Skip to main content

What is Amazon Athena? The New Game Changer for Big Data

What is Amazon Athena: the 2016 edition of AWS re:Invent was an exciting week of announcements from Andy Jassy and Werner Vogels on pricing reductions, killer features, and plenty of new services.

The Cloud Academy team tried to catch every detail of this amazing week-long conference. We ran from one session to another, got lost in the maze of booths, and met many enthusiastic customers at the re:Invent pub crawl and at re:Play, one of the biggest, most fun parties that I’ve ever attended.

What is Amazon Athena: a complete overview

Amazon Athena is probably the most promising of the services announced last week in Las Vegas. In fact, big data was one of the main topics discussed at re:Invent 2016, together with AI and IoT. We gathered a lot of information on Athena at the special session led by Rahul Pathak, general manager of Amazon EMR at AWS. In this post, I will cover Athena’s main features, use cases, and pricing details.

What is Amazon Athena?  It is an interactive query service that makes it easy to directly analyze data on Amazon S3 using standard SQL. It means that you can store structured data on S3 and query that data as you’d do with an SQL database. Athena is serverless, meaning that there is no infrastructure to manage, no setup, servers, or data warehouses. The power of S3 storage is fully unleashed by the new Athena query engine without the need for maintenance. No infrastructure or administration is required: You can just create a table, load some data, and start querying.

As mentioned during the session, Athena complements Amazon Redshift and Amazon EMR.

Amazon Athena Features

Athena is backed by Presto, an open source distributed SQL query engine that  allows you to run interactive analytic queries against data sources of all sizes, ranging from gigabytes to petabytes. Create Table statements or DDL (Data Definition Language) written in Apache Hive, which is meant to facilitate reading, writing, and managing large and distributed datasets. Hive supports SQL, but also allows concepts such external tables and data partitioning. Your metadata—such as table definitions, column names, etc.—is stored in the Athena metadata store.
As with any standard DBMS (Database Management System), Athena supports complex joins, nested queries, and window functions. Complex data types, such as arrays and struts, are also supported. Partitioning is easy to achieve by any key, including date and time custom keys. Of course, you can connect to Athena with your favourite SQL client.
You can store data in the form of objects with several file formats:

  • Text files, CSV, war logs
  • Apache web logs
  • JSON
  • Compressed files
  • Columnar formats, such as Apache Parquet or Apache ORC

Eventually, you may want to use Hive CTAS or Spark to convert data to ORC and PARQUET formats.
Amazon Athena Console
As soon as you perform a query you will obtain a data stream directly from Amazon S3, just as if you were querying a real SQL database. Queries can be executed both through APIs or from the AWS Console. By using the AWS Console, you will also get the query running time and the amount of data scanned, in bytes.

With Amazon Athena, you won’t have to worry about scaling, performance, and maintenance. You will have enough compute resources to get fast, interactive query performance. Athena will automatically execute queries in parallel over petabytes of data. Therefore, most results will come back within seconds. This is made possible because Athena uses warm compute pools across multiple Availability Zones.

As Rahul Pathak pointed out, Amazon Athena is really fast:

  • Athena is tuned for performance.
  • Queries are automatically parallelized.
  • You can get a results to stream directly from the console.
  • You can store query results in Amazon S3.

In my personal opinion, performance is still an open concern, as no benchmarks for big datasets have been publicly released, although we got very interesting performance results during the full session. The presenter used Apache Parquet format and, with just 20 lines of PySpark code running on EMR, we converted 1 TB of textual data into 130 GB of Apache Parquet data. This approach also optimized space occupation and query time, resulting in much lower costs.

Finally, the built-in integration with Amazon QuickSight allows you to visualize your data.

Amazon Athena Use Cases

During the session, Rahul Pathak presented two common use cases where Athena could be a game changer:

  • Log storage and analysis
  • Data warehouse for events

In such scenarios, the need to store gigabytes or petabytes of structured data can be a real problem. Accessing that data in a fast, easy, and secure way is even more difficult, painful, and time-consuming. Athena is focused on solving these problems by mixing together the power of Amazon S3 storage and the SQL query language. This allows you to operate on your data easily and without worrying about scaling. Indeed, you will get results within seconds, even on very large datasets.

What is Amazon Athena: pricing

Athena’s pricing is very simple: You pay only for the queries you run and you will be charged $5 per TB of scanned data from Amazon S3.

DDL statements (CREATE, ALTER, DROP), partitioning queries, and failed queries are completely free. If you cancel a query, you will be charged only for the scanned data up to that point. Of course, you can reduce costs by using compression, columnar formats, and partitions. With such techniques, Athena will have to scan fewer data from Amazon S3.

In practice, there is no charge directly related to computation itself, so you can always estimate the total cost purely based on the amount of data that you need to work with.


We are building a world that requires ever faster communication and where information has a key role in controlling markets, economies, and business activities. This requires us to be able to store and retrieve huge amounts of data. Whether you are launching a new product or during future iterations of established products, this is something that you cannot ignore.
Data storage and data analysis can drive product outcomes for both startups and large companies. As a result, the availability of easy, fast, and cheap tools for managing data is crucial in operating services delivery and maintenance.

Will Amazon Athena cover a big role in such world transformation? Atlassian is already using Amazon Athena, and I’m pretty sure that the number of adopters will increase over the next few months. The official information sounds really promising so far, and such an interesting technology backed by AWS infrastructure cannot pass unnoticed.

Let us know what you like or dislike about Amazon Athena and how it will affect your next project. Many of you have brilliant ideas and application scenarios, and we can’t wait to hear about them.

Written by

Antonio Trapani

Computer Engineer, passionate software developer, eXtreme programmer, snowboarder. Music and beer addict. Despite his strong computer background, he constantly explores new and smart ways to create things, believing that code is creation, and creation is art. Hungry about new technologies, he likes to work in web startups.

Related Posts

Sam Ghardashem
Sam Ghardashem
— May 15, 2019

Aviatrix Integration of a NextGen Firewall in AWS Transit Gateway

Learn how Aviatrix’s intelligent orchestration and control eliminates unwanted tradeoffs encountered when deploying Palo Alto Networks VM-Series Firewalls with AWS Transit Gateway.Deploying any next generation firewall in a public cloud environment is challenging, not because of the f...

Read more
  • Amazon Web Services
  • AWS
Joe Nemer
Joe Nemer
— May 3, 2019

AWS Config Best Practices for Compliance

Use AWS Config the Right Way for Successful ComplianceIt’s well-known that AWS Config is a powerful service for monitoring all changes across your resources. As AWS Config has constantly evolved and improved over the years, it has transformed into a true powerhouse for monitoring your...

Read more
  • AWS
  • Compliance
Francesca Vigliani
— April 30, 2019

Cloud Academy is Coming to the AWS Summits in Atlanta, London, and Chicago

Cloud Academy is a proud sponsor of the 2019 AWS Summits in Atlanta, London, and Chicago. We hope you plan to attend these free events that bring the cloud computing community together to connect, collaborate, and learn about AWS. These events are all about learning. You can learn how t...

Read more
  • Amazon Web Services
  • AWS
  • AWS Summits
Joe Nemer
Joe Nemer
— April 1, 2019

AWS EC2 Instance Types Explained

Amazon Web Services’ resource offerings are constantly changing, and staying on top of their evolution can be a challenge. Elastic Cloud Compute (EC2) instances are one of their core resource offerings, and they form the backbone of most cloud deployments. EC2 instances provide you with...

Read more
  • AWS
  • EC2
Sanket Dangi
— February 11, 2019

WaitCondition Controls the Pace of AWS CloudFormation Templates

AWS's WaitCondition can be used with CloudFormation templates to ensure required resources are running.As you may already be aware, AWS CloudFormation is used for infrastructure automation by allowing you to write JSON templates to automatically install, configure, and bootstrap your ...

Read more
  • AWS
  • formation
Andrew Larkin
— January 24, 2019

The 9 AWS Certifications: Which is Right for You and Your Team?

As companies increasingly shift workloads to the public cloud, cloud computing has moved from a nice-to-have to a core competency in the enterprise. This shift requires a new set of skills to design, deploy, and manage applications in cloud computing.As the market leader and most ma...

Read more
  • AWS
  • AWS certifications
Andrew Larkin
— November 28, 2018

Two New EC2 Instance Types Announced at AWS re:Invent 2018 – Monday Night Live

The announcements at re:Invent just keep on coming! Let’s look at what benefits these two new EC2 instance types offer and how these two new instances could be of benefit to you. If you're not too familiar with Amazon EC2, you might want to familiarize yourself by creating your first Am...

Read more
  • AWS
  • EC2
  • re:Invent 2018
Guy Hummel
— November 21, 2018

Google Cloud Certification: Preparation and Prerequisites

Google Cloud Platform (GCP) has evolved from being a niche player to a serious competitor to Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure. In 2018, research firm Gartner placed Google in the Leaders quadrant in its Magic Quadrant for Cloud Infrastructure as a Service for the first time. In t...

Read more
  • AWS
  • Azure
  • Google Cloud
Khash Nakhostin
Khash Nakhostin
— November 13, 2018

Understanding AWS VPC Egress Filtering Methods

In order to understand AWS VPC egress filtering methods, you first need to understand that security on AWS is governed by a shared responsibility model where both vendor and subscriber have various operational responsibilities. AWS assumes responsibility for the underlying infrastructur...

Read more
  • Aviatrix
  • AWS
  • VPC
Jeremy Cook
— November 10, 2018

S3 FTP: Build a Reliable and Inexpensive FTP Server Using Amazon’s S3

Is it possible to create an S3 FTP file backup/transfer solution, minimizing associated file storage and capacity planning administration headache?FTP (File Transfer Protocol) is a fast and convenient way to transfer large files over the Internet. You might, at some point, have conf...

Read more
  • Amazon S3
  • AWS
Albert Qian
Albert Qian
— October 18, 2018

Microservices Architecture: Advantages and Drawbacks

Microservices are a way of breaking large software projects into loosely coupled modules, which communicate with each other through simple Application Programming Interfaces (APIs).Microservices have become increasingly popular over the past few years. The modular architectural style,...

Read more
  • AWS
  • Microservices
Stuart Scott
— October 2, 2018

What Are Best Practices for Tagging AWS Resources?

There are many use cases for tags, but what are the best practices for tagging AWS resources? In order for your organization to effectively manage resources (and your monthly AWS bill), you need to implement and adopt a thoughtful tagging strategy that makes sense for your business. The...

Read more
  • AWS
  • cost optimization