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Spark encoders, implicits and custom encoders

One of the nice things about Spark SQL is that you can reference datasets as if they were like statically-typed collections of Scala case classes. However, Spark datasets do not natively store case class instances; Spark has its own internal format for representing rows in datasets. Conversion happens on demand in something called an encoder. When you write code like this:

case class Foo(a: Int, b: String)

spark.sql("select a, b from table").as[Foo].map(foo => Foo(foo.a + 1, foo.b))

the call to map will trigger Spark to convert its internal rows into instances of case classes, using an encoder.

The above call will actually fail to compile unless you import spark.implicits._. One of the implicits defined is an encoder that can convert any Scala Product type (such as a case class) into internal rows and back, in addition to primitive types like ints and strings. Once those encoders are in scope, the above code will compile and work.

The same import for the same encoders are required if you want to build a dataset from a collection of case classes, e.g.,

Seq(Foo(1, "x")).toDS

Some points of caution:

  • Spark Dataframes are alias for Dataset[Row] but this Row type (org.apache.spark.sql.Row) is not the same as the Spark internal row representation

  • Row) => r) will not work even if you import spark.implicits._. This is because you need the RowEncoder that translates Spark internal rows to and from Row, but this encoder needs the dataframe’s schema. You would have to provide the RowEncoder explicitly like, Row) => r)(df.encoder)

  • The udf function does not allow you to specify explicit encoders, and a UDF like udf { (r: Row) => ... } must work some other way. It looks like instead, when there is no encoder available, Spark UDFs will try to explicitly convert the StructType of the argument in the row, to a Scala Row object.

  • Because the encoders for case classes work on reflection and are not aware of the runtime schema of the underlying dataset, they will fail if there are missing fields.

For example, this will break with runtime error:

case class Foo(a: Int, b: String)

spark.sql("select a from table").as[Foo].first()

Now, what happens if you want to have objects in a Dataset that are not covered by an existing encoder, for example a class that isn’t a case class, or a Java object that doesn’t follow bean conventions? The HAPI FHIR Java classes are one such example. In this case, it is possible to write your own encoder.

Example of non-conforming class definition (intentionally bad code for illustration purposes):

class Foo {
  var a: Int = 0
  var b: String = ""

  def setA(a: Int): Unit = {
    this.a = a
  def getA: Int = this.a
  def getB: String = this.b
  def setB_misnamed(b: String): Unit = {
    this.b = b

This won’t work:

spark.sql("select 1 as a, 'x' as b").as[Foo]

You can fix this by making your encoder, using RowEncoder as a guide:

def serializerFor(inputObject: Expression) = CreateNamedStruct(
        SerializerBuildHelper.createSerializerForInteger(Invoke(inputObject, "getA", IntegerType)),
        SerializerBuildHelper.createSerializerForString(Invoke(inputObject, "getB", IntegerType))

def deserializerFor(inputObject: Expression): Expression = {
  val instance = NewInstance(classOf[Foo], Seq(), ObjectType(classOf[Foo]))
  InitializeJavaBean(instance, Map(
    "setA" -> GetStructField(inputObject, 0),
    "setB_misnamed" -> DeserializerBuildHelper.createDeserializerForString(GetStructField(inputObject, 1), true)

val serializer = serializerFor(BoundReference(0, ObjectType(classOf[Foo]), true))
val deserializer = deserializerFor(GetColumnByOrdinal(0, serializer.dataType))

implicit val encoder = new ExpressionEncoder[Foo] (
  objSerializer = serializer,
  objDeserializer = deserializer,


  • The encoder contains both a serializer and deserializer. The serializer turns Scala objects into Spark internal objects, while the deserializer turns Spark internal objects into Scala objects.
  • You can either pass encoder as an explicit argument ([Foo](encoder)), or define it as implicit.
  • Invoke, NewInstance, InitializeJavaBean etc. are expressions that result in generated code, that will compile and then run on each individual worker node as part of a query plan. Effectively, you are building an expression tree that will drive code generation. Similarly, the inputObject is not the actual input data, but rather an expression that will result in generated code that evaluates to the input data.
Written on September 6, 2022