The other day I was talking with a colleague about data validation and the Play web framework came up. Play has a nice API for validating HTML form and JSON submissions. This works great when you’re processing small amounts of data from the web-tier of your application. But could that same tech benefit a Big Data team working on a backend powered by Hadoop or Spark?

We decided to find out and the results were encouraging. The secret sauce? Play’s combinator-based approach to data validation.

Whether your data is big or small, garbage in is garbage out

MediaMath processes TBs of online user behavior and advertising data every day. It’s inevitable that with hundreds of machines spread across multiple datacenters, legacy systems and partner provided APIs we receive bad data or invalid records from time to time. Systems built around file formats like CSV or TSV are especially susceptible to encoding errors that can cause headaches for downstream processing systems.

So what are your options?

Quite often the first step for most data processing pipelines (be they single node scripts or massive Hadoop jobs) is translating some kind of encoded wire format T into a record of type D for partitioning, joining, filtering or aggregating. In mathematical terms, you need a function translate: (input: T) => D where input could be a parsed JSON object, a snippet of XML, an array of bytes or an array of stings in the case of tab or comma delimited files.

But what if the translation fails?

Think about the scenario of processing a CSV file line by line. Each line has columns of different types (strings, integers, floating point numbers). What if someone puts “#@$?” where you were expecting a number? Or leaves a required field blank? In other words, our function is only defined for some values of T (it’s a partial function). At MediaMath we use Scala, so the natural choice would be to model this by throwing an exception or returning an Option[D].

That said, a richer validation API would really open up the possibility of sharing parsing logic between projects, easily swapping out the underlying wire format, using richer types like Joda Time’s DateTime instead of Strings or Ints and much more…

That’s where Play comes in.

Validation with Play’s combinator-based API

The Play framework has a very robust API for doing just these sorts of validations against user submitted HTML forms or JSON documents, in essence providing a function equivalent to something like validate[D]: (input: Json) => JsResult[D] where JsResult is a more robust version of Option that can remember failures for each path or index of the JSON document.

Let’s take a look at an example service for creating new online advertising campaigns. First we define our domain model, taking advantage of Scala’s strong typing and features such as Option to safely process values that may be missing.

case class Campaign(name: String, startDate: DateTime, endDate: DateTime, budget: Double, meritPixelId: Option[Long])

Next we create a sort of recipe or formula for mapping a JSON document into our domain model called a Reads. Note that the parsing could fail for any number of reasons such as users uploading a document with missing fields, or fields having the wrong data type. We use combinator syntax to and together each field’s Reads and apply the resulting objects as the arguments to the Campaign constructor.

implicit val reads = (
  (__ \ "name").read[String] and
  (__ \ "start_date").read[DateTime] and
  (__ \ "end_date").read[DateTime] and
  (__ \ "budget").read[Double] and
  (__ \ "merit_pixel_id").read[Option[Long]]

Let’s use our new validator to parse some JSON:

val json = Json.parse("""
  "name" : "Summer 2014 Blockblusters",
  "start_date" : "2014-08-01",
  "end_date" : "2014-08-09",
  "budget" : 10000.00,
  "merit_pixel_id" : 100213

json.validate[Campaign] match {
  case JsSuccess(campaign, _)  println(s"Created campaign: ${campaign}")
  case JsError(errors)         println(s"Invalid JSON document: ${errors}")
// prints Campaign(Summer 2014 Blockblusters,2014-08-01T00:00:00.000-04:00,2014-08-09T00:00:00.000-04:00,10000.0,Some(100213))

This approach to data validation is fully type safe and very powerful. We’ve found multiple ways of using it at MediaMath.

Extending validation to work with AWS DynamoDB

MediaMath uses a variety of technologies in our analytics stack, including AWS DynamoDB. DynamoDB is a distributed, fault-tolerant key value store as a service that makes it easy to store/query massive datasets. We use it power a few internal troubleshooting tools which have front-end/API layers written in Play.

That said, a downside of using the AWS Java SDK from Scala is that it feels quite verbose and unidiomatic. We really liked the succinct JSON API from Play and wanted to see if it could be extended to create a data binding layer for DynamoDB’s Item instead of JSON docs. Turns out this was quite easy to do and the results are now open sourced as Play DynamoDB.

Working with Play DynamoDB is very similar to working with the Play JSON API.

 * Example item as returned from DynamoDB API
val item = Map(
  "username"        new AttributeValue().withS("themodernlife"),
  "favoriteQuotes"  new AttributeValue().withSS("Audentes fortuna iuvat", "Festina lente"),
  "githubUrl"       new AttributeValue().withS(""),
  "commits"         new AttributeValue().withN("25"),
  "createdAt"       new AttributeValue().withS("2014-05-19 11:26:00")

 * Case class for objects stored in DynamoDB
case class User(username: String, favoriteQuotes: Set[String], githubUrl: Option[String], commits: Int, createdAt: DateTime)

 * Override default date parsing
implicit val jodaDateTimeReads = Reads.dateTimeReads("yyyy-MM-dd HH:mm:ss")

 * Formula for validating a User case class
implicit val userReads = (
  DdbKey("username").read[String] and
  DdbKey("favoriteQuotes").read[Set[String]] and
  DdbKey("githubUrl").read[Option[String]] and
  DdbKey("commits").read[Int] and

 * Perform the validation and convert to case class
val user = Item.parse(item).validate[User]

As you can see, the code is almost the same:

  • Create your domain object of type D
  • Create your blueprint for parsing it from some type T, in this case a DynamoDB Item
  • Use Play’s functional/combinator constructs to map from Item => DdbResult[D]

Let’s take this further!

OK, how does that relate to processing big data pipelines?

There has been a lot of discussion around splitting out Play’s JSON API into its own project, as can be seen in this pull request. It makes a lot of sense because it nicely generalizes the issue of translating data to and from a potentially unsafe wire format in a fully type safe way.

Development work on the new Validation API happens in GitHub at It already unifies parsing of JSON and HTML forms and recently MediaMath submitted a patch to extend it to work with CSV/TSV delimited files like so:

case class Contact(name: String, email: String, birthday: Option[LocalDate])

val contactReads = From[Delimited] { __ ⇒ (
  (__ \ 0).read[String] and
  (__ \ 1).read(email) and
  (__ \ 2).read(optionR[LocalDate](Rules.equalTo("N/A")))

val csv1 = "John Doe,,1981-07-24"
val csv2 = "Jane Doe,,N/A"

contactReads.validate(csv1.split(",")) mustEqual Success(Contact("John Doe", "", Some(new LocalDate(1981, 7, 24))))
contactReads.validate(csv2.split(",")) mustEqual Success(Contact("Jane Doe", "", None))

With the new API you create and combine Rules that can bind and validate records from TSV files. Add Apache Spark to the mix and you get a very compelling development environment for doing fast, reliable and type safe data processing over enormous data sets (which are often stored as lines of JSON or CSV/TSV).

Processing S3 Access Logs in Spark

We are heavy users of S3 at MediaMath and have enabled S3 Access Logging on many of the buckets we use for production datasets. An S3 Access Log looks like this:

2a520ba2eac7794c5663c17db741f376756214b1bbb423214f979d1ba95bac73 bidder-data-bucket [16/Jul/2014:15:47:42 +0000] arn:aws:iam::000000000000:user/ XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX REST.PUT.OBJECT 2014-07-16-15/bd.ewr-bidder-x36.1405524542.log.lzo "PUT /2014-07-16-15/bd.ewr-bidder-x36.1405524542.log.lzo HTTP/1.1" 200 - - 18091170 931 66 "-" "aws-sdk-java/1.7.5 Linux/3.2.0-4-amd64 OpenJDK_64-Bit_Server_VM/20.0-b12/1.6.0_27" -

What if we want to do some data analysis on these access logs, using Spark?

First, let’s create our domain object

case class S3AccessLog(
  bucketOwner: String,
  bucket: String,
  time: DateTime,
  remoteIp: String,
  requester: String,
  requesterId: String,
  operation: String,
  key: String,
  requestUri: String,
  httpStatus: Int,
  errorCode: Option[String],
  bytesSent: Option[Long],
  objectSize: Option[Long],
  totalTime: Long,
  turnAroundTime: Long,
  referrer: String,
  userAgent: String,
  versionId: String

The S3 access logs need a little processing before we can simply treat them as a “space-delimited” file. For example, empty values are represented by the string -. Fortunately we can account for all that by chaining multiple Rules together to create a new Rule which maps from an Array[String] (aliased as Delimited) to our S3AccessLog domain object.

class S3AccessLogScheme(csvParser: CSVParser = new CSVParser(' ')) extends Scheme[S3AccessLog] {
  private val dateTimePattern = """(.*)\[(\d\d/\w\w\w/\d\d\d\d:\d\d:\d\d:\d\d (\+|-)?\d\d\d\d)\](.*)""".r

  implicit val reader = From[Delimited] { __  (
    (__ \ 0).read[String] ~
    (__ \ 1).read[String] ~
    (__ \ 2).read(jodaDateRule("dd/MMM/yyyy:HH:mm:ss Z")) ~
    (__ \ 3).read[String] ~
    (__ \ 4).read[String] ~
    (__ \ 5).read[String] ~
    (__ \ 6).read[String] ~
    (__ \ 7).read[String] ~
    (__ \ 8).read[String] ~
    (__ \ 9).read[Int] ~
    (__ \ 10).read(optionR[String](equalTo("-"))) ~
    (__ \ 11).read(optionR[Long](equalTo("-"))) ~
    (__ \ 12).read(optionR[Long](equalTo("-"))) ~
    (__ \ 13).read[Long] ~
    (__ \ 14).read[Long] ~
    (__ \ 15).read[String] ~
    (__ \ 16).read[String] ~
    (__ \ 17).read[String]
  )(S3AccessLog.apply _)}

  private def fixDate(s: String): String = dateTimePattern.replaceAllIn(s, "$1\"$2\"$4")

  def translate(record: String): VA[S3AccessLog] = {
    val sanitized = fixDate(record)

Now we’re ready to start crunching these logs with Spark:

def main(args: Array[String]) = {
  val sc = new SparkContext("local", "")

  lazy val scheme = new S3AccessLogScheme()

    .map(scheme.translate) // Type of the stream at this point is Validation[Seq[ValidationError], S3AccessLog]

The data pipeline above is fully typed, resilient to bad records and can be joined, grouped and aggregated with compile time type checks and IDE-based code completion. Much nicer than hardcoding column names all throughout your job!

More to come

This post just scratched the surface of what’s possible with the strong, combinator-based approach to data translation and validation offered by the new Play Validation API. I really hope the project catches on and can stand on its own 2 feet (without Play). In the future we’d like to merge our Play DynamoDB library into it as well. As we’ve shown, the enhanced type safety and reusable parsing logic can be used in many ways outside of a traditional web app.

If you’d like more info, check out these links:

And if you want to learn more about how we use Spark, AWS and Play to reimagine marketing here at MediaMath, send me a note at @themodernlife or get in touch via @mediamath.