scan and scrolledit

The scan search type and the scroll API are used together to retrieve large numbers of documents from Elasticsearch efficiently, without paying the penalty of deep pagination.


A scrolled search allows us to do an initial search and to keep pulling batches of results from Elasticsearch until there are no more results left. It’s a bit like a cursor in a traditional database.

A scrolled search takes a snapshot in time. It doesn’t see any changes that are made to the index after the initial search request has been made. It does this by keeping the old data files around, so that it can preserve its “view” on what the index looked like at the time it started.

The costly part of deep pagination is the global sorting of results, but if we disable sorting, then we can return all documents quite cheaply. To do this, we use the scan search type. Scan instructs Elasticsearch to do no sorting, but to just return the next batch of results from every shard that still has results to return.

To use scan-and-scroll, we execute a search request setting search_type to scan, and passing a scroll parameter telling Elasticsearch how long it should keep the scroll open:

GET /old_index/_search?search_type=scan&scroll=1m 
    "query": { "match_all": {}},
    "size":  1000

Keep the scroll open for 1 minute.

The response to this request doesn’t include any hits, but does include a _scroll_id, which is a long Base-64 encoded string. Now we can pass the _scroll_id to the _search/scroll endpoint to retrieve the first batch of results:

GET /_search/scroll?scroll=1m 

Keep the scroll open for another minute.

The _scroll_id can be passed in the body, in the URL, or as a query parameter.

Note that we again specify ?scroll=1m. The scroll expiry time is refreshed every time we run a scroll request, so it needs to give us only enough time to process the current batch of results, not all of the documents that match the query.

The response to this scroll request includes the first batch of results. Although we specified a size of 1,000, we get back many more documents. When scanning, the size is applied to each shard, so you will get back a maximum of size * number_of_primary_shards documents in each batch.

The scroll request also returns a new _scroll_id. Every time we make the next scroll request, we must pass the _scroll_id returned by the previous scroll request.

When no more hits are returned, we have processed all matching documents.

Some of the official Elasticsearch clients provide scan-and-scroll helpers that provide an easy wrapper around this functionality.