Routing a Document to a Shardedit

When you index a document, it is stored on a single primary shard. How does Elasticsearch know which shard a document belongs to? When we create a new document, how does it know whether it should store that document on shard 1 or shard 2?

The process can’t be random, since we may need to retrieve the document in the future. In fact, it is determined by a simple formula:

shard = hash(routing) % number_of_primary_shards

The routing value is an arbitrary string, which defaults to the document’s _id but can also be set to a custom value. This routing string is passed through a hashing function to generate a number, which is divided by the number of primary shards in the index to return the remainder. The remainder will always be in the range 0 to number_of_primary_shards - 1, and gives us the number of the shard where a particular document lives.

This explains why the number of primary shards can be set only when an index is created and never changed: if the number of primary shards ever changed in the future, all previous routing values would be invalid and documents would never be found.


Users sometimes think that having a fixed number of primary shards makes it difficult to scale out an index later. In reality, there are techniques that make it easy to scale out as and when you need. We talk more about these in Designing for Scale.

All document APIs (get, index, delete, bulk, update, and mget) accept a routing parameter that can be used to customize the document-to- shard mapping. A custom routing value could be used to ensure that all related documents—for instance, all the documents belonging to the same user—are stored on the same shard. We discuss in detail why you may want to do this in Designing for Scale.