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Part 3 in a series on working with data in BigQuery on Google Cloud Platform

Click here to view the gist version at GitHub

Cost control is a significant issue when working with big data queries (and with cloud applications in general.) If you perform queries carelessly, without specifying exactly what data you need and without estimating the cost, you can easily end up with an eye-popping cloud services bill.

Google recommends a number of best practices for controlling costs when using BigQuery:

  1. Avoid SELECT *
  2. Sample data using preview options
  3. Price queries before running them

Avoid SELECT *

This one seems obvious but can be a difficult habit to break. Developers and database people among us are used to issuing a SELECT * statement, maybe with a LIMIT clause, to get an overview of the table structure and contents. That can get you in trouble with BigQuery. Remember that it is not only the number of records, but the number of columns which can be very large in a big data setting. Google states that

Applying a LIMIT clause to a SELECT * query does not affect the amount of data read. You are billed for reading all bytes in the entire table, and the query counts against your free tier quota.

The reason for this behavior is that using LIMIT does not affect the number of bytes scanned, only the number of records returned.

Instead, it is recommended that we use one of the data preview options:

  • In the Cloud Console or the classic web UI, on the table details page, click the Preview tab to sample the data.
  • In the command-line interface, use the bq head command and specify the number of rows to preview.
  • In the API, use tabledata.list to retrieve table data from a specified set of rows.

Sample data using preview options

Previewing queries in the Console

Here is an example of previewing a query on the USA Names dataset, which consists of names from Social Security card applications. This query is large by usual database standards (~100MB), but still very small by big data standards. BigQuery cost preview

Previewing with bq head

Use the bq head to preview data. This command is very useful for exploring data - since it does not initiate a query job, bq head will not incur costs. It does not show the size of the returned data, but does give a good view of data structure. Notice that the syntax for referring to datasets and table names is a bit different from the syntax used in SQL:

Performing bq head --maxrows=10 bigquery-public-data:samples.shakespeare will give:

Price queries before running them

Queries are priced according to the number of bytes read. Unfortunately, there is not a way to view query cost directly before running it. You will have to get the query size and then use the GCP Pricing Calculator to get a cost estimate.

The method for getting the query size in the Console is discussed above. To get the size of a query before actually running it, use bq with the --dry-run flag:

The full command is:

bq query \
  --use_legacy_sql=false \
  --dry_run \

Here is the gist version: