Log Structured Merge Tree (LSM-tree) Implementations (a Demo and LevelDB)

Eileen Pangu
8 min readDec 28, 2020


Log structured merge tree, or LSM-tree, is a famous data structure that has been widely adopted by many modern “big data” products, such as BigTable, HBase, LevelDB, etc. Its core idea is very simple and perhaps somewhat counterintuitive if you’re used to the traditional database architecture.

LST-tree keeps data both in memory and on disk. The in-memory part is a conventional update-in-place data structure with necessary indexing. The on-disk part, however, consists of immutable sorted string tables (SSTable). The SSTable stores key-value pairs. Both the key and the value are of string type. You can also treat them as general byte arrays. The SSTable file format is conceptually a list of consecutive key-value pairs sorted in key order.

When the memory fills up, the data is flushed to disk. The SSTables on disk are never mutated. Periodically, they’re merged and compacted into bigger SSTables. The merge works like an external merge sort. The compaction keeps the latest value of a key by collapsing multiple updates of that same key, and discards deleted keys (marked by a tombstone bit).

The benefit of this data structure is that it supports high write throughput because random updates only happen in memory and all disk writes are sequential append. This is reminiscent of appending to log, and that’s where it got its name. Research has shown that sequential disk operations can run even faster than random memory access.

There are numerous resources online that describe this data structure in more detail. I won’t repeat their work. Instead, I want to talk about implementations. Knowing the algorithm/data structure is one thing, being able to implement it and put it into practical use is another, which often demands a higher level of proficiency. I’ll walk through a demo implementation I created for fun, and then discuss what else we need to consider for a product grade system using LevelDB as an example.

Demo Implementation

The full repo is freely available at https://github.com/eileen-code4fun/LSM-Tree. It’s written in Golang. In the demo, I developed a thread-safe LSMTree struct that accepts new key-value pairs through a Put method and supports retrieval through a Get method. That’s all there is for caller-facing interfaces. See figure-1 for an overview of the implementation.

Eileen Pangu

Manager and Tech Lead @ FANG. Enthusiastic tech generalist. Enjoy distilling wisdom from experiences. Believe in that learning is a lifelong journey.