David Mertz, Ph.D.
Wanderer, Gnosis Software, Inc.
As information grows, effective means of locating information become ever more crucial. This column examines the author's public-domain Python
indexermodule, with a focus on the general field of full-text indexing.
Python is a freely available, very-high-level, interpreted language developed by Guido van Rossum. It combines a clear syntax with powerful (but optional) object-oriented semantics. Python is available for almost every computer platform you might find yourself working on, and has strong portability between platforms.
This column has a somewhat different purpose than my previous ones. Like my readers, I am always trying to learn more, and much of the purpose of this column is to invite contributions from readers, so that I can include them in future columns (and in the discussed project). I would like this column, in general, to reflect the interests and knowledge of my community of readers, not simply pronouncements from on high by me. Let us see how it goes.
The project for this column is one that I hope will be useful
to readers, even in the early version presented. I have
developed a full-text indexer in Python, that may be used
either as a stand-alone utility, or as a module in larger
projects. The module is called, creatively enough,
The design of
indexer aims to illustrate principles of
reusable object-oriented coding. And the underlying purpose
brings up many interesting design principles as well (text
indexing is a quite rich topic, with a surprising number of
subtleties). While Knuth has justly warned that "premature
optimization is the root of all evil," speeding up searches
over the capabilities of raw text search tools like
is, after all, the point of an index. So performance issues
are considered, to a degree, in this column as well.
indexer comes, proximally, from a specific request
by a colleague for a good way to search a large volume of text
and HTML help documents. A nagging concern over the
usability of years of accumulated mail, news, and writing
archives provides a distal motivation for
indexer does is quite simple: it allows one to locate
(quickly) documents that match search criteria (especially
where criteria may be difficult or impossible to specify as
regular expressions). While a number of commercial and free
tools exist for similar purposes, many of these are focused on
the specifics of web-indexing (and require a CGI interface,
even if through LOCALHOST), are quite complicated to set up and
use, and only one tool (with a different focus) exists for
Python. Of course, some of the older and more complicated
tools do a lot more in terms of search capabilities. But
indexer has been designed with room to grow into additional
capabilities. Nonetheless, even in later versions, I
indexer will be quite easy to use in
comparison to other programs.
What this column calls "full text indexers" is part of the slightly broader category "search engines." For most people, a search engine is usually something used to locate URL's on the WWW. Indeed, the WWW is certainly the largest communal document store in human history, and by its informal organization is probably the set of documents most in need of good search engine. But other document collections--including, notably, the files on increasingly large local harddisks--can also benefit from search engines to find contents. Hierarchical file systems and file-naming conventions are good, but they only go so far; sometimes you just need to find a document that contains certain information.
Half the problem for internet search engines is locating the
documents whose contents are to be indexed. There is no
algorithm for enumerating every valid URL (although there are
many heuristics for finding a lot of them). Fortunately,
indexing local documents (as
indexer does, for now) makes
that step easy. Documents all live in known and enumerable
locations. While one might still want to index some directory
subtrees, but not others, listing of document locations can be
exhaustive and precise.
There are two rather different approaches one can take to a local search engine. You can perform every search on an ad hoc basis against actual file contents at the moment you search, or you can create some kind of database of what files contain in advance (and search the database rather than the files themselves). The first approach has the advantage of always being accurate, and always searching exactly where, and for exactly what, you indicate. In addition, this approach adds nothing to storage requirements beyond those for the content files themselves. The big disadvantage of the ad hoc approach is that it can be extremely slow, and use a lot of computer resources if searching is a common activity. The second approach has the advantage of being far faster, at least if implemented well. Furthemore, in the database approach, one search activity can produce summaries of the searchable features of documents such that those same documents never need to be accessed again for subsequent searches. This makes for much lower cumulative load of a CPU. On the downside, a database can potentially be out of synchronization with file contents (reindexing must occur periodically), and it will occupy extra space to store (how much space depends greatly on the search capabilities and design choices--anywhere from 1% to 100% of the size of the original documents might well occur).
Some examples of the ad hoc approach are the "File Find"
function in Windows, the
grep utilities under
Unix-like operating systems (and
kfind under KDE), the
PMSeek.exe and "Find Object" utilities under OS/2, and the
"Finder" under MacOS 7. Database approaches include the "Fast
Find" utility of MS-Office application, the similar
"QuickFinder" of Corel-Office, "Sherlock" in MacOS 8+, and in a
very limited way, the Linux
locate utility. The BeOS "Find"
is something of a mixture, but it is limited to attibute--not
full text--search. Other operating systems have other
When it comes to searching, there are many different ways of specifying just what contents you are looking for. All, or nearly all, operating systems maintain some metadata on documents, such as size, modified date, creation date, and file type (sometimes through a "file extension" convention). Usually regular file-oriented tools can search for such metadata. Below are some ways of searching actual textual contents of files (for files that contain at least some text).
* Regular expression searches match for complex (or less complex) patterns that might occur inside files. These are often useful for highly structured data, but usually far less useful for identifying textual contents.
* Word occurrence rates indicate how frequently a set of search words occur within a document. The presumption here is that documents that contain a greater prevalence of searched terms are "better" matches for a given search.
* Phrase searches are simply searches that allow multi-word terms. Regular expression searches certainly include this capability, but so do some simpler systems.
* Proximity searches look for sets of words or phrases that occur "close" to one another. How close is often a search option.
* Boolean searches allow complex relations between word/phrase occurrences. For example "(spam AND eggs) OR (ham AND cheese)" might match either parenthesized conjunction without including words from the other side of the disjunction.
* Word stems are sometimes used rather than actual words. For purposes of searching, it is sometimes nice to consider that "run", "runner", "running" and "runs" are related words (since you might not be sure which occured in the documents you want).
* Conceptual searches pay attention to words that are similar in meaning (under the assumption that any of them might have been used in documents covering similar topics). This type requires integrating some sort of thesaurus into the search engine.
* Soundex searches allow for irregular spellings, particularly in English. Rather than look for words as spelled, a cannonical pronunciation is indexed for a word, and search terms are cannonicalized internally.
No doubt, still other variations are possible, but these are the mostly widely used capabilities.
The project presented,
indexer, uses a database of word
occurrences for its searching. The only search capability
contained in the version 0.1x alpha is a search for multiple
words jointly occurring in a document. However, an algorithm
is optionally used to rank matched documents based on the
prevalence of the occurrence of search words (compared to
document length). There are some ways
indexer could be
logically and directly extended, and other ways that would be
Boolean capability is straightfoward, and is planned. Since
indexer stores a mapping of everywhere each word occurs (and
how many times per file), adding some logic to rule out or
include files as matches based on the various search words that
do and do not occur is easy enough. In fact, the current
capability is essentially the same thing as defaulting to an
AND between every search word. On the other hand, my own hunch
is that the large majority of practical searches are precisely
this "x AND y AND z" type search.
Regular expressions would be nearly impossible to add to
indexer, and I know of no database search system that stores
an abstraction of possible regular expressions. For practical
purposes, regular expressions need to be handled on an ad hoc
basis... and we have
grep for just this purpose.
Phrase and proximity searches are not currently performed, but the mechanism to perform them would not be all that difficult to add. Basically, along with the number of occurrences of each word in each file, we would have to collect a list of offsets where the word occurs (per file). From this, phrases and proximity could be deduced backwards. However, I have a feeling that adding this would considerably increase database size, and thereby also search time.
Conceptual, word stem, and soundex searches are also possible within the current general framework, but with quite a bit of work. These might actually reduce the size of the database since only cannonical forms would be stored, not variants; but at the cost of requiring considerable external thesauri and rule-patterns for transformations of words.
I encourage readers to download the source for
is just one file, and is extensively commented (almost to the
point of literate programming). But I'd like to make a few
remarks on the program structure here, followed by a discussion
of the biggest outstanding issues for future development.
The general principle of
indexer is simply to keep a Python
dictionary with words as keys, and values containing nested
dictionaries of fileid/occurrence pairs). Python dictionary
lookups are quite fast and efficient. A little extra work goes
into connecting integer fileids with the actual filenames, but
that is fairly minor (there are a lot more words than there are
In its main,
indexer contains an abstract class called
GenericIndexer. The most important methods defined in
find(). They rely on
various other methods, but these are the main ones a user of
the module will call. The
save_index() method might also be
important, depending on whether the storage mechanism requires
finalization (most do).
GenericIndexer abstract is that it cannot be
instantiated itself, only its children that fulfill certain
further obligations can. The term "abstract" comes from C++,
where it can be part of the formal declaration of a class. In
Python, no such formal declaration exists; instead, the
"abstract"ness of a class is simply a matter of a
recommendation by the class developer to its users. That's the
Python way--not to enforce data hiding, member visibility,
inheritence requirements, and the like, but simply to follow
polite conventions about when these things should be done
(sometimes through a few naming conventions, such as initial
GenericIndexer does a pretty good job
of imposing its recommendation, since several of its methods
consist of the line
raise NotImplementedError. In
load_index(), which is one of
those "NotImplemented" methods. There are many ways to get
around the limits of
GenericIndexer, but the easiest one is
simply to descend from it, and implement the missing methods
(which is what is done).
The main job descendents of
GenericIndexer perform is the
actual storage of indices. It would be possible--although
somewhat pointless--to create a
NullIndexer descendent that
effectively dumped every index to
/dev/null, and required new
indexing at the start of every search. Partially for the fun
of it, and partially because of some surprising performance
results (see the module for benchmarks), I have created a large
number of instantiable child
SomethingIndexer classes. If
you like, concrete (the opposite of abstract) classes for
shelve, XML, flat-file,
cPickle are available. But the
best one for most purposes is
ZPickleIndexer, which combines
cPickle, and stores compressed, pickled
As well as providing implementations for
SomethingIndexer classes inherit
from a "mixin class"
SomethingSplitter. At the current time,
the only such
TextSplitter, but others
are likely later. A
SomethingSplitter provides the very
splitter() method, whose job is to take a text
string, and break it into component words. It turns out that
this job is a lot more difficult than one might thing
(certainly than I thought beforehand). A lot of subtlety goes
into what is and is not a word. In ther future, besides
general version improvements, I expect to create descendent
the like. For now, we try to find text words in a moderately
A "mixin class" is an interesting concept, and is often a good
design choice. A class like
TextSplitter (or its future
descendents) might contain a bit of functionality that might be
useful for a number of unrelated descendents. Like an abstract
class, a mixin is unlikely to be instantiated directly
(although this is not as much a matter of prohibition as
usefulness: I do not raise
NotImplementedError in the
mixin). But unlike an abstract class, a mixin does not try to
contain the framework for an instantiable child.
TextSplitter.splitter() is basically similar to a global
utility function (which is how it started out, before
refactoring), but the OOP-iness of an inherited class gives
somewhat better control of scoping.
There are a few specific issues I would like to resolve for
indexer. Ultimately, the problems boil down to peformance
In the current design, indexes are stored in a single database
that is read into memory at startup (
uses three 'shelve's, but the WORD one is the only one that
matters, sizewise). To read in a 3-4 MB database, find word
matches, and produce results, takes only about 5 seconds on the
slower of my test machines (a 333Mhz Linux box w/ 96 MB). That
is very reasonable, and still far faster than an ad hoc search
tool. However, I get dramatically non-linear performance as
the database grows. For a 12 MB database, the read-load-find
cycles jumps to well over a minute. That is really
unacceptable, and is not proportional to the 4x increase in
database size. It seems like some sort of cache miss effect in
behavior, but that does not make sense to me given the actual
memory of the system.
A fairly simple solution to the large database issue would be to break to database into pieces. For example, separate files could be used for each initial letter of indexed words. Since most searches would be on just a few words--hitting no more first letters than the number of words--only a subset of to pieces would be loaded for a given search. Even with non-uniform distribution of initial letters, this makes for dramatically smaller reads. Of course, a little extra processing would be needed to combine dictionaries in memory after read of each sub-database; but that should be far less significant than the read overhead.
An even better solution to the database-read startup cost would
be to avoid it altogether. Using
shelve would seem to be a
way to do this, since it would allow disk files to be used as
dictionaries without requiring a unified read into memory.
However, on two test machines
dbhash proved to
be the installed
dbm's, both of which produce absurdly
inflated database sizes (an order of magnitude worse than
'ZPickleIndexer uses). I do not like that cost, and do not
feel that I can count on users installing a better
The problems with database size boil down to a more fundamental problem, however. Ideally, I would expect the word dictionary to behave asymptotically as more files are indexed. After all, at a certain point, it would seem as if all the possible words--or at least a majority of them--have been added. Unfortunately, this ideal behavior does not seem to occur.
It turns out that it is quite difficult to identify real words,
and distinguish them from "gibberish." The set of words
someone might very reasonably want to search for is far larger
than a simple English dictionary (documents are written in
other human languages, for one thing). Trademarks, usernames,
URLs, company names, open source projects, and many other
sources use words that are definitely "words" in the sense
indexer wants. But binary encodings--and especially
semi-binary encodings like base64 and uuencoding--also
produces, more-or-less by accident alphanumeric strings also.
The result is quite a few spurious words when mixed filetypes
are indexed. A few heuristics are used by
eliminate a quite a bit of "gibberish", but an improvement to
this class would probably bring indexing much closer to the
desired asymptotic behavior. By the way, restricting words to
alphabetic characters would aid things by a huge amount, but
there are just too many letter/number combinations that are
genuine ("P2P", "Win95", "4DOM", and so on) to do this.
Suggestions are welcomed.
This column has probably only scratched the surface of either
indexer module itself, or the broader topic of full text
indexing. As the module improves with time--and especially if
readers/users contribute suggestions--later columns will
revisit the module, and more of the theory behind it.
To download the
indexer.py utility/module, go to:
dtSearch Corporation offers a family of commercial products performing sophisticated full-text searching in various contexts. Their website is:
One other Python tool, called Ransacker, to perform indexing seems to be out there, although with a somewhat different focus:
A popular and powerful full text indexing engine is ht://Dig:
Perlfect Search is another versitile search engine written in Perl:
No one, David Mertz supposes, could wish this column any longer. He will by all means embark on a search for his lost time. David may be reached at email@example.com; his life pored over athttp://gnosis.cx/publish/. Suggestions and recommendations on this, past, or future, columns are welcomed.