Writing UDFs

Before starting UDF development, make sure to install the development package and download the UDF code samples. Install the Impala UDF development package as described in Installing the UDF development package.

When writing UDFs:

  • Keep in mind the data type differences as you transfer values from the high-level SQL to your lower-level UDF code. For example, in the UDF code you might be much more aware of how many bytes different kinds of integers require.
  • Use best practices for function-oriented programming: choose arguments carefully, avoid side effects, make each function do a single thing, and so on.
Getting started with UDF coding

To understand the layout and member variables and functions of the predefined UDF data types, examine the header file /usr/include/impala_udf/udf.h:

// This is the only Impala header required to develop UDFs and UDAs. This header
// contains the types that need to be used and the FunctionContext object. The context
// object serves as the interface object between the UDF/UDA and the impala process. 

For the basic declarations needed to write a scalar UDF, see the header file udf-sample.h within the sample build environment, which defines a simple function named AddUdf():


#include <impala_udf/udf.h>

using namespace impala_udf;

IntVal AddUdf(FunctionContext* context, const IntVal& arg1, const IntVal& arg2);


For sample C++ code for a simple function named AddUdf(), see the source file udf-sample.cc within the sample build environment:

#include "udf-sample.h"

// In this sample we are declaring a UDF that adds two ints and returns an int.
IntVal AddUdf(FunctionContext* context, const IntVal& arg1, const IntVal& arg2) {
  if (arg1.is_null || arg2.is_null) return IntVal::null();
  return IntVal(arg1.val + arg2.val);

// Multiple UDFs can be defined in the same file
Data types for function arguments and return values

Each value that a user-defined function can accept as an argument or return as a result value must map to a SQL data type that you could specify for a table column.

Currently, Impala UDFs cannot accept arguments or return values of the Impala complex types (STRUCT, ARRAY, or MAP).

Each data type has a corresponding structure defined in the C++ and Java header files, with two member fields and some predefined comparison operators and constructors:

  • is_null indicates whether the value is NULL or not. val holds the actual argument or return value when it is non-NULL.

  • Each struct also defines a null() member function that constructs an instance of the struct with the is_null flag set.

  • The built-in SQL comparison operators and clauses such as <, >=, BETWEEN, and ORDER BY all work automatically based on the SQL return type of each UDF. For example, Impala knows how to evaluate BETWEEN 1 AND udf_returning_int(col1) or ORDER BY udf_returning_string(col2) without you declaring any comparison operators within the UDF itself.

    For convenience within your UDF code, each struct defines == and != operators for comparisons with other structs of the same type. These are for typical C++ comparisons within your own code, not necessarily reproducing SQL semantics. For example, if the is_null flag is set in both structs, they compare as equal. That behavior of null comparisons is different from SQL (where NULL == NULL is NULL rather than true), but more in line with typical C++ behavior.

  • Each kind of struct has one or more constructors that define a filled-in instance of the struct, optionally with default values.

  • Impala cannot process UDFs that accept the composite or nested types as arguments or return them as result values. This limitation applies both to Impala UDFs written in C++ and Java-based Hive UDFs.

  • You can overload functions by creating multiple functions with the same SQL name but different argument types. For overloaded functions, you must use different C++ or Java entry point names in the underlying functions.

The data types defined on the C++ side (in /usr/include/impala_udf/udf.h) are:

  • IntVal represents an INT column.

  • BigIntVal represents a BIGINT column. Even if you do not need the full range of a BIGINT value, it can be useful to code your function arguments as BigIntVal to make it convenient to call the function with different kinds of integer columns and expressions as arguments. Impala automatically casts smaller integer types to larger ones when appropriate, but does not implicitly cast large integer types to smaller ones.

  • SmallIntVal represents a SMALLINT column.

  • TinyIntVal represents a TINYINT column.

  • StringVal represents a STRING column. It has a len field representing the length of the string, and a ptr field pointing to the string data. It has constructors that create a new StringVal struct based on a null-terminated C-style string, or a pointer plus a length; these new structs still refer to the original string data rather than allocating a new buffer for the data. It also has a constructor that takes a pointer to a FunctionContext struct and a length, that does allocate space for a new copy of the string data, for use in UDFs that return string values.

  • BooleanVal represents a BOOLEAN column.

  • FloatVal represents a FLOAT column.

  • DoubleVal represents a DOUBLE column.

  • TimestampVal represents a TIMESTAMP column. It has a date field, a 32-bit integer representing the Gregorian date, that is, the days past the epoch date. It also has a time_of_day field, a 64-bit integer representing the current time of day in nanoseconds.

Variable-length argument lists

UDFs typically take a fixed number of arguments, with each one named explicitly in the signature of your C++ function. Your function can also accept additional optional arguments, all of the same type. For example, you can concatenate two strings, three strings, four strings, and so on. Or you can compare two numbers, three numbers, four numbers, and so on.

To accept a variable-length argument list, code the signature of your function like this:

StringVal Concat(FunctionContext* context, const StringVal& separator,
  int num_var_args, const StringVal* args);

In the CREATE FUNCTION statement, after the type of the first optional argument, include ... to indicate it could be followed by more arguments of the same type. For example, the following function accepts a STRING argument, followed by one or more additional STRING arguments:

[localhost:21000] > create function my_concat(string, string ...) returns string location '/user/test_user/udfs/sample.so' symbol='Concat';

The call from the SQL query must pass at least one argument to the variable-length portion of the argument list.

When Impala calls the function, it fills in the initial set of required arguments, then passes the number of extra arguments and a pointer to the first of those optional arguments.

Handling NULL values

For correctness, performance, and reliability, it is important for each UDF to handle all situations where any NULL values are passed to your function. For example, when passed a NULL, UDFs typically also return NULL. In an aggregate function, which could be passed a combination of real and NULL values, you might make the final value into a NULL (as in CONCAT()), ignore the NULL value (as in AVG()), or treat it the same as a numeric zero or empty string.

Each parameter type, such as IntVal or StringVal, has an is_null Boolean member. Test this flag immediately for each argument to your function, and if it is set, do not refer to the val field of the argument structure. The val field is undefined when the argument is NULL, so your function could go into an infinite loop or produce incorrect results if you skip the special handling for NULL.

If your function returns NULL when passed a NULL value, or in other cases such as when a search string is not found, you can construct a null instance of the return type by using its null() member function.

Memory allocation for UDFs

By default, memory allocated within a UDF is deallocated when the function exits, which could be before the query is finished. The input arguments remain allocated for the lifetime of the function, so you can refer to them in the expressions for your return values. If you use temporary variables to construct all-new string values, use the StringVal() constructor that takes an initial FunctionContext* argument followed by a length, and copy the data into the newly allocated memory buffer.

Thread-safe work area for UDFs

One way to improve performance of UDFs is to specify the optional PREPARE_FN and CLOSE_FN clauses on the CREATE FUNCTION statement. The prepare function sets up a thread-safe data structure in memory that you can use as a work area. The close function deallocates that memory. Each subsequent call to the UDF within the same thread can access that same memory area. There might be several such memory areas allocated on the same host, as UDFs are parallelized using multiple threads.

Within this work area, you can set up predefined lookup tables, or record the results of complex operations on data types such as STRING or TIMESTAMP. Saving the results of previous computations rather than repeating the computation each time is an optimization known as Memoization. For example, if your UDF performs a regular expression match or date manipulation on a column that repeats the same value over and over, you could store the last-computed value or a hash table of already-computed values, and do a fast lookup to find the result for subsequent iterations of the UDF.

Each such function must have the signature:

void function_name(impala_udf::FunctionContext*, impala_udf::FunctionContext::FunctionScope)

Currently, only THREAD_SCOPE is implemented, not FRAGMENT_SCOPE. See udf.h for details about the scope values.

Error handling for UDFs

To handle errors in UDFs, you call functions that are members of the initial FunctionContext* argument passed to your function.

A UDF can record one or more warnings, for conditions that indicate minor, recoverable problems that do not cause the query to stop. The signature for this function is:

bool AddWarning(const char* warning_msg);

For a serious problem that requires cancelling the query, a UDF can set an error flag that prevents the query from returning any results. The signature for this function is:

void SetError(const char* error_msg);