Our final topic in this chapter is about an internal aspect of Elasticsearch. While we don’t demonstrate any new techniques here, fielddata is an important topic that we will refer to repeatedly, and is something that you should be aware of.

When you sort on a field, Elasticsearch needs access to the value of that field for every document that matches the query. The inverted index, which performs very well when searching, is not the ideal structure for sorting on field values:

  • When searching, we need to be able to map a term to a list of documents.
  • When sorting, we need to map a document to its terms. In other words, we need to “uninvert” the inverted index.

To make sorting efficient, Elasticsearch loads all the values for the field that you want to sort on into memory. This is referred to as fielddata.


Elasticsearch doesn’t just load the values for the documents that matched a particular query. It loads the values from every document in your index, regardless of the document type.

The reason that Elasticsearch loads all values into memory is that uninverting the index from disk is slow. Even though you may need the values for only a few docs for the current request, you will probably need access to the values for other docs on the next request, so it makes sense to load all the values into memory at once, and to keep them there.

Fielddata is used in several places in Elasticsearch:

  • Sorting on a field
  • Aggregations on a field
  • Certain filters (for example, geolocation filters)
  • Scripts that refer to fields

Clearly, this can consume a lot of memory, especially for high-cardinality string fields—string fields that have many unique values—like the body of an email. Fortunately, insufficient memory is a problem that can be solved by horizontal scaling, by adding more nodes to your cluster.

For now, all you need to know is what fielddata is, and to be aware that it can be memory hungry. Later, we will show you how to determine the amount of memory that fielddata is using, how to limit the amount of memory that is available to it, and how to preload fielddata to improve the user experience.