Scaling from Pandas to Dask

1. Introduction

Scaling Pandas DataFrame aggregations can be quite tricky. I have had a very specific problem to solve that involved aggregates on group by expressions.

While it is certainly possible to squeeze out a lot of performance in Pandas in a single-threaded environment, the nature of Pandas makes it hard to scale embarrassingly parallel problems. This frequently involves calculations on DataFrames where the individual results are dependent only on specific segments of a DataFrame, such as weeks, months, and so on. In this case, a DataFrame could be split apart into multiple DataFrame across segment boundaries and the calculations could theoretically be distributed across several threads, or even machines.

At the same time, Pandas already is a complex library with a lot of moving parts, so I can understand the decision to not build in parallelization functionality. This is where Dask comes in quite handy. Dask allows users to parallelize computations on Pandas DataFrames. Not only can those computations be parallelized on one machine, they can also be easily scaled to multiple machines. It is also important to mention that it allows computations on DataFrames that are bigger than available RAM. It achieves this by only reading the parts into memory that are currently needed and immediately freeing up memory as soon as data is not needed anymore. This can be especially handy when a lot of intermediate steps are needed for computation.

This article covers two topics.

  • How to create DataFrames in Pandas and Dask
  • How to perform group by operations on Pandas and Dask DataFrames

First, we will quickly go through DataFrames creation in both Pandas and Dask. We use randomly created weather data for our data analysis and after that show how to calculate certain metrics and statistics by just relying on group by functionality.

2. Creating the DataFrames

First, we take a look at how data frames are created in Pandas and Dask.

2.1. Pandas

The preferred way of creating DataFrames from pandas.Series objects is by creating a dictionary of the data and passing it to the pandas.DataFrame constructor. So one would effectively run

        'column_a': pd.Series(...),
        'column_b': pd.Series(...),

But first, we load some libraries. We import dask.dataframe and pandas to create DataFrames and series in both libraries. We also import numpy for random data creation.

import pandas as pd
import dask.dataframe as dd
import numpy as np

We set the start date to 2001-01-01.

start = '2001-01-01'

The data we initialize consist of two columns and one index:

  • Index: A date and timestamp combination starting in 2001-01-01 ranging up to n and filled with one entry per day.
  • Rain: Indicates whether it rained on that day. Stored as a boolean. The value is true with a 50 % likelihood.
  • Temperature: The temperature on that day. Uniformly selected from [5, 30), a half-open interval.
def create_df(n_days):
    dates = pd.date_range(start, periods=n_days, freq='D', name='Date')
    rainy_days = np.random.choice([False, True], n_days)
    temperatures = np.random.randint(5, 30, n_days)
    # Combine Pandas Series into DataFrame
    return pd.DataFrame(
            'Rain': rainy_days,
            'Temperature': temperatures,

We create sample data for 2 weeks.



Date Rain Temperature
2001-01-01 True 18
2001-01-02 True 11
2001-01-03 False 23
2001-01-04 False 25
2001-01-05 True 10
2001-01-06 True 23
2001-01-07 True 25
2001-01-08 True 16
2001-01-09 True 15
2001-01-10 False 19
2001-01-11 False 23
2001-01-12 True 9
2001-01-13 False 28
2001-01-14 True 28

2.2. Dask

In order to create a Dask DataFrame, we use the existing Pandas DataFrame creation function and use Dask.dataframe.from_pandas to convert it into a chunked Dask DataFrame. As chunk size we use the amount of days in a year. The idea with chunk sizes is to use a big enough number as this will dictate the size of an individual Pandas DataFrame.

Since Dask operations will be performed on individual Pandas DataFrames, it is important to choose a number that is useful for the type of operation you want to perform on a DataFrame. For example, if you group by years, then choosing a chunk size of one year worth of data lets you group more easily.

def create_ddf(n_days):
    df = create_df(n_days)
    return dd.from_pandas(df, chunksize=365)

We can see that Dask DataFrames do not immediately return a result. Rather, we have to compute it first:



npartitions=1 Rain Temperature
2001-01-01 bool int64
2001-01-07 ... ...

A Dask DataFrame can be evaluated by calling the compute() method on it. Since we are not using Dask.distributed right now, this will simply be executed on one thread.



Date Rain Temperature
2001-01-01 False 13
2001-01-02 False 12
2001-01-03 True 8
2001-01-04 True 11
2001-01-05 True 26
2001-01-06 False 22
2001-01-07 True 8

3. Longest number of consecutive rainy days

3.1. Algorithm

For our first group by, we would like to find the longest chain of rainy days in the whole DataFrame. We use a neat trick for this. Using a combination of Series.shift() and Series.cumsum(), we can create an auxiliary series that tracks the difference and allows us to perform a group by on the difference list.

Let’s take a look at an example. First, a DataFrame is created with 2 consecutive rainy days

sunny_example = pd.DataFrame(
        'Rain': [False, False, False, True, True, False],
        'Date': [0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5],


Date Rain
0 0 False
1 1 False
2 2 False
3 3 True
4 4 True
5 5 False

Using Series.shift() a difference list is calculated.

diff = sunny_example.Rain != sunny_example.Rain.shift()


0 True
1 False
2 False
3 True
4 False
5 True

Now, the value is True only when the weather changes from rainy to sunny or vice versa. Following this, the difference list is summed up using Series.cumsum().



0 1
1 1
2 1
3 2
4 2
5 3

Using these values, rainy and non-rainy consecutive days can be grouped:

sunny_example_result = sunny_example.groupby(diff.cumsum()).Rain.agg(
    ['min', 'max', 'count'],


Rain min max count
1 False False 3
2 True True 2
3 False False 1

And the longest series of rainy days can be retrieved. min and max being True tells us that the days in question only contain the boolean value True and are therefore rainy days.

query_result = sunny_example_result.query('min == max == True')['count']
max_idx = query_result.idxmax()




min True
max True
count 2

3.2. Pandas

First, the number of days for the sample calculation is defined.

years = 100
days = years * 365

aggregate = [
    'min', 'max', 'count',

Using the steps outlined before, the function operating on Pandas DataFrames is defined.

def df_consecutive(df):
    df = df.reset_index()
    # Create difference list
    diff = (df.Rain != df.Rain.shift()).cumsum()
    # Aggregate longest consecutive occurences
    agg = df.groupby(diff).Rain.agg(aggregate)
    # Return length of longest consecutive occurence
    return agg.query('min == max == True')['count'].max()

Let’s quickly verify the result by running our function on the previous example DataFrame.




And we see that everything works as it is supposed to. Lastly, we time the execution using the %%timeit IPython magic command.



21.5 ms ± 1.06 ms per loop (mean ± std. dev. of 7 runs, 10 loops each)

3.3. Dask

Dask allows us to take any algorithm that we have developed using Pandas and turn it into a Dask compatible execution graph. As the code below demonstrates, in simple cases we do not have to adjust anything at all and can just go on using our existing Pandas code.

def ddf_consecutive(ddf):
    ddf = ddf.reset_index()
    # Create difference list
    diff = (ddf.Rain != ddf.Rain.shift()).cumsum()
    # Aggregate longest consecutive occurences
    agg = ddf.groupby(diff).Rain.agg(aggregate)
    # Return length of longest consecutive occurence
    return agg.query('min == max == True')['count'].max()

As an intermediate step, the previous example DataFrame is turned into a Dask DataFrame.

sunny_example_Dask = dd.from_pandas(sunny_example, chunksize=365)


npartitions=1 Date Rain
0 int64 bool
5 ... ...

The computation graph for creating a Dask DataFrame from Pandas and retrieving the maximum can be visualized quite easily.

sunny_example_Dask.max().visualize(optimize_graph=True, layout='circo')


<IPython.core.display.Image object>

Using the same Dask function we have specified above, we verify one more time that the result is calculated correctly.

b = ddf_consecutive(sunny_example_Dask)



The function is timed using the IPython %%timeit command. The Dask example is at least 10 times slower.



2.49 s ± 97.8 ms per loop (mean ± std. dev. of 7 runs, 1 loop each)

4. Determine the coldest weeks

For the second example, the coldest week in a DataFrame is determined.

4.1. Algorithm

In order to retrieve the coldest week, a combination of resampling and indexing is used. We create a sample DataFrame:

cold_example = pd.DataFrame(
        'Temperature': [0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1]
    }, index=pd.date_range(start='2017-01-01', periods=14)


2017-01-01 0
2017-01-02 0
2017-01-03 0
2017-01-04 0
2017-01-05 0
2017-01-06 0
2017-01-07 0
2017-01-08 1
2017-01-09 1
2017-01-10 1
2017-01-11 1
2017-01-12 1
2017-01-13 1
2017-01-14 1

In order to resample the temperature by weeks, we can use the DataFrame.resample() method. We take extra care to sample only full weeks and only those that fully start in the year 2017.

grouper = cold_example.Temperature.resample('W-MON', label='left')


DatetimeIndexResampler [freq=<Week: weekday=0>, axis=0, closed=right, label=left, convention=start, base=0]

For our purposes, the semantics of a resampler and Pandas grouper are the same. We can apply aggregate functions such as sum() and count(). In this case, count() tells us the length of a grouped week and the sum of the daily temperatures.

It becomes evident below that we have two partial weeks in the dataset. One begins in the last year, and the other one does not have enough days in the current year. Therefore, the only usable week is the one starting in 2017-01-02.

agg = grouper.aggregate(['sum', 'count'])


sum count
2016-12-26 0 2
2017-01-02 2 7
2017-01-09 5 5

We can therefore easily filter out partial weeks with the following query:

agg.query("count == 7")


sum count
2017-01-02 2 7

And the coldest week is the following:

agg.query("count == 7")['sum'].idxmin()


Timestamp('2017-01-02 00:00:00', freq='W-MON')

4.2. Pandas

For Pandas, we simply put the above explained steps into one convenient function.

def df_coldest_week(df):
    weeks = df.Temperature.resample(
    ).agg(['count', 'sum']).query('count == 7')
    return weeks['sum'].idxmin()

We can easily verify that the result is correct.



Timestamp('2017-01-02 00:00:00', freq='W-MON')

A quick %%timeit is run on the Pandas function.



151 ms ± 3.53 ms per loop (mean ± std. dev. of 7 runs, 10 loops each)

4.3. Dask

Since Dask resamplers do not support aggregates at the time of writing, we have to trick around a little bit to get it to work.

def ddf_coldest_week(df):
    weeks = df.Temperature.resample(
    # Calculate week lengths
    count = weeks.count()
    # Sum temperatures
    sum = weeks.sum()
    # Select results by week day lengths.
    loc = count == 7
    return sum[loc].idxmin()

We evaluate the function on our sample DataFrame. First, we turn it into a Dask DataFrame.

cold_example_Dask = dd.from_pandas(cold_example, npartitions=1)

As we can see, the computed result is exactly the same.



Timestamp('2017-01-02 00:00:00')

Now we run the benchmark and discover that the Dask example takes about 10 times longer to execute.



2.45 s ± 26.5 ms per loop (mean ± std. dev. of 7 runs, 1 loop each)

5. Benchmarks

The benchmark results indicate that using Dask performs slower on the small datasets that we have created. Whether this applies to bigger sized datasets as well was not established in this article. What stands true in any case is that Dask allows calculation on datasets that are larger than the available memory, and are especially larger than any piece of continuously available memory in the OS. This allows us to easily scale a calculation using almost the same code to data sets in the 500 GB to 1 TB range.

I was able to successfully apply these insights for a large amount of non-trivial A/B test calculations on user click data without having to set up a complicated computing cluster.

Taking the weather calculations that we have performed as an example, one can start by developing the aggregation functions using Pandas or Dask on a small data set and test it thoroughly. Using the same function with minimal adjustments, the process can then be scaled to data sets with hundreds of measurement locations and still get reasonable performance across a multi-core machine or even a cluster. This can be done quite easily on AWS EC2. The dask documentation has a tutorial on how to do this..

6. Further Reading

The official Dask documentation is tremendously helpful when trying to figure out how to translate Pandas calculations to distributed Dask calculations. It is also always worth taking a look at Pandas tutorials when figuring out how to efficiently vectorize calculations.

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