Dask DataFrame Design

Dask DataFrame Design

Dask DataFrames coordinate many Pandas DataFrames/Series arranged along an index. We define a Dask DataFrame object with the following components:

  • A Dask graph with a special set of keys designating partitions, such as ('x', 0), ('x', 1), ...

  • A name to identify which keys in the Dask graph refer to this DataFrame, such as 'x'

  • An empty Pandas object containing appropriate metadata (e.g. column names, dtypes, etc.)

  • A sequence of partition boundaries along the index called divisions


Many DataFrame operations rely on knowing the name and dtype of columns. To keep track of this information, all Dask DataFrame objects have a _meta attribute which contains an empty Pandas object with the same dtypes and names. For example:

>>> df = pd.DataFrame({'a': [1, 2, 3], 'b': ['x', 'y', 'z']})
>>> ddf = dd.from_pandas(df, npartitions=2)
>>> ddf._meta
Empty DataFrame
Columns: [a, b]
Index: []
>>> ddf._meta.dtypes
a     int64
b    object
dtype: object

Internally, Dask DataFrame does its best to propagate this information through all operations, so most of the time a user shouldn’t have to worry about this. Usually this is done by evaluating the operation on a small sample of fake data, which can be found on the _meta_nonempty attribute:

>>> ddf._meta_nonempty
   a    b
0  1  foo
1  1  foo

Sometimes this operation may fail in user defined functions (e.g. when using DataFrame.apply), or may be prohibitively expensive. For these cases, many functions support an optional meta keyword, which allows specifying the metadata directly, avoiding the inference step. For convenience, this supports several options:

  1. A Pandas object with appropriate dtypes and names. If not empty, an empty slice will be taken:

>>> ddf.map_partitions(foo, meta=pd.DataFrame({'a': [1], 'b': [2]}))
  1. A description of the appropriate names and dtypes. This can take several forms:

  • A dict of {name: dtype} or an iterable of (name, dtype) specifies a DataFrame. Note that order is important: the order of the names in meta should match the order of the columns

  • A tuple of (name, dtype) specifies a series

This keyword is available on all functions/methods that take user provided callables (e.g. DataFrame.map_partitions, DataFrame.apply, etc…), as well as many creation functions (e.g. dd.from_delayed).


Internally, a Dask DataFrame is split into many partitions, where each partition is one Pandas DataFrame. These DataFrames are split vertically along the index. When our index is sorted and we know the values of the divisions of our partitions, then we can be clever and efficient with expensive algorithms (e.g. groupby’s, joins, etc…).

For example, if we have a time-series index, then our partitions might be divided by month: all of January will live in one partition while all of February will live in the next. In these cases, operations like loc, groupby, and join/merge along the index can be much more efficient than would otherwise be possible in parallel. You can view the number of partitions and divisions of your DataFrame with the following fields:

>>> df.npartitions
>>> df.divisions
['2015-01-01', '2015-02-01', '2015-03-01', '2015-04-01', '2015-04-31']

The number of partitions and the division values might change during optimization. The optimizer will try to create partitions with a sensible size to avoid straining the scheduler with many small partitions.

Divisions includes the minimum value of every partition’s index and the maximum value of the last partition’s index. In the example above, if the user searches for a specific datetime range, then we know which partitions we need to inspect and which we can drop:

>>> df.loc['2015-01-20': '2015-02-10']  # Must inspect first two partitions

Often we do not have such information about our partitions. When reading CSV files, for example, we do not know, without extra user input, how the data is divided. In this case .divisions will be all None:

>>> df.divisions
[None, None, None, None, None]

In these cases, any operation that requires a cleanly partitioned DataFrame with known divisions will have to perform a sort. This can generally achieved by calling df.set_index(...).


By default, groupby will choose the number of output partitions based on a few different factors. It will look at the number of grouping keys to guess the cardinality of your data. It will use this information to calculate a factor based on the number of input partitions. You can override this behavior by specifying the number of output partitions using the split_out argument.

result = df.groupby('id').value.mean()
result.npartitions  # returns 1

result = df.groupby(['id', 'id2']).value.mean()
result.npartitions  # returns 5

result = df.groupby('id').value.mean(split_out=8)
result.npartitions  # returns 8

Some groupby aggregation functions have a different split_out default value. split_out=True will keep the number of partitions constant, which is useful for operations that either don’t reduce the number of rows very much.

result = df.groupby('id').value.nunique()
result.npartitions  # returns same as df.npartitions