Revisiting data query speed with DuckDB

I’m always really curious to learn more about optimization, especially as it relates to querying data. This lead me down the journey of watching this series of lectures by the CMU database group, which really opened my mind to how to get better performance out of my data pipelines.

One of the biggest realizations for me was in a slide in the CMU lectures that indicated >90% of compute usage in OLTP databases is NOT related to transactions (things like concurrency management & memory management). The insight for me was that by stripping away those requirements, I could get much faster performance. Initially, I probed SQL Server’s In-Memory OLTP functionality (aka Hekaton), but the feedback from people in my network was either “haven’t used it” or “it was a horrible experience, don’t waste your time.”

Around the same time, I was hearing a lot of chatter related to DuckDB. Install and setup was so simple, that I figured I would download it and mess around a little bit. Since I recently had done some optimization of queries related to wordle where I was able to improve query performance 53.8x, I figured it would be good to revisit it. To say I was blown away would be an understatement.

First, the process to install DuckDB is very simple. Assuming you already have some python knowledge, it’s a single-line install with pip. Adding the dbt connector was also very simple. In fact, setting up your dbt profile is as simple as:

  target: dev
      type: duckdb

But I digress, I actually didn’t need to even get into dbt to run this experiment. Just like my previous post, I am doing the testing with this query, which looks at two lists of words for the game “wordle” and then finds the top 500 words with the most matches (for those curious, the top matching words are: orate / roate / oater). It’s not particularly fast on postgresql, clocking around 487s (8m7s) when I run it on my laptop (postgresql running under WSL2). In the previous post, I was able to get it to run in around 17.2s by using some intermediate materializations and partitioning the compute-intensive part of the query to run in parallel (and also using a faster CPU).

With DuckDB, we are doing a little surgery on the query to pull the source data directly out of CSVs. Instead of ‘FROM table’ like in postgresql (where we first load the data to a table and then analyze it next), I am using read_csv_auto in DuckDB to pull the data straight off my harddrive.

FROM read_csv_auto('C:\Users\matso\code\wordle\data\wordle.csv',header=True)

I modified the FROM clause in both of my CTEs, and then ran the query. The results honestly astonished me.

6 seconds in DuckDB vs 487s in Postgresql.

Surely this couldn’t be right! First off – the data wasn’t even LOADED into the database since I was selecting it right off of my disk. I ran it again, 6 seconds.

An 80x increase in performance.

Honestly, I don’t think there is much left to write about here, but I have definitely been contemplating how much time I’ve spent getting pretty skilled at OLTP query optimization only to see DuckDB just do it faster. Obviously, this is not a benchmark, so performance in the real world may vary tremendously, but this is certainly enough for me to really figure out how to get this to play nicely within my analytics stack.

If you want to find the data to reproduce this yourself, you can find the source data here and the base query here.

Footnote: I replicated the same data into SQL Server 2019 and added COLUMNSTORE indexes. Query time for the base query was approx 1m30s. So 3-4x faster than postgresql (unoptimized/tuned), but still much slower than DuckDB.