Extending Django’s QuerySet to return approximate COUNTs

Update (2015-05-31): I've re-written and open-sourced a better way of doing the below as part of my library django-mysql. The docs there on approximate counting are just as good a read as the below, and you can pip install the solution.

I was looking through the MySQL slow_log for YPlan and discovered that there were a lot of SELECT COUNT(*) queries going on, which take a long time because they require a full table scan. These were coming from the Django admin, which displays the total count on every page.

“Why is SELECT COUNT(*) such a slow query?” you might think, “surely MySQL could just keep a number in the table metadata and update it on INSERT/DELETE”. Aha! You are totally right - for the MyISAM storage engine. But Innodb, which you should be using, provides transacational support and other niceties, at the cost of making such a metadata count impossible. Each transaction must be isolated from the others until it commits or rolls back, so a single ‘accurate’ COUNT(*) value per table is impossible. It would also be a point of contention from locking, which MyISAM doesn’t care about anyway because it locks the whole table for any write. Hence, Innodb COUNT(*) = table scan.

Of coures, I wasn’t the only one with this problem, and a quick google found me this great blog post by ‘Avian’ in 2011. This post is my update on that for newer Django versions, with some extra knowledge I’ve gained reading up on MySQL.

Here's my take on the code:

class ApproxCountQuerySet(QuerySet):
    Avoid doing COUNT(*) on big tables because it's a full table scan; instead,
    if the table looks big, just extract an approximate count via MySQL's
    EXPLAIN statement.

    def count(self):
        query = self.query
        if (
            not query.where
            and query.high_mark is None
            and query.low_mark == 0
            and not query.select
            and not query.group_by
            and not query.having
            and not query.distinct
            cursor = connections[self.db].cursor()
                "/*ApproxCountQuerySet*/ EXPLAIN SELECT COUNT(*) FROM `{}`".format(
            n = cursor.fetchone()[8]
            if n >= 1000:
                return n

        return super(ApproxCountQuerySet, self).count()

A few quick things to point out:

Why use EXPLAIN and not SHOW TABLE STATUS as in Avian’s blog? Because EXPLAIN can be used to extract more detailed counts using index reads as well - an extension left for the reader (i.e. I haven’t needed this yet). But here’s an example MySQL session showing that EXPLAINing a simple WHERE clause on an indexed column can extract an approximate count too. It’s only 100% accurate in this case because this table is small (from the example sakila database):

mysql> SHOW CREATE TABLE sakila.city\G
*************************** 1. row ***************************
       Table: city
Create Table: CREATE TABLE `city` (
  `city_id` smallint(5) unsigned NOT NULL AUTO_INCREMENT,
  `city` varchar(50) NOT NULL,
  `country_id` smallint(5) unsigned NOT NULL,
  PRIMARY KEY (`city_id`),
  KEY `idx_fk_country_id` (`country_id`),
  CONSTRAINT `fk_city_country` FOREIGN KEY (`country_id`) REFERENCES `country` (`country_id`) ON UPDATE CASCADE
1 row in set (0.00 sec)

mysql> SELECT COUNT(*) FROM sakila.city WHERE country_id = 23\G
*************************** 1. row ***************************
COUNT(*): 53
1 row in set (0.00 sec)

mysql> EXPLAIN SELECT COUNT(*) FROM sakila.city WHERE country_id = 23\G
*************************** 1. row ***************************
           id: 1
  select_type: SIMPLE
        table: city
         type: ref
possible_keys: idx_fk_country_id
          key: idx_fk_country_id
      key_len: 2
          ref: const
         rows: 53
        Extra: Using index
1 row in set (0.00 sec)

My second step in this fix this was to make sure this only applied in Django’s admin area, and couldn’t affect any logic in other parts of the app which might rely on exact counts. This is easy enough if you’re using a custom admin base class for every Admin class in your app:

class MySuperDuperAdmin(Admin):
    def queryset(self, request):
        qs = super(MySuperDuperAdmin, self).queryset(request)
        qs = qs._clone(klass=ApproxCountQuerySet)
        return qs

The final step was a cosmetic fix to make sure the approximate nature of the counts is reported to admin users - we wouldn’t want anyone misquoting ballpark numbers as exact, would we? A quick hack can make sure that if the approximate count is used, the templates all say ‘Approximately N’. Replacing lines at the end of ApproxCountQuerySet.count:

             n = cursor.fetchone()[8]
             if n >= 1000:
-                return n
+                return ApproximateInt(n)

         return super(ApproxCountQuerySet, self).count()
+class ApproximateInt(int):
+      def __str__(self):
+          return 'Approximately ' + super(ApproximateInt, self).__str__()

And here's what the final product looks like at the top of an admin page:

Django Admin Screenshot


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