Mastering Kafka [PART 01]: WTF is Kafka? A High-level Overview

7 minute read


Basically, you can presume Kafka as a messaging system. When an application sends a message to another application, one thing they need to do is to specify how to send the message. The most obvious use case in using a messaging system, in my opinion, is when we’re dealing with big data. For instance, a sender application shares a large amount of data that need to be processed by a receiver application. However, the processing rate by the receiver is lower than the sending rate. Consequently, the receiver might be overloaded since it’s unable to receive messages anymore while the processing is running. Although we’re using distributed receivers, we still have to tell the sender about which receiver node it should send the message to.

Messaging system comes to rescue. Using a messaging system, the applications don’t need to worry about how to share the data. They can only focus on the data itself.

How Kafka Works? Step by step…

Let’s start with a story of an application sharing it log messages to another application. In Kafka, a sender is called as a producer, while a receiver is called as a consumer.

What is Producer?

A producer simply means an application that sends messages to a receiver. That’s it.

When a producer generates message, it will specify the category of the message. In Kafka, such a category is called as a topic and every message should be classified into a topic. For instance, since in this story our producer generates log messages, then those log messages will be classified into, let’s say, LOG MESSAGE topic.

What is Kafka Topic?

A Kafka Topic is divided into one (at least) or more partitions. Think of partition as an array of messages. The messages are ordered and a new message is appended to the array (becomes the last element).

Let’s continue the story…

After the producer classified a message into a topic, the message will be sent to a Kafka cluster. In Kafka, Kafka cluster simply means a collection of Kafka servers or brokers. These brokers manage and store the data sent by the producer.

What is Kafka Broker?

A Kafka Broker stores zero or more partitions. In case you’re wondering, a topic does not need to have all of its partitions in the same Kafka Broker. In case of messages, a producer may send a sequence of messages to different partitions within the same topic. However, in certain cases, we would want to send all the messages with the same key to a single partition only.

Another thing you need to know regarding Kafka Broker is that each partition can be replicated. We define the replication factor by ourselves. For instance, a replication factor 3 specifies that a partition will be replicated 3 times.

Let’s take a look at an example to understand the partition replication better.

Suppose a topic named mytopic has 1 partition only (P0) with replication factor 3. We also have 3 brokers (B0, B1, and B2). Therefore, the followings are the structure of partition division accross the provided brokers:

  • P0 resides in B0 and acts as the leader
  • P0 replica 1 resides in B0
  • P0 replica 2 resides in B1
  • P0 replica 3 resides in B2

We can see the partitions state in mytopic using the following command on Terminal:

> bin/ --describe --zookeeper localhost:2181 --topic mytopic
Topic:mytopic   PartitionCount:1    ReplicationFactor:3 Configs:
    Topic: mytopic  Partition: 0    Leader: 0   Replicas: 1,2,0 Isr: 1,2,0

As you can see from the output above, Kafka describes mytopic along with its partitions. The first line shows the properties of the topic:

  • PartitionCount states that mytopic has 1 partition
  • ReplicationFactor states that each partition will be replicated 3 times

Meanwhile, the next line shows the partitions configurations. There are several properties, such as:

  • Partition which shows the partition ID (should be incremental)
  • Leader which shows the broker leader for this particular partition
  • Replicas which shows all the brokers in which the replicated partitions reside in
  • Isr which shows all the brokers containing the replicated partitions that are still alive (can be elected as the new leader later)

Based on this configuration, when B0 (leader) fails, Kafka will elect a new leader from B1 and B2. This replication feature makes Kafka able to handle server failure.

Now let’s look at the partitions state again.

> bin/ --describe --zookeeper localhost:2181 --topic mytopic
Topic:mytopic   PartitionCount:1    ReplicationFactor:3 Configs:
    Topic: mytopic  Partition: 0    Leader: 1   Replicas: 1,2,0 Isr: 2,1

As you can see, B1 now becomes the leader for P0. In addition, B0 is not included in Isr anymore since it is not active.

We’ve taken a deeper look at producer, topic, and broker. Now let’s dive into the last element - consumer.

What is Consumer?

A consumer simply means an application that receives messages from producers. That’s it.

Ok, let’s go deeper for consumer. Basically, Kafka uses a concept called publish-subscribe. Using such a concept, a producer can send messages related to a certain topic to the Kafka cluster. Any consumer subscribed to the topic will receive the messages. Well, I think this paragraph should be clear enough :)

Now, here comes the challenge.

What if the rate of publishing by a producer is much higher than the rate of message processing by a consumer? The most obvious consequence is that the final output by the consumer will be delayed.

Introducing consumer group.

Basically, a receiver application can be consisted of one or more consumer machines. When it has more than one consumer machines, then the collection of those machines is called as a consumer group.

Each consumer in a consumer group pulls messages from a certain partition (within the same topic off course). The processing result by each consumer will be aggregated later to form the final output.

Using consumer group, an application might give the output faster since the payload reading is distributed accross the consumers. However, if the number of consumers is more than the number of partitions, then there is a possibility that one or more consumers won’t process any message. For instance, if we have 3 partitions and 5 consumers, then 2 consumers won’t pull any message.

Here’s another case. When we have 3 partitions and 2 consumers in a consumer group, then one consumer will pull messages from 2 partitions and another consumer will pull messages from 1 partition.


Alright, we’ve reached the end of this post. Since this article only covers the high-level overview of Apache Kafka, there are several concepts that have not been explained in detail. Moreover, there are some advanced concepts like message offset, partition rebalancing, zookeeper, and so forth that have not been covered in this article. I hope I can write about them in the next articles.

Thank you for reading. Have a nice day!