Nathan Kerr

GIS on Hadoop

11 May 2009

Team Members

Problem Context

Geospatial (GIS) simulation, analysis, and simulation are important processes to understanding and improving our environment, both urban and natural.

Traditional GIS processing has been done on the desktop with GUI applications such as ArcGIS 1, Quantum GIS 2, and GRASS GIS 3. These solutions provide graphical methods to interact with and perform predefined operations on a set of data. Quantum GIS and GRASS GIS are open source, and thus fully extensible. ArcGIS supports plugins, enabling developers to increase the library of operations available. The main problem with using these environments in scientific analysis is the lack of traceability of what was done. The entire burden of documenting what steps were followed lays entirely on the scientist. Furthermore, the storage and computing capabilities are limited to a single computer, and often to a single processor. Thus the capabilities of these environments to handle large datasets and complex computation are severely limited.

In the Digital Phoenix project, student workers were used to handle the GIS processing. As with most student worker positions there was fair amount of turnover, with severe losses of processing knowledge every time. Because the processing was done through a GUI, and because the students doing the processing did not documents the processes, knowledge of how datasets were transformed was lost. In addition, the resulting files were usually transferred by email and stored in some arbitrary manner such that there was no method of determining what file was the final result, or even what was in each file.

Some of the traceability problems could be solved by writing programs to do the transformation. Saving these programs and documenting which one was used to do the transformation would provide the traceability without requiring an overwhelming amount of extra-process documentation. Several programming libraries exist such as the Java Topology Suite (JTS) 4 and the GEOS 5 library which provide geometric data types and processing methods. While these libraries are useful, they are merely a basis for some more advanced environment for two reasons. First, the people driving the analysis and simulation work are not programmers. Thus any environment they use must be simple enough to not create a large barrier for them. Second, simple programs still leave the file transfer problem in place.

To provide a simple programming environment and to centralize storage and access, Digital Phoenix started using a database to handle both processing and storage. PostGIS 6, which is the open source PostgreSQL 7 database with geospatial extensions) was chosen because of its ability to integrate with the traditional desktop GIS programs and its ability to store and process GIS information. With a little training, the student worker responsible for GIS processing was able to learn enough SQL to handle the processing needs of Digital Phoenix. The workflow of Digital Phoenix changed for the better because of this addition. As a data manipulation process was developed over time, both the processor and the process drivers were able to see exactly what was done and were able to access the resulting datasets immediately with little confusion over which version was what.

The main problem with using PostGIS to handle the processing is its limitation to scale a computation over multiple processors and multiple computers. Development flow was limited by slow turn-arounds on computation utilizing full datasets. Some development could be done on subsections of the datasets, but not all problems were found in the subsection used and only were discovered while using the full dataset. Speeding up the computation time would have drastically improved the efficiency of data processing by improving the feedback loop in the development phase.

To speed up the processing time, a solution that utilizes more than one computer to execute the required computation is needed.

Project Objective

This project developed a method of processing geospatial data in the Hadoop environment enabling scalable geospatial analysis and simulation. This project takes as a sample problem one that was experienced by the Digital Phoenix group: associating jobs with the closest parcel of land that supports the job type. For the purposes of this project, the query uses simplified criteria for matching job type to land use type.

This problem maps well to the Map/Reduce paradigm, and gives an idea of how well GIS processing works using Hadoop. Comparisons are made with the processing and development times using PostGIS and Hadoop. The same algorithm cannot be used because of the differing paradigms of the two environments. However, the processing done is the same.

Related Work

Besides Hadoop, other methods could be used to speedup GIS processing times.

Other database solutions exist to handle GIS processing such as Oracle Spatial 8, and MySQL spatial 9.

Databases that execute queries in parallel across multiple computers exist. Oracle RAC 10 with the Oracle Spatial extensions is one such example. Access to these database systems is mainly limited by money, as they start at around $20,000/processing core for the software. David DeWitt and Jim Gray argue that parallel databases are the future of data processing and storage 11 . Should such a system be available to the GIS researchers, the SQL developed for a single computer version, for instance on the researcher’s desktop on a subset of the data, would then easily run on the full dataset with appreciable speedup.

The database group at University of Wisconsin-Madison had built a scalable geospatial database, Paradise 12, strictly for research purposes. The database was built upon Shore 13, a scalable, high-performance, persistent object repository. Paradise was built in two phases. The first was a client-server GUI interface 14.

15 describes a method of utilizing the collaboration capabilities of GRASS GIS to distribute sub-queries amoung computers. The very existence of this paper shows the lack of penetration of parallel GIS capable databases. Because the databases aren’t known about or are too expensive to be utilized, other solutions are being sought. The method described in this paper utilizes multiple instances of GRASS in a master-slave configuration where all participants access a shared data repository or filesystem. The geometries are portioned between the various nodes. Operations are done on the subsets, and the results are merged to produce the final result.This methodolgy is very much like Map/Reduce.

Description of the Dataset

Figure 1: An illustration of land parcels and locations of employment.

There are two datasets. Both datasets focus on Maricopa County and are currently stored in a PostGIS database. The first is a set of point data representing location of employers and the classification of the job type. The dataset is from census data and has around 34,000 rows. The second dataset is polygon data representing parcels of land with associated zoning information. It is from assessor’s data and has around 1.2 million rows.

These datasets are like most GIS datasets in that they associate a group of attributes to a piece of geolocated geometry.

Algorithm Used

By creating a generic GIS datatype in Hadoop, GIS problems that look like search or analysis problems that work well in a Map/Reduce environment will work well. The primary objectives that went into consideration while developing this datatype were that it be easily extensible and that Mappers and Reducers get a “ready” GIS datatype without them have to perform any other work such as reading from files or parsing strings.

Text representation of GIS datatype

Hadoop is known to support text well, i.e. it handles quick distribution of text data among mappers and also ensures good load balancing when dealing with text. The smallest unit of text that Hadoop deals with, by default, is a single line of text. Hence, at its very core, the GIS datatype is represented by a single line of text. We believe that any GIS object can be represented in terms of a Geometry object along with a set of attributes that describe the GIS object. Our use of the Java Topology Suite permits us to use Geometry objects and strings (in a specific format called “Well-Known Text”) interchangeably. Attribute data is comprised of either integers, floats or strings. Thus attribute information can also be easily represented in strings. Thus, for the outside world, the GIS datatype is represented as a list of attributes separated by commas in a Comma-Separated-Values (CSV) file. For the sake of generality, the text representation of the Geometry object is just one of the attributes.

A sample line of text that represents the GIS object is:

"4","4","4","141.00000","Behavior Research Center Inc","Rocky Mountain Poll","1101 N 1st Street","","Phoenix","PH","AZ","850041803", "POINT(-112.07248693274 33.4599315579762)" 

Notice that the names of the attributes have not been included in the data. The reason is that understanding the sequence of attributes need not be done once per construction of a GIS datatype but instead just once per Mapper object. Hence this sequence os stored in a separate file that is read by each mapper. An example column sequence file may look like:


Thus dealing with the GIS datatype requires passing the name of the data file to the GISInputFormat class and adding the column file to the Hadoop Distributed Cache. Each mapper then receives a single GIS datatype as its input.

Data flow:

CSV file to Mapper: The GISRecordReader class is at the core of reading the GIS datatype from the CSV file. This, in turn, uses the LineRecordReader class to read a line of text from the CSV file on the Hadoop Distributed File System (HDFS). The line of text is then parsed and a GIS datatype is constructed from it and fed to a Mapper.

Mapper to Reducer: To be able to pass a datatype from a Mapper to a Reducer, the datatype has to support the Hadoop Writeable interface. This interface is a way to implement serialization in Hadoop. More specifically, the datatype has to support two methods (`write’ and `readFields’) that perform the conversion between Text and the GIS datatype.

Reducer to CSV file: This requires converting the GIS datatype to Text in a similar manner and format to the CSV file used while feeding the Mapper with GIS data. This is performed by the GISRecordWriter class.

The problem query largely happens in the Map phase with each mapper taking a job and finding the closest parcel. The Reduction phase merely outputs the results from the mappers.

Experimental Setup

The test environment consisted of a Hadoop cluster that is setup on-demand. This form of on-demand Hadoop is executed using the Torque batch queue system on the Saguaro cluster of computers at Arizona State University. This allows for Hadoop to be spawned at any time using a variable amount of nodes. Additionally, each node used is part of the HDFS storage where our datasets must first be loaded before computation can begin.The nodes used were quad-core, dual socket 2.66GHz Intel Xeon processors (Clovertowns) with GigE interconnects.

Two datasets were used, small and large. The small dataset contains 672 jobs and 5,175 land parcels. The second dataset is much larger, containing 34,302 jobs and 1,218,130 land parcels. Geometries were stored in latatude/longitute and not projected.

To eliminate any hardware differences, PostGIS was run in the same on-demand manner as Hadoop using the same hardware configuration. To measure the speed of PostGIS, we chose an initial version of the SQL query (PostGIS #1) to execute on the small dataset. This version has a very poor run time of 55 hrs as it compares every job with every land parcel to determine if there is a close match. A second version of this SQL query (PostGIS #2) was developed that limits the number of comparisons by comparing jobs with land parcels within a certain distance (0.05 degrees). This reduced the run time to about 6 hours.

Hadoop was tested by using the large dataset on a variable number of nodes. Using a 1 MB file split on the dataset, Hadoop allocated 14 mappers to the task. We executed this job on three, seven, and fourteen nodes to eliminate the possibility of I/O contention.

By default, the chunk size used by Hadoop to split files across nodes is 64 MB. This not only influences the number of splits but also the number of mappers (and thus the parallelism). Hence this split size was changed to 1 MB, thus resulting in 14 mappers. Also, each node on the Saguaro cluster has 2 GB RAM available to each core and hence the maximum heap size per Java task was set to 1.9 GB. This was necessary to fit all parcel data into memory for comparison. Similarly, to make full utilization of the available nodes on Saguaro (each of which have 8 cores), the maximum number of mappers per node was set to 8,
instead of the default 2.


For testing the usefulness of the Hadoop approach against that of traditional methods such as using databases, we compared our solution with PostGIS. Figure 2 shows a run time comparison between PostGIS and Hadoop on the small dataset. Hadoop takes longer to execute due to some initial startup time for the Hadoop job.

Figure 2: Comparing run time processing of a small dataset in PostGIS and Hadoop.

Figure 3 and the tables below give run times for each test case on the large dataset.

Method Execution Time
PostGIS #1 55 hours
PostGIS #2 6.1 hours
Hadoop (3 nodes) 40 minutes
Hadoop (7 nodes) 34 minutes
Hadoop (14 nodes) 29.5 minutes

Component/Method Development Time Time to Solution
GIS Datatype 60 hours
Mapper/Reducer 2 hours 62.67 hours
PostGIS #1 6 hours 61 hours
PostGIS #2 6 hours 18.1 hours
Figure 3: Comparing run time processing of a large dataset in PostGIS and Hadoop using different number of compute nodes.


In this project we have implemented a way to run GIS queries using the Hadoop Map/Reduce framework. One of the main goals was to keep the design of the solution simple and extensible. We designed and implemented the GIS datatype in a way that allows easy integration into other Hadoop-based GIS projects. Finally we compared our solution to another that was based on using PostGIS. The results showed that Hadoop fares well for large datasets. With Hadoop it becomes possible to exploit parallelism available via multiple computers/nodes. More importantly, the distributed nature of Hadoop makes it possible to spread the data across multiple nodes and thus solve a larger problem easily.

The GIS datatype currently supports supplying GIS objects to the mappers and reducers. However, adding another set of GIS objects requires the user to set up the job configuration, add files to the distributed cache and parse the files to form GIS datatypes. In short, the native interface is exposed in this process. Instead, it would help to have a cleaner interface to add additional sets of GIS data.

An interesting point to note is the large difference in time to develop the algorithms. The SQL queries took substantially more time and expertise to develop than then Map/Reduce implementation. In addition the Map/Reduce implementation was fairly naive and simple.

The problem solved here is fairly generic and hence it can be used in a variety of geo-spatial situations. A few examples are: finding the hospitals closest to localities or locating the warehouse or distribution centers closest to a set of manufacturing units. We believe a Map/Reduce approach to geospatial information system computing is a viable alternative to existing solutions.












11 David DeWitt and Jim Gray. Parallel database systems: the future of high
performance database systems. Communications of the ACM, June 1992, Vol. 35,
No. 6, pages 85-98.



14 David Dewitt, et al. Client-Server Paradise. Proceedings of the 20th VLDB
Conference. Pages 558-569. 1994.

15 Fang Huang, et al. Research On Cluster-Based Parallel GIS with the Example
of Parallelization on GRASS GIS. Grid and Cooperative Computing, 2007. GCC
2007. Sixth International Conference on. August 2007, pages 642-649.