· 7 min read

Table of Contents

Every organization that analyzes data within AWS requires Athena. It is an integral part of the AWS ecosystem that provides a powerful and flexible solution for ad-hoc querying and data analysis.

Athena is designed to handle large datasets, making it an essential tool for organizations that generate vast amounts of data daily. It provides a cost-effective solution to analyze data without the need for expensive hardware or software.

However, optimizing Athena’s performance and cost is essential to ensure that organizations get the most out of their investment. With the right practices in place, organizations can reduce costs and improve the efficiency of their data analysis. In this article, we’ll provide an overview of Athena, its benefits, and the best practices to optimize its performance and cost.

What is AWS Athena?

AWS Athena is a serverless query service that allows users to easily analyze data in Amazon S3 using standard SQL. It’s a fully managed service, which means that users don’t need to worry about managing infrastructure or scaling resources. Instead, AWS takes care of all the heavy lifting, allowing users to focus on their data analysis.

It supports a wide range of data formats, including CSV, JSON, ORC, Parquet, and more. This makes it easy to analyze data from a variety of sources and formats, without the need for complex ETL jobs or data warehousing solutions.

Features & Benefits of AWS Athena:

  • Standard SQL support: Athena supports standard SQL, which means that users can leverage their existing SQL skills and knowledge to work with Athena.
  • Integration with other AWS services: Athena integrates seamlessly with a wide range of other AWS services, such as Amazon S3AWS Glue, Amazon Redshift, and more. This makes it easy for organizations to incorporate Athena into their existing data workflows and pipelines.
  • Fast query execution: Athena is designed to scale automatically, allowing it to handle queries of any size or complexity quickly and efficiently.
  • Easy to use: Athena’s user-friendly interface and support for standard SQL make it easy for users to get started with data analysis, even if they have little or no experience with data analytics.

How does AWS Athena work?

Athena supports a variety of data types, including string, numeric, date/time, and more. It also supports complex data types, such as arrays and maps. This makes it easy for users to work with a wide range of data types and formats, without the need for complex data transformations or ETL jobs.

The query execution process in Athena involves several steps:

  1. Query submission: Users submit queries to Athena using the AWS Management Console, the AWS SDK, or the Athena API.
  2. Query parsing and optimization: Athena parses the query and optimizes it for execution.
  3. Data source discovery: Athena identifies the data sources that the query needs to access.
  4. Data scanning: Athena scans the data in Amazon S3 that matches the query criteria.
  5. Query execution: Athena executes the query using a distributed query engine, which enables it to handle queries of any size or complexity.
  6. Results delivery: Athena delivers the query results back to the user, either through the AWS Management Console or through an API.

AWS Athena, Amazon Web Services, AWS Athena Cost Optimization, FinOps

What is AWS Athena used for?

AWS Athena is a versatile tool that can be used in a variety of scenarios. One of the most significant benefits of using Athena is its ability to handle ad-hoc queries quickly and easily. This makes it ideal for organizations that need to analyze data on-the-fly, without the need for complex data preparation steps or data warehousing solutions.

  • Another common use case for Athena is log analysis. Athena can be used to analyze log data from web servers, applications, and other systems.
  • Athena’s support for a wide range of data formats also makes it a valuable tool for data exploration.
  • Real-time data analysis is another area where Athena can be particularly useful. Its integration with Amazon Kinesis Data Firehose makes it easy to analyze streaming data in real-time.
  • Athena’s serverless architecture and pay-per-query pricing model make it a cost-effective option for data analysis.

Organizations can analyze large datasets without the need for significant upfront investments in hardware or software. This makes Athena a valuable tool for organizations of all sizes, particularly those that need to make the most of their data without breaking the bank.

Here are some examples of how organizations are using AWS Athena:

  • Yelp: Yelp uses Athena to analyze data from its mobile app, enabling the company to make data-driven decisions about product development and marketing strategies.
  • Nasdaq: Nasdaq uses Athena to analyze real-time financial market data, allowing the company to make informed investment decisions.
  • Zillow: Zillow uses Athena to analyze real estate data, enabling the company to provide accurate and up-to-date information to its customers.
  • Under Armour: Under Armour uses Athena to analyze customer behavior data, allowing the company to make data-driven decisions about product development and marketing strategies.

Optimize AWS Athena Performance and Cost

To make the most of AWS Athena, it’s essential to follow best practices that help optimize performance, reduce costs, and improve data security. They are listed below.

1. Partitioning Data

Partitioning data is a crucial best practice for increasing performance when using AWS Athena. It involves dividing a dataset into smaller partitions based on specific columns, allowing queries to be executed on a subset of data and reducing the amount of data that needs to be scanned.

By choosing the right partitioning strategy based on the dataset’s characteristics and how it’s being queried, (such as partitioning by date or time, query execution times and costs can be significantly reduced.

  • AWS Athena supports automatic partitioning, where partitions are created based on a pattern in the data’s filename or file path, and manual partitioning, which allows for more control over the partitioning strategy.
  • Manual partitioning involves specifying the partition columns and values when creating a table in AWS Athena. It’s important to partition data based on the most frequently queried columns and ensure that partitions are evenly distributed to optimize performance and reduce costs.

2. Optimizing Data File Formats

Optimizing data file formats is a crucial best practice for improving query performance in AWS Athena. Columnar file formats, such as ORC and Parquet, are more efficient than row-based file formats, like CSV and JSON, as they allow for more efficient compression and reduce the amount of data that needs to be read during queries. By storing data in columns, columnar file formats can improve query performance and reduce storage costs.

  • In addition to choosing the right data file format, it’s important to ensure that the data is in the correct format. Timestamps should be stored in a format that can be easily parsed by Athena, such as ISO 8601 format, to improve query performance and reduce errors. Splitting large data files into smaller files can also improve query performance and reduce storage costs, as smaller files can be processed more efficiently.

3. Choosing the right compression codec

The right compression codec can have a significant impact on query performance and storage costs. AWS recommends using Snappy or Zlib compression for columnar file formats like ORC and Parquet, as these codecs are optimized for performance and space efficiency.

  • Snappy compression is a fast and efficient compression codec that’s well-suited for use with columnar file formats. It uses a block-based compression algorithm that’s optimized for high throughput and low-latency data processing. Snappy compression can significantly reduce the amount of data that needs to be read during queries, improving query performance and reducing storage costs.
  • Zlib compression is another popular compression codec for columnar file formats. It’s a more space-efficient codec than Snappy, but it’s also slower and can impact query performance. Zlib compression is a good choice for datasets that are not frequently queried, as it can significantly reduce storage costs.

4. Optimizing Query Structure

Query structure refers to the way that queries are written, including the use of filters, joins, and aggregations. By optimizing query structure, unnecessary processing cycles can be avoided, and query performance can be improved.

  • One way to optimize query structure is to avoid unnecessary joins. Joining large tables can be expensive and can slow down query performance. It’s important to only join tables that are necessary and to ensure that the join conditions are efficient. For example, using a hash join instead of a nested loop join can improve query performance.
  • Filters can be used to limit the amount of data that needs to be read during queries, reducing query execution times and costs. It’s important to ensure that filters are used efficiently and that they’re applied early in the query execution process.
  • Optimizing aggregations can also improve query performance and reduce costs. Aggregations can be expensive, especially when applied to large datasets. It’s important to ensure that aggregations are only applied to the necessary columns and that they’re structured efficiently. For example, using a GROUP BY clause instead of a DISTINCT clause can improve query performance.

5. Monitoring and Optimizing Queries

AWS provides several tools for monitoring query performance, including the Query Execution Metrics and Query Execution Details.

  • Query Execution Metrics provide a high-level overview of query performance, including the query execution time, data scanned, and data returned.
  • Query Execution Details provide more detailed information, including the query plan, query stages, and data distribution. By monitoring these metrics, organizations can identify performance bottlenecks and optimize queries accordingly.

Optimizing queries involves identifying and addressing performance bottlenecks. Common performance bottlenecks include inefficient query structure, large data sets, and inefficient use of resources. By optimizing query structure, using filters to reduce the amount of data that needs to be scanned, and choosing the right compression codec, organizations can improve query performance and reduce costs.

Additional things to keep in mind

Optimizing AWS Athena costs requires a combination of strategies, including understanding S3 storage costs, using AWS Cost and Usage Reports (CUR), and leveraging AWS CloudWatch.

  • By understanding S3 storage costs, organizations can reduce storage costs by using columnar file formats and partitioning data efficiently.
  • Using AWS CUR can help identify areas where costs can be reduced, such as optimizing query structure and using efficient compression codecs.
  • AWS CloudWatch can provide real-time insights into query performance and identify areas where queries can be optimized.


In conclusion, AWS Athena offers a powerful solution for organizations that need to analyze large amounts of data quickly and efficiently. However, optimizing Athena costs is crucial for managing big data analytics in the cloud. By following best practices like using columnar file formats, choosing the right compression codec, optimizing query structure, using columnar partitioning and leveraging AWS CloudWatch, organizations can reduce costs and improve query performance.

Furthermore, adopting a FinOps strategy can help organizations effectively manage their spending on AWS Athena and achieve significant cost savings. FinOps provides a framework for managing cloud costs effectively, ensuring that organizations can make informed decisions about their cloud infrastructure spending.

Related Articles