Riak versions 2.0 and later, the option of applying strong consistency guarantees is available to developers that want to use Riak as a strict CP system. One of the advantages of Riak’s approach to strong consistency is that you don’t need to store all of your data in a strongly consistent fashion if you use this feature. Instead, you can mix and match a CP approach with an AP approach in a single cluster in any way you wish.

If you need some or all of your data to be subject to strong consistency requirements, we recommend checking out the following documentation:

Are Your Objects Mutable?

Although Riak always performs best when storing and retrieving immutable data, Riak also handles mutable objects very ably using a variety of eventual consistency principles. Storing mutable data in Riak, however, can get tricky because it requires you to choose and implement a conflict resolution strategy for when object conflicts arise, which is a normal occurrence in Riak. For more implementation details, we recommend checking out the following docs:

Getting Started

If you have a good sense of how you will be using Riak for your application (or if you just want to experiment), the following guides will help you get up and running: