LIFTI-Changes ahoy

Happy new year! If anyone has been following the recent check-ins that have been happening over on the LIFTI CodePlex site will have noticed quite a bit of activity over the Christmas period. In this article, I'll try to summarise what those changes have been and why they were introduced in the way that they were.

In short, these changes are:

  • Query parsing
  • Updatable indexes
  • Index serialization and de-serialization

Breaking Changes

Before I go any further, it's probably worth noting this: the only breaking change (that comes to mind now…) is that the FullTextIndexer class has been renamed FullTextIndex. The bottom line is that it just feels better I wanted to change it before it was in too much use.

Indexing Keys vs .NET Objects

Indexing .NET Objects

This almost fell into the breaking-change category, but it's actually a change to my recommended approach for indexes. Up until now I have always provided sample code along the following lines:

var index = new FullTextIndex<Customer>(c => c.CustomerText);

This defined an index that contained a set of customers. The text these objects were indexed against is contained within the customer instances.

This has the drawback that all the text being indexed is actually stored in memory, which is not ideal, especially when it comes to indexing large documents.

Indexing Keys

The approach I would promote now is along these lines:

var index = new FullTextIndex<int>(i => GetCustomerText(i));

Now the index will only contain references to an item. When an item is indexed, a method (in this case GetCustomerText) is used to fetch the relevant text - this might be from a database, a file, an object in memory, etc.

So why change approach? Well, the reduced memory footprint of the index is a benefit, but the main reason is to support serialization.

Lets say that you were to attempt to serialize an index using the .NET object-based approach: you would need to either write the entire object out, or you just just write out the primary identifier for the item, e.g. the customer id.

The first option is bad because you're duplicating the data that you've probably got elsewhere, the second option isn't so bad, but when you come to de-serialize the index again you're going to have to get the information from somewhere else. Indexing just an item's keys alleviates both these problems.

Query parsing

I've already covered the introduction of the advanced LIFTI querying engine in this post. This change required quite a bit of refactoring as I wanted to allow for different types of query parsers to be plugged in.

Why? Three reasons, really.

  1. Extensibility is something I want to focus on with LIFTI - allowing people to adapt the behaviour of a full text index is a good thing.
  2. I was worried that people weren't going to like the LIFTI query language meaning I would have to completely rewrite the code. This way I can keep the LIFTI query language and add a new query parser to suit other people's tastes.
  3. I wanted to enable people to be able to put together their own query parsers that were specific to their domains - this way you don't have to parse a user's query to get it into a format suitable for LIFTI; it can be parsed directly in the index's Search method.

Updatable indexes

I also introduced a new UpdatableFullTextIndex class - this derives from FullTextIndex, adding in the ability to remove and update items in the index.

The reasoning behind creating a derived class rather than simply building the functionality into the core class is because in order to be able to remove an item from the index efficiently we need to have a reverse-index of items against their associated nodes, as opposed to the tree-like structure the index consists of.

This additional index means more overhead in terms of memory and CPU (when indexing), and I didn't want to penalise people who just wanted a simple write-once index.

Serializing and de-serializing indexes

I've already highlighted the new key-based indexing approach above, so I'll not bang on about it. Here's how you'd take an index, serialize it and de-serialize it to a new instance using the new BinarySerializer class:

// Create the original index
var originalIndex = new FullTextIndex<int>(i => GetText(i));

PopulateIndex(originalIndex);

// Create a serializer - this is capable of both serializing and 
// deserializing
var serializer = new BinarySerializer<int>();
byte[] serializedData;
using (var stream = new MemoryStream())
{
    // Serialize the data
    serializer.Serialize(originalIndex, stream);
    serializedData = stream.ToArray();
}

// Create an index to deserialize the data into
var deserializedIndex = new FullTextIndex<int>(i => GetText(i));
using (var stream = new MemoryStream(serializedData))
{
    // Deserialize the data - job done!
    serializer.Deserialize(deserializedIndex, stream);
}

At the moment I've implemented only binary serialization, but in theory it would be fairly easily put together serializers for other formats, e.g. XML.

For keys that are primitive types (e.g. int, long, byte) the binary serializer is able to automatically serialize the items. For other types, such as Guid, or your own .NET object, you'll need to instruct the serializer how to read and write your type - you do this by providing a delegate to the Serialize or Deserialize methods.

For a Guid, this would look like this:

var serializer = new BinarySerializer<Guid>();
serializer.Serialize(
    index, 
    stream, 
    (binaryWriter, g) => binaryWriter.Write(g.ToString()));

serializer.Deserialize(
    newIndex,
    stream,
    binaryReader => Guid.Parse(binaryReader.ReadString()));

So that's it for now. I'll blog soon in more detail about some aspects of these changes - specifically those regarding the querying object model, and also the new approaches to indexing.

This thing is definitely moving towards a usable, stable(ish) 1.0 form. There are a couple of features I still want to get in, the main one being making the thing thread-safe. I'll talk about that soon as well.

If there's anything that you want/need LIFTI to do, now's the best time to get involved!

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