External store


This section serves primarily as a work in progress specification. The complete implementation of this feature is scheduled for future release.

DataJoint organizes most of its data in a relational database. Relational databases excel at representing relationships between entities and storing structured data. However, relational databases are not particularly well-suited for storing large continuous chunks of data such as images, signals, and movies. An attribute of type longblob can contain an object up to 4 GB in size (after compression) but storing many such large objects may hamper the performance of queries on the entire table. A good rule of thumb is that objects over 10 MB in size should not be put in the relational database. In addition, storing data in cloud-hosted relational databases (e.g. AWS RDS) may be more expensive than in cloud-hosted simple storage systems (e.g. AWS S3).

DataJoint introduces a new datatype, external to store large data objects within its relational framework.

Defining an attribute of type external is done using the same Definition syntax and, to the user, it works the same way as a longblob attribute. However, its data are stored in an external storage system.

Various systems can play the role of external storage: a shared file system accessible to all team members with access to these objects or a cloud storage solutions such as the AWS S3.

For example, the following table stores motion-aligned two-photon movies.

# Motion aligned movies
-> twophoton.Scan
aligned_movie :  external  # motion-aligned movie

All Insert and Fetch operations work identically for external attributes as for blob attributes with the same serialization protocol. Similar to blobs, external attributes cannot be used in restriction conditions.

Multiple external storage configurations may be used simultaneously. In this case, the specific external storage name is specified:

# Motion aligned movies
-> twophoton.Scan
aligned_movie :  external-raw  # motion-aligned movie

Principles of operation

External storage is organized to emulate individual attribute values in the relational database. DataJoint organizes external storage to preserve the same data integrity principles in external storage as for relational storage.

  1. The external storage locations are specified in the DataJoint connection configuration, one for each store.
# default external storage
dj.config['external'] = dict(
              bucket = 'testbucket',
              location = '/datajoint-projects/myschema',

# raw data storage
dj.config['extnernal-raw'] = dict(

# external object cache - see fetch operation below for details.
dj.config['cache'] = dict(
  1. Each schema corresponds to a dedicated folder at the storage location with the same name as the database schema.
  2. Stored objects are identified by the SHA-256 hash (in web-safe base-64 ASCII) of its serialized contents. This scheme allows for the same object stored multiple times in the same schema to be stored only once.
  3. In the external storage, the objects are saved as files with the hash as the filename.
  4. Each database schema has an auxiliary table named ~external for representing externally stored objects.

It is automatically created the first time external storage is used. The primary key of ~external is the external storage name and the hash. Other attributes are the count of references by tables in the schema, the size of the object in bytes, and the timestamp of the last event (creation, update, or deletion).

Below are sample entries in ~external.

STORAGE HASH count size timestamp
raw 1GEqtEU6JYEOLS4sZHeHDxWQ3JJfLlHVZio1ga25vd2 3 1039536788 2017-06-07 23:14:01
  wqsKbNB1LKSX7aLEV+ACKWGr-XcB6+h6x91Wrfh9uf7 0 168849430 2017-06-07 22:47:58
  1. Attributes of type external are declared as renamed foreign keys referencing the ~external table (but are not shown as such to the user).
  2. The Insert operation first saves all the external objects in the external storage, then inserts the corresponding tuples in ~external or, on duplicate, increments the count, and only then inserts the specified tuples.
  3. The Delete operation first deletes the specified tuples, then decrements the count of the item in ~external and only then commits the entire transaction. The object is not actually deleted at this time.
  4. The Fetch operation uses the hash values to find the data. In order to prevent excessive network overhead, a special external store named cache can be configured. If the cache is enabled, the fetch operation need not access ~external directly, and will instead retrieve the cached object without downloading directly from the ‘real’ external store.
  5. Cleanup is performed regularly when the database is in light use or off-line. Shallow cleanup removes all objects from external storage with count=0 in ~external. Deep cleanup removes all objects from external storage with no entry in the ~external table.
  6. DataJoint never removes objects from the local cache folder. The cache folder may just be periodically emptied entirely or based on file access date. If dedicated cache folders are maintained for each schema, then a special procedure will be provided to remove all objects that are no longer listed in ~/external.
Data removal from external storage is separated from the delete operations to ensure that data are not lost in race conditions between inserts and deletes of the same objects, especially in cases of transactional processing or in processes that are likely to get terminated. The cleanup steps are performed in separate process when the risks of race conditions are minimal. The process performing the cleanups must be isolated to prevent interruptions resulting in loss of data integrity.


The following steps must be performed to enable external storage:

  1. Assign external location settings for each storage as shown in the Step 1 example above.

In Python this is performed using dj.config.

In MATLAB, this is performed using dj.set.

location specifies the root path to the external data for all schemas as well as the protocol in the prefix such as file:// or s3://.

account and token specify the credentials for accessing the external location.

  1. Optionally, for each schema specify the cache folder for local fetch cache.

    In Python, this is done using the set_cache_folder method of the schema object.

    In MATLAB, this is done using the setCacheFolder method of the schema object.