What's the Deal with Amazon Kinesis?

The Amazonian marketing angle on Kinesis is pretty clear. The product page is a treasure trove of buzzwords: “Streaming”, “Real-Time”, “Parallel”, “Magic” (ok i threw that one in there myself). Great for CTOs, not so much for developers. The documentation is a bit sparse as well. All the good stuff is buried pretty deep and is spread out amongst the developer guide, api reference, and client library documentation. Hopefully this article will help you grok it all a little better.

In order to understand what’s going on under the hood, it will help to grasp the basic concepts. Amazon does a pretty good job of laying them out for you in the Getting Started documentation.

A Kinesis application has 2 types of clients: Producers and Consumers. If it’s not entirely obvious - Producers send data into Kinesis, Consumers receive it (sort of. Read on to see what I mean).

Let’s take a look at how Producers work:

Records are put into a Stream which is divided up into a number of Shards according to your estimated throughput capacity. Kinesis uses the Partition Key you provide to assign each Record to a Shard and then gives it a Sequence number.

All of that is done with a Put Record Request.

Simple enough. Now it’s time to consume those records. You’re probably thinking “Ah, great, so I attach to some socket and wait for the records to come rolling in, right?” Erm, nope. Not exactly. Take a look at the Kinesis API. Specifically, the GetRecords action.

It takes 2 parameters:


The maximum number of records to return. Specify a value of up to 10,000. If you specify a value that is greater than 10,000, GetRecords throws InvalidArgumentException.

Type: Number

Required: No


The position in the shard from which you want to start sequentially reading data records. A shard iterator specifies this position using the sequence number of a data record in the shard.

Type: String

Length constraints: Minimum length of 1. Maximum length of 512.

Required: Yes

Yep - this works exactly how you think it does. You have to request the records from Kinesis, and you have to tell it where to start1. There’s nothing “streaming” about this! It is very much a typical pull architecture. However, Amazon provides the Kinesis Client Library (or KCL)2 which can simulate a streaming API. Even though this seems to be an add-on or convenience library within the Kinesis product, it’s really is the only way you want to consume records from a Stream.

The documentation specifies the role of the KCL, but I found it difficult to distill. Essentially, the library provides you with an interface for processing records. You implement that interface, launch your application, and the KCL will call your processRecords method periodically after retrieving records from the stream. It does this by creating a DynamoDB table used to track its own state as well as communicate with other instances that are processing records from the same stream.

This is a good time to break down some of the KCL terminology:

A KCL application can be thought of just like a web application; it is the aggregation of computing resources running the same code, processing the same data.
An instance of the running application. Usually, a single Worker runs in a single process on a single compute node (although it doesn't have to)
Record Processor
An instance of an class which implements the IRecordProcessor interface. Created by the Worker process.

Still kinda fuzzy, right? Let’s try to walk-through a real world example3.

Let’s say you are building a multitenant web analytics application. You have an array of app servers collecting pageview events and sending them to a Kinesis Stream named “Pageviews” with 4 shards. You have chosen the ID of each client to be the Partition Key (you’ll see why in a minute).

To process the records in this Stream, you create an application that counts the total page views for each client and writes them to a database periodically. This application is named “Counter”.

The Record Processor for the Counter app might look like this (in pseudocode):

class CounterRecordProcessor implements IRecordProcessor {

  Map<String, Integer> pageviews = new HashMap<String, Integer>(); //a map of each client Id to the total number of pageviews

  void processRecords(List<Record> records, IRecordProcessorCheckpointer checkpointer) {
    for(Record record: records) {

      // the record is in a raw format, so you have to parse it into something useable
      PageView pv = parseKinesisData(record.getData());

      // now increment the count of pageviews for this client
      pageviews.set(pv.clientId) = pageviews.get(pv.clientId) + 1; //(Java Collections...SMH)

    // all of the records in this batch have been processed so we can update the checkpoint

    if(shouldWriteToDB()) {

      // write all of the current counts to the DB
      for(String clientId: pageviews.keySet()) {
        DB.insert(clientId, pageviews.get(pv.clientId), System.currentTimeMillis());

      //clear the accumulated mappings and start from scratch.
      pageViews = new HashMap<String, Integer>();


  void initialize(String shardId){
    // snip

  void shutdown(IRecordProcessorCheckpointer checkpointer, ShutdownReason reason){



  • The pageviews Map is an instance variable of this class. Each Shard gets one and only one Record Processor per application. You are guaranteed that all records with the same partition key will be processed by the same Record Processor
  • the checkpointer is stateful. You don’t have to checkpoint at the end of every batch. In fact, it is common to only checkpoint after a certain time has elapsed.
  • shouldWriteToDB may be time or size based, but it doesn’t matter for this example.

You’d then write a main method as such:

import com.amazonaws.services.kinesis.clientlibrary.lib.worker.InitialPositionInStream;
import com.amazonaws.services.kinesis.clientlibrary.lib.worker.KinesisClientLibConfiguration;

public static void main(String[] args){
  KinesisClientLibConfiguration kinesisClientLibConfiguration =
    new KinesisClientLibConfiguration(
            "Counter",  // the application name
            "Pageviews", //the name of the stream we're connecting to
            credentialsProvider, //AWS fun
            "the_hostname_of_this_node"); // a unique identifier for this worker instance

  IRecordProcessorFactory recordProcessorFactory = new CounterRecordProcessorFactory();
  Worker worker = new Worker(recordProcessorFactory, kinesisClientLibConfiguration);


  • InitialPositionInStream is just an enumeration that the library provides. The setting on the configuraion is used to tell the KCL which kind of Shard Iterator to get - but only the first time this Application is ever run. Subsequent launches will use the DynamoDB table to see the last record processed and start from there.
  • for brevity, I left out the declaration of the CounterRecordProcessorFactory. You’ll just have to trust me that it creates an instance of CounterRecordProcessor

Let’s run through all of this and see how it would work:

  1. You package up your application in a jar and deploy it to 2 different EC2 nodes.
  2. You start one, then the other. The first one creates a worker identified by its hostname. The worker sees that no DynamoDB table exists for this application yet, so it creates one and writes its state to it.
  3. It queries the stream and sees that there are four shards. It creates a CounterRecordProcesser for each of them and begins pulling records from the stream, calling your processRecords method with them. It uses the DynamoDB table to keep track of which records it has retrieved, and will use it to get new shard iterators.
  4. The second Worker starts. It sees that there is an existing DynamoDB table for this application and stream. It also registers itself by writing to the table.
  5. Via the table, both workers discover each other and decide that since there are two of them, each should handle half of the shards. The first worker shuts down two of its processors and the second process will create two to compensate.
  6. Both workers run continually like this until one of them fails, in which case, the opposite of #4 happens.

You can, indeed, use Kinesis to process massive amounts of data in parallel. It just takes a bit of bending your mind around the client library to understand how it all comes together.

  1. You must provide a ShardIterator, which is an encoded string representing a Sequence Number and some other metadata. It’s retreived via the GetShardIterator API call which can return an iterator either at the exact Sequence Number you provide, or at the begining or end of the shard.

  2. also available for Python and Ruby.

  3. Amazon provides a sample Java application but it’s diffucult to follow. Lots of boilerplate, a mixture of configuration resources (external files and hard coding) etc.