How-to: Create and Use a Custom Formatter in the Apache HBase Shell

Categories: Avro HBase How-to Tools

Learn how improve Apache HBase usability by creating a custom formatter for viewing binary data types in the HBase shell.

Cloudera customers are looking to store complex data types in Apache HBase to provide fast retrieval of complex information such as banking transactions, web analytics records, and related metadata associated with those records. Serialization formats such as Apache Avro, Thrift, and Protocol Buffers greatly assist in meeting this goal, but they are difficult for developers to work with and debug due to their binary format.

The HBase shell allows the use of a custom formatter for interpreting and presenting such binary types. A formatter is useful because the HBase shell, by default, only presents a string representation of the stored bytes to a user when a table is queried. In some cases, this basic representation is fine; however, in cases where more complex data serialization methods are used, this basic formatting lacks clarity.


Figure 1. HBase Shell default output format

There is, however, a simple solution. In this post, I will describe and demonstrate the use of a custom formatter that de-serializes an Avro type (in this case a customer profile), and displays the content to the user within the HBase shell as a human-readable string.

Whilst this post focuses on Avro serialization and deserialization, you can use an HBase custom formatter to perform other operations such as reformatting encoded values, unpacking legacy binary types, and extracting content from XML or JSON documents (making them easily comprehensible by users). In addition, other data serialization formats, such as Thrift and Protocol Buffers, can be used with the same approach.

Why Avro?

Most end-user applications can map complex domain objects such as structured log records or financial transactions into distinct columns and their respective column families within HBase. They often do this using a data access layer (DAL) or repository pattern if using domain-driven design (DDD) that abstracts away persistence responsibility, allowing the consuming code to be concerned only with operations on domain objects and events. For example, many Cloudera customers find it advantageous to store related data atomically as structured Avro records.

There are many benefits to using Avro for data serialization:

  • Schema management
    • Sharing complex data types between producing and consuming applications
    • Schema evolution conveying control and compatibility across different versions and consumers of your data
    • Being explicit about the interfaces and contracts between components leading to predictability and safer code
  • Compact format storage and on the wire saving in contrast to JSON or XML formats
  • Atomic put of arbitrarily nested information
  • Fast retrieval of related information in documents
  • Fast persistence of related information in documents
  • Compact and efficient transfer of real-time data

Subsequently, applications can persist such complex objects as serialized Avro to an HBase column with a simple HBase put of the bytes that represent the serialized object. The object can then be stored with a row key that supports the access pattern required by the application. (For more information regarding the importance of access patterns when designing for HBase, refer to the excellent book HBase: The Definitive Guide by Lars George.)

For example; if the application is persisting customer profiles into a column as an Avro document, the customer’s identifier could be used as an HBase row key and an entire customer profile, constituting related nested information, can be retrieved with the minimal number of read operations. Contrast this approach to the performance overhead of joining multiple master to child records in a traditional normalized RDBMS to obtain a customer profile and associated child records, such as product purchase history or web-page visits.


Figure 2. HBase de-normalization versus RDBMS normalization

Alternatively, complex transactions with related information can be persisted as Avro and retrieved by scan operations in HBase. Again, no join operations are required to retrieve arbitrarily nested and related information as the requisite data is stored as a self-contained document; data retrieval is fast.

In the numerous organizations where we see this pattern used successfully, a common requirement is to be able to read the Avro document within the HBase shell for development, testing, and debugging in pre-production environments. By default, if you retrieve such an Avro document using the HBase shell, it will display a string representation of the raw bytes of the serialized Avro doc, making its contents difficult to decipher and increasing cognitive load on the user.

In this circumstance, instead, you can employ a custom formatter to present the serialized Avro document however you choose.

Use Case

Avro schemas are specified using JSON and are composed of primitive and complex types. For this example, you will use a schema for a hypothetical customer profile that supports online marketing and personalization activity. (The source code for this example can be found here.)

In this example, the Avro schema can be found in the file customerProfile.avsc:

Avro provides code-generation utilities that greatly simplify development by creating the necessary supporting classes. For example, compiling a schema is trivial:

In this example:

The Avro Maven plugin can also be used for code generation and integration of these stages into your continuous integration and delivery pipelines.

Here assume that the example HBase table contains a column for serialized bytes of such documents and this table has been populated with data from your application. The example code demonstrates the population of such an HBase table in code using the HBaseTestingUtility.

You can easily de-serialize these documents using Avro; for example:

Thus, just de-serialize the bytes into object representation using the Avro binary decoder.

Configuring a method to be called by the JRuby shell couldn’t be easier. For this example, simply delegate the call to deserializeFromAvro through a format method:

Once packaged, the Customer Profile formatter function can operate on a column at the point of executing a query. Just copy the JAR to a known location in the local filesystem of the machine from which you will use the HBase shell.

Register the JAR with the HBase shell by starting it and executing the following command:

You can now use the formatter to inspect your data using the following syntax and your customer data type will be reformatted as it is printed to the shell output:


Figure 3. Custom HBase formatting for scan


Figure 4. Custom HBase formatting for get

The custom formatter can now represent the Avro data in a human-readable format.


This post has described how to use custom formatters in the HBase shell to visualize data stored in different data serialization formats. Ideally, these types of tools will help your team more readily adopt these efficient storage formats in your own applications.

Robert Siwicki is a Solutions Architect at Cloudera.


5 responses on “How-to: Create and Use a Custom Formatter in the Apache HBase Shell

  1. saurabhmishra

    Could you elaborate a bit on the syntax of invoking the for matter from the hbase shell?
    scan ‘profiles’, { COLUMNS => ‘profile:data:c(Java::ExampleAvro::CustomerProfileFormatter).format’}

    what does ‘Java::ExampleAvro::CustomerProfileFormatter’ signify? The last one seems to be the class name and the first one maybe the language?
    Does this mean we can write a formatter in any other language too?

  2. Rob Siwicki

    Hi Surabhmishra,

    The Java:: prefix is nested module syntax in JRuby for accessing Java classes. Java classes reside within the Java module. With JRuby if you consider that all Java packages reside within the Java module you then reference the class by removing the dots in the Java style namespace and converting it to camel case.

    An example will clarify.

    So if in java you have:


    in JRuby you have:


    Example code is here ( if you want to clone and build your own.

    Many Thanks


    1. gg

      I use your example code. When I execute command require 'customerprofileformatter.jar' => true, it throw the error: TypeError: can't convert Hash into String, how to solve this issue?

      1. entlog

        Just faced the same issue. The problem is that the command is:

        require ‘customerprofileformatter.jar’

        (without the => true…that is the response of the command).

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