Select an output mode for Structured Streaming

This article discusses selecting an output mode for stateful streaming. Only stateful streams require an output mode configuration. For stateless streaming, all output modes behave the same.

To configure output mode correctly, you must understand stateful streaming, watermarks, and triggers. See the following articles:

What is output mode?

A Structured Streaming query’s output mode determines which records the query’s operators emit during each trigger. The three types of records that can be emitted are:

  • Records that future processing does not change.

  • The records that have changed since the last trigger.

  • All records in the state table.

Knowing which types of records to emit is important for stateful operators because a particular row produced by a stateful operator might change from trigger to trigger. For example, as a streaming aggregation operator receives more rows for a particular window, that window’s aggregation values might change across triggers.

For stateless operators, the distinction between record types does not affect the behavior of the operator. The records a stateless operator emits during a trigger are always the source records processed during that trigger.

Available output modes

There are three output modes that tell an operator which records to emit during a particular trigger:

Output Mode

Description

Append mode (default)

By default, streaming queries run in append mode. In this mode, operators only emit rows that don’t change in future triggers. Stateful operators use the watermark to determine when this happens.

Update mode

In update mode, operators emit all rows that changed during the trigger, even if the emitted record might change in a subsequent trigger.

Complete mode

Complete mode only works with streaming aggregations. In complete mode, all resulting rows ever produced by the operator are emitted downstream.

Production considerations

For many stateful streaming operations, you must choose between append and update modes. The following sections outline considerations that might inform your decision.

Application semantics

Application semantics describe how downstream applications use the streaming data.

If downstream services need to take a single action for every downstream write, use append mode in most cases. For example, if you have a downstream notification service sending notifications for every new record written to the sink, append mode ensures each record is only written once. Update mode writes the record every time the state information changes, which would result in numerous updates.

If downstream services need fresh results, update mode ensures your sink stays as up-to-date as possible. Examples include a machine learning model that reads features in real-time or an analytics dashboard tracking real-time aggregates.

Operator and sink compatibility

Structured Streaming does not support all operations available in Apache Spark, and some streaming operations are not supported in all output modes. For more on operator limitations, see the OSS streaming docs.

Not all sinks support all output modes. Both Delta Lake, which backs all Unity Catalog managed tables, and Kafka support all output modes. For more on sink compatibility, see the OSS streaming docs.

Latency and cost

Output mode impacts how much time must elapse before writing a record, and the frequency and amount of data written can impact costs associated with streaming pipelines.

Append mode forces stateful operators to emit results only after stateful results are finalized, which is at least as long as your watermark delay. A watermark delay of 1 hour in the append output mode means that your records have at least a 1-hour delay before being emitted downstream.

Update mode results in one write per trigger per aggregate value. If your sink charges per write per record, this can be expensive if records update many times before the watermark delay passes.

Configuration examples

The following code examples show configuring output mode for streaming updates to Unity Catalog tables:

# Append output mode (default)
(df.writeStream
  .toTable("target_table")
)

# Append output mode (same as default behavior)
(df.writeStream
  .outputMode("append")
  .toTable("target_table")
)

# Update output mode
(df.writeStream
  .outputMode("update")
  .toTable("target_table")
)

# Complete output mode
(df.writeStream
  .outputMode("complete")
  .toTable("target_table")
)
// Append output mode (default)
df.writeStream
  .toTable("target_table")


// Append output mode (same as default behavior)
df.writeStream
  .outputMode("append")
  .toTable("target_table")

// Update output mode
df.writeStream
  .outputMode("update")
  .toTable("target_table")

// Complete output mode
df.writeStream
  .outputMode("complete")
  .toTable("target_table")

See OSS docs for PySpark DataStreamWriter.outputMode or Scala DataStreamWriter.outputMode.

Stateful streaming and output modes example

The following example is meant to help you reason through how output mode interacts with watermarks for stateful streaming.

Consider a streaming aggregation that calculates the total revenue generated each hour at a store with a watermark delay of 15 minutes. The first microbatch processes the following records:

  • $15 at 2:40pm

  • $10 at 2:30pm

  • $30 at 3:10pm

At this point, the engine’s watermark is 2:55pm because it subtracts 15 minutes (the delay) from the maximum time seen (3:10pm). The streaming aggregation operator has the following in its state:

  • [2pm, 3pm]: $25

  • [3pm, 4pm]: $30

The following table outlines what would happen in each output mode:

Output mode

Result and reason

Append

The streaming aggregation operator does not emit anything downstream. This is because both of these windows might change as new values appear with a subsequent trigger: the watermark of 2:55pm indicates that records after 2:55pm might still arrive, and those records might fall into either the [2pm, 3pm] window or the [3pm, 4pm] window.

Update

The operator emits both records, because both records received updates.

Complete

The operator emits all records.

Now, suppose that the stream receives one more record:

  • $20 at 3:20pm

The watermark updates to 3:05pm because the engine subtracts 15 minutes from 3:20pm. At this point, the streaming aggregation operator has the following in its state:

  • [2pm, 3pm]: $25

  • [3pm, 4pm]: $50

The following table outlines what would happen in each output mode:

Output mode

Result and reason

Append

The streaming aggregation operator observes the watermark of 3:05pm is greater than the end of the [2pm, 3pm] window. By the definition of the watermark, that window can no longer change, so it emits the [2pm, 3pm] window.

Update

The streaming aggregation operator emits the [3pm, 4pm] window because the state value has changed from $30 to $50.

Complete

The operator emits all records.

The following summarizes how stateful operators behave in each append mode:

  • In append mode, write records once after the watermark delay.

  • In update mode, write records that have changed since the previous trigger.

  • In complete mode, write all records ever produced by the stateful operator.