Improve DynamoDB query performance using summary data

09 Aug, 2023
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In this blog, we looked at a simple solution to use DynamoDB as a cache to store data with a limited time to live. The blog showed how to store values that might be retrieved from a back end server. This service might have limited capacity or be too expensive to handle a lot of requests. Storing a temporary value may help reducing the load. Also, DynamoDB is especially good at getting data from a possibly very large table by primary key.

Another use case is slightly different. What if we have a lot of data and want to avoid querying all that data just to get a summary? An example would be retrieving a total at a specific point in time based on a list of transactions. We might have thousands of transactions for a specific userId and might be interested in showing the sum of all transactions as well as the most recent five. In this post I’ll show how to add summary data to table to speed up queries.

The code for this blog can be found here: dynamodb/transaction at main · jvermeir/dynamodb.

Getting the latest transactions from a table by owner can be done with a GlobalSecondaryIndex.

This CDK code defines a table with a partitionKey:

    const transactionTable = new dynamoDB.Table(this, "TransactionTable", {
      tableName: "Transaction",
      partitionKey: {
        name: "id",
        type: dynamoDB.AttributeType.STRING,
      billingMode: dynamoDB.BillingMode.PROVISIONED,
      removalPolicy: cdk.RemovalPolicy.DESTROY,

The table definition shows a partition key based on an id. This could be anything, e.g. a generated uuid. Adding a sortKey like this:

      indexName: "byOwnerByCreatedAt",
      partitionKey: { name: "owner", type: dynamoDB.AttributeType.STRING },
      sortKey: { name: "createdAt", type: dynamoDB.AttributeType.NUMBER },
      readCapacity: 1,
      writeCapacity: 1,
      projectionType: dynamoDB.ProjectionType.ALL,

creates an index that can be used to query data by the owner field. The data is stored in sorted order using a timestamp stored in createdAt. Given this definition of the transaction table, we can run this query:

   let command = new QueryCommand({
      IndexName: 'byOwnerByCreatedAt',
      ExpressionAttributeNames: {
        '#owner': 'owner',
        '#createdAt': 'createdAt',
      ExpressionAttributeValues: {
        ':owner': owner,
        ':createdAt': timestamp,
      KeyConditionExpression: '#owner = :owner AND #createdAt <= :createdAt',
      ScanIndexForward: false,

This query would return all transactions for a given owner older than a timestamp, passed as parameters. ScanIndexForward: false, is essential, because it retrieves records starting with the most recent.

Given this query, the getTotalByOwner function in transaction/lambda/database.ts loops through records, calculating a total, until it finds a summary record. It then adds a new summary record to the transactions table to speed up follow-up requests. The data in the table may look like this:

  "transactions": [
    {"amount": 14, "createdAt": 1690052471641, "owner": "owner1", "id": "id14"},
    {"amount": 91, "createdAt": 1690016544701, "owner": "owner1", "id": "summary-owner1-1690016544701", "type": "summary"},
    {"amount": 13, "createdAt": 1690016527772, "owner": "owner1", "id": "id13"},
    {"amount": 3, "createdAt": 1690016421753, "owner": "owner1", "id": "id3"},
    {"amount": 3, "createdAt": 1690016395422, "owner": "owner1", "id": "summary-owner1-1690016395422", "type": "summary"},
    {"amount": 2, "createdAt": 1690016368019, "owner": "owner1", "id": "id2"},
    {"amount": 1, "createdAt": 1690016361282, "owner": "owner1", "id": "id1"}

So there’s a list of transactions with an amount and id sorted by createdAt and interspersed with transactions where type is summary.

The algorithm in const getTotalByOwner = async (owner: string)... retrieves the total, while trying to cope with potential concurrency issues. In pseudocode:

define the query
define a summary record with the current date as its createdAt value
while there's more data, get a set of record
    loop through the records
        add the value of amount to total
        exit the loop if the type of the record is summary
    update the query and get the next set of records
save the summary value in the transactions table        

There are some pitfalls that are addressed by the code in getTotalByOwner. Several processes may try to read the transaction table for a owner concurrently. Or a record may be added while we’re calculating the summary. To protect against concurrency issues, the code creates a summary record with the current date as its createdAt value as its first action. Then transactions are queried that are older than the timestamp in the new summary record. This freezes the dataset the summary is based on: even if records are added the set considered for the summary won’t change.

As an optimization, we don’t write a summary record every time the transactions are retrieved. Records are returned by the database in a set anyway, so before any processing may take place, a full set has to be loaded. We can therefore save a bit of storage space by adding a summary every X records (10 in the code example). This strategy would also avoid degenerate cases where following every record a summary record is stored.

These optimizations complicate the code, but we could easily hide them in a generic function.

In summary, DynamoDB can be used to cache data by either storing data in a separate table or storing summaries of data in the same table. While the cache table is useful for data retrieved from other systems, the summary technique described in this blog is a nice solution to speed up retrieval of summaries based on a dataset that might be very large.

Jan Vermeir
Developing software and infrastructure in teams, doing whatever it takes to get stable, safe and efficient systems in production.

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