Using Global Secondary Indexes in DynamoDB - Amazon DynamoDB

Using Global Secondary Indexes in DynamoDB

Some applications might need to perform many kinds of queries, using a variety of different attributes as query criteria. To support these requirements, you can create one or more global secondary indexes and issue Query requests against these indexes in Amazon DynamoDB.

Scenario: Using a Global Secondary Index

To illustrate, consider a table named GameScores that tracks users and scores for a mobile gaming application. Each item in GameScores is identified by a partition key (UserId) and a sort key (GameTitle). The following diagram shows how the items in the table would be organized. (Not all of the attributes are shown.)

GameScores table containing a list of user id, title, score, date, and wins/losses.

Now suppose that you wanted to write a leaderboard application to display top scores for each game. A query that specified the key attributes (UserId and GameTitle) would be very efficient. However, if the application needed to retrieve data from GameScores based on GameTitle only, it would need to use a Scan operation. As more items are added to the table, scans of all the data would become slow and inefficient. This makes it difficult to answer questions such as the following:

  • What is the top score ever recorded for the game Meteor Blasters?

  • Which user had the highest score for Galaxy Invaders?

  • What was the highest ratio of wins vs. losses?

To speed up queries on non-key attributes, you can create a global secondary index. A global secondary index contains a selection of attributes from the base table, but they are organized by a primary key that is different from that of the table. The index key does not need to have any of the key attributes from the table. It doesn't even need to have the same key schema as a table.

For example, you could create a global secondary index named GameTitleIndex, with a partition key of GameTitle and a sort key of TopScore. The base table's primary key attributes are always projected into an index, so the UserId attribute is also present. The following diagram shows what GameTitleIndex index would look like.

GameTitleIndex table containing a list of titles, scores, and user ids.

Now you can query GameTitleIndex and easily obtain the scores for Meteor Blasters. The results are ordered by the sort key values, TopScore. If you set the ScanIndexForward parameter to false, the results are returned in descending order, so the highest score is returned first.

Every global secondary index must have a partition key, and can have an optional sort key. The index key schema can be different from the base table schema. You could have a table with a simple primary key (partition key), and create a global secondary index with a composite primary key (partition key and sort key)—or vice versa. The index key attributes can consist of any top-level String, Number, or Binary attributes from the base table. Other scalar types, document types, and set types are not allowed.

You can project other base table attributes into the index if you want. When you query the index, DynamoDB can retrieve these projected attributes efficiently. However, global secondary index queries cannot fetch attributes from the base table. For example, if you query GameTitleIndex as shown in the previous diagram, the query could not access any non-key attributes other than TopScore (although the key attributes GameTitle and UserId would automatically be projected).

In a DynamoDB table, each key value must be unique. However, the key values in a global secondary index do not need to be unique. To illustrate, suppose that a game named Comet Quest is especially difficult, with many new users trying but failing to get a score above zero. The following is some data that could represent this.

UserId GameTitle TopScore
123 Comet Quest 0
201 Comet Quest 0
301 Comet Quest 0

When this data is added to the GameScores table, DynamoDB propagates it to GameTitleIndex. If we then query the index using Comet Quest for GameTitle and 0 for TopScore, the following data is returned.

Table containing a list of titles, top scores, and user ids.

Only the items with the specified key values appear in the response. Within that set of data, the items are in no particular order.

A global secondary index only tracks data items where its key attributes actually exist. For example, suppose that you added another new item to the GameScores table, but only provided the required primary key attributes.

UserId GameTitle
400 Comet Quest

Because you didn't specify the TopScore attribute, DynamoDB would not propagate this item to GameTitleIndex. Thus, if you queried GameScores for all the Comet Quest items, you would get the following four items.

Table containing a list of 4 titles, top scores, and user ids.

A similar query on GameTitleIndex would still return three items, rather than four. This is because the item with the nonexistent TopScore is not propagated to the index.

Table containing a list of 3 titles, top scores, and user ids.

Attribute projections

A projection is the set of attributes that is copied from a table into a secondary index. The partition key and sort key of the table are always projected into the index; you can project other attributes to support your application's query requirements. When you query an index, Amazon DynamoDB can access any attribute in the projection as if those attributes were in a table of their own.

When you create a secondary index, you need to specify the attributes that will be projected into the index. DynamoDB provides three different options for this:

  • KEYS_ONLY – Each item in the index consists only of the table partition key and sort key values, plus the index key values. The KEYS_ONLY option results in the smallest possible secondary index.

  • INCLUDE – In addition to the attributes described in KEYS_ONLY, the secondary index will include other non-key attributes that you specify.

  • ALL – The secondary index includes all of the attributes from the source table. Because all of the table data is duplicated in the index, an ALL projection results in the largest possible secondary index.

In the previous diagram, GameTitleIndex has only one projected attribute: UserId. So while an application can efficiently determine the UserId of the top scorers for each game using GameTitle and TopScore in queries, it can't efficiently determine the highest ratio of wins vs. losses for the top scorers. To do so, it would have to perform an additional query on the base table to fetch the wins and losses for each of the top scorers. A more efficient way to support queries on this data would be to project these attributes from the base table into the global secondary index, as shown in this diagram.

Depiction of projecting non-key attributes into a GSI to support efficient querying.

Because the non-key attributes Wins and Losses are projected into the index, an application can determine the wins vs. losses ratio for any game, or for any combination of game and user ID.

When you choose the attributes to project into a global secondary index, you must consider the tradeoff between provisioned throughput costs and storage costs:

  • If you need to access just a few attributes with the lowest possible latency, consider projecting only those attributes into a global secondary index. The smaller the index, the less that it costs to store it, and the less your write costs are.

  • If your application frequently accesses some non-key attributes, you should consider projecting those attributes into a global secondary index. The additional storage costs for the global secondary index offset the cost of performing frequent table scans.

  • If you need to access most of the non-key attributes on a frequent basis, you can project these attributes—or even the entire base table— into a global secondary index. This gives you maximum flexibility. However, your storage cost would increase, or even double.

  • If your application needs to query a table infrequently, but must perform many writes or updates against the data in the table, consider projecting KEYS_ONLY. The global secondary index would be of minimal size, but would still be available when needed for query activity.

Reading data from a Global Secondary Index

You can retrieve items from a global secondary index using the Query and Scan operations. The GetItem and BatchGetItem operations can't be used on a global secondary index.

Querying a Global Secondary Index

You can use the Query operation to access one or more items in a global secondary index. The query must specify the name of the base table and the name of the index that you want to use, the attributes to be returned in the query results, and any query conditions that you want to apply. DynamoDB can return the results in ascending or descending order.

Consider the following data returned from a Query that requests gaming data for a leaderboard application.

{ "TableName": "GameScores", "IndexName": "GameTitleIndex", "KeyConditionExpression": "GameTitle = :v_title", "ExpressionAttributeValues": { ":v_title": {"S": "Meteor Blasters"} }, "ProjectionExpression": "UserId, TopScore", "ScanIndexForward": false }

In this query:

  • DynamoDB accesses GameTitleIndex, using the GameTitle partition key to locate the index items for Meteor Blasters. All of the index items with this key are stored adjacent to each other for rapid retrieval.

  • Within this game, DynamoDB uses the index to access all of the user IDs and top scores for this game.

  • The results are returned, sorted in descending order because the ScanIndexForward parameter is set to false.

Scanning a Global Secondary Index

You can use the Scan operation to retrieve all of the data from a global secondary index. You must provide the base table name and the index name in the request. With a Scan, DynamoDB reads all of the data in the index and returns it to the application. You can also request that only some of the data be returned, and that the remaining data should be discarded. To do this, use the FilterExpression parameter of the Scan operation. For more information, see Filter expressions for scan.

Data synchronization between tables and Global Secondary Indexes

DynamoDB automatically synchronizes each global secondary index with its base table. When an application writes or deletes items in a table, any global secondary indexes on that table are updated asynchronously, using an eventually consistent model. Applications never write directly to an index. However, it is important that you understand the implications of how DynamoDB maintains these indexes.

Global secondary indexes inherit the read/write capacity mode from the base table. For more information, see Considerations when switching capacity modes.

When you create a global secondary index, you specify one or more index key attributes and their data types. This means that whenever you write an item to the base table, the data types for those attributes must match the index key schema's data types. In the case of GameTitleIndex, the GameTitle partition key in the index is defined as a String data type. The TopScore sort key in the index is of type Number. If you try to add an item to the GameScores table and specify a different data type for either GameTitle or TopScore, DynamoDB returns a ValidationException because of the data type mismatch.

When you put or delete items in a table, the global secondary indexes on that table are updated in an eventually consistent fashion. Changes to the table data are propagated to the global secondary indexes within a fraction of a second, under normal conditions. However, in some unlikely failure scenarios, longer propagation delays might occur. Because of this, your applications need to anticipate and handle situations where a query on a global secondary index returns results that are not up to date.

If you write an item to a table, you don't have to specify the attributes for any global secondary index sort key. Using GameTitleIndex as an example, you would not need to specify a value for the TopScore attribute to write a new item to the GameScores table. In this case, DynamoDB does not write any data to the index for this particular item.

A table with many global secondary indexes incurs higher costs for write activity than tables with fewer indexes. For more information, see Provisioned throughput considerations for Global Secondary Indexes.

Table classes with Global Secondary Index

A global secondary index will always use the same table class as its base table. Any time a new global secondary index is added for a table, the new index will use the same table class as its base table. When a table's table class is updated, all associated global secondary indexes are updated as well.

Provisioned throughput considerations for Global Secondary Indexes

When you create a global secondary index on a provisioned mode table, you must specify read and write capacity units for the expected workload on that index. The provisioned throughput settings of a global secondary index are separate from those of its base table. A Query operation on a global secondary index consumes read capacity units from the index, not the base table. When you put, update or delete items in a table, the global secondary indexes on that table are also updated. These index updates consume write capacity units from the index, not from the base table.

For example, if you Query a global secondary index and exceed its provisioned read capacity, your request will be throttled. If you perform heavy write activity on the table, but a global secondary index on that table has insufficient write capacity, the write activity on the table will be throttled.


To avoid potential throttling, the provisioned write capacity for a global secondary index should be equal or greater than the write capacity of the base table because new updates write to both the base table and global secondary index.

To view the provisioned throughput settings for a global secondary index, use the DescribeTable operation. Detailed information about all of the table's global secondary indexes is returned.

Read capacity units

Global secondary indexes support eventually consistent reads, each of which consume one half of a read capacity unit. This means that a single global secondary index query can retrieve up to 2 × 4 KB = 8 KB per read capacity unit.

For global secondary index queries, DynamoDB calculates the provisioned read activity in the same way as it does for queries against tables. The only difference is that the calculation is based on the sizes of the index entries, rather than the size of the item in the base table. The number of read capacity units is the sum of all projected attribute sizes across all of the items returned. The result is then rounded up to the next 4 KB boundary. For more information about how DynamoDB calculates provisioned throughput usage, see Provisioned capacity mode.

The maximum size of the results returned by a Query operation is 1 MB. This includes the sizes of all the attribute names and values across all of the items returned.

For example, consider a global secondary index where each item contains 2,000 bytes of data. Now suppose that you Query this index and that the query's KeyConditionExpression matches eight items. The total size of the matching items is 2,000 bytes × 8 items = 16,000 bytes. This result is then rounded up to the nearest 4 KB boundary. Because global secondary index queries are eventually consistent, the total cost is 0.5 × (16 KB / 4 KB), or 2 read capacity units.

Write capacity units

When an item in a table is added, updated, or deleted, and a global secondary index is affected by this, the global secondary index consumes provisioned write capacity units for the operation. The total provisioned throughput cost for a write consists of the sum of write capacity units consumed by writing to the base table and those consumed by updating the global secondary indexes. If a write to a table does not require a global secondary index update, no write capacity is consumed from the index.

For a table write to succeed, the provisioned throughput settings for the table and all of its global secondary indexes must have enough write capacity to accommodate the write. Otherwise, the write to the table is throttled.

The cost of writing an item to a global secondary index depends on several factors:

  • If you write a new item to the table that defines an indexed attribute, or you update an existing item to define a previously undefined indexed attribute, one write operation is required to put the item into the index.

  • If an update to the table changes the value of an indexed key attribute (from A to B), two writes are required, one to delete the previous item from the index and another write to put the new item into the index. 

  • If an item was present in the index, but a write to the table caused the indexed attribute to be deleted, one write is required to delete the old item projection from the index.

  • If an item is not present in the index before or after the item is updated, there is no additional write cost for the index.

  • If an update to the table only changes the value of projected attributes in the index key schema, but does not change the value of any indexed key attribute, one write is required to update the values of the projected attributes into the index.

All of these factors assume that the size of each item in the index is less than or equal to the 1 KB item size for calculating write capacity units. Larger index entries require additional write capacity units. You can minimize your write costs by considering which attributes your queries will need to return and projecting only those attributes into the index.

Storage considerations for Global Secondary Indexes

When an application writes an item to a table, DynamoDB automatically copies the correct subset of attributes to any global secondary indexes in which those attributes should appear. Your AWS account is charged for storage of the item in the base table and also for storage of attributes in any global secondary indexes on that table.

The amount of space used by an index item is the sum of the following:

  • The size in bytes of the base table primary key (partition key and sort key)

  • The size in bytes of the index key attribute

  • The size in bytes of the projected attributes (if any)

  • 100 bytes of overhead per index item

To estimate the storage requirements for a global secondary index, you can estimate the average size of an item in the index and then multiply by the number of items in the base table that have the global secondary index key attributes.

If a table contains an item where a particular attribute is not defined, but that attribute is defined as an index partition key or sort key, DynamoDB doesn't write any data for that item to the index.