Paginating Real-Time Data with Cursor Based Pagination

Pagination is a technique for breaking large record sets into smaller portions called pages. As a developer, you should be familiar with implementing pagination, but implementing pagination for real time data can become tricky even for experienced developers. In this tutorial, we are going to discuss the practical use cases and solutions for real time data pagination and cursor based pagination.

Identifying Issues in Real Time Data Pagination

Wikipedia defines real time data as information delivered immediately after collection. There is no delay in the timeliness of the information provided. In such applications, it’s difficult to provide accurate paginated data due to the frequent updates. Let’s take a look at the issues with standard pagination when managing real time data.

  • Assumes the data is static and doesn’t change frequently – In default pagination, a retrieved record set is split into a number of pages. As data is not frequently changed, users feel like the pagination is working accurately, but results of the pagination become inaccurate when adding new data or removing existing data.

  • Pagination only considers record count, instead of each individual record – Records are broken into pages using the total record count and paginated normally. It doesn’t consider whether each record falls into the right page on pagination. This can lead to a redundant display of records.

Considering these points, it’s difficult to use to default pagination techniques to handle real time data. Let’s try to identify the issues using a practical scenario.

Assume that we have 20 records initially and we using 10 as the limit to break the records into pages. The following image shows how records are broken into pages.

Initial Results

Now assume that the result set is updated by five new records while we are on the first page. The following image shows the current scenario.

Results After Adding New Data

Now we navigate to the second page. Based on our first image, it should retrieve the records from 1-10. However, records with numbers 15-6 will be retrieved. You can clearly see that record numbers 15-11 are displayed in both the first page as well as the second page.

Practical Use Cases of Real Time Data Pagination

As we all know, reinventing the wheel is not something a developer should do. We should look at the existing pagination techniques of sites that solved these issues before thinking about building our own. Many social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook provide real time data in their user profiles. In this section, we will be looking at the practical use cases of real time data pagination using some of the most popular sites.

Twitter API Cursor Based Pagination

Twitter user profiles are frequently populated with new tweets, so the Twitter time line data retrieval mechanism should be a good start to identifying pagination techniques in real time data feeds. Let’s see how it works using a Twitter API method.

The following contains a sample request to the Twitter API search tweets method.


https://api.twitter.com/1.1/search/tweets.json?q=php&since_id=24012619984051000&max_id=250126199840518145&result_type=recent&count=10

In the above URL, we request the most recent tweets containing the word ‘php’ and break the result set into blocks of 10 using the count parameter. This is the typical behavior of offset pagination where we reply on record count. But here we can see two additional parameters called since_id and max_id, which enables cursor based pagination. Let’s see how cursor based pagination works using our earlier example.

We had 20 records broken into 2 pages and assume we are on the first page. 5 new records are added to the top of the list. The following image previews the current scenario.

Results After Adding New Data

Now let’s take a look at a part of the response generated for the first page of the Twitter search request. You can view the complete response format here.

"search_metadata": {
  "max_id": 250126199840518145,
  "since_id": 24012619984051000,
  "refresh_url": "?since_id=250126199840518145&q=php&result_type=recent&include_entities=1",

  "next_results": "?max_id=249279667666817023&q=php&count=10&include_entities=1&result_type=recent",

  "count": 10,
  "completed_in": 0.035,
  "since_id_str": "24012619984051000",
  "query": "php",
  "max_id_str": "250126199840518145"
}

As you can see, the search_metadata section provides details about the results. It will generate the next_results URL, in case there are more records to paginate. We are mainly using the max_id parameter for pagination. With each response we will retrieve the max_id parameter and we can use it to generate next result set. We use the max_id parameter to receive results older than the given ID.

In our example, we should retrieve the max_id parameter as Record 11 while displaying records 20-11. Then we pass the max_id to generate next result set. Thus, we will get the accurate results as shown in following image.

Results Using max_id

As you can see, we have the accurate results for the second page by eliminating 15 records at the top instead of 10 in offset based pagination. In cursor based pagination we can’t consider the concept of pages, as it changes rapidly, so the results will be considered as either previous or next. Generally, max_id is effective enough to generate accurate results, but there can be scenarios where since_id is also essential while paginating back and forth. You can look at more advanced examples of using both max_id and since_id on Twitter’s Developer section.

Facebook API Cursor Based Pagination

Facebook’s API implementation is slightly different compared to Twitter, even though both APIs use the same theory. Let’s take a look at the response for a sample Facebook API request.

{
  "data": [
     ... Endpoint data is here
  ],
  "paging": {
    "cursors": {
      "after": "MTAxNTExOTQ1MjAwNzI5NDE=",
      "before": "NDMyNzQyODI3OTQw"
    },
    "previous": "https://graph.facebook.com/me/albums?limit=25&before=NDMyNzQyODI3OTQw"
    "next": "https://graph.facebook.com/me/albums?limit=25&after=MTAxNTExOTQ1MjAwNzI5NDE="
  }
}

As you can see, Facebook uses two string based cursors called before and after, for pagination, instead of since_id and max_id. In Facebook, the before cursor will point to the start of the page while the after cursor points to the end of the page.

Most API’s with real time data use this mechanism to accurately paginate through their results. As developers, we need to know the theory behind cursor based pagination in order to use existing APIs as well as create our own when necessary.

The Basics of Building Pagination for Real Time Data

Implementing real time data pagination is a complex task beyond the scope of this tutorial, so we are going to look at the basic needs and the process of creating a simple pagination mechanism to understand cursor based pagination.

Let’s identify the basic components of cursor based pagination, using the previously discussed examples.

  • Cursors – we need to have at least one column with unique sequential values to implement cursor based pagination. This can be similar to Twitter’s max_id parameter or Facebook’s after parameter.

  • Count – we need the count parameter as with offset based pagination for filtering a limited number of results, before or after the cursor.

  • Next URL – This is needed in case we are providing the pagination through an API. Users need to know whether the next page is available and how to get the next data set.

  • Previous URL – This is needed in case we are providing the pagination through an API. Users need to know whether the previous page is available and how to get the next data set.

These are the basic needs for cursor based pagination. Developers often work with offset based pagination and rarely get a chance to work with cursor based pagination, so it’s important to identify the differences and benefits of each technique for using them in appropriate scenarios.

  • In offset pagination, we can sort by any column and paginate the results while cursor based pagination depends on the sorting of the unique cursor column.

  • Offset pagination contains page numbers in addition to next and previous links. But due to the highly dynamic nature of the data, we can’t provide page numbers for cursor based pagination.

  • Generally, offset pagination allows us to navigate in both directions while cursor based pagination is mostly used for forward navigation.

So far, we looked at the basic needs and differences of cursor based pagination. Now we can move into a sample implementation to identify how it works.

Implementing Basic Cursor Based Pagination

<?php

class Real_Time_Pagination{
  public $conn;
  public function dbConnection(){
    $this->conn = new PDO('mysql:host=localhost;dbname=database','username','password');		
  }

  public function handlePaginationData(){
    $direction = 'next';
    $order = 'desc';
    $where = '';
    $params = array();

    if(isset($_GET['max_id'])){
      $direction = 'next';
      $where = " where tweetID < :max_id ";
      $order = 'desc';
      $params = array(':max_id' => $_GET['max_id']);


    }else if(isset($_GET['since_id'])){
      $direction = 'prev';
      $where = " where tweetID > :since_id ";
      $order = 'asc';
      $params = array(':since_id' => $_GET['since_id']);
    }

    $sth = $this->conn->prepare("select * from tweets $where order by tweetID $order  ");
    $sth->execute($params);
    $results = $sth->fetchAll();

    $count = count($results);

    $sth = $this->conn->prepare("select * from tweets $where order by tweetID $order  limit 3");
    $sth->execute($params);
    $results = $sth->fetchAll();

    if($direction == 'prev'){
      $results = array_reverse($results);
    }

    $html = "";

    $max_id = '';
    $since_id = '';

    foreach($results as $row) {
      if($since_id == '' )
        $since_id = $row['tweetID'];

	$view = $this->paginateDataView();
        $html .=  $this->assignTemplateVars(array('tweets'=>$row['tweet']) , $view);

	$max_id = $row['tweetID'];
      }

      $html  = $this->getResultsList($html);

      $html .= $this->paginator($max_id,$since_id,$count,$direction); 

      return $html;
	
  }	

  public function getResultsList($res){

    $html = "<table>$res</table>";
    return $html;
  }

  public function assignTemplateVars($params,$view){
    foreach($params as $key=>$val){
      $view = str_replace('{'.$key.'}',$val,$view);
    }		
    return $view;
  }
}


  • First, we create the database connection using PDO. Then we execute the handlePaginationData function for paginating the results.

  • Then we check whether max_id or min_id parameter is available in URL. max_id is is similar to Facebook’s after parameter and used to navigate forward. min_id is similar to Facebook’s before parameter and used to navigate backwards. Also, we set up the navigation direction, the where clause using max_id or min_id and the sorting order.

  • Then we execute the query to get the complete result count followed by the same query with a limit statement to narrow the results.

  • In case we are traversing in the previous direction, we have to change the sorting to asc. Otherwise it will retrieve the most recent records instead of the previous page. We reverse the records in array to show them as descending.

  • Then we loop through the results. While looping, we assign the ID of the first record as min_id and last record as max_id. These cursor values are used for filtering accurate data by eliminating duplication.

  • Finally, we can look at the paginator function for implementing pagination links.

public function paginator($max_id,$since_id,$count,$direction){
  $pag['next_url'] = "?max_id=".$max_id;
  $pag['prev_url'] = "?since_id=".$since_id;
	
  $html = '';
  $params = array('prev_url'=> $pag['prev_url'], 'next_url' => $pag['next_url']);

  if($direction == 'next' ){

    if($count <= 3)
      $params['next_url'] ='#';
	
      $view   = $this->paginateLinksView();
      $html  .= $this->assignTemplateVars($params,$view);
		
  }

  if($direction == 'prev'){	
    if($count <= 3)
      $params['prev_url'] ='#';

      $view   = $this->paginateLinksView();
      $html  .= $this->assignTemplateVars($params,$view);
  }
  return $html;
}

public function paginateLinksView(){
  $html   ="<a  href='{prev_url}'>Prev</a>";
  $html  .="<a  href='{next_url}'>Next</a>";
		
  return $html;
}
public function paginateDataView(){

  $html = "<tr><td>{tweet}</td></tr>";
		return $html;
}

The following code contains the initialization code for the pagination generated in this section.

<?php
$rtp = new Real_Time_Pagination();
$rtp->dbConnection();
echo $rtp->handlePaginationData();

Now we have a simple data pagination sample to understand how real time data pagination works. Use this code and paginate through the results. While paginating, add some records at the end of table to make it real time. Then paginate forward and backwards to to check data duplications in pages. Do the same with offset based pagination to understand the difference.

Conclusion

In this tutorial, we learned the theory behind real time data pagination with cursor based pagination. Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!

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  • Imran Latif

    I learned a lot from it. Awesome article.