Spark DataFrames provide an API to operate on tabular data. The Column class represents a tree of operations to be applied to each input record: things like mathematical operations, comparisons, etc. We were writing some unit tests to ensure some of our code produces an appropriate Column for an input query, and we noticed something interesting. This test builds two identical, trivial Column trees - getting the value for some column in the record, then adding 1 to it:

Column val1 = df.col("col1").plus(1);
Column val2 = df.col("col1").plus(1);
Assert.assertEquals(val1, val2);

This test passes with flying colours: val1 and val2 represent identical operations, so they’re equal.

This equally trivial test builds the same trees, but it adds a renaming step where the columns in the output schema have user-defined names:

Column val1 = df.col("col1").plus(1).as("renamedCol");
Column val2 = df.col("col1").plus(1).as("renamedCol");
Assert.assertEquals(val1, val2);

This test fails. What?!? It’s going to be pretty hard to write tests if two Column trees with identical operations aren’t equal to each other, just because they’ve been renamed.

Diving into the debugger, we see that:

  • Spark Columns contain a Catalyst Expression
  • The Expression is what’s different between the two instances
  • Specifically, the Expression is an Alias, which has a field exprId
  • exprId appears to have a different, random value in each instance of Alias

Catalyst is Spark’s optimizer, where the operations of the query are actually represented. Using my very limited Scala knowledge, I looked at the definition of a Catalyst Alias:

case class Alias(child: Expression, name: String)(
    val exprId: ExprId = NamedExpression.newExprId,
    val qualifiers: Seq[String] = Nil,
    val explicitMetadata: Option[Metadata] = None)
  extends UnaryExpression with NamedExpression

Alias has the trait NamedExpression. Looking at the definiton of NamedExpression, we find out culprit:

object NamedExpression {
  private val curId = new java.util.concurrent.atomic.AtomicLong()
  private[expressions] val jvmId = UUID.randomUUID()
  def newExprId: ExprId = ExprId(curId.getAndIncrement(), jvmId)
  def unapply(expr: NamedExpression): Option[(String, DataType)] = Some(, expr.dataType)

exprId is deliberately a JVM-wide unique value! That complicates things somewhat. For our use-case we want to be able to compare two Alias instances and ensure the name and the underlying Expression are the same, while ignoring the exprId field. The usual equals method doesn’t cut it.

Fortunately, Scala has a neat pattern - the Extractor pattern - which is basically a backwards constructor. Conventionally there’s a method unapply which returns a tuple of the arguments used to construct the object. In the case of Alias, the return type for the extractor method is Option<Tuple2<Expression, String>> - which contains the exact fields we want to compare.

In conclusion, we can write our own, hacky Java equality method for Column objects:

  public static boolean columnsEqual(Column expected, Column actual) {
    if (expected.expr() instanceof Alias && actual.expr() instanceof Alias) {
      Alias expectedNExpr = (Alias)expected.expr();
      Alias actualNExpr = (Alias)actual.expr();
      Option<Tuple2<Expression, String>> expectedExpr = Alias$.MODULE$.unapply(expectedNExpr);
      Option<Tuple2<Expression, String>> actualExpr = Alias$.MODULE$.unapply(actualNExpr);
      return expectedExpr.get()._1.equals(actualExpr.get()._1) 
        && expectedExpr.get()._2.equals(actualExpr.get()._2);
    } else {
      // If the Expressions within the Columns aren't Aliases, 
      // they haven't been renamed and conventional equality is fine
      return expected.equals(actual);

One limitation of this approach is that only the roots of expected and actual can be renamed. This method will correctly compare df.col("col1").as("renamed"), but Spark supports renaming any Column in the tree. A Column like df.col("col1").as("renamed").as("renamedAgain") will not be compared correctly, because there are multiple renaming steps.