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The mystery of indexing – A guide to different types of indexes in Python

Syed Muhammad Hani - Author
Syed Muhammad Hani

May 3

Most Data Science enthusiasts know how to write queries and fetch data from SQL but find they may find the concept of indexing to be intimidating.

This blog will aim to clear concepts of how this additional tool can help you efficiently access data, especially when there are clear patterns involved. Having a good understanding of indexing techniques will help you with making better design decisions and performance optimizations for your system.  

Understanding indexing

To understand the concept, take the example of a textbook. Your teacher has just assigned you to open “Chapter 15: Atoms and Ions”. In this case, you will have three possible ways to access this chapter: 

  • You may turn over each page, until you find the starting page of “Chapter 15”.  
  • You may open the “Table of Contents”, simply go to the entry of “Chapter 15”, where you will find the page number, where “Chapter 15” starts.  
  • You may also open the “Index” if words, at the end of the textbooks, where all keywords and their page numbers are mentioned. From there you can find out all the pages where the word “Atoms” is present, accessing each of those pages, you will find the page where “Chapter 15” starts.


In the given example try to figure out which of the paths would be most efficient… You may have already guessed it, the second path, using the “Table of Contents”. You figured this out since you understood the problem and the underlying structure of these access paths. Indexes built on large datasets are very similar to this. Let us move on to a bit more practical example. 

It is probable you may have already looked at data with an index built on it, but simply overlooked that detail. Using the “Top Spotify songs from 2010-2019” dataset on Kaggle (https://www.kaggle.com/datasets/leonardopena/top-spotify-songs-from-20102019-by-year),  we read it into a Python – Pandas Data Frame.

Notice the left most column, where there is no column name present. This is a default index created by python for this dataset, while considering the first column present in the csv file as an “unnamed” column. 

Similarly, we can set index columns according to our requirements. For example, if we wanted to set “nrgy” column as an index, we can do it like this: 

Figure 1- Set Index as "nrgy" column
Figure 1- Set Index as “nrgy” column

It is also possible to create an index on multiple columns. If we wanted an index on a columns “artist” and “year”, we could do it by passing the string names as a list parameter to our original set index method. 

 

Figure 2- Set Index as "artist" and "year" column 
Figure 2- Set Index as “artist” and “year” column 


Up till now, you may have noticed a few points, which
I will point out: 

  • An index is an additional access path, which could be used to efficiently retrieve data. 
  • An index may or may not be built on a column with unique values. 
  • An index may be built on one more column. 
  • An index may be built on either ordered or unordered items. 


Categories of indexing

Let us investigate the categories of indexes. 

  1. Primary Indexes: have ordered files and built on unique columns. 
  1. Clustered Indexes: have ordered files and built on non-unique columns. 
  1. Secondary Indexes: have unordered files and are built on either unique or non-unique columns. 


You may only build a single Primary or Clustered index on a table. Meaning that the files will be ordered based on a single index only. You may build multiple Secondary indices on a table since they do not require the files to change their order. 
 


Advantages of indexing

 

Since the main purpose of creating and using an index access path is to give us an efficient way to access the data of our choice, we will be looking at it as our main advantage as well.  

  1. An index allows us to quickly locate, and access data based on the indexed columns, without having to scan through the entire file. This can significantly speed up query performance, especially for large files, by reducing the amount of data that needs to be searched and processed.  
  2. With an index, we can jump directly to the relevant portion of the data, reducing the amount of data that needs to be processed and improving access speed.  
  3. Indexes can also help reduce the amount of disk I/O (input/output) needed for data access. By providing a more focused and smaller subset of data to be read from disk, indexes can help minimize the amount of data that needs to be read, resulting in reduced disk I/O and improved overall performance. 

Costs of indexing

 

  1. Index Access will not always improve performance. It will depend on the design decisions. It is possible a column frequently accessed in 2023, is the least frequently accessed column in 2026. The previously built index might simply become useless for us. 
  2. For example, a local library keeps a record of their books according to the shelf they are assigned to and stored on. In 2018, the old librarian asked an expert to create an index based on Book ID, assigned to each book at the time when it is stored in the library. The access time per book decreased drastically for that year. A new librarian, hired in 2022, decided to reorder books by their year number and subject. It became slower to access a book through the previously built index as compared to the combination of book year and subject, simply because the order of the books was changed. 
  3. In addition, there will be an added storage cost to the files you have already stored. While the size of an index will be mostly smaller than the size of our base tables, the space a dense index can occupy for large tables may still be a factor to consider.
  4. Lastly, there will be a maintenance cost attached to an index you have built. You will need to update the index entries whenever insert, update, and delete operations are performed for base table. If a table has a high rate of DML operations, the index maintenance cost will also be extremely high. 

 


While making decisions regarding index creation, you need to consider three things:
 

1. Index Column Selection: the column on which you will build the index. It is recommended to select the column frequently accessed. 

2. Index Table Selection: the table that requires an index to be built upon. It is recommended to use a table with the least number of DML operations. 

3. Index Type Selection: the type of index which will give the greatest performance benefit. You may want to look into the types of indices which exist for this decision, few examples include: Bitmap Index, B Tree Index, Hash Index, Partial Index, and Composite Index . 

All these factors can be answered by analyzing your access patterns. To put it simply, just look for the table that is most frequently accessed, and which columns are most frequently accessed. 

In a nutshell

In conclusion, while indexing can give you a huge performance benefit, in terms of data access, an expert needs to understand the structure and problem before making the appropriate decision whether an index is needed or not, and if needed, then for which table, column(/s), and the index type. 

Syed Muhammad Hani - Author
Written by Syed Muhammad Hani

Hani is a skilled computer science major with a passion for statistics and data analysis. He has extensive experience in content writing and curriculum development, and is dedicated to aiding users in making informed decisions through actionable insights.

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