Distributed Search Tips for Apache Solr

Distributed search is the foundation for Apache Solr Scalability :

It’s possible to distributed search across different Apache Solr nodes of the same collection ( both in a  legacy[1] or SolrCloud[2] architecture), but it is also possible to distribute search across different collections in a SolrCloud cluster.
Aggregating results from different collections may be useful when you put in place different systems ( that were meant to be separate ) and you later realize that aggregating the results may be an additional useful use case.
This blog will focus on some tricky situations that can happen when running distributed search ( for configuration or details you can refer to the Solr wiki ).


Inverse Document Frequency affects the score.
This means that a document coming from a big collection can obtain a boost from IDF, in comparison to a similar document from a smaller collection.
This is because the maxDoc count is taken into account as corpus size, so even if a term has the same document frequency, IDF will be strongly affected by the collection size.
Distributed IDF[3] partially solved the problem :

When distributing the search across different shards of the same collection, it works quite well.
But using the ExactStatCache and alternating single collection distribution and multi collection distribution in the same SolrCloud cluster will create some caching conflict.

Specifically if we first execute the inter collection query, the global stats cached will be the inter collection global stats,  so if we then execute a single collection distributed search, the preview global stats will remain cached ( viceversa applies).

Debug Scoring

Real score and debug score is not aligned with the distributed IDF, this means that the debug query will not show the correct distributed IDF and correct scoring calculus for distributed searches[4].

Relevancy tuning

Lucene/Solr score is not probabilistic or normalised.
For the same collection we can have completely different score scales just with different queries.
The situation becomes more complicated when we tune our relevancy adding multiplicative or additive boosts.
Different collections may imply completely different boosting logic that could cause the score of a collection to be on a completely different scale in comparison to another.
We need to be extra careful when tuning relevancy for searches across different collections and try to configure the distributed request handler in the most compatible way as possible.

Request handler

It is important to carefully specify the request handler to be used when using distributed search.
The request will hit one collection in one node and then when distributing the same request handler will be called on the other collections across the other nodes.
If necessary it is possible to configure the aggregator request handler and local request handlers ( this may be useful if we want to use a different scoring formulas per collection, using local parameters) :

Aggregator Request Handler

It is executed on the first node receiving the request.
It will distribute the request and then aggregate the results.
It must describe parameters that are in common across all the collections involved in the search.
It is the one specified in the main request.

Local Request Handler

It is specified passing the parameter : shards.qt=
It is execute on each node that receive the distributed query AFTER the first one.
This can be used to use specific fields or parameter on a per collection basis.
A local request handler may use fields and search components that are local to the collection interested.


N.B. the use of local request handler may be useful in case you want to define local query parser rules, such as local edismax configuration to affect the score.

Unique Key

The unique key field must be the same across the different collections.
Furthermore the value should be unique across the different collections to guarantee a proper behaviour.
If we don’t comply with this rule, Solr will fail in aggregating the results and raise an exception.

[1] https://lucene.apache.org/solr/guide/6_6/distributed-search-with-index-sharding.html
[2] https://lucene.apache.org/solr/guide/6_6/solrcloud.html
[3] https://lucene.apache.org/solr/guide/6_6/distributed-requests.html#DistributedRequests-ConfiguringstatsCache_DistributedIDF_
[4] https://issues.apache.org/jira/browse/SOLR-7759

Exploring Solr Internals : The Lucene Inverted Index


When playing with Solr systems, understanding and properly configuring the underline Lucene Index is fundamental to deeply control your search.
With a better knowledge of how the index looks like and how each component is used, you can build a more performant, lightweight and efficient solution.
Scope of this blog post is to explore the different components in the Inverted Index.
This will be more about data structures and how they contribute to provide Search related functionalities.
For low level approaches to store the data structures please refer to the official Lucene documentation [1]

Inverted Index

The Inverted Index is the basic data structure used by Lucene to provide Search in a corpus of documents.
It’s pretty much quite similar to the index in the end of a book.
From wikipedia :

“In computer science, an inverted index (also referred to as postings file or inverted file) is an index data structure storing a mapping from content, such as words or numbers, to its locations in a database file, or in a document or a set of documents.”

In Memory / On Disk

The Inverted index is the core data structure that is used to provide Search.
We are going to see in details all the components involved.
It’s important to know where the Inverted index will be stored.
Assuming we are using a FileSystem Lucene Directory, the index will be stored on the disk for durability ( we will not cover here the Commit concept and policies, so if curious [2]) . 
Modern implementation of the FileSystem Directory will leverage the OS Memory Mapping feature to actually load into the memory ( RAM ) chunk of the index ( or possibly all the index) when necessary.
The index in the file system will look like a collection of immutable segments.
Each segment is a fully working Inverted Index, built from a set of documents.
The segment is a partition of the full index, it represents a part of it and it is fully searchable.
Each segment is composed by a number of binary files, each of them storing a particular data structure relevant to the index, compressed [1] .
To simplify, in the life of our index, while we are indexing data, we build segments, which are merged from time to time ( depending of the configured Merge Policy).
But the scope of this post is not the Indexing process but the structure of the Index produced.

Hands on !

Let’s assume in input 3 documents, each of them with 2 simple fields, and see how a full inverted Index will look like :

    {  “id”:”c”,
        “title”:”video game history”

    {  “id”:”a”,
        “title”:”game video review game”

    {  “id”:”b”,
        “title”:”game store”

Depending of the configuration in the schema.xml, at indexing time we generate the related data structure.

Let’s see the inverted index in the complete form, then let’s explain how each component can be used , and when to omit part of it.

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Field id
Ordinal Term Document Frequency Posting List
0 a 1 : 1 : [1] : [0-1]
1 b 1 : 1 : [1] : [0-1]
2 c 1 : 1 : [1] : [0-1]
Field title
Ordinal Term Document Frequency Posting List
0 game 3 0 : 1 : [2] : [6-10],
1 : 2 : [1, 4] : [0-4, 18-22],
: 1 : [1] : [0-4]
1 history 1 : 1 : [3] : [11-18]
2 review 1 : 1 : [3] : [11-17]
3 store 1 2 : 1 : [2] : [5-10]
4 video 2 0 : 1 : [1] : [0-5],
1 : 1 : [2] : [5-10],

This sounds scary at the beginning let’s analyse the different component of the data structure.

Term Dictionary

The term dictionary is a sorted skip list containing all the unique terms for the specific field.
Two operations are permitted, starting from a pointer in the dictionary :
next() -> to iterate one by one on the terms
advance(ByteRef b) -> to jump to an entry >= than the input  ( this operation is O(n) = log n where n= number of unique terms).
An auxiliary Automaton is stored in memory, accepting a set of smart calculated prefixes of the terms in the dictionary.
It is a weighted Automaton, and a weight will be associated to each prefix ( i.e. the offset to look into the Term Dictionary) .
This automaton is used at query time to identify a starting point to look into the dictionary.
When we run a query ( a TermQuery for example) :
1) we give in input the query to the In Memory Automaton, an Offset is returned
2) we access the location associated to the Offset in the Term Dictionary
3) we advance to the ByteRef representation of the TermQuery
4) if the term is a match for the TermQuery we return the Posting List associated

Document Frequency

This is simply the number of Documents in the corpus containing the term  t in the field f .
For the term game we have 3 documents in our corpus that contain the term in the field title

Posting List

The posting list is the sorted skip list of DocIds that contains the related term.
It’s used to return the documents for the searched term.
Let’s have a deep look to a complete Posting List for the term game in the field title :
0 : 1 : [2] : [6-10],
1 : 2 : [1, 4] : [0-4, 18-22],
: 1 : [1] : [0-4]
Each element of this posting list is :
Document Ordinal : Term Frequency : [array of Term Positions] : [array of Term Offset] .

Document Ordinal -> The DocN Ordinal (Lucene ID) for the DocN document in the corpus containing the related term.
Never relies at application level on this ordinal, as it may change over time ( during segments merge for example).
According to the starting ordinals of each Posting list element :
Doc0 0,
Doc1 1,
Doc2 2
contain the term game in the field title .

Term Frequency -> The number of occurrences of the term in the Posting List element .
0 : 1 
Doc0 contains 1 occurrence of the term game in the field title.
1 : 2
Doc1 contains 2 occurrence of the term game in the field title.
: 1
Doc2 contains 1 occurrence of the term game in the field title.

Term Positions Array -> For each occurrence of the term in the Posting List element, it contains the related position in the field content .
0 : [2]
Doc0 1st occurrence of the term game in the field title occupies the 2nd position in the field content.
“title”:”video(1) game(2) history(3)” )
1 : [1, 4] 
Doc1 1st occurrence of the term game in the field title occupies the 1st position in the field content.
Doc1 2nd occurrence of the term game in the field title occupies the 4th position in the field content.
“title”:”game(1) video(2) review(3) game(4) )
: [1] 
Doc0 1st occurrence of the term game in the field title occupies the 1st position in the field content.
“title”:”game(1) store(2)” )

Term Offsets Array ->  For each occurrence of the term in the Posting List element, it contains the related character offset in the field content .
0 : [6-10]
Doc0 1st occurrence of the term game in the field title starts at 6th char in the field content till 10th char ( excluded ).
“title”:”video(1) game(2) …” )
“title”:”01234 5 6789 10  …” )
1 : [0-4, 18-22]
Doc1 1st occurrence of the term game in the field title starts at 0th char in the field content till 4th char ( excluded )..
Doc1 2nd occurrence of the term game in the field title starts at 18th char in the field content till 22nd char ( excluded ).
“title”:”game(1) video(2) review(3) game(4) )
“title”:”0123 4   video(2) review(3) 18192021 22″ )
Doc0 1st occurrence of the term game in the field title occupies the 1st position in the field content.
“title”:”game(1) store(2)” )
“title”:”0123 4 store(2)” )

Live Documents

Live Documents is a lightweight data structure that keep the alive documents at the current status of the index. 
It simply associates a bit  1 ( alive) , 0 ( deleted) to a document.
This is used to keep the queries aligned to the status of the Index, avoiding to return deleted documents.
Note : Deleted documents in index data structures are removed ( and disk space released) only when a segment merge happens.
This means that you can delete a set of documents, and the space in the index will be claimed back only after the first merge involving the related segments will happen.
Assuming we delete the Doc2, this is how the Live Documents data structure looks like :
Ordinal Alive
0 1
1 1
2 0
Ordinal -> The Internal Lucene document ID
Alive -> A bit that specifies if the document is alive or deleted.


Norms is a data structure that provides length normalisation and boost factor per Field per Document.
The numeric values are associated per FIeld and per Document.
This value is associated to the length of the content value and possibly an Indexing time boost factor as well.
Norms are used when scoring Documents retrieved for a query.
In details it’s a way to improve the relevancy of Documents containing the term in short fields .
A boost factor can be associated at indexing time as well.
Short field contents will win over long field field contents when matching a query with Norms enabled.

Field title
Doc Ordinal Norm
0 0.78
1 0.56
2 0.98

Schema Configuration

When configuring a field in Solr ( or directly in Lucene) it is possible to specify a set of field attributes to control which data structures are going to be produced .
Let’s take a look to the different Lucene Index Options
Lucene Index Option Solr schema Description To Use When …
NONE indexed=”false” The inverted index will not be built. You don’t need to search in your corpus of documents.


The posting list for each term will simply contain the document Ids ( ordinal) and nothing else.

game -> 0,1,2 
– You don’t need to search in your corpus with phrase or positional queries. 
-You don’t need score to be affected by the number of occurrences of a term in a document field.
DOCS_AND_FREQS omitPositions=”true” The posting list for each term will simply contain the document Ids ( ordinal) and term frequency in the document.

game -> 0 : 11 : 2 : 1 
– You don’t need to search in your corpus with phrase or positional queries.
– You do need scoring to take Term Frequencies in consideration
Default when indexed=”true” The posting list for each term will contain the term positions in addition.

0 : 1 : [2], 1 : 2 : [1, 4], : 1 : [1] 
– You do need to search in your corpus with phrase or positional queries.
– You do need scoring to take Term Frequencies in consideration

storeOffsetsWithPositions =”true”

The posting list for each term will contain the term offsets in addition.

e.g.game ->0 : 1 : [2] : [6-10],
1 : 2 : [1, 4] : [0-4, 18-22],
: 1 : [1] : [0-4]

– You want to use the Posting Highlighter.
A fast version of highlighting that uses the posting list instead of the term vector.
omitNorms omitNorms=”true” The norms data structure will not be built – You don’t need to boost short field contents
– You don’t need Indexing time boosting per field

[1] Lucene File Formats
[2] Understanding commits and Tlog in Solr