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Index basics

Indexes allow fast access to documents, provided the indexed attribute(s) are used in a query. While ArangoDB automatically indexes some system attributes, users are free to create extra indexes on non-system attributes of documents.

User-defined indexes can be created on collection level. Most user-defined indexes can be created by specifying the names of the index attributes. Some index types allow indexing just one attribute (e.g. fulltext index) whereas other index types allow indexing multiple attributes at the same time.

Learn how to use different indexes efficiently by going through the ArangoDB Performance Course.

The system attributes _id, _key, _from and _to are automatically indexed by ArangoDB, without the user being required to create extra indexes for them. _id and _key are covered by a collection’s primary key, and _from and _to are covered by an edge collection’s edge index automatically.

You cannot use the _id system attribute, nor sub-attributes with this name, in user-defined indexes, but indexing _key, _rev, _from, and _to is possible.

You cannot index fields that contain . in their attribute names because dots are interpreted as paths of nested attributes. For example, fields: [""] indexes the value of the nested attribute bar under the top-level attribute foo ({ "foo": { "bar": "value" } }) and not a top-level attribute ({ "": "value" }).

Creating new indexes is by default done under an exclusive collection lock. The collection is not available while the index is being created. This “foreground” index creation can be undesirable, if you have to perform it on a live system without a dedicated maintenance window.

For potentially long running index creation operations the RocksDB storage-engine also supports creating indexes in “background”. The collection remains (mostly) available during the index creation, see the section Creating Indexes in Background for more information.

ArangoDB provides the following index types:

Primary Index

For each collection there will always be a primary index which is a persistent index for the document keys (_key attribute) of all documents in the collection. The primary index allows quick selection of documents in the collection using either the _key or _id attributes. It will be used from within AQL queries automatically when performing equality lookups on _key or _id.

There are also dedicated functions to find a document given its _key or _id that will always make use of the primary index:


The primary index can be used for range queries and sorting as persistent indexes are sorted.

The primary index of a collection cannot be dropped or changed, and there is no mechanism to create user-defined primary indexes.

Edge Index

Every edge collection also has an automatically created edge index. The edge index provides quick access to documents by either their _from or _to attributes. It can therefore be used to quickly find connections between vertex documents and is invoked when the connecting edges of a vertex are queried.

Edge indexes are used from within AQL when performing equality lookups on _from or _to values in an edge collections. There are also dedicated functions to find edges given their _from or _to values that will always make use of the edge index:


The edge index stores the union of all _from and _to attributes. It can be used for equality lookups, but not for range queries or for sorting. Edge indexes are automatically created for edge collections.

It is not possible to create user-defined edge indexes. However, it is possible to freely use the _from and _to attributes in user-defined indexes.

An edge index cannot be dropped or changed.

Persistent Index

The persistent index is a sorted index with persistence. The index entries are written to disk when documents are stored or updated. That means the index entries do not need to be rebuilt from the collection data when the server is restarted or the indexed collection is initially loaded. Thus using persistent indexes may reduce collection loading times.

The persistent index type can be used for secondary indexes at the moment. That means the persistent index currently cannot be made the only index for a collection, because there will always be the in-memory primary index for the collection in addition, and potentially more indexes (such as the edges index for an edge collection).

The index implementation is using the RocksDB engine, and it provides logarithmic complexity for insert, update, and remove operations. As the persistent index is not an in-memory index, it does not store pointers into the primary index as all the in-memory indexes do, but instead it stores a document’s primary key. To retrieve a document via a persistent index via an index value lookup, there will therefore be an additional O(1) lookup into the primary index to fetch the actual document.

As the persistent index is sorted, it can be used for point lookups, range queries and sorting operations, but only if either all index attributes are provided in a query, or if a leftmost prefix of the index attributes is specified.

TTL (time-to-live) Index

The TTL index type provided by ArangoDB can be used for automatically removing expired documents from a collection.

A TTL index is set up by setting an expireAfter value and by picking a single document attribute which contains the documents’ creation date and time. Documents are expired after expireAfter seconds after their creation time. The creation time is specified as either a numeric timestamp (Unix timestamp) or a date string in format YYYY-MM-DDTHH:MM:SS, optionally with milliseconds after a decimal point in the format YYYY-MM-DDTHH:MM:SS.MMM and an optional timezone offset. All date strings without a timezone offset will be interpreted as UTC dates.

For example, if expireAfter is set to 600 seconds (10 minutes) and the index attribute is “creationDate” and there is the following document:

{ "creationDate" : 1550165973 }

This document will be indexed with a creation date time value of 1550165973, which translates to the human-readable date 2019-02-14T17:39:33.000Z. The document will expire 600 seconds afterwards, which is at timestamp 1550166573 (or 2019-02-14T17:49:33.000Z in the human-readable version).

The actual removal of expired documents will not necessarily happen immediately. Expired documents will eventually removed by a background thread that is periodically going through all TTL indexes and removing the expired documents. The frequency for invoking this background thread can be configured using the --ttl.frequency startup option.

There is no guarantee when exactly the removal of expired documents will be carried out, so queries may still find and return documents that have already expired. These will eventually be removed when the background thread kicks in and has capacity to remove the expired documents. It is guaranteed however that only documents which are past their expiration time will actually be removed.

Please note that the numeric date time values for the index attribute has to be specified in seconds since January 1st 1970 (Unix timestamp). To calculate the current timestamp from JavaScript in this format, there is / 1000; to calculate it from an arbitrary Date instance, there is Date.getTime() / 1000. In AQL you can do DATE_NOW() / 1000 or divide an arbitrary timestamp that is in milliseconds by 1000 to convert it to seconds.

Alternatively, the index attribute values can be specified as a date string in format YYYY-MM-DDTHH:MM:SS, optionally with milliseconds after a decimal point in the format YYYY-MM-DDTHH:MM:SS.MMM and an optional timezone offset. All date strings without a timezone offset will be interpreted as UTC dates.

The above example document using a datestring attribute value would be

{ "creationDate" : "2019-02-14T17:39:33.000Z" }

In case the index attribute does not contain a numeric value nor a proper date string, the document will not be stored in the TTL index and thus will not become a candidate for expiration and removal. Providing either a non-numeric value or even no value for the index attribute is a supported way of keeping documents from being expired and removed.

Geo Index

Users can create additional geo indexes on one or multiple attributes in collections. A geo index is used to find places on the surface of the earth fast.

The geo index stores two-dimensional coordinates. It can be created on either two separate document attributes (latitude and longitude) or a single array attribute that contains both latitude and longitude. Latitude and longitude must be numeric values.

Furthermore, a geo index can also index standard GeoJSON objects. GeoJSON uses the JSON syntax to describe geometric objects on the surface of the Earth. It supports points, lines, and polygons. See Geo-Spatial Indexes.

The geo index provides operations to find documents with coordinates nearest to a given comparison coordinate, and to find documents with coordinates that are within a specifiable radius around a comparison coordinate.

The geo index is used via dedicated functions in AQL and it is implicitly applied when a SORT or FILTER is used with the GEO_DISTANCE() function, or if FILTER conditions with GEO_CONTAINS() or GEO_INTERSECTS() are used. It will not be used for other types of queries or conditions.

Fulltext Index

A fulltext index can be used to find words, or prefixes of words inside documents. A fulltext index can be created on a single attribute only, and will index all words contained in documents that have a textual value in that attribute. Only words with a (specifiable) minimum length are indexed. Word tokenization is done using the word boundary analysis provided by libicu, which is taking into account the selected language provided at server start. Words are indexed in their lower-cased form. The index supports complete match queries (full words) and prefix queries, plus basic logical operations such as and, or and not for combining partial results.

The fulltext index is sparse, meaning it will only index documents for which the index attribute is set and contains a string value. Additionally, only words with a configurable minimum length will be included in the index.

The fulltext index is used via dedicated functions in AQL, but will not be enabled for other types of queries or conditions.

For advanced full-text search capabilities consider ArangoSearch.

Indexes and non-ASCII texts

Before strings are put into an index, they are normalized by using ICU. There are several characters in the Unicode space, which have a similar meaning. In order to have all variants of them in a result set when querying, the strings are normalized for the index. This slightly changes the behaviour of FILTER statements with == - comparisons when ran on non-indexed document attributes. While the index may still be useful by fetching a little more results than you want to actually work with, you may want to have an additional FILTER MD5(doc.attr) == MD5(@comparisonstring) to make sure that in the end the result only contains the actual values you need.

Indexing attributes and sub-attributes

Top-level as well as nested attributes can be indexed. For attributes at the top level, the attribute names alone are required. To index a single field, pass an array with a single element (string of the attribute key) to the fields parameter of the ensureIndex() method. To create a combined index over multiple fields, simply add more members to the fields array:

// { name: "Smith", age: 35 }
db.posts.ensureIndex({ type: "persistent", fields: [ "name" ] })
db.posts.ensureIndex({ type: "persistent", fields: [ "name", "age" ] })

To index sub-attributes, specify the attribute path using the dot notation:

// { name: {last: "Smith", first: "John" } }
db.posts.ensureIndex({ type: "persistent", fields: [ "name.last" ] })
db.posts.ensureIndex({ type: "persistent", fields: [ "name.last", "name.first" ] })

Indexing array values

If an index attribute contains an array, ArangoDB will store the entire array as the index value by default. Accessing individual members of the array via the index is not possible this way.

To make an index insert the individual array members into the index instead of the entire array value, a special array index needs to be created for the attribute. Array indexes can be set up like regular persistent indexes using the collection.ensureIndex() function. To make a persistent index an array index, the index attribute name needs to be extended with [*] when creating the index and when filtering in an AQL query using the IN operator.

The following example creates an persistent array index on the tags attribute in a collection named posts:

db.posts.ensureIndex({ type: "persistent", fields: [ "tags[*]" ] });
db.posts.insert({ tags: [ "foobar", "baz", "quux" ] });

This array index can then be used for looking up individual tags values from AQL queries via the IN operator:

FOR doc IN posts
  FILTER 'foobar' IN doc.tags
  RETURN doc

It is possible to add the array expansion operator [*], but it is not mandatory. You may use it to indicate that an array index is used, it is purely cosmetic however:

FOR doc IN posts
  FILTER 'foobar' IN doc.tags[*]
  RETURN doc

The following FILTER conditions will not use the array index:

FILTER doc.tags ANY == 'foobar'
FILTER doc.tags ANY IN 'foobar'
FILTER doc.tags IN 'foobar'
FILTER doc.tags == 'foobar'
FILTER 'foobar' == doc.tags

It is also possible to create an index on subattributes of array values. This makes sense if the index attribute is an array of objects, e.g.

db.posts.ensureIndex({ type: "persistent", fields: [ "tags[*].name" ] });
db.posts.insert({ tags: [ { name: "foobar" }, { name: "baz" }, { name: "quux" } ] });

The following query will then use the array index (this does require the array expansion operator):

FOR doc IN posts
  FILTER 'foobar' IN doc.tags[*].name
  RETURN doc

If you store a document having the array which does contain elements not having the subattributes this document will also be indexed with the value null, which in ArangoDB is equal to attribute not existing.

ArangoDB supports creating array indexes with a single [*] operator per index attribute. For example, creating an index as follows is not supported:

db.posts.ensureIndex({ type: "persistent", fields: [ "tags[*].name[*].value" ] });

Array values will automatically be de-duplicated before being inserted into an array index. For example, if the following document is inserted into the collection, the duplicate array value bar will be inserted only once:

db.posts.insert({ tags: [ "foobar", "bar", "bar" ] });

This is done to avoid redundant storage of the same index value for the same document, which would not provide any benefit.

If an array index is declared unique, the de-duplication of array values will happen before inserting the values into the index, so the above insert operation with two identical values bar will not necessarily fail

It will always fail if the index already contains an instance of the bar value. However, if the value bar is not already present in the index, then the de-duplication of the array values will effectively lead to bar being inserted only once.

To turn off the deduplication of array values, it is possible to set the deduplicate attribute on the array index to false. The default value for deduplicate is true however, so de-duplication will take place if not explicitly turned off.

db.posts.ensureIndex({ type: "persistent", fields: [ "tags[*]" ], deduplicate: false });

// will fail now
db.posts.insert({ tags: [ "foobar", "bar", "bar" ] }); 

If an array index is declared and you store documents that do not have an array at the specified attribute this document will not be inserted in the index. Hence the following objects will not be indexed:

db.posts.ensureIndex({ type: "persistent", fields: [ "tags[*]" ] });
db.posts.insert({ something: "else" });
db.posts.insert({ tags: null });
db.posts.insert({ tags: "this is no array" });
db.posts.insert({ tags: { content: [1, 2, 3] } });

An array index is able to index explicit null values. When queried for nullvalues, it will only return those documents having explicitly null stored in the array, it will not return any documents that do not have the array at all.

db.posts.ensureIndex({ type: "persistent", fields: [ "tags[*]" ] });
db.posts.insert({tags: null}) // Will not be indexed
db.posts.insert({tags: []})  // Will not be indexed
db.posts.insert({tags: [null]}); // Will be indexed for null
db.posts.insert({tags: [null, 1, 2]}); // Will be indexed for null, 1 and 2

Declaring an array index as sparse does not have an effect on the array part of the index, this in particular means that explicit null values are also indexed in the sparse version. If an index is combined from an array and a normal attribute the sparsity will apply for the attribute e.g.:

db.posts.ensureIndex({ type: "persistent", fields: [ "tags[*]", "name" ], sparse: true });
db.posts.insert({tags: null, name: "alice"}) // Will not be indexed
db.posts.insert({tags: [], name: "alice"}) // Will not be indexed
db.posts.insert({tags: [1, 2, 3]}) // Will not be indexed
db.posts.insert({tags: [1, 2, 3], name: null}) // Will not be indexed
db.posts.insert({tags: [1, 2, 3], name: "alice"})
// Will be indexed for [1, "alice"], [2, "alice"], [3, "alice"]
db.posts.insert({tags: [null], name: "bob"})
// Will be indexed for [null, "bob"] 

Please note that filtering using array indexes only works from within AQL queries and only if the query filters on the indexed attribute using the IN operator. The other comparison operators (==, !=, >, >=, <, <=, ANY, ALL, NONE) cannot use array indexes currently.

Vertex-centric indexes

As mentioned above, the most important indexes for graphs are the edge indexes, indexing the _from and _to attributes of edge collections. They provide very quick access to all edges originating in or arriving at a given vertex, which allows to quickly find all neighbors of a vertex in a graph.

In many cases one would like to run more specific queries, for example finding amongst the edges originating from a given vertex only those with a timestamp greater than or equal to some date and time. Exactly this is achieved with “vertex-centric indexes”. In a sense these are localized indexes for an edge collection, which sit at every single vertex.

Technically, they are implemented in ArangoDB as indexes, which sort the complete edge collection first by _from and then by other attributes for OUTBOUND traversals, or first by _to and then by other attributes for INBOUND traversals. For traversals in ANY direction two indexes are needed, one with _from and the other with _to as first indexed field.

If we for example have a persistent index on the attributes _from and timestamp of an edge collection, we can answer the above question very quickly with a single range lookup in the index.

You can create sorted persistent indexes that index the special edge attributes _from or _to and additionally other attributes. These are used in graph traversals, when appropriate FILTER statements are found by the optimizer.

For example, to create a vertex-centric index of the above type, you would simply do

db.edges.ensureIndex({"type":"persistent", "fields": ["_from", "timestamp"]});

in arangosh. Then, queries like

FOR v, e, p IN 1..1 OUTBOUND "V/1" edges
  FILTER e.timestamp >= "2018-07-09"

will be considerably faster in case there are many edges originating from vertex "V/1" but only few with a recent time stamp. Note that the optimizer may prefer the default edge index over vertex-centric indexes based on the costs it estimates, even if a vertex-centric index might in fact be faster. Vertex-centric indexes are more likely to be chosen for highly connected graphs and with RocksDB storage engine.

Creating Indexes in Background

Creating new indexes is by default done under an exclusive collection lock. This means that the collection (or the respective shards) are not available for write operations as long as the index is being created. This “foreground” index creation can be undesirable, if you have to perform it on a live system without a dedicated maintenance window.

Indexes can also be created in “background”, not using an exclusive lock during the entire index creation. The collection remains basically available, so that other CRUD operations can run on the collection while the index is being created. This can be achieved by setting the inBackground attribute when creating an index.

To create an index in the background in arangosh just specify inBackground: true, like in the following examples:

// create the persistent index in the background
db.collection.ensureIndex({ type: "persistent", fields: [ "value" ], unique: false, inBackground: true });
db.collection.ensureIndex({ type: "persistent", fields: [ "email" ], unique: true, inBackground: true });

// also supported for geo and fulltext indexes
db.collection.ensureIndex({ type: "geo", fields: [ "latitude", "longitude"], inBackground: true });
db.collection.ensureIndex({ type: "geo", fields: [ "latitude", "longitude"], inBackground: true });
db.collection.ensureIndex({ type: "fulltext", fields: [ "text" ], minLength: 4, inBackground: true })


Indexes that are still in the build process will not be visible via the ArangoDB APIs. Nevertheless it is not possible to create the same index twice via the ensureIndex API while an index is still begin created. AQL queries also will not use these indexes until the index reports back as fully created. Note that the initial ensureIndex call or HTTP request will still block until the index is completely ready. Existing single-threaded client programs can thus safely set the inBackground option to true and continue to work as before.

Should you be building an index in the background you cannot rename or drop the collection. These operations will block until the index creation is finished. This is equally the case with foreground indexing.

After an interrupted index build (i.e. due to a server crash) the partially built index will the removed. In the ArangoDB cluster the index might then be automatically recreated on affected shards.


Background index creation might be slower than the “foreground” index creation and require more RAM. Under a write heavy load (specifically many remove, update or replace operations), the background index creation needs to keep a list of removed documents in RAM. This might become unsustainable if this list grows to tens of millions of entries.

Building an index is always a write heavy operation (internally), it is always a good idea to build indexes during times with less load.