The Cassandra documentation states,

Do not use an index in these situations:

  • On high-cardinality columns because you then query a huge volume of records for a small number of results. See Problems using a high-cardinality column index below.

It goes on,

If you create an index on a high-cardinality column, which has many distinct values, a query between the fields will incur many seeks for very few results. In the table with a billion songs, looking up songs by writer (a value that is typically unique for each song) instead of by their artist, is likely to be very inefficient. It would probably be more efficient to manually maintain the table as a form of an index instead of using the Cassandra built-in index. For columns containing unique data, it is sometimes fine performance-wise to use an index for convenience, as long as the query volume to the table having an indexed column is moderate and not under constant load.

But never really answers the question: why is it inefficient? I have no idea what "manually maintaining the table as a form of an index" means. But then it somewhat contradicts itself with "…it is sometimes fine performance-wise to use an index for convenience as long as the query volume is moderate…"

Is this just trying to tell me to use the PK when and where I can? What's the inefficiency? My understanding is that a query that would hit an index would need to query every¹ node in the cluster, and then each node would do a lookup in its local index and the results would then get aggregated. This is not necessarily expensive (each index lookup should be fairly cheap) except that we pay in network latency, as we must wait for the slowest node of the lot. Am I missing anything here?

But if I have a collection that has a bajillion items that — on rare occasion — needs to be looked up by a different but almost unique attribute … this is an appropriate use, right?

¹Every? IDK if replication means that this can hit 1/3 of the cluster for a replication factor of 3 or not?

2 Answers 2


With a Cassandra index (i.e. a "secondary index", as opposed to primary keys), each node has to query its own local data for responding to a query (see the Cassandra secondary indexexes FAQ). These index are also built using a background process. This backgrounding means that the index may return false negatives in terms of hits (or false positives in terms of misses).

This means that in a high-cardinality column, the rate of change (i.e. additions/deletions) from that column can be quite high. And thus if that rate of change is faster than the updating of the index via the background process, then using an index is "inefficient" (the index is performing more work than is needed by the application, which might often get the wrong answer).

A more efficient approach, in terms of query accuracy, might be to maintain a second table, rather than a secondary index. Tables, as opposed to indexes, are treated just like any other table. They are more likely to give your application the query results it expects. The downside are that maintaining a table as an index, versus a Cassandra "secondary index", are now application constraints (i.e. your application code now has to know to insert/delete rows from that "index" table, and to keep the two tables in sync via application-level "reconciliation").

Hope this helps!

  • That indexes are built using a background process is a bit … ugly. False positives are visible to the user, I presume? (I don't see how they wouldn't be.) The only part I still question is where you say, "This means that in a high-cardinality column, the rate of change (i.e. additions/deletions) from that column can be quite high." — I get why the rate of change, in relation to bg index building, would be bad, but I still don't see what high-cardinality has to do with it. (Surely, even a low-cardinality column would suffer the same fate, no?)
    – Thanatos
    May 9, 2016 at 4:03
  • Yes, a low-cardinality column would suffer the same fate. My thinking was a little fuzzy there, I admit. I was assuming that a high cardinality index would be more likely to have a higher rate of change (thus more likely to exhibit the false positive/negative results); it's the rate of change (relative to the background indexing process) which is most relevant, not the cardinality.
    – Castaglia
    May 9, 2016 at 17:01

Some terminology: Parent table is the table on which an index is created. Secondary index table is the table that's created to maintain an index on another table.

Secondary index table's data is stored on the same node as the parent table's data. Cassandra partitioner doesn't partition and distribute the index table data. So if you want to perform lookup on an index column, all nodes are queried, not just the replica nodes containing the data. (the co-ordinator node does'nt know where's the data resides) https://www.datastax.com/dev/blog/cassandra-native-secondary-index-deep-dive

For high cardinality columns such as ssn or some other unique id, there will be a one to one mapping with the primary key. If you create an index on such column, the data resides on replication factor number of nodes, but the lookup call is executed on all the nodes. In the best case, the co-ordinator directly hits the nodes that contain data and Once the consistency level is met, you get your result. Worst, if the data you are looking for, isn't present in the index, you wait until all nodes respond to find that the data isn't there. So for every lookup call on a secondary index table, all the nodes get hit. Compare that with only replication factor number of nodes getting hit for every lookup call, in case the table is a normal C* table.

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