Damian Gryski
Dec 13, 2014 5 min read

Probabilistic Data Structures for Go: Bloom Filters

In part one, I talked about some interesting probabilistic data structures..

In part two, I will discuss a more common approximate data structure: Bloom filters and their variations.

Bloom filters

A set is a collection of things. You can add things to the set, and you can query the set to see if an element has been added. (We’ll ignore deleting elements from the set for now.) In Go, we might use a map[string]struct{} or map[string]bool to represent a set. If you query a map, you’ll get back “No, that element is not in the set.” or “Yes, that element is in the set”. (A map also supports iterating over the keys, something which bloom filters do not support.)

A Bloom filter is an ‘approximate set’. It supports the same two operations (insert and query), but unlike a map the responses you’ll get from a Bloom filter query are “No, that element is not in the set” or “Yes, that element is probably in the set”. How often it gives a false positive can be tuned by the amount of space you want to use, but a good rule of thumb is that by storing 10 bits per element, a Bloom filter will give a wrong answer about 1% of the time. One thing you can’t do with a Bloom filter is iterate over it to get back a list of items that have been inserted.

Under the hood, a Bloom filter is a bit-vector. For each element you want to put into the set, you hash it several times, and based on the value of each hash you set certain bits in the bit-vector. To query, you do the same hashing and check the appropriate bits. If any of the bits that are supposed to be set are still 0, you know that element was never put into the set. If they’re all ones, you only know that the element might be in the set. Those bits could have been set by hash collisions from other keys in the set.

Applications of Bloom Filters

Here’s an example where this approximate answer can still be useful. Google Chrome will warn you if you are about to visit a site Google has determined is malicious. How might we build this functionality into a web browser? Chrome could certainly query Google’s servers for every URL, but that would slow down our browsing since we now have to perform two network requests instead of just one. And since most URLs aren’t malicious, the web service would spent most of its time saying “Safe” to all the requests.

We could eliminate the network requests if Google Chrome had a local copy of all the dangerous URLs that it could query instead. But now instead of just downloading a browser, we’d need to include a several gigabyte data file.

Lets see what happens if we put the malicious URLs into a Bloom filter instead. First, unlike a Go map, Bloom filters use less space that the actual data they are storing – we no longer have to worry the huge download any more. Now we just have to check the Bloom filter before visiting a URL. But what about the wrong answers? A Bloom filter of malicious URLs will never report a malicious URL as “safe”, it might only report a “safe” URL as “malicious”. For those cases, false positives, we can still make the expensive call to Google’s servers to see if it really is malicious or one of the 1% false positives.

Bloom filters are also used in Cassandra and HBase as a way to avoid accessing the disk searching for non-existent keys. For more applications, I’ve listed two papers under Further Reading.

Bloom Filter Libraries

A standard Bloom filter is fairly easy to implement, so many people have.

Bloom filter variants

Bloom filters are a good basic data structure that leave them ripe to variations, generally at the cost of more space.

Counting Bloom filter

Counting Bloom Filters are poorly named; the name ‘counting’ sounds like you can query frequencies instead of just set membership. In fact, the only additional feature a counting Bloom filter provides is the ability to delete entries. Removing entries from a traditional Bloom filter is not possible normally. Resetting bits to 1 might remove additional keys if there were any hash collisions. Instead of setting a single bit, a counting Bloom filter maintains a 4-bit counter, so that hash collisions increment the counters, and a removal just decrements. (The math shows that 4 bits is sufficient, with high probability.) Patrick Mylud has an implementation of a counting Bloom filter in pmylund/go-bloom.

Scaling Bloom Filters

Another problem with Bloom filters is that you must know the expected capacity in advance. If you guess too high, you’ll waste space. If you guess too low, you’ll increase the rate of false positives before you’ve inserted all your items.

A scaling Bloom filter solve this by starting with a small Bloom filter and creating additional ones as needed. Jian Zhen has implemented scaling Bloom filters in dataence/bloom/scalable.

Opposite of a Bloom Filter

A Bloom filter provides no false negatives only false positives. An interesting curiosity is “what’s a data structure that provides for only false negatives no false positives.” A list of keys that expires some entries has this policy: any item that the list reports as in the set is actually there, but an entry that is listed as “not present” may have simply been removed instead. Jeff Hodges has implemented this as jmhodges/opposite_of_a_bloom_filter

Other solutions

If you want to store lots of Bloom filters, there’s the bloomd network daemon (with a Go client). The fine engineering team at bitly has written dablooms, a high-performance scalable BBloom filter library in C that has Go bindings included.

Further Reading