Design documents


Author: Owen Diehl - owen-d ( Grafana Labs)

Date: 28/01/2021


Loki imposes an ordering constraint on ingested data; that is to say incoming data must have monotonically increasing timestamps, partitioned by stream. This has historical inertia from our parent project, Cortex, but presents unintended consequences specific to log ingestion. In contrast to metric scraping, Loki has reasonable use cases where the ordering constraint poses a problem, including:

  • Ingesting logs from a cloud function without feeling pressured to add high cardinality labels like invocation_id to avoid out of order errors.
  • Ingesting logs from other agents/mechanisms that don’t take into account Loki’s ordering constraint. For instance, fluent{d,bit} variants may batch and retry writes independently of other batches, causing unpredictable log loss via out of order errors.

Many of these illustrate the adversity between ordering and cardinality. In addition to enabling some previously difficult/impossible use cases, removing the ordering constraint lets us avoid potential conflict between these two concepts and helps incentivize good practice in the form of fewer useful labels.


  • Enable out of order writes
  • Maintain query interface parity


  • Optimize for in order writes


  • Implement order-agnostic blocks + increase memory usage by compression_ratio: Deemed unacceptable due to TCO (total cost of ownership).
  • Implement order-agnostic blocks + scale horizontally (reduce per-ingester streams): Deemed unacceptable due to TCO and increasing ring pressure.
  • Implement order-agnostic blocks + flush chunks more frequently: Deemed unacceptable due to negatively increasing the index and the number of chunks requiring merge during reads.



I suggest allowing a stream’s head block to accept unordered writes and later re-order cut blocks similar to merge-sort before flushing them to storage. Currently, writes are accepted in monotonically increasing timestamp order to a headBlock, which is occasionally “cut” into a compressed, immutable block. In turn, these blocks are combined into a chunk and persisted to storage.

Figure 1

    Data while being buffered in Ingester          |                                Chunk in storage
    Blocks                    Head                 |       ---------------------------------------------------------------------
                                                   |       |   ts0   ts1    ts2   ts3    ts4   ts5    ts6   ts7    ts8    ts9  |
--------------           ----------------          |       |   ---------    ---------    ---------    ---------    ---------   |
|    blocks  |--         |  head block  |          |       |   |block 0|    |block 1|    |block 2|    |block 4|    |block 5|   |
|(compressed)| |         |(uncompressed)|          |       |   |       |    |       |    |       |    |       |    |       |   |
|            | | ------> |              |          |       |   ---------    ---------    ---------    ---------    ---------   |
|            | |         |              |          |       |                                                                   |
-------------- |         ----------------          |       ---------------------------------------------------------------------
  |            |                                   |
  --------------                                   |

Historically because of Loki’s ordering constraint, these blocks maintain a monotonically increasing timestamp (abbreviated ts) order where

Figure 2

start       end
ts0         ts1          ts2        ts3
--------------           --------------
|            |           |            |
|            | --------> |            |
|            |           |            |
|            |           |            |
--------------           --------------

This allows us two optimzations:

  1. We can store much more data in memory because each block is compressed after being cut from a head block.
  2. We can query the block’s metadata, such as ts0 and ts1 and skip querying it in the case of i.e. the timestamps are outside a request’s bounds.

Unordered Head Blocks

The head block’s internal structure will be replaced with a tree structure, enabling logarithmic inserts/lookups and n log(n) scans. Cutting a block from the head block will iterate through this tree, creating a sorted block identical to the ones currently in use. However, because we’ll be accepting arbitrarily-ordered writes, there will no longer be any guaranteed inter-block order. In contrast to figure 2, blocks may have overlapping data:

Figure 3

start       end
ts1         ts3          ts0        ts2
--------------           --------------
|            |           |            |
|            | --------> |            |
|            |           |            |
|            |           |            |
--------------           --------------

Thus all blocks must have their metadata checked against a query. In this example, a query for the bounds [ts1,ts2] would need to decompress and scan the [ts1, ts2] range across both of them, but a query against [ts3, ts4] would only decompress & scan one block.

Figure 4

         query range requiring both
                             query range requiring chunk2 only
ts0     ts1      ts2       ts3        ts4 (not in any block)
|        |        |          |
|        |        |          |
|        |        |          |
|        |        |          |

The performance losses against the current approach includes:

  1. Appending a log line is now performed in logarithmic time instead of amortized (due to array resizing) constant time.
  2. Blocks may contain overlapping data (although ordering is still guaranteed within each block).
  3. Head block scans are now O(n log(n)) instead of O(n)

Flushing & Chunk Creation

Loki regularly combines multiple blocks into a chunk and “flushes” it to storage. In order to ensure that reads over flushed chunks remain as performant as possible, we will re-order a possibly-overlapping set of blocks into a set of blocks that maintain monotonically increasing order between them. From the perspective of the rest of Loki’s components (queriers/rulers fetching chunks from storage), nothing has changed.

Note: In the case that data for a stream is ingested in order, this is effectively a no-op, making it well optimized for in-order writes (which is both the requirement and default in Loki currently). Thus, this should have little performance impact on ordered data while enabling Loki to ingest unordered data.

Chunk Durations

When --validation.reject-old-samples is enabled, Loki accepts incoming timestamps within the range

[now() - `--validation.reject-old-samples.max-age`, now() + `--validation.create-grace-period`]

For most of our clusters, this would mean the range of acceptable data is one week long. In contrast, our max chunk age is 2h. Allowing unordered writes would mean that ingesters would willingly receive data for 168h, or up to 84 distinct chunk lengths. This presents a problem: a malicious user could be writing to many (84 in this case) distinct chunks simultaneously, flooding Loki with underutilized chunks which bloat the index.

In order to mitigate this, there are a few options (not mutually exclusive):

  1. Lower the valid acceptance range
  2. Create an active validity window, such as [most_recent_sample-max_chunk_age, now() + creation_grace_period].

The first option is simple, already available, and likely somewhat reasonable. The second is simple to implement and an effective way to ensure Loki can ingest unordered logs but maintain a sliding validity window. I expect this to cover nearly all reasonable use cases and effectively mitigate bad actors.

Chunk Synchronization

We also cut chunks according to the sync_period. The first timestamp ingested past this bound will trigger a cut. This process aids in increasing chunk determinism and therefore our deduplication ratio in object storage because chunks are content addressed. With the removal of our ordering constraint, it’s possible that in some cases the synchronization method will not be as effective, such as during concurrent writes to the same stream across this bound.

Note: It’s important to mention that this is possible today with the current ordering constraint, but we’ll be increasing the likelihood by removing it

Figure 5

       Concurrent Writes over threshold
                   ^ ^
                   | |
                   | |
             Sync Marker

To mitigate this problem and preserve the benefits of chunk deduplication, we’ll need to make chunk synchronization less susceptible to non-determinism during concurrent writes. To do this, we can move the synchronization trigger from the Append code path to the asynchronous FlushLoop. Note, the semantics for when a chunk is cut will not change: that is, on the first timestamp crossing the synchronization bound. However, cutting the chunks for synchronization on the flush path mitigates the likelihood of different chunks being cut. In order to cut multiple chunks with different hashes, appends would then need to cross this boundary at the same time the flush loop checks the stream, which should be very unlikely.

Future Opportunities

This ends the initial design portion of this document. Below, I’ll describe some possible changes we can address in the future, should they become warranted.

Variance Budget

The intended approach of a “sliding validity” window for each stream is simple and effective at preventing misuse & bad actors from writing across the entire acceptable range for incoming timestamps. However, we may in the future wish to take a more sophisticated approach, introducing per tenant “variance” budgets, likely derived from the stream limit. This ingester limit could, for example use an incremental (online) standard deviation/variance algorithm such as Welford’s, which would allow writing to larger ranges than option (2) in the Chunk Durations section.

LSM Tree

Much of the proposed approach mirrors an LSM-Tree (Log Structured Merge Tree), albeit in memory instead of using disk. What a weird choice – LSM Trees are designed to effectively use disk, so why not go that route? We currently have no wish to add extra disk dependencies to Loki where we can avoid it, but below I will outline what an LSM-Tree approach would look like. Ultimately, using disk would enable buffering more data in the ingester before flushing,

Allowing us to

  • Flush more efficiently utilized chunks (in some cases)
  • Keep open a wider validity window for incoming logs

At the cost of

  • being susceptible to disk-related complexity & problems
MemTable (head block)

Writes in an LSM-Tree are first accepted to an in-memory structure called a memtable (generally a balancing tree such as red-black) until the memtable hits a preconfigured size. In Loki, this corresponds to the stream’s head block, which is uncompressed.

SSTables (blocks)

Once a Memtable (head block) in an LSM-Tree hits a predefined size, it is flushed to disk as an immutable sorted structure called an SSTable (sorted strings table). In Loki, we can use either the pre-existing MemChunk format, which is ordered, compact, and contains a block index within it, or the pre-existing block format directly. These are stored on disk to lessen memory pressure and loaded for queries when necessary.

Block Index

Incoming reads in an LSM-Tree may need access to the SSTable entries in addition to the currently active memtable (head block). In order to improve this, we may cache the metadata including block offsets, start & end timestamps within an SSTable (block || MemChunk) in memory to mitigate lookups, seeking, and loading unnecessary data from disk.

Compaction (flushing)

Compaction in an LSM-Tree combines and reorders multiple SSTables (blocks || MemChunks). This is mainly covered in the Flushing section of the in-memory approach, but compaction is equivalent to flushing for our case. That is, merge multiple SSTables on disk together in an algorithm reminiscent of merge sort and flush them to storage in our ordered chunk format.