What is real-time stream processing?

by Quix team
| 11 May, 2021

“Real-time stream processing” is the analysis of continuous data as soon as it’s available.

 

Introduction

You’ve probably heard the buzz about stream processing. You might’ve heard it referred to as event processing and you might’ve also heard about something called real-time analytics. Whilst each of these techniques has subtle differences, they’re all connected. They deal with a single important truth: greater understanding can be gained by analysing as much data as possible, as quickly as possible.

“Real-time stream processing” is a daunting term because it takes an already-complicated concept — stream processing — and layers another term, real-time, on top. But take the time to understand each part separately, and the whole becomes less confusing:

  • “Real-time”: concerned with events taking place now, rather than yesterday or an hour ago
  • “Stream processing”: handling a continuous ‘stream’ of data, rather than working with a defined set of data, then stopping.

Companies that have never thought of themselves as “data handlers” (in the world of GDPR) are acknowledging their role as data producers and consumers. By identifying the nature of different data that we work with, we can spot opportunities for real-time processing. Many companies are already working this way:

 

Real-time streaming in the real world

Take web analytics as an example of data processing. Since the early days of the web, companies have adopted a ‘batch processing’ approach to analysing their site traffic. A traditional approach looks like this:

  1. User requests a page
  2. Web server records details in an access log
  3. Once per day, logs are consolidated and analysed, with results possibly stored in a database
  4. At various points in time, the data is inspected, conclusions are drawn, and changes to the overall system are made

The problem with this approach is that it’s a one-size-fits-all solution. It might help us respond retroactively to certain long-running concerns such as a specific page driving traffic away from our site. But it doesn’t help us prevent that potential customer from leaving in the first place. We need something more proactive.

Now imagine a real-time approach. Our visitor’s journey is analysed as soon as it begins, at each step along the way. We discover she’s more likely to take a certain action when prompted by a certain type of messaging, so our system tweaks things ever-so-slightly to recommend more of that content. This all happens behind the scenes; we don’t even need to be aware of it happening, although we can get in and inspect the underlying data whenever we want.

  1. User requests a page
  2. Data about the request and response is sent to a stream
  3. This data is immediately processed and used to influence the user journey

 

Supporting real-time streaming

The challenge in moving from the old model is one of scale: processing vast amounts of data in the most efficient manner is not an easy task. If data processing takes too long, we run the risk of losing the real-time nature. Real-time stream processing systems tend to utilise certain technologies to help:

  • In-memory processing offers a huge performance upgrade on disk-based storage, which is far slower. All data is stored in RAM, so it’s always much quicker to read/write than on disk.
  • Outsourcing compute tasks to a third-party allows a company to focus on data analysis. Cloud computing provides the luxury of not having to worry about server upgrades, software compatibility, or other system administration tasks.

Processing data in real-time gives us an enormous, stable foundation on which to grow. We can still gather together in a meeting room, pouring over our site traffic in an attempt to calibrate our website’s user experience. But we can also build machine learning models to automate some of this analysis on the spot.

Quix is the first company to take this approach at scale by building a platform as a service to offer both in-memory processing of real-time data and on-demand compute infrastructure to enable companies to focus on going to market quicker. The alternative requires large budgets to build teams to architect, administrate, build, refine and ultimately bring to market the same offering.

 

How else could we deal with it?

When it comes to dealing with data, we only really have three broad options:

  • Ignore it
  • Process it after the event (batch processing)
  • Process it in real-time

If we ignore it, our data goes to waste, but at least we’re not spending too much time understanding what makes our users tick or how we might serve them better. Ignorance is bliss, right? Hopefully, you’ve already ruled out this option!

As we’ve seen, batch processing can be suitable for some use cases, but it often results in a slow, lumbering beast of an organisation, not the nimble, cunning creature we’d like to be. Batch processing will never allow us to respond to our user’s demands as they come into being. If we only have a fleeting relationship with a potential customer, what’s the use in understanding them the next morning? They upped and left a long time ago.

Micro-batch processing is essentially batch-processing, but more frequently, with smaller batches of data. As with batch-processing, it may be appropriate for certain use cases — those without demanding real-time needs.

Real-time processing gives far more scope for automation and a continuous feedback loop without human intervention. It is not a “one-size-fits-all” solution if your data needs to be analysed in greater context or if you have huge datasets (PB scale).

 

Further reading

 

Conclusion

If real-time stream processing is such an unambiguous ‘good thing’, why isn’t everyone doing it? It turns out that such a process is not straightforward. It requires domain-expertise to be able to set up, run, and maintain such an architecture. Additionally, you will need in-house dedicated IT or SysOps resources. Even utilising a pre-built platform such as Apache’s Kafka requires a lot of effort and understanding.

Quix is a tool — like Kafka — which enables real-time stream processing. But Quix sits on top of Kafka, simplifying the process as much as possible. Quix leverages the power of data-streaming technologies, but it handles the trickiest aspects of operation and configuration. Developers and Data Scientists can spend their time focusing on model training or creating first-class dashboards.

Using Quix, you can have a fully-hosted data project up and running in minutes as opposed to a minimum of months or even years in some cases, and at a fraction of the cost. And the quicker you can get streaming data processing set up, the quicker you can start exploring how your company’s wealth of data can be exploited. To see how quickly you can get up and running, you can sign up for a free account and see it for yourself.

by Quix team

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