Writing Spark Native Functions (Catalyst Expressions)

This post explains how Spark’s public interface is exposed via catalyst expressions and how you can write your own functions in this manner.

Catalyst expressions are a great way to write performant code and learn about how Spark works under the hood.

Walking backwards in the Spark codebase

The org.apache.spark.sql.functions object contains the following add_months method:

def add_months(startDate: Column, numMonths: Column): Column = withExpr {
  AddMonths(startDate.expr, numMonths.expr)

The IntelliJ text editor lets you easily navigate the source code with the Command + b shortcut. Hover the mouse over the AddMonths class and press Command + b to see where it’s defined in the source code.

Here’s the class from the org.apache.spark.sql.catalyst.expressions.datetimeExpressions file.

case class AddMonths(startDate: Expression, numMonths: Expression)
  extends BinaryExpression with ImplicitCastInputTypes {

  override def left: Expression = startDate
  override def right: Expression = numMonths

  override def inputTypes: Seq[AbstractDataType] = Seq(DateType, IntegerType)

  override def dataType: DataType = DateType

  override def nullSafeEval(start: Any, months: Any): Any = {
    DateTimeUtils.dateAddMonths(start.asInstanceOf[Int], months.asInstanceOf[Int])

  override def doGenCode(ctx: CodegenContext, ev: ExprCode): ExprCode = {
    val dtu = DateTimeUtils.getClass.getName.stripSuffix("$")
    defineCodeGen(ctx, ev, (sd, m) => {
      s"""$dtu.dateAddMonths($sd, $m)"""

  override def prettyName: String = "add_months"

Let’s keep digging and see how DateTimeUtils.dateAddMonths is defined.

Put your cursor over the dateAddMonths function invocation (in the nullSafeEval method) and press Command + b again.

You’ll navigate to this function in org.apache.spark.sql.catalyst.util.DateTimeUtils:

def dateAddMonths(days: SQLDate, months: Int): SQLDate = {

Defining your own Catalyst expression

Let’s define a bebe_beginning_of_month function that returns the first day in a month.

Start by defining the function in org.apache.spark.sql.BebeFunctions:

object BebeFunctions {

  private def withExpr(expr: Expression): Column = Column(expr)

  def bebe_beginning_of_month(col: Column): Column = withExpr {


Define a BeginningOfMonth class in org.apache.spark.sql.catalyst.expressions.BebeDatetimeExpressions:

case class BeginningOfMonth(startDate: Expression) extends UnaryExpression with ImplicitCastInputTypes {
  override def child: Expression = startDate

  override def inputTypes: Seq[AbstractDataType] = Seq(DateType)

  override def dataType: DataType = DateType

  override def nullSafeEval(date: Any): Any = {

  override protected def doGenCode(ctx: CodegenContext, ev: ExprCode): ExprCode = {
    val dtu = BebeDateTimeUtils.getClass.getName.stripSuffix("$")
    defineCodeGen(ctx, ev, sd => s"$dtu.getFirstDayOfMonth($sd)")

  override def prettyName: String = "beginning_of_month"

Now define the org.apache.spark.sql.catalyst.util.BebeDateTimeUtils.getFirstDayOfMonth function:

package org.apache.spark.sql.catalyst.util

import java.time.LocalDate

object BebeDateTimeUtils {

  type SQLDate = Int

   * Returns first day of the month for the given date. The date is expressed in days
   * since 1.1.1970.
  def getFirstDayOfMonth(date: SQLDate): SQLDate = {
    val localDate = LocalDate.ofEpochDay(date)
    date - localDate.getDayOfMonth + 1


Let’s create a sample DataFrame and run the function to see it in action.

val df = Seq(
  .withColumn("beginning_of_month", bebe_beginning_of_month(col("some_date")))

| some_date|beginning_of_month|
|2020-01-15|        2020-01-01|
|2020-01-20|        2020-01-01|
|      null|              null|

Run df.explain(true) to see the logical plans.

== Parsed Logical Plan ==
'Project [some_date#39, bebe_beginning_of_month('some_date) AS beginning_of_month#41]
+- Project [value#36 AS some_date#39]
   +- LocalRelation [value#36]

== Analyzed Logical Plan ==
some_date: date, beginning_of_month: date
Project [some_date#39, bebe_beginning_of_month(some_date#39) AS beginning_of_month#41]
+- Project [value#36 AS some_date#39]
   +- LocalRelation [value#36]

== Optimized Logical Plan ==
LocalRelation [some_date#39, beginning_of_month#41]

== Physical Plan ==
LocalTableScan [some_date#39, beginning_of_month#41]

Notice how Spark can “see” the bebe_beginning_of_month function that’s in logical plans. Spark can optimize catalyst expressions because they’re visible.

UDFs on the other hand are black boxes for Spark and should be avoided whenever possible.

Catalyst expression libraries

The core Spark team is hesitant to expose some Catalyst expressions to the Scala API, so these functions will be exposed with the bebe project.

There is also an itachi project that brings familiar functions from Postgres, Teradata, and Presto to Apache Spark.

spark-alchemy provides an interface for registering Spark native functions and demonstrates how to build useful HyperLogLog native functions. Sim has a great blog post on Spark native functions if you’re looking for more information.

Next steps

Spark native functions often times need to be written in the org.apache.spark.sql namespace to bypass package privacy.

It’s best to defined Spark native functions in a separate repo, so you’re not mixing the Spark namespace with your application code.

Spark native functions are especially appropriate to fill in functionality gaps in the Spark API. The Spark maintainers have a clear preference to keep the Spark API surface area small, so separate projects that add additional functionality are the path forward.