Setting Up Elasticsearch for a Blog

June 03, 2016 0 Comments elasticsearch

Setting Up Elasticsearch for a Blog

This article describes in detail the steps I took in setting up Elasticsearch as the search provider for Pony Foo. I start by explaining what Elasticsearch is, how you can set it up to make useful searches through the Node.js API client, and how to deploy the solution onto a Debian or Ubuntu environment.

A while back I started working at Elastic - the company behind Elasticsearch, a search engine & realtime analytics service powered by Lucene indexes. It's an extremely exciting open-source company and I'm super happy here - and we're hiring, drop me a note!

Thrilled to announce I've started working at @elastic!
Working on Kibana (ES graphs)
Great fun/team! Hiring! Nicolás Bevacqua (@nzgb) March 29, 2016

Possible use cases for Elasticsearch range from indexing millions of HTTP log entries, analyzing public traffic incidents in real-time, streaming tweets, all the way to tracking and predicting earthquakes and back to providing search for a lowly blog like Pony Foo.

We also build Kibana, a dashboard that sits in front of Elasticsearch and lets you perform and graph the most complex queries you can possibly imagine. Many use Kibana across those cool service status flat screens in hip offices across San Francisco.

But enough about me and the cool things you can do with Elastic's products. Let's start by talking about Elasticsearch in more meaningful, technical terms.

Elasticsearch is a REST HTTP service that wraps around Apache Lucene, a Java-based indexing and search technology that also features spellchecking, hit highlighting and advanced analysis/tokenization capabilities. On top of what Lucene already provides, Elasticsearch adds an HTTP interface, meaning you don't need to build your application using Java anymore; and is distributed by default, meaning you won't have any trouble scaling your operations to thousands of queries per second.

Elasticsearch is great for setting up blog search because you could basically dump all your content into an index and have them deal with user's queries, with very little effort or configuration.

Here's how I did it.

I'm on a Mac, so - for development purposes - I just installed elasticsearch using Homebrew.

brew install elasticsearch 

If you're not on a Mac, just go to the download page and get the latest version, unzip it, run it in a shell, and you're good to go.

Once you have the elasticsearch executable, you can run it on your terminal. Make sure to leave the process running while you're working with it.


Querying the index is a matter of using curl, which is a great diagnostics tool to have a handle on; a web browser, by querying http://localhost:9200 (9200 is the port Elasticsearch listens at by default); the Sense Chrome extension, which provides a simple interface into the Elasticsearch REST service, or the Console plugin for Kibana, which is similar to Sense.

There are client libraries that consume the HTTP REST API available to several different languages. In our case, we'll use the Node.js client: elasticsearch.

npm install --save elasticsearch 

The elasticsearch API client is quite pleasant to work with, they provide both Promise-based and callback-based API through the same methods. First off, we'll create a client. This will be used to talk to the REST service for our Elasticsearch instance.

We'll start by importing the elasticsearch package and instantiating a REST client configured to print all logging statements.

Now that we have a client we can start interacting with our Elasticsearch instance. We'll need an index where we can store our data. You can think of an Elasticsearch index as the rough equivalent of a database instance. A huge difference, though, is that you can very easily query multiple Elasticsearch indices at once - something that's not trivial with other database systems.

I'll create an index named 'ponyfoo'. Since client.indices.create returns a Promise, we can await on it for our code to stay easy to follow. If you need to brush up on async / await you may want to read "Understanding JavaScript's async await" and the article on Promises as well.

await client.indices.create({ index: 'ponyfoo' }); 

That's all the setup that is required.

In addition to creating an index, you can optionally create an explicit type mapping. Type mappings aid Elasticsearch's querying capabilities for your documents - avoiding issues when you are storing dates using their timestamps, among other things.

If you don't create an explicit mapping for a type, Elasticsearch will infer field types based on inserted documents and create a dynamic mapping.

A timestamp is often represented in JSON as a long, but Elasticsearch will be unable to detect the field as a date field, preventing date filters and facets such as the date histogram facet from working properly.
- Elasticsearch Documentation

Let's create a mapping for the type 'article', which is the document type we'll use when storing blog articles in our Elasticsearch index. Note how even though the tags property will be stored as an array, Elasticsearch takes care of that internally and we only need to specify that each tag is of type string. The created property will be a date, as hinted by the mapping, and everything else is stored as strings.

await client.indices.putMapping({ index: 'ponyfoo', type: 'article', body: { properties: { created: { type: 'date' }, title: { type: 'string' }, slug: { type: 'string' }, teaser: { type: 'string' }, introduction: { type: 'string' }, body: { type: 'string' }, tags: { type: 'string' } } } }); 

The remainder of our initial setup involves two steps - both of them involving keeping the Elasticsearch index up to date, so that querying it yields meaningful results.

  • Importing all of the current articles into our Elasticsearch index
  • Updating the Elasticsearch index whenever an article is updated or a new article is created

These steps vary slightly depending on the storage engine you're using for blog articles. For Pony Foo, I'm using MongoDB and the mongoose driver. The following piece of code will trigger a post-save hook whenever an article is saved - regardless of whether we're dealing with an insert or an update.

mongoose.model('Article')'save', updateIndex);

The updateIndex method is largely independent of the storage engine: our goal is to update the Elasticsearch index with the updated document. We'll be using the client.update method for an article of id equal to the _id we had in our MongoDB database, although that's entirely up to you - I chose to reuse the MongoDB, as I found it most convenient. The provided doc should match the type mapping we created earlier, and as you can see I'm just forwarding part of my MongoDB document to the Elasticsearch index.

Given that we are using the doc_as_upsert flag, a new document will be inserted if no document with the provided id exists, and otherwise the existing id document will be modified with the updated fields, again in a single HTTP request to the index. I could've done doc: article, but I prefer a whitelist approach where I explicitly name the fields that I want to copy over to the Elasticsearch index, which explains the toIndex function.

const id = article._id.toString(); await client.update({ index: 'ponyfoo', type: 'article', id, body: {doc: toIndex(article),doc_as_upsert: true } }); { return { created: article.created, title: article.title, slug: article.slug, teaser: article.teaser, introduction: article.introduction, body: article.body, tags: article.tags }; }

Whenever an article gets updated in our MongoDB database, the changes will be mirrored onto Elasticsearch. That's great for new articles or changes to existing articles, but what about articles that existed before I started using Elasticsearch? Those wouldn't be in the index unless I changed each of them and the post-save hook picks up the changes and forwards them to Elasticsearch.

To bring your Elasticsearch index up to date with your blog articles, you will want to use the bulk operations API, which allows you to perform several operations against the Elasticsearch index in one fell swoop. The bulk API consumes operations from an array under the [cmd_1, data_1?, cmd_2, data_2?, ..., cmd_n, data_n?] format. The question marks note that the data component of operations is optional. Such is the case of delete commands, which don't require any additional data beyond an object id.

Provided an array of articles pulled from MongoDB or elsewhere, the following piece of code reduces articles into command/data pairs on a single array, and submits all of that to Elasticsearch as a single HTTP request through its bulk API.

await client.bulk({ body: articles.reduce(toBulk, []) }); { body.push({ update: { _index: 'ponyfoo', _type: 'article', _id: article._id.toString() } }); body.push({doc: toIndex(article),doc_as_upsert: true }); return body; }

If JavaScript had .flatMap we could do away with .reduce and .push, but we're not quite there yet.

await client.bulk({ body: articles.flatMap(article => [{ update: { _index: 'ponyfoo', _type: 'article', _id: article._id.toString() } }, { doc: toIndex(article), doc_as_upsert: true }]) });

Great stuff!

Up to this point we have:

  • Installed Elasticsearch and the elasticsearch npm package
  • Created an Elasticsearch index for our blog
  • Created an Elasticsearch mapping for articles
  • Set up a hook that upserts articles when they're inserted or updated in our source store
  • Used the bulk API to pull all articles that weren't synchronized into Elasticsearch yet

We're still missing the awesome parts

, though!
  • Set up a query function that takes some options and returns the articles matching the user's query
  • Set up a related function that takes an article and returns similar articles
  • Create an automated deployment script for Elasticsearch
Shall we?

While utilizing the results of querying the Elasticsearch index is out of the scope of this article, you probably still want to know how to write a function that can query the engine you so carefully set up with your blog's amazing contents.

A simple query(options) function looks like below. It returns a Promise and it uses async / await. The resulting search hits are mapped through a function that only exposes the fields we want. Again, we take a whitelisting approach as favored earlier when we inserted documents into the index. Elasticsearch offers a querying DSL you can leverage to build complex queries. For now, we'll only use the match query to find articles whose title match the provided options.input.

async { const result = await{ index: 'ponyfoo', type: 'article', body: { query: { match: {title: options.input } } } });; }

The searchHitToResult function receives the raw search hits from the REST Elasticsearch API and maps them to simple objects that contain only the _id, title, and slug fields. In addition, we'll include the _score field, Elasticsearch's way of telling us how confident we should be that the search hit reliably matches the human's query. Typically more than enough for dealing with search results.

You could always query the MongoDB database for _id to pull in more data, such as the contents of an article.

Even in the case of a simple blog, you wouldn't consider a search solution sufficient if users could only find articles by matching their titles. You'd want to be able to filter by tags, and even though the article titles should be valued higher than their contents (due to their prominence), you'd still want users to be able to search articles by querying their contents directly. You probably also want to be able to specify date ranges, and then expect to see results only within the provided date range.

What's more, you'd expect to be able to fit all of this in a single querying function.

As it turns out, we don't have to drastically modify our query function to this end. Thanks to the rich querying DSL, our problem becomes finding out which types of queries we need to use, and figuring out how to stack the different parts of our query.

To begin, we'll add the ability to query several fields, and not just the title. To do that, we'll use the multi_match query, adding 'teaser', 'introduction', 'content' to the title we were already querying about.

async { const result = await{ index: 'ponyfoo', type: 'article', body: { query: { multi_match: { query: options.input, fields:['title', 'teaser', 'introduction', 'content'] } } } }); return; }

Earlier, I brought up the fact that I want to rate the title field higher. In the context of search, this is usually referred to as giving a term more "weight". To do this through the Elasticsearch DSL, we can use the ^ field modifier to boost the title field three times.

{ query: { multi_match: { query: options.input, fields: ['title^3', 'teaser', 'introduction', 'content'] } } }

If we have additional filters to constrain a query, I've found that the most effective way to express that is using a bool query, moving the filter options into a function and placing our existing multi_match query under a must clause, within our bool query. Bool queries are a powerful querying DSL that allow for a recursive yet declarative and simple interface to defining complex queries.

{ query: { bool: {filter: filters(options),must: { multi_match: { query: options.input, fields: ['title^3', 'teaser', 'introduction', 'content'] } } } } }

In the simplest case, the applied filter does nothing at all, leaving the original query unmodified. Here we return an empty filter object.

{ return {}; }

When the user-provided options object contains a since date, we can use that to define a range for our filter. For the range filter we can specify fields and a condition. In this case we specify that the created field must be gte (greater than or equal) the provided since date. Since we moved this logic to a filters function, we don't clutter the original query function with our (albeit simple) filter-building algorithm. We place our filters in a must clause within a bool query, so that we can filter on as many concerns as we have to.

{ const clauses = []; if (options.since) { clauses.unshift(since(options.since)); } return all(clauses); } { return{ bool: { must: clauses } }; } { return{ range: { created: { gte: date } } }; }

When it comes to constraining a query to a set of user-provided tags, we can add a bool filter once again. Using the must clause, we can provided an array of term queries for the tags field, so that articles without one of the provided tags are filtered out. That's because we're specifying that the query must match each user-provided tag against the tags field in the article.

{ const tags = Array.isArray(options.tags) ? options.tags : []; const clauses =; if (options.since) { clauses.unshift(since(options.since)); } return all(clauses); } { return { bool: { must: clauses } }; } { return { range: { created: { gte: date } } }; } { return { term: { tags: tag } }; }

We could keep on piling condition clauses on top of our query function, but the bottom line is that we can easily construct a query using the Elasticsearch querying DSL, and it's most likely going to be able to perform the query we want within a single request to the index.

The API to find related documents is quite simple as well. Using the more_like_this query, we could specify the like parameter to look for articles related to a user-provided document - by default, a full text search is performed. We could reuse the filters function we just built, for extra customization. You could also specify that you want at most 6 articles in the response, by using the size property.

{ query: { bool: { filter: filters(options), must: { more_like_this: {like: { _id: options.article._id.toString() } } } } },size: 6 }

Using the more_like_this query we can quickly set up those coveted "related articles" that spring up on some blogging engines but feel so very hard to get working properly in your homebrew blogging enterprise.

The best part is that Elasticsearch took care of all the details for you. I've barely had to explain any search concepts at all in this blog post, and you came out with a powerful query function that's easily augmented, as well as the body of a search query for related articles - nothing too shabby!

To round things out, I'll detail the steps I took in making sure that my deployments went smoothly with my recently added Elasticsearch toys.

After figuring out the indexing and querying parts (even though I now work at Elastic I'm pretty far from becoming a search demigod), and setting up the existing parts of the blog so that search and related articles leverage the new Elasticsearch services I wrote for ponyfoo/ponyfoo, came deploying to production.

It took a bit of research to get the deployment right for Pony Foo's Debian Jessie production environment. Interestingly, my biggest issue was figuring out how to install Java 8. The following chunk of code installs Java 8 in Debian Jessie and sets it as the default java runtime. Note that we'll need the cookie in wget so that Oracle validates the download.

echo "install java" JAVA_PACK=jdk-8u92-linux-x64.tar.gz JAVA_VERSION=jdk1.8.0_92 wget -nv --header "Cookie: oraclelicense=accept-securebackup-cookie"$JAVA_PACK sudo mkdir /opt/jdk sudo tar -zxf $JAVA_PACK -C /opt/jdk sudo update-alternatives --install /usr/bin/java java /opt/jdk/$JAVA_VERSION/bin/java 100 sudo update-alternatives --install /usr/bin/javac javac /opt/jdk/$JAVA_VERSION/bin/javac 100 

Before coming to this piece of code, I tried using apt-get but nothing I did seemed to work. The oracle-java8-installer package some suggest you should install was nowhere to be found, and the default-jre package isn't all that well supported by elasticsearch.

After installing Java 8, we have to install Elasticsearch. This step involved copying and pasting Elastic's installation instructions, for the most part.

echo "install elasticsearch" wget -qO - | sudo apt-key add - echo "deb stable main" | sudo tee -a /etc/apt/sources.list.d/elasticsearch-2.x.list sudo apt-get update sudo apt-get -y install elasticsearch 

Next up came setting up elasticsearch as a service that also relaunches itself across reboots.

I deploy Pony Foo through a series of immutable deployments, (that article had two parts! ) building disk images along the way using Packer. For the most part, unless I'm setting up something like Elasticsearch, the deployment consists of installing the latest npm dependencies and updating the server to the latest version of the Node.js code base. More fundamental changes take longer, however, when I need to re-install parts of the system dependencies for example, but that doesn't occur as often. This leaves me with a decently automated deployment process while retaining tight control over the server infrastructure to use cron and friends as I see fit.

When I'm ready to fire up the elasticsearch service, I just run the following. The last command prints useful diagnostic information that comes in handy while debugging your setup.

That's about it.

If the whole deployment process feels too daunting for you, Elastic offers Elastic Cloud. Although, at $45/mo, it's mostly aimed at companies! If you're flying solo, you might just have to strap on your keyboards and start fiercely smashing those hot keys.

There is one more step in my setup, which is that I hooked my application server up in such a way that the first search request creates the Elasticsearch index, type mapping, and bulk-inserts documents into the index. This could alternatively be done before the Node.js application starts listening for requests, but since it's not a crucial component of Pony Foo, that'll do for now!

I had a ton of fun setting up Elasticsearch for the blog. Even though I already had a homebrew search solution, it performed very poorly and the results weren't anywhere close to accurate. With Elasticsearch the search results are much more on point, and hopefully will be more useful to my readers. Similarly, related articles should be more relevant now as well!

I can't wait to hook Elasticsearch up with Logstash and start feeding nginx logs into my ES instance so that I can see some realtime HTTP request data - besides what Google Analytics has been telling me - for the first time since I started blogging back in late 2012. I might do this next, when I have some free time. Afterwards, I might set up some sort of public Kibana dashboard displaying realtime metrics for Pony Foo servers. That should be fun!

Setting Up Elasticsearch for a Blog

Tag cloud