Elasticsearch Deep Pagination

When and how to do to deep pagination in Elasticsearch

Posted by Krystian Wojcicki on Sunday, March 27, 2016 Tags: Elasticsearch   6 minute read


Almost every application has some sort of pagination mechanism. One of the most common is a simple list of numbers allowing you to quickly switch between pages. Google Pagination

Another popular one is a prev/next pagination Reddit Pagination

Regardless of your method many developers dread the implementation and lets be honest who actually goes past the second page of a google search!


Elasticsearch has a ton of great documentation and some of it (while a little outdated) explains the issue with pagination in a distributed system

Deep Paging in Distributed Systems

To understand why deep paging is problematic, let's imagine that we are searching within a single index with five primary shards. When we request the first page of results (results 1 to 10), each shard produces its own top 10 results and returns them to the coordinating node, which then sorts all 50 results in order to select the overall top 10.

Now imagine that we ask for page 1,000-results 10,001 to 10,010. Everything works in the same way except that each shard has to produce its top 10,010 results. The coordinating node then sorts through all 50,050 results and discards 50,040 of them!

You can see that, in a distributed system, the cost of sorting results grows exponentially the deeper we page. There is a good reason that web search engines don't return more than 1,000 results for any query.

Basically the deeper a request pages into the data the more work the coordinating node and other nodes will have to do. While this may not cause problems locally in a dev build, once enough data is accrued the request can cause terrible consequences for ones Elasticsearch cluster


While Elasticsearch does have its limitations, these limitations are quite reasonable with a few possible solutions to satisfy most customers

1. Do not do it!

As simple as that, for the average user if the result they are looking for is not in the first few pages they will refine their search. So instead give the user as many tools for searching as possible to be able to filter the results down to what the user needs.

2. Change your Elasticsearch query

2a. From / Size

A very basic form of pagination can be achieved using the From/Size query parameters. These allow you to specify offset from the first result you want to fetch and how many hits to be returned.

Warning there is a limit that from + size <= 10 000, if that equality is broken the search will fail.

This default can be overwritten by changing index.max_result_window, THIS IS NOT RECOMMENDED as it could cause query time to explode due to the extra work your Elasticsearch instances need to do.

2b. Scroll Query

While a search request returns a single "page" of results, the scroll API can be used to retrieve large numbers of results (or even all results) from a single search request, in much the same way as you would use a cursor on a traditional database.

As explained quite well by Elastic themselves, a scroll query lets you perform a query and then using a cursor iterate over all the results.

To perform a scroll query the scroll parameter must specify the scroll paramter in the query string

POST /twitter/_search?scroll=1m
    "size": 100,
    "query": {
        "match" : {
            "title" : "elasticsearch"

This will return a scroll_id

Which can then be used to scroll through the results as the following

POST  /_search/scroll 
    "scroll_id" : "DXF1ZXJ5QW5kRmV0Y2gBAAAAAAAAAD4WYm9laVYtZndUQlNsdDcwakFMNjU1QQ==" 

Each call to the scroll API will return a batch of the results, as specified by the size in the original call, alongside the scroll_id for the next batch.

2c. Search After parameter

While pagination can be done using from and size the query cost becomes too expensive when the deep pagination is reached. With the scroll api while efficient for deep pagination the scroll contexts are costly and are not recommended for real time use. So what is Elasticsearchs ultimate solution? A live cursor using the search_after parameter.

GET twitter/_search
    "size": 10,
    "query": {
        "match" : {
            "title" : "elasticsearch"
    "search_after": [1463538857, "654323"],
    "sort": [
        {"date": "asc"},
        {"_id": "desc"}

For a search_after parameter there must be as many values as their are fields in the sort clause, and in the same order. Here the query returns 10 documents after that date and id.

3. Aggregate

Elasticsearch in addition to its search queries has quite extensive aggregation abilities. While slightly complex to get into at first, aggregations provide a good interface to simplify huge datasets into small digestible titbit. Instead of returning all events to a user, instead return a count of all errors and return the most recent 10 of each category. Instead of returning all cpu usage metrics of an entire data centers cluster, return a per node average as well as any nodes that are very far away from that average.

4. Limited Paging

As said before, how often do users actually traverse to the second or third page of a dataset? If acceptable and properly documented having a paging limit can be a good mix of providing enough data to the user without overwhelming them.