My thoughts on Elasticsearch: Part 1: indexing

Note: This is an old post in a blog with a lot of posts. The world has changed, technologies have changed, and I've changed. It's likely this is out of date and not representative. Let me know if you think this is something that needs updating.


I just finished up an overhaul of ElasticUtils and then an overhaul of the search infrastructure for During that period of time, I thought about extending the ElasticUtils documentation to include things I discovered while working on these projects. Then I decided that this information is temporal---it's probably good now, but might not be in a year. Maintaining it in the ElasticUtils docs seemed like more work than it was worth.

Thus I decided to write a series of blog posts.

This one covers indexing. Later ones will cover mappings, searching and other things.

It's also long, rambling and contains code. The rest is after the break.

Code in this blog post

The examples are in Python and use pyelasticsearch.

If you want to follow along in your dev environment, set up a Python virtual environment like this:

$ mkvirtualenv es
$ pip install pyelasticsearch

Then you can activate that environment and fiddle with things.

Also, assume all this code starts with:

from pyelasticsearch.client import ElasticSearch

es = ElasticSearch()

What are the basic blocks?

Let's talk basic building blocks first.


Let's say that an Elasticsearch index is equivalent to a MySQL database. Multiple indexes can exist on a single Elasticsearch cluster. Each index is a container for documents.

Documents and document types

A document is bunch of key/value pairs. Elasticsearch uses a JSON-based API, so let's think about documents as a JSON object.

Each document has a type. The type let's you easily distinguish one set of documents representing one thing from another set of documents representing another thing.

Types are not containers. All the document regardless of their type exist as documents in the index.


When you add a document to an index, Elasticsearch analyzes the field data thus making it available for search.

You can let Elasticsearch infer how to analyze the field data or you can explicitly specify how Elasticsearch should analyze the fields by specifying a mapping. Mappings map field names to analysis instructions for a given document type.

Quick recap:

  • Elasticsearch has indexes which are containers holding documents

  • Documents are a group of key/value pairs.

  • Documents have a type.

  • You can specify a mapping which gives Elasticsearch instructions on how to analyze fields in a document for a given document type.

Creating an index

Creating an index with pyelasticsearch is pretty easy. The basic form is this:


Thought 1: Good to define mappings when you define your index

I think it's a good idea to define the mappings and set any index-level settings when you create index.

If you've got code that adds documents to the index in post_save hooks or something like that, it's a good idea to create the index and define the mappings at the same time otherwise you run into the race condition where you create the index, a document sneaks in causing Elasticsearch to infer types, then you define a mapping that conflicts with those types and things go awry.

Here's an example of creating an index and setting the mappings:

entry_mapping = {
    'entry-type': {
        'properties': {
            'id': {'type': 'integer'},
            'published': {'type': 'date'},
            'title': {'type': 'string'},
            'tags': {'type': 'string', 'analyzer': 'keyword'},
            'content': {'type': 'string'}

es.create_index('blog-index', settings={'mappings': entry_mapping})

Thought 2: You can't change your mappings

You can't change the analysis information in your mappings after you've got documents in your index. This comes up semi-frequently.

There are a few options:

  1. Wipe and recreate

    Create a new index with the updated mappings, then reindex all your documents into the new index.

    This is what we do for Input ( where search isn't the critical part of the site and where we adjust mappings rarely.

  2. Have read and write indexes and do a two-step deployment

    This is what we do for SUMO ( where search is a critical part of the site and where we adjust mappings every month or two. We push mapping changes in two steps. The first step includes all the changes to indexing, creates a new index for writes and reindexes everything into that. The second step includes all the changes to search and viewing and changes the read index to look at the write index. This is more complicated, but allows us to push mapping changes with no downtime.

  3. Use different field names

    Instead of changing the analysis information for existing fields in the mapping, create new fields with the new analysis information.

    Use the put mapping API to push the new version of the mapping. Elasticsearch will merge the original mapping with the new one and since your changes were additive, there aren't any conflicts and everything is super.

    Then change your indexing code so you're putting data in the new fields rather than the old ones and reindex all your documents.

    Then make sure your search code uses the new fields rather than the old one.

Thought 3: Wait until cluster is yellow before indexing

It takes a smidgeon of time for Elasticsearch to create the index and for it to propagate to shards (or something like that). It's good to wait until things are fine before indexing. Easiest way to do that is use the cluster health API like this:'yellow')

That will block and wait for "yellow" which means that the primary shard is allocated so you're good to go for indexing.

You definitely want to do this in your test code if you're creating and tearing down indexes in rapid succession.

For some reason, this reminds me of a line in Ghostbusters: "Light is green---trap is clean."

Indexing documents

Indexing documents is probably pretty straight-forward. It uses the index API The basic code looks like this:

import datetime

document = {
    'id': 1
    'title': 'Elasticsearch Part 1: Indexing',
    'tags': ['elasticsearch', 'work'],
    'published': datetime.datetime(2013, 5, 9, 17, 33),
    'content': 'Drivel drivel drivel.',

es.index('blog-index', 'entry-type', document, id=document['id'])

Thought 1: Refreshing

After you index a document, it won't be available for searching until after the index is refreshed using the refresh API.

Indexes are set to refresh at some periodic interval which by default is 1 second.

You can explicitly refresh the index:


I only explicitly refresh the index during unit tests when I need to search immediately. Otherwise I let Elasticsearch refresh when it's set to.

When I'm reindexing everything, I shut off the periodic refreshing and then turn it back on after indexing is done. You can do this with the update settings API:

settings = es.get_settings('blog-index')
settings = settings.get('blog-index', {})
settings = settings.get('settings', {})

refresh_interval = settings.get('index.refresh_interval', '1s')

    'blog-index', {'index.refresh_interval': '-1'})

# do your indexing here...

    'blog-index', {'index.refresh_interval': refresh_interval})

Thought 2: Bulk index when you can

If you're indexing more than one document, you should use bulk indexing using the bulk API. The basic form for indexing is:

documents = [
        'id': 1
        'title': 'Elasticsearch Part 1: Indexing',
        'tags': ['elasticsearch', 'work'],
        'published': datetime.datetime(2013, 5, 9, 17, 33),
        'content': 'Drivel drivel drivel.',
        'id': 1
        'title': 'Elasticsearch Part 1: Indexing',
        'tags': ['elasticsearch', 'work'],
        'published': datetime.datetime(2013, 5, 9, 17, 33),
        'content': 'Drivel drivel drivel.',

    # ...

es.bulk_index('blog-index', 'entry-type', documents, id_field='id')

It's pretty key that you get the id_field right. If you don't, then Elasticsearch will generate ids and you won't be able to use the get API to pull documents out of your index.

The number of documents you index in one bulk_index call depends on the size of your documents. For SUMO, we do 80 at a time. Our documents range between 400 bytes and 300000 bytes. Doing 80 at a time seems to be an unscientifically measured sweet spot for our development infrastructure.

Half thought 3: Shards

I've been told, but have never done myself, that you can use the settings API to shut off replication to shards before you go reindex everything which will make reindexing faster or something to that effect.

We don't do this with SUMO or Input because our indexing is bottlenecked on how fast we can get things out of the database.

This is worth looking into if your bottleneck is pushing things into Elasticsearch.

Thought 4: id

That brings me to ids. Elasticsearch generates ids, but they look like character names from a Lovecraft novel. If you don't want that, then you should specify your own document id.

You can't have two documents with the same document type with the same id.

In SUMO and Input, we use the id we get from the database.

Thought 5: Updating your index

After you index everything, it's likely the source data will continue to change. Thus you need to update the documents in the index over time to match the source data.

With both Input and SUMO, we added post_save hooks to the Django ORM models. When those hooks kick off, they create celery tasks to reindex that model instance. In this way, the index stays pretty up to date.

If you have a lot of churn in your database, then you might want to queue up updates and then update everything in the queue every 15 minutes or something like that with bulk indexing.


That about sums up my thoughts on indexing. If you see something wrong, email me.

Helpful urls

Elasticsearch and libs:

Elasticsearch API links:


Thank you to James, Erik, Ricky, Rob, Hanno, Rehan, Jen, Mike, my roommates and all the other people who helped me publish this wanton piece of illegible drivel.

May 11th, 2013:

Fixed some minor issues and added note about how many to bulk index at a time.

Want to comment? Send an email to willkg at bluesock dot org. Include the url for the blog entry in your comment so I have some context as to what you're talking about.