Microsecond Latency Rules Engine with RoaringBitmap

Implementing a rules engine can shorten development time and remove a lot of tedious if statements from your business logic. Unfortunately they are almost always slow and often bloated. Simple rules engines can be implemented by assigning integer salience to each line in a truth table, with rule resolution treated as an iterative intersection of ordered sets of integers. Implemented in terms of sorted sets, it would be remiss not to consider RoaringBitmap for the engine’s core. The code is at github.

Classification Table and Syntax

This rules engine builds on the simple idea of a truth table usually used to teach predicate logic and computer hardware. Starting with a table and some attributes, interpreting one attribute as a classification, we get a list of rules. It is trivial to load such a table from a database. Since classifications can overlap, we prioritise by putting the rules we care about most – or the most salient rules – at the top of the table. When multiple rules match a fact, we take the last in the set ordered by salience. So we don’t always have to specify all of the attributes to get a classification, we can rank attributes by their importance left to right, where it’s required that all attributes to the left of a specified attribute are also specified when matching a fact against a rule set.

It’s possible to define rules containing wildcards. Wildcard rules will match any query (warning: if these are marked as high salience they will hide more specific rules with lower salience). It’s also possible to specify a prefix with a wildcard, which will match any query that matches at least the prefix.

Below is an example table consisting of rules for classification of regional English accents by phonetic feature.

English Accent Rules

thought cloth lot palm plant bath trap accent
/ɔ/ /ɒ/ /ɑ/ /ɑː/ /ɑː/ /ɑː/

/æ/ Received Pronunciation (UK)
/ɔ/ /ɔ/ /ɑ/ /ɑ/ /æ/ /æ/

/æ/ Georgian (US)
/ɑ/ /ɑ/ /ɑ/ /ɑ/ /æ/ /æ/

/æ/ Canadian
* * /ɑ/ /ɑ/ /æ/ /æ/

/æ/ North American
* * * * * *

/æ/ Non Native
* * * * * *

* French


In the example above, the vowel sounds used in words differentiating speakers of several English accents are configured as a classification table. The accent column is the classification of any speaker exhibiting the properties specified in the six leftmost columns. UK Received Pronunciation is the most specific rule and has high salience, whereas various North American accents differ from RP in their use of short A vowels. A catch all for North American accents would wild card the sounds in thought and caught (contrast Boston pronunciations with Texas). So long as trap has been pronounced with a short A (which all English speakers do), and no other rule would recognise the sounds used in the first six words, the rule engine would conclude the speaker is using English as a second language. If not even the word trap is recognisable, then the speaker is probably unintelligible, or could be French.


A rule with a given salience can be represented by creating a bitmap index on salience by the attribute values of the rules. For instance, to store the rule \{foo, bar\} \rightarrow 42, with salience 10, create a bitmap index on the first attribute of the rule, and set the 10th bit of the “foo” bitmap; likewise for the “bar” bitmap of the second index. Finding rules which match both attributes is a bitwise intersection, and since we rank by salience, the rule that wins is the first in the set. An obvious choice for fast ordered sets is RoaringBitmap.

RoaringBitmap consists of containers, which are fast, cache-friendly sorted sets of integers, and can contain up to 2^{16} - 1 shorts. In RoaringBitmap, containers are indexed by keys consisting of the most significant 16 bits of the integer. For a rules engine, if you have more than 2^{16} - 1 rules you have a much bigger problem anyway, so a container could index all the rules you could ever need, so RoaringBitmap itself would be overkill. While RoaringBitmap indexes containers by shorts (it does so for the sake of compression), we can implement wildcard and prefix matching by associating containers with Strings rather than shorts. As the core data structure of the rules engine, a RoaringBitmap container is placed at each node of an Apache commons PatriciaTrie. It’s really that simple – see the source at github.

When the rules engine is queried, a set consisting of all the rules that match is intersected with the container found at the node in the trie matching the value specified for each attribute. When more than one rule matches, the rule with the highest salience is accessed via the Container.first() method, one of the features I have contributed to RoaringBitmap. See example usage at github.



A Quick Look at RoaringBitmap

This article is an introduction to the data structures found in the RoaringBitmap library, which I have been making extensive use of recently. I wrote some time ago about the basic idea of bitmap indices, which are used in various databases and search engines, with the caveat that no traditional implementation is optimal across all data scenarios (in terms of size of the data set, sparsity, cardinalities of attributes and global sort orders of data sets with respect to specific attributes). RoaringBitmap is a dynamic data structure which aims to be that one-size-fits-all solution across all scenarios.


A RoaringBitmap should be thought of as a set of unsigned integers, consisting of containers which cover disjoint subsets. Each subset can contain values from a range of size 2^{16}-1, and the subset is indexed by a 16 bit key. This means that in the worst case it only takes 16 bits to represent a single 32 bit value, so unsigned 32 bit integers can be stored as Java shorts. The choice of container size also means that in the worst case, the container will still fit in L1 cache on a modern processor.

The implementation of the container covering a disjoint subset is free to vary between RunContainer, BitmapContainer and ArrayContainer, depending entirely on properties of the subset. When inserting data into a RoaringBitmap, it is decided whether to create a new container, or to mutate an existing container, depending on whether the values fit in the range covered by the container’s key. When performing a set operation, for instance by intersecting two bitmaps or computing their symmetric difference, a new RoaringBitmap is created by performing operations container by container, and it is decided dynamically which container implementation is best suited for the result. For cases where it is too difficult to determine the best implementation automatically, the method runOptimize is available to the programmer to make sure.

When querying a RoaringBitmap, the query can be executed container by container (which incidentally makes the query naturally parallelisable, but it hasn’t been done yet), and each pair from the cartesian product of combinations of container implementations must be implemented separately. This is manageable because there are only three implementations, and there won’t be any more. There is less work to do for symmetric operations, such as union and intersection, than with asymmetric operations such as contains.


When there are lots of clean words in a section of a bitmap, the best choice of container is run length encoding. The implementation of RunContainer is simple and very compact. It consists of an array of shorts (not ints, the most significant 16 bits are in the key) where the values at the even indices are the starts of runs, and the values at the odd indices are the lengths of the respective runs. Membership queries can be implemented simply using a binary search, and quantile queries can be implemented in constant time. Computing container cardinality requires a pass over the entire run array.


When data is sparse within a section of the bitmap, the best implementation is an array (short[]).  For very sparse data, this isn’t theoretically optimal, but for most cases it is very good and the array for the container will fit in L1 cache for mechanical sympathy. Cardinality is very fast because it is precomputed, and operations would be fast in spite of their precise implementation by virtue of the small size of the set (that being said, the actual implementations are fast). Often when creating a new container, it is necessary to convert to a bitmap for better compression as the container fills up.


BitmapContainer is the classic implementation of a bitset. There is a fixed length long[] which should be interpreted bitwise, and a precomputed cardinality. Operations on BitmapContainers tend to be very fast, despite typically touching each element in the array, because they fit in L1 cache and make extensive use of Java intrinsics. If you find a method name in here and run your JVM on a reasonably modern processor, your code will quickly get optimised by the JVM, sometimes even to a single instruction. A much hackneyed example, explained better by Michael Barker quite some time ago, would be Long.bitCount, which translates to the single instruction popcnt and has various uses when operating on BitmapContainers. When intersecting with another container, the cardinality can only decrease or remain the same, so there is a chance an ArrayContainer will be produced.


There is a really nice Scala project on github which functions as a DSL for creating RoaringBitmaps – it allows you to create an equality encoded (see my previous bitmap index post) RoaringBitmap in a very fluid way. The project is here.

I have implemented bit slice indices, both equality and range encoded, in a data quality tool I am building. That project is hosted here. Below is an implementation of a range encoded bit slice index as an example of how to work with RoaringBitmaps.

public class RangeEncodedOptBitSliceIndex implements RoaringIndex {

  private final int[] basis;
  private final int[] cumulativeBasis;
  private final RoaringBitmap[][] bitslice;

  public RangeEncodedOptBitSliceIndex(ProjectionIndex projectionIndex, int[] basis) {
    this.basis = basis;
    this.cumulativeBasis = accumulateBasis(basis);
    this.bitslice = BitSlices.createRangeEncodedBitSlice(projectionIndex, basis);

  public RoaringBitmap whereEqual(int code, RoaringBitmap existence) {
    RoaringBitmap result = existence.clone();
    int[] expansion = expand(code, cumulativeBasis);
    for(int i = 0; i < cumulativeBasis.length; ++i) {
      int component = expansion[i];
      if(component == 0) {
      else if(component == basis[i] - 1) {
        result.andNot(bitslice[i][basis[i] - 2]);
      else {
        result.and(FastAggregation.xor(bitslice[i][component], bitslice[i][component - 1]));
    return result;

  public RoaringBitmap whereNotEqual(int code, RoaringBitmap existence) {
    RoaringBitmap inequality = existence.clone();
    inequality.andNot(whereEqual(code, existence));
    return inequality;

  public RoaringBitmap whereLessThan(int code, RoaringBitmap existence) {
    return whereLessThanOrEqual(code - 1, existence);

  public RoaringBitmap whereLessThanOrEqual(int code, RoaringBitmap existence) {
    final int[] expansion = expand(code, cumulativeBasis);
    final int firstIndex = cumulativeBasis.length - 1;
    int component = expansion[firstIndex];
    int threshold = basis[firstIndex] - 1;
    RoaringBitmap result = component < threshold ? bitslice[firstIndex][component].clone() : existence.clone();     for(int i = firstIndex - 1; i >= 0; --i) {
      component = expansion[i];
      threshold = basis[i] - 1;
      if(component != threshold) {
      if(component != 0) {
        result.or(bitslice[i][component - 1]);
    return result;

  public RoaringBitmap whereGreaterThan(int code, RoaringBitmap existence) {
    RoaringBitmap result = existence.clone();
    result.andNot(whereLessThanOrEqual(code, existence));
    return result;

  public RoaringBitmap whereGreaterThanOrEqual(int code, RoaringBitmap existence) {
    RoaringBitmap result = existence.clone();
    result.andNot(whereLessThan(code, existence));
    return result;

Further Reading

The library has been implemented under an Apache License by several contributors, the most significant contributions coming from computer science researcher Daniel Lemire, who presented RoaringBitmap at Spark Summit 2017. The project site is here and the research paper behind the library is freely available.

How a Bitmap Index Works

Bitmap indices are used in various data technologies for efficient query processing. At a high level, a bitmap index can be thought of as a physical materialisation of a set of predicates over a data set, is naturally columnar and particularly good for multidimensional boolean query processing. PostgreSQL materialises a bitmap index on the fly from query predicates when there are multiple attributes constrained by a query (for instance in a compound where clause). The filter caches in ElasticSearch and Solr are implemented as bitmap indices on filter predicates over document IDs. Pilosa is a distributed bitmap index query engine built in Go, with a Java client library.

Bitmap indices are not a one-size-fits-all data structure, and in degenerate cases can take up more space than the data itself; using a bitmap index in favour of a B-tree variant on a primary key should be considered an abuse. Various flavours of bitmap implementation exist, but the emerging de facto standard is RoaringBitmap led by Daniel Lemire. RoaringBitmap is so ubiquitous that it is handled as a special case by KryoSerializer – no registration required if you want to use Spark to build indices.

Naive Bitmap Index

To introduce the concept, let’s build a naive uncompressed bitmap index. Let’s say you have a data set and some way of assigning an integer index, or record index from now on, to each record (the simplest example would be the line number in a CSV file), and have chosen some attributes to be indexed. For each distinct value of each indexed attribute of your data, compute the set of indices of records matching the predicate. For each attribute, create a map from the attribute values to the sets of corresponding record indices. The format used for the set doesn’t matter yet, but either an int[] or BitSet would be suitable depending on properties of the data and the predicate (cardinality of the data set, sort order of the data set, cardinality of the records matching the predicate, for instance). Using a BitSet to encode the nth record index as the nth bit of the BitSet can be 32x smaller than an int[] in some cases, and can be much larger when there are many distinct values of an attribute, which results in sparse bitmaps.

The tables below demonstrate the data structure. The first table represents a simple data set. The second and third tables represent bitmap indices on the data set, indexing the Country and Sector attributes.

Record Index Country Sector
0 GB Financials
1 DE Manufacturing
2 FR Agriculturals
3 FR Financials
4 GB Energies

The bitmap index consists of the two tables below:

Value Record Indices Bitmap
GB 0,4 0x10001
DE 1 0x10
FR 2,3 0x1100
Value Record Indices Bitmap
Financials 0,3 0x1001
Manufacturing 1 0x10
Agriculturals 2 0x100
Energies 4 0x10000

It’s worth noting three patterns in the tables above.

  1. The number of bitmaps for an attribute is the attribute’s distinct count.
  2. There are typically runs of zeroes or ones, and the lengths of these runs depend on the sort order of the record index attribute
  3. A bitmap index on the record index attribute itself would be as large as the data itself, and a much less concise representation. Bitmap indices do not compete with B-tree indices for primary key attributes.

Query Evaluation

This simple scheme effectively materialises the result of predicates on the data and is particularly appealing because these predicates can be composed by performing efficient logical operations on the bitmaps. Query evaluation is most efficient when both the number of bitmaps and size of each bitmap are as small as possible. An efficient query plan will touch as few bitmaps as possible, regardless of bitmap size. Here are some examples of queries and their evaluation plans.

Single Attribute Union
select *
from records
where country = "GB" or country = "FR"
  1.  Access the country index, read the bitmaps for values “FR” and “GB”
  2. Apply a bitwise logical OR to get a new bitmap
  3. Access the data stored by record id with the retrieved indices
Multi Attribute Intersection
select *
from records
where country = "GB" and sector = "Energies"
  1. Access the country index, and read the bitmap for value “GB”
  2. Access the sector index, and read the bitmap for value “Energies”.
  3. Apply a bitwise logical AND to get a new bitmap
  4. Access the data stored by record id with the retrieved indices
Single Attribute Except Clause
select *
from records
where country <> "GB"
  1. Access the country index, and read the bitmap for value “GB”
  2. Negate the bitmap
  3. Access the data stored by record id with the retrieved indices

The index lends itself to aggregate queries (and aggregates on predicates)

select country, count(*)
from records
group by country
  1. Access the country index
  2. Iterate over the keys
    • Count the bits in the bitmap, store the count against the key in a map
Count with Filter
select country, count(*)
from records
where sector <> "Financials"
group by country
  1. Access the sector index and read the bitmap for “Financials”
  2. Negate the bitmap, call the negated bitmap without_financials
  3. Access the country index
  4. Iterate over the keys
    • Intersect each bitmap with without_financials
    • Count the bits in the resultant bitmap, store the count against the key in a map

The two main factors affecting the performance of query processing are the number of bitmaps that need to be accessed, and the size of each bitmap (which concerns both memory/disk usage and CPU utilisation) – both should be minimised. Choosing the correct encoding for expected queries (one should expect range queries for dates, but equality and set membership queries for enumerations) can reduce the number of bitmap accesses required to evaluate a query; whereas compression can reduce the bitmap sizes.


Only predicates for equality are efficient with the scheme so far. Suppose there is a well defined sort order for an attribute a. In order to evaluate

select *
from records
where a > x and a < y

every bitmap in the range (x, y) would have to be accessed and united. This could easily become a performance bottleneck. The encoding could be adapted for evaluating range predicates. Instead of setting the nth bit if the nth record has a = y (equality encoding), it could be set if the nth record has a \le y (range encoding). In this encoding only one bitmap would need to be accessed to evaluate a predicate like a \le y, rather than the |[a_{min}, y]| bitmaps required using the equality encoding. In order to evaluate a \in [x, y], only the bitmaps for x and y are needed. Not much is lost in order to support equality predicates in a range encoding; only the bitmap for the value and its predecessor are required.


The scheme presented so far works as a toy model but the bitmaps are just too large to be practical. A bitmap index on a single attribute with m distinct values over a data set consisting of n records, using a BitSet would consume mn bits, using an int[] would consume 32mn bits. Therefore, some kind of compression is required to make the approach feasible.

Often in real world data sets, there are attributes with skewed histograms, a phenomenon known as Zipf’s Law. In a typical financial data set exhibiting this property, most trades will be in very few instruments (EURGBP for instance), and there will be very few trades in the rest of the traded instruments. The bitmaps for the values at both the head and tail of these histograms become less random and therefore compressible. At the head, the bits are mostly set; at the tail mostly unset. Compression seeks to exploit this.

One well understood compression strategy is run length encoding. If there are m bits set in a row, followed by n unset bits and again followed by p bits set, 0x1…10..01..1 of size m + n + p bit could be replaced by m1n0p1 which is typically a lot smaller (though worse if the runs are very short). Since there are only two possible values, only ranges of set bits need to be represented – it is only necessary to store the start index and length of each run, so the bitmap becomes the set of tuples \{(0,m), (m+n, p)\}. Notably the sort order of the record index with respect to the attribute affects the compression ratio for run length encoding because it can make runs longer or shorter.

In reality, run length encoding on bits is not practical since modern processors operate on words not bits. Instead of counting runs of bits, several algorithms count runs of bytes (BBC – Byte-aligned Bitmap Compression) or words (WAH – Word Aligned Hybrid, EWAH – Enhanced Word Aligned Hybrid). These algorithms are faster at the expense of reduced compression. In these schemes compression is improved when there are long runs of clean words (where all the bits in the word are the same), and the compression ratio is degraded when there are many dirty words, which cannot be compressed at all. The number of clean words and hence the compression ratio for a bitmap index depends on the order of the record index attribute. However, an optimal sort order with respect to an index on one attribute will generally be sub-optimal for an index on another.

In order to maintain the attractive boolean query processing capabilities, the OR, AND, XOR, NAND, NOR and NOT operations each need to redefined to operate on the compressed form of the bitmap, and in the case of algorithms like EWAH these adapted operations are more efficient, CPU and cache-friendly, than on naive uncompressed bitmaps.

Previously I was ambivalent between the use of BitSet and int[] to encode the sets of record indices (Set was not proposed because of the inherent cost of wrapped integers). This is because neither of these types is really appropriate for the task in all cases. If we use an uncompressed BitSet we end up with high memory usage for a large data set, even if most of the bits are unset, which is often compressible at the word level. With very sparse data, when most of the bits would be zero, it would take less space to store the record indices in an int[] instead. By choosing dynamically whether to use integers, uncompressed bits, or compressed words is actually roughly how the RoaringBitmap library optimises performance. More about that here.

Reducing the Number of Bitmaps

Query evaluation performance degrades with the number of bitmaps that need to be accessed. Choosing the right encoding for query patterns and reducing the size of each bitmap are both key for performance and practicality, but it can help save storage space to have fewer bitmaps per attribute. So far each value has been encoded as a single bitmap, and each bitmap has been associated with only one value. The total number of bitmaps can be reduced by applying a factorisation on values with a bitmap per factor, so each bitmap will be associated with several values and each value will be associated with several bitmaps. To this end, mapping values into integers by some means would allow integer arithmetic to be used for index construction. A simple mechanism to map a set of objects to integers would be a dictionary, a more complicated but better mechanism might be a perfect hash function like CHM (an order preserving transformation!) or BZW (which trades order preservation for better compression).

Bit Slicing

Supposing a mapping between a set of values and the natural numbers has been chosen and implemented, we can define a basis to factorise each value. The number 571, for example, can be written down as either 5*10^2 + 7*10^1 + 1*10^0 in base-10 or 1*8^3 + 0*8^2 + 7*8^1 + 3*8^0 in base-8. Base-10 uses more coefficients, whereas base-8 uses more digits. Bit slice indexing is analogous to arithmetic expansion of integers, mapping coefficients to sets, or slices, of bitmaps; digits to bitmaps.

Mapping a set of objects S into base n, where \log_n(|S|) \approx \mathcal{O}(m), we can use mn bitmaps to construct the index. The bases do not need to be identical (to work with date buckets we could choose to have four quarters, three months, and 31 days for example) but if they are the bases are said to be uniform. An example of a base 3 uniform index on currencies is below:

Record Index Currency
Currency Encoding
Currency Code Base 3 Expansion
USD 0 0*3 + 0
GBP 1 0*3 + 1
EUR 2 0*3 + 2
CHF 3 1*3 + 0
Single Component Currency Index
Currency Bitmap
USD 0x1
GBP 0x110
EUR 0x1000
CHF 0x10000
Bit Sliced Currency Index
Power of 3 Remainder Bitmap
1 0 0x1111
1 1 0x10000
1 2 0x0
0 0 0x10001
0 1 0x110
0 2 0x1000

Here we have actually used six bitmaps instead of four, but the factorisation comes into its own when more currencies are added. With a 2-component base-3 index, we can use six bitmaps to encode up to nine values.

To evaluate a query, map the value into its integer representation, factorise the number with respect to the bases of the index, and then intersect at most m bitmaps together. This is slower than a single bitmap access, but has some useful properties if data is hierarchically bucketed as well as trading query performance for storage space. To evaluate queries at the top level of bucketing, only one bitmap access is required; at the second level, two bitmap accesses are required and so on. So there is a trade off between degraded performance with granular values with increased performance for roll-ups.


Here are some links on the topic that I found interesting

Roaring Bitmap – http://roaringbitmap.org/
Bitmap Index Design and Evaluation – http://www.comp.nus.edu.sg/~chancy/sigmod98.pdf
Sorting improves word-aligned bitmap indexes – https://arxiv.org/pdf/0901.3751.pdf
Consistently faster and smaller compressed bitmaps with Roaring – https://arxiv.org/pdf/1603.06549.pdf