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Top 10 Performance Tuning Tips for Amazon Athena

by Manjeet Chayel and Mert Hocanin | on | Permalink | Comments |  Share

This blog post has been translated into Japanese

Amazon Athena is an interactive query service that makes it easy to analyze data stored in Amazon S3 using standard SQL. Athena is serverless, so there is no infrastructure to manage, and you pay only for the queries that you run. Athena is easy to use. Simply point to your data in Amazon S3, define the schema, and start querying using standard SQL.

In this blog post, we will review the top 10 tips that can improve query performance. We will focus on aspects related to storing data in Amazon S3 and tuning specific to queries. Amazon Athena uses Presto to run SQL queries and hence some of the advice will work if you are running Presto on Amazon EMR.

This post assumes that you have knowledge of different file formats, such as Parquet, ORC, Text files, Avro, CSV, TSV, and JSON.

Best practices: storage

This section discusses how to structure your data so that you can get the most out of Athena. The same practices can be applied to Amazon EMR data processing applications such as Spark, Presto, and Hive when your data is stored on Amazon S3.

1.   Partition your data

Partitioning divides your table into parts and keeps the related data together based on column values such as date, country, region, etc. Partitions act as virtual columns. You define them at table creation, and they can help reduce the amount of data scanned per query, thereby improving performance. You can restrict the amount of data scanned by a query by specifying filters based on the partition. For more details, see Partitioning Data.

Athena supports Hive partitioning, which follows one of the following naming convention:

a) Partition column name followed by an equal symbol (‘=’) and then the value.


If your dataset is partitioned in this format, then you can run the MSCK REPAIR table command to add partitions to your table automatically.

b) If the “path” of your data does not follow the above format, you can add the partitions manually using the ALTER TABLE ADD PARTITION command for each partition. For example


Alter Table <tablename> add Partition (PARTITION_COLUMN_NAME = <VALUE>, PARTITION_COLUMN2_NAME = <VALUE>) LOCATION ‘s3://yourBucket/pathToTable/YYYY/MM/DD/’;

Note: using the above methodology, you can map any location with what values you want to refer them by.

The following example shows how data is partitioned on the year column on the flight table stored in an S3 bucket.

$ aws s3 ls s3://athena-examples/flight/parquet/
PRE year=1987/
PRE year=1988/
PRE year=1989/
PRE year=1990/
PRE year=1991/
PRE year=1992/
PRE year=1993/

You can restrict the partitions that are scanned in a query by using the column in the ‘WHERE’ clause.

SELECT dest, origin FROM flights WHERE year = 1991

You can also use multiple columns as partition keys. You can scan the data for specificvalues, and so on.



When deciding the columns on which to partition, consider the following:

  • Columns that are used as filters are good candidates for partitioning.
  • Partitioning has a cost. As the number of partitions in your table increases, the higher the overhead of retrieving and processing the partition metadata, and the smaller your files. Partitioning too finely can wipe out the initial benefit.
  • If your data is heavily skewed to one partition value, and most queries use that value, then the overhead may wipe out the initial benefit.


The table below compares query run times between a partitioned and Non-partitioned table. Both tables contain 74GB data, uncompressed stored in Text format. The partitioned table is partitioned by the l_shipdate column and has 2526 partitions.

Query Non- Partitioned Table Cost Partitioned table Cost Savings
Run time Data scanned Run time Data scanned
SELECT count(*) FROM lineitem WHERE l_shipdate = '1996-09-01' 9.71 seconds 74.1 GB $0.36 2.16 seconds 29.06 MB $0.0001

99% cheaper

77% faster

SELECT count(*) FROM lineitem WHERE l_shipdate >= '1996-09-01' AND l_shipdate < '1996-10-01' 10.41 seconds 74.1 GB $0.36 2.73 seconds 871.39 MB $0.004 98% cheaper
73% faster

However, partitioning also has a penalty as shown in the following run times. Make sure that you don’t over-partition your data.

Query Non- Partitioned Table Cost Partitioned table Cost Savings
Run time Data scanned Run time Data scanned
SELECT count(*) FROM lineitem; 8.4 seconds 74.1 GB $0.36 10.65 seconds 74.1 GB $0.36 27% slower

2. Compress and split files

Compressing your data can speed up your queries significantly, as long as the files are either of an optimal size (see the next section) or the files are splittable. The smaller data sizes reduce network traffic from S3 to Athena.

Splittable files allows Athena’s execution engine to split the reading of a file by multiple readers to increase parallelism. If you have a single unsplittable file, then only a single reader is able to read the file while all other readers sit idle. Not all compression algorithms are splittable. The following table lists common compression formats and their attributes.

Algorithm Splittable? Compression ratio Compress + Decompress speed
Gzip (DEFLATE) No High Medium
bzip2 Yes Very high Slow
LZO No Low Fast
Snappy No Low Very fast

Generally, the higher the compression ratio of an algorithm, the more CPU is required to compress and decompress data.

For Athena, we recommend using either Apache Parquet or Apache ORC, which compress data by default and are splittable. When they are not an option, then try BZip2 or Gzip with an optimal file size.

3. Optimize file sizes

Queries run more efficiently when reading data can be parallelized and when blocks of data can be read sequentially. Ensuring that your file formats are splittable helps with parallelism regardless of how large your files may be.

However, if your files are too small, generally less than 128 MB, then the execution engine may be spending additional time with the overhead of opening S3 files, listing directories, getting object metadata, setup data transfer, reading file headers, reading compression dictionaries, etc. On the other hand, if your file is not splittable and the files are too large, then query processing waits until a single reader has completed reading the entire file. That can reduce parallelism.

One remedy to solve your small file problem is to use the S3DistCP utility on EMR. You can combine smaller files into larger objects. S3DistCP can also be used to move large amounts of data in an optimized fashion from HDFS to S3, S3 to S3, S3 to HDFS.

Some benefits of having larger files:

  • Faster listing
  • Fewer S3 requests
  • Less metadata to manage


The table below compares query run times between two tables, one backed by a single large file and one by 5000 small files. Both tables contain 7GB of data, stored in text format.

Query Number of files Run time
SELECT count(*) FROM lineitem 5000 files 8.4 seconds
SELECT count(*) FROM lineitem 1 file 2.31 seconds
Speedup 72% faster

4. Optimize columnar data store generation

Apache Parquet and Apache ORC are popular columnar data stores. They provide features that store data efficiently by employing column-wise compression, different encoding, compression based on data type, and predicate pushdown. They are also splittable. Generally, better compression ratios or skipping blocks of data means reading fewer bytes from S3 and leads to better query performance.

One parameter that could be tuned is the block size or stripe sizes. The block size in Parquet or stripe size in ORC represent the maximum number rows that can fit into one block in terms of size in bytes. The larger the block/stripe size, the more rows that can be stored in each block. By default, the Parquet block size is 128 MB and the ORC stripe size is 64 MB. We recommend a larger block size if you have tables with many columns, to ensure that each column block remains at a size that allows for efficient sequential I/O.

Another parameter that could be tuned is the compression algorithm on data blocks. The Parquet default is Snappy but it also supports no compression, GZIP and LZO  based compression. ORC defaults to ZLIB but also supports no compression and Snappy. We recommend starting with the default compression algorithm and testing with other compression algorithms if you have more than 10 GB of data.

Parquet/ORC file formats both support predicate pushdown (also called predicate filtering). Parquet/ORC both have blocks of data that represent column values and each block holds statistics for the block, such as max/min values. When a query is being executed, these statistics determine if the block should be read or skipped. One way to optimize the number of blocks to be skipped is to identify and sort by a commonly filtered column, prior to writing your ORC or Parquet files. This ensures that the range between the min and max of values within the block would be as small as possible within each block. This gives it a better change to be pruned.

You can convert your existing data to Parquet or ORC using Spark or Hive on Amazon EMR. For more information, see the Analyzing Data in S3 using Amazon Athena blog post. See also the following resources:

Best practices: querying

Athena uses Presto underneath the covers. Understanding how Presto works will give you insight on how to optimize queries when running queries.

5. Optimize ORDER BY

The ORDER BY clause returns the results of a query in sort order. To do the sort, Presto must send all rows of data to a single worker and then sort them. This could cause memory pressure on Presto, which could cause the query to take a long time to execute. Worse, the query could fail.

If you are using the ORDER BY clause to look at the top or bottom N values, then use a LIMIT clause to reduce the cost of the sort significantly by pushing the sorting and limiting to individual workers, rather than the sorting being done in a single worker.


Dataset: 7.25 GB table, uncompressed, text format, ~60M rows

Query Run time
SELECT * FROM lineitem ORDER BY l_shipdate 528 seconds
SELECT * FROM lineitem ORDER BY l_shipdate LIMIT 10000 11.15 seconds
Speedup 98% faster

6. Optimize joins

When you join two tables, specify the larger table on the left side of join and the smaller table on the right side of the join. Presto distributes the table on the right to worker nodes, and then streams the table on the left to do the join. If the table on the right is smaller, then there is less memory used and the query runs faster.


Dataset: 74 GB total data, uncompressed, text format, ~602M rows

Query Run time
SELECT count(*) FROM lineitem, part WHERE lineitem.l_partkey = part.p_partkey 22.81 seconds
SELECT count(*) FROM part, lineitem WHERE lineitem.l_partkey = part.p_partkey 10.71 seconds
Savings / Speedup ~53% speed up

The exception of the rule is when joining multiple tables together and there is the possibility of a cross join. Presto will perform joins from left to right as it does not yet support join reordering. Therefore, you should specify the tables from largest to smallest while ensuring two tables are not specified together that will result in a cross join.

Dataset: 9.1 GB total, uncompressed, text xormat, ~76M total rows

Query Run time
SELECT count(*) FROM lineitem, customer, orders WHERE lineitem.l_orderkey = orders.o_orderkey AND customer.c_custkey = orders.o_custkey Timed Out
SELECT count(*) FROM lineitem, orders, customer WHERE lineitem.l_orderkey = orders.o_orderkey AND customer.c_custkey = orders.o_custkey 3.71 seconds

7. Optimize GROUP BY

The GROUP BY operator distributes rows based on the GROUP BY columns to worker nodes, which hold the GROUP BY values in memory. As rows are being ingested, the GROUP BY columns are looked up in memory and the values are compared. If the GROUP BY columns match, the values are then aggregated together.

When using GROUP BY in your query, order the columns by the cardinality by the highest cardinality (that is, most number of unique values, distributed evenly) to the lowest.

SELECT state, gender, count(*) 
           FROM census 
GROUP BY state, gender;

One other optimization is to use numbers instead of strings, if possible, within the GROUP BY clause. Numbers require less memory to store and are faster to compare than strings.

Another optimization is to limit the number of columns within the SELECT statement to reduce the amount of required memory to store in memory, as rows are held in memory and aggregated for the GROUP BY clause.

8. Optimize the LIKE operator

When you are filtering for multiple values on a string column, then it is generally better to use RegEx than LIKE multiple times. The more LIKE causes and larger the string columns, the bigger the savings using RegEx will be.


Dataset: 74 GB table, uncompressed, text format, ~600M rows

Query Run time
SELECT count(*) FROM lineitem WHERE l_comment LIKE '%wake%' OR l_comment LIKE '%regular%' OR l_comment LIKE '%express%' OR l_comment LIKE '%sleep%' OR l_comment LIKE '%hello% 20.56 seconds
SELECT count(*) FROM lineitem WHERE regexp_like(l_comment, 'wake|regular|express|sleep|hello') 15.87 seconds
Speedup 17% faster

9. Use approximate functions

For exploring large datasets, a common use case is to find the count of distinct values for a certain column using COUNT(DISTINCT column). An example is looking at the number of unique users hitting a webpage.

When an exact number may not be required―for instance, if you are looking for which webpages to deep dive into, consider using approx_distinct(). This function tries to minimize the memory usage by counting unique hashes of values instead of entire strings. The drawback is that there is a standard error of 2.3%.


Dataset: 74 GB table, uncompressed, text format, ~600M rows

Query Run time
SELECT count(distinct l_comment) FROM lineitem; 13.21 seconds
SELECT approx_distinct(l_comment) FROM lineitem; 10.95 seconds
Speedup 17% faster

For more information, see Aggregate Functions in the Presto documentation.

10.Only include the columns that you need

When running your queries, limit the final SELECT statement to only the columns that you need instead of selecting all columns. Trimming the number of columns reduces the amount of data that needs to be processed through the entire query execution pipeline. This especially helps when querying tables with large number of columns, and string-based columns. 


Dataset: 7.25 GB table, uncompressed, text format, ~60M rows

Query Run time
SELECT * FROM lineitem, orders, customer WHERE lineitem.l_orderkey = orders.o_orderkey AND customer.c_custkey = orders.o_custkey; 983 seconds
SELECT customer.c_name, lineitem.l_quantity, orders.o_totalprice FROM lineitem, orders, customer WHERE lineitem.l_orderkey = orders.o_orderkey AND customer.c_custkey = orders.o_custkey; 6.78 seconds
Savings / Speedup 145x faster


This post covered best practices for optimizing your interactive analysis on Amazon Athena with the Presto engine. These same practices can be applied when using Presto on Amazon EMR.

If you have questions or suggestions, please comment below.

About the Authors

Manjeet Chayel is a Solutions Architect with AWS
Mert Hocanin is a Big Data Architect with AWS EMR


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