Our use of data is exponentially exploding, with the total amount of global data reaching 94 zettabytes in 2022 and expected to grow to reach 181 zettabytes in 2025. The methods used to process this invaluable resource are pivotal to all business operations and decision-making processes. Batch and stream processing stand out as two dominant approaches in data processing, each with its unique set of advantages and limitations. With the average company only analyzing 37-40% of their data, finding the right methods for data processing and subsequent analysis is becoming truly essential.

In the context of business operations and analytics, data processing goes beyond just crunching numbers. It’s about transforming a wide array of raw data into actionable insights, often presented through dashboards or graphical representations among a vast array of other presentation methods and visual representations. These visual tools can display anything from real-time sales data to long-term trends, aiding in immediate decision-making or future planning. The complexity increases when data comes from multiple sources like sensors, user interactions, or external databases. Each source may require different processing speeds and methods, making the choice between batch, stream, or a Hybrid approach more nuanced. 

Why does batch and stream processing matter?

History

Batch processing has deep roots, dating back to the early days of computing when mainframes were the norm. Initially, it was used for straightforward tasks like payroll calculations and basic data sorting. The idea was to make the most of expensive computing time by processing large sets of data during off-peak hours. This method was a natural fit for businesses that needed to perform massive, yet non-urgent, computations, setting the stage for how we handle large data sets today.

 “Batch processing is particularly useful when dealing with large volumes of data that can be processed during off-peak hours.”

Stream processing, on the other hand, emerged more recently as our need for real-time data grew. With the advent of the internet and the explosion of connected devices, the demand for immediate data processing skyrocketed. Stream processing filled this gap, allowing for real-time analytics and immediate decision-making. It became the go-to method for applications where timing was critical, such as financial trading platforms and emergency response systems.

Technological advancements have had a significant impact on both methods. For batch processing, the development of more powerful processors and storage solutions has made it possible to handle even larger data sets more efficiently. Similarly, advancements in network speed and data algorithms have made real-time analytics more accurate and insightful with stream processing. Tools like Apache Kafka and Spark Streaming are prime examples of how technology has evolved to offer more comprehensive and flexible solutions, including Hybrid methods that combine the strengths of both batch and stream processing.

“Technological advancements have had a significant impact on both batch and stream processing”

Batch processing

Batch processing is a method where data is collected, stored, and then processed in bulk at a later time. It’s like the workhorse of data management, ideal for tasks that don’t require immediate action but will take up considerable processing power. For example, generating end-of-month financial reports or nightly data backups are tasks well-suited for batch processing. This method is particularly useful when dealing with large volumes of data that can be processed during off-peak hours, optimizing system performance and reducing costs.

Stream processing

Stream processing, by contrast, is all about immediacy. Handling data in almost real-time can be invaluable for analytics and quick decision-making. If organizations are monitoring stock prices or tracking social media engagement, stream processing is the way to go. Organizations can act on insights as events unfold, offering a competitive edge in fast-paced markets.

“Choosing between batch and stream processing isn’t always straightforward, as each comes with its own set of trade-offs.”

Hybrid approach

The Hybrid approach is like having the best of both worlds in data processing as it allows for real-time analytics while also accommodating the need for scheduled, in-depth analysis. The point of this dual capability is to offer businesses a more flexible and comprehensive solution for their varied data processing needs. For example, a Hybrid system can populate a live dashboard with real-time analytics while simultaneously preparing large data sets for end-of-month reports. Hybrid approaches are especially useful for organizations with huge data demands. A study found that retail organizations that efficiently process and analyze their data can increase their operating margins by 60%.

Trade-offs

“Each of the challenges, be it performance metrics, cost, security, or data integrity, require a tailored solution”

Choosing between batch and stream processing isn’t always straightforward, as each comes with its own set of trade-offs. For instance, batch processing, while efficient for handling large data sets, can be slow to deliver insights. This lag can be a drawback in scenarios where real-time decision-making is crucial. On the flip side, stream processing excels in real-time analytics but can struggle with complex queries that require data from multiple sources or historical data for context.

The trade-offs extend to almost all aspects of data processing. While batch processing can be more cost-effective it may require significant computing power for short bursts, potentially leading to resource underutilization at other times. Whereas stream processing, while offering real-time insights, can be resource-intensive, requiring a constant flow of computing power, which could escalate costs.

Each of these challenges—be it performance metrics, cost, security, or data integrity—requires a tailored solution. For instance, scalability issues can be mitigated by cloud-based solutions that offer on-demand resource allocation. Security concerns can be addressed through end-to-end encryption and multi-factor authentication, irrespective of whether batch or stream processing is used. By understanding and planning for these challenges, businesses can make more informed decisions on data processing methods, ensuring not just efficiency but also quality and security.

A Hybrid approach can further mitigate these trade-offs by offering the flexibility to choose the right method for the task at hand. For example, real-time analytics can be handled by the stream processing component, while complex, resource-intensive queries can be offloaded to the batch processing component. This way, organizations get timely insights without compromising on the depth of analysis, making the most of both computing power and cost.

Implications of doing data processing wrong

While it is indisputably vital to make sure data processing methods fit organizational demands and data requirements, this is not a choice that can be made lightly. Any organizations looking to change their processing methods must put in the work to make sure they are aware of the potential limitations.

Financial considerations are a significant challenge across all industries. While batch processing systems might have lower operational costs, they often require substantial initial investment, especially in hardware. Stream processing, although less hardware-intensive, can incur costs through the need for constant uptime and specialized software solutions.

Security is another critical concern. In healthcare, for example, patient data must be encrypted and securely stored, often leading to a preference for batch processing systems known for robust security protocols. On the other hand, real-time financial transactions require secure but speedy encryption methods, making stream processing with specialized security measures a better fit.

Choosing the right tools

When deciding which data processing method is right for the needs of an organization, it is crucial to research and decide which tools, platforms or frameworks will be best suited to the specific requirements. While there are countless tools available to organizations of all sizes, it is also worth looking into some of the most popular choices, for instance:

Apache Flink is one tool that excels in data processing. The framework is designed to process data streams but also has extensive capabilities for batch processing, making it incredibly versatile. Organizations can use it for real-time analytics and also for tasks that require heavy computation and aren’t time-sensitive. 

Structured streaming (previously known as Spark Streaming) is an extension of the core Spark API that gives scalable, high-throughput, fault-tolerant stream processing. While Spark is generally known for its batch-processing capabilities, the Streaming extension allows for real-time analytics, making it another excellent fit for Hybrid systems.

Other tools like Apache Kafka and Amazon Kinesis also offer Hybrid solutions. Apache Kafka is generally used for building real-time data pipelines, but its Kafka Streams API can also handle batch processing tasks. Amazon Kinesis is highly scalable and durable, designed to ingest large amounts of data from multiple sources, making it ideal for complex Hybrid systems.

Each of these tools brings something unique to the table, and their capabilities matter because they offer organizations the flexibility to tailor their data processing methods to specific needs. Whether it’s real-time analytics for immediate decision-making or batch processing for comprehensive reporting, Hybrid methods supported by these tools offer a robust solution.

Lessons from a large-scale streaming platform

While there is no clear answer to the question “Which is better”, there are clear trends and examples that can be taken into account when deciding on data processing methods. Reviewing organization-specific requirements is pivotal when deciding which way is the right way to go.

The scale of an organization and the quantity of incoming data cannot be underestimated when deciding on data processing. This is expertly illustrated by Netflix, who have previously employed Apache Kafka for their batch processing. With the average Netflix user spending approximately 3.2 hours per day on their platform, the influx of data is almost unfathomable, with a 2016 report stating that Netflix had to accommodate 500 billion events per day, a number that has only increased since the report.

To combat this enormous demand, Netflix employed a hybrid data processing model that combined the streaming capabilities of the Keystone Stream Processing Service with the versatility and scalability of Kafka to handle any spikes in demand events such as: error logs, user viewing activities, UI activities, troubleshooting events and many other valuable data sets. While these systems have since been phased out, replaced by the bespoke Netflix Mantis tool – which handles both batch and streaming processing internally –  they demonstrate the unrivaled effectiveness of a hybrid approach.

Key takeaways

The explosion of data in the digital age has made data processing more important than ever, and two of the main techniques that organizations have at their disposal are batch and stream processing. While batch processing is older and well-suited for handling large volumes of data during off-peak hours, stream processing is the newer kid on the block, excelling in real-time analytics. The choice between these two methods, or even a Hybrid approach, is far from straightforward and depends on a myriad of factors.

  • Batch processing: Ideal for handling large sets of data and tasks that are not time-sensitive, such as generating financial reports or performing nightly backups. Batch processing, however, has significant limitations with real-time data insights.
  • Stream processing: Best for real-time analytics and immediate decision-making, useful in tracking stock prices or social media engagement. On the other hand, stream processing can be more resource-intensive and lead to increased costs when handling large data sets.
  • Hybrid approach: Offers the flexibility of both batch and stream processing, allowing businesses to choose the right method based on the specific task.

Ultimately, the decision should be tailored to fit the unique needs of each organization. Technology has evolved to offer more comprehensive solutions like Apache Kafka, Spark Streaming, and Amazon Kinesis, among countless others, that allow customized, flexible, data processing methods. Being aware of these advancements can help organizations make an informed decision and ensure their data processing method perfectly aligns with their requirements.

Thomas Charneau

December 13, 2023

10 Min read