Understanding the memory format used by Arrow and Polars can really increase performance of your queries. This is especially true for large string data. The figure below shows how an Arrow UTF8 array is laid out in memory.

The array ["foo", "bar", "ham"] is encoded by :

  • a concatenated string "foobarham",
  • an offset array indicating the start (and end) of each string [0, 2, 5, 8],
  • a null bitmap, indicating null values.

This memory structure is very cache-efficient if we are to read the string values. Especially if we compare it to a Vec<String> (an array of heap allocated string data in Rust).

However, if we need to reorder the Arrow UTF8 array, we need to swap around all the bytes of the string values, which can become very expensive when dealing with large strings. On the other hand for Vec<String>, we only need to swap pointers around, which is only 8 bytes data that have to be moved with little cost.

Reordering a DataFrame embedding a large number of Utf8 Series due to an operation (filtering, joining, grouping, etc.) can quickly become quite expensive.

Categorical type

For this reason Polars has a CategoricalType. A Categorical Series is an array filled with u32 values that each represent a unique string value. Thereby maintaining cache efficiency whilst remaining cheap to move values around.

In the example below we demonstrate how you can cast a Utf8 Series column to a Categorical Series.

import polars as pl


Eager join multiple DataFrames on Categorical data

When two DataFrames need to be joined based on string data the Categorical data needs to be synchronized (data in column A of df1 needs to point to the same underlying string data as column B in df2). One can do so by casting data in the StringCache context manager. This will synchronize all discoverable string values for the duration of that context manager. If you want the global string cache to exist during the whole run, you can set toggle_string_cache to True.

import polars as pl

df1 = pl.DataFrame({"a": ["foo", "bar", "ham"], "b": [1, 2, 3]})
df2 = pl.DataFrame({"a": ["foo", "spam", "eggs"], "c": [3, 2, 2]})

with pl.StringCache():

Lazy join multiple DataFrames on Categorical data

A lazy query always has a global string cache (unless you opt-out) for the duration of that query (until .collect() is called). The example below shows how you could join two DataFrames with Categorical types.

import polars as pl

lf1 = pl.DataFrame({"a": ["foo", "bar", "ham"], "b": [1, 2, 3]}).lazy()
lf2 = pl.DataFrame({"a": ["foo", "spam", "eggs"], "c": [3, 2, 2]}).lazy()

lf1 = lf1.with_column(pl.col("a").cast(pl.Categorical))
lf2 = lf2.with_column(pl.col("a").cast(pl.Categorical))

lf1.join(lf2, on="a", how="inner")