Why is DuckDB the default backend for Ibis?


Phillip Cloud


February 20, 2024

Why DuckDB?

Occasionally people ask us why DuckDB is the default backend.

This blog posts aims to address this question.

A bit of history

For years, Ibis had no default backend. We had somewhat hidden functionality to read parquet files with pandas, but no one working on the project at the time was comfortable making pandas execution the default.

pandas is great, but we didn’t want to inherit all of its technical baggage for users, especially new users, of Ibis.

So, we decided to not make any backend the official default because our primary option for local execution wouldn’t give users a good out-of-the-box experience.


DuckDB came along as the new kid on the block a few years ago, offering the uber-convenience of SQLite but for analytic use cases. It came with excellent performance to boot.

It also had a thriving open source community and was built on a solid foundation of decades of academic database research, both of which made us all optimistic about its future.

It is an excellent engine for a use case that is critical for a great experience when using Ibis: executing SQL against local data. In particular, DuckDB handles larger-than-memory CSV, Apache Parquet, and JSON files with aplomb.

It was also a big plus that it had entry and exit points for existing ecosystem tools like Apache Arrow, and yes, pandas.

Fast forward to today

DuckDB is now the primary recommended Ibis backend for working with local data.

After we release 9.0, the DuckDB backend will surpass all of our other local backends in both performance and feature set, including AS OF JOIN support.

What about other backends?

At the time we made the decision to make DuckDB the default backend we had a few other options:


Dask is great, but also inherits the technical baggage of pandas, the least desirable aspect of which is pandas type instability.

We think that users should be able to handle strings and nulls without worrying about the NULL/NaN problem that every pandas and Dask user must grapple with.


DataFusion continues to improve year over year, but at the time we were choosing a default backend it wasn’t feature complete enough for us to choose it as the default.

It’s still lacking some important functionality that DuckDB has had since its early days:



Earlier I mentioned the technical baggage of pandas.

  1. Type instability. Introducing a NULL into an integer column causes an upcast to float.
  2. A very complex set of combinations of possible types. For example, there are three kinds of NULL values in pandas and three kinds of integer arrays to use as backing storage for a Series object.
  3. Extremely undesirable memory allocation behavior. We didn’t want to have to give users a rule of thumb about how much extra memory to have around to ensure their workload would complete.

Another challenge with choosing pandas is that it makes iterating between development and production more difficult, because pandas diverges quite a lot from most production analytics databases.


We didn’t think it was desirable to saddle users with a distributed system and a JVM to analyze local files.


SQLite is a wonderful tool, but it has a number of properties that make it unsuitable for analytics out of the box:

  1. Weak typing. This has consequences for storage and memory allocation. In particular, efficient conversions to and from Apache Arrow are not possible.
  2. No native complex type support, JSON doesn’t really count, see the previous point.
  3. Generally joins are slow unless your join key columns are indexed.


DuckDB is the primary default backend because it fits our requirements:

  1. Great performance for local data
  2. A thriving open source community
  3. A solid foundation
  4. A large and well-supported feature set

We are excited to see DuckDB continue to grow and evolve, and we are excited to work with the community to make Ibis the premier Python DataFrame API!

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