Streaming pipelines

Unbounded PCollections, or unbounded collections, represent data in streaming pipelines. An unbounded collection contains data from a continuously updating data source such as Pub/Sub.

You cannot use only a key to group elements in an unbounded collection. There might be infinitely many elements for a given key in streaming data because the data source constantly adds new elements. You can use windows, watermarks, and triggers to aggregate elements in unbounded collections.

Windows and windowing functions

Windowing functions divide unbounded collections into logical components, or windows. Windowing functions group unbounded collections by the timestamps of the individual elements. Each window contains a finite number of elements.

You set the following windows with the Apache Beam SDK or Dataflow SQL streaming extensions:

Tumbling windows

A tumbling window represents a consistent, disjoint time interval in the data stream.

For example, if you set to a thirty-second tumbling window, the elements with timestamp values [0:00:00-0:00:30) are in the first window. Elements with timestamp values [0:00:30-0:01:00) are in the second window.

The following image illustrates how elements are divided into thirty-second tumbling windows.

An image that shows tumbling windows, 30 seconds in duration

Hopping windows

A hopping window represents a consistent time interval in the data stream. Hopping windows can overlap, whereas tumbling windows are disjoint.

For example, a hopping window can start every ten seconds and capture one minute of data and the window. The frequency with which hopping windows begin is called the period. This example has a one-minute window and thirty-second period.

The following image illustrates how elements are divided into one-minute hopping windows with a thirty-second period.

An image that shows hopping windows with 1 minute window duration and 30 second window period

To take running averages of data, use hopping windows. You can use one-minute hopping windows with a thirty-second period to compute a one-minute running average every thirty seconds.

Session windows

A session window contains elements within a gap duration of another element. The gap duration is an interval between new data in a data stream. If data arrives after the gap duration, the data is assigned to a new window.

For example, session windows can divide a data stream representing user mouse activity. This data stream might have long periods of idle time interspersed with many clicks. A session window can contain the data generated by the clicks.

Session windowing assigns different windows to each data key. Tumbling and hopping windows contain all elements in the specified time interval, regardless of data keys.

The following image visualizes how elements are divided into session windows.

An image that shows session windows with a minimum gap duration


A watermark is a threshold that indicates when Dataflow expects all of the data in a window to have arrived. If new data arrives with a timestamp that's in the window but older than the watermark, the data is considered late data.

Dataflow tracks watermarks because of the following:

  • Data is not guaranteed to arrive in time order or at predictable intervals.
  • Data events are not guaranteed to appear in pipelines in the same order that they were generated.

The data source determines the watermark. You can allow late data with the Apache Beam SDK. Dataflow SQL does not process late data.


Triggers determine when to emit aggregated results as data arrives. By default, results are emitted when the watermark passes the end of the window.

You can use the Apache Beam SDK to create or modify triggers for each collection in a streaming pipeline. You cannot set triggers with Dataflow SQL.

The Apache Beam SDK can set triggers that operate on any combination of the following conditions:

  • Event time, as indicated by the timestamp on each data element.
  • Processing time, which is the time that the data element is processed at any given stage in the pipeline.
  • The number of data elements in a collection.