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Sketching and Order Sensitivity


  • Absolute Order Insensitivity Any permutation of the order of a given input stream produces the exact same result.
  • Bounded Order Insensitivity Any permutation of the order of a given input stream produces a result that is still within the defined error bounds of the sketch and confidence.

Sketching by its nature is a stochastic process and in general we cannot guarantee absolute order insensitivity. However, some of our sketches, with the correct configuration, can meet this definition, but in general, we do not recommend users depending on this strict definition of order insensitivity.

Nonetheless, all of our sketches do qualify as being bounded order sensitive. In other words, the “true value” (computed using brute-force techniques) should be within our approximate error bounds with the specified confidence.

Example: Theta Sketches

Only the internal QuickSelect Sketch (the default) can be order insensitive and iff the final sketch is “trimmed” back to a maximum of K values before an estimate is retrieved. For example:

UpdateSketch sk = Sketches.updateSketchBuilder().build();
for (...) { /* load sketch with > 2 * K values */ }
double est = sk.getEstimate();   //this may be order sensitive
UpdateSketch sk2 = sk.rebuild(); //trims retained entries back to K
double est2 = sk2.getEstimate(); //this will be order insensitive

If you want a Compact Sketch to be order insensitive, you must first rebuild(), than do compact().

When doing Unions with Theta Sketches, the getResult(…) automatically trims the result back to K.

The impact of the rebuild() is that the error will not be as good as the un-trimmed sketch, but you will get your desired order insensitivity. For example.

HLL Sketches

HLL sketches used stand-alone, are bounded order insensitive. After any merge / union operation the sketch qualifies as absolute order insensitive, but is less accurate.

System Testing and Sketches

There are two primary ways that a “reference” standard is often obtained to use when system testing with sketches:

  • Brute Force computation of the correct result. The recommended approach.
  • Assuming some prior test run produced the correct result. This is not recommended, but many system teams do this anyway. Even if the sketches are working correctly, this can result in double-sided error, so be careful!

Given a Brute Force reference, the proper way to establish correctness of the result of a test is to use the upper and lower bounds (or equivalent, depending on the sketch) provided by the sketch. Suppose you use 2-sigma confidence bounds. Then out of 1000 statistically independent trials (runs), ~50 of the results will be outside the 2-sigma bounds.

This is not happy news for system developers that are determined to have deterministic results. But, there is no magic sauce to fix what is inherently a probabilistic result.