Using R and {paws} to populate DynamoDB tables

R and AWS DynamoDB

In recent weeks we’ve been using AWS services for a few our projects. One of the things that came up was to populate DynamoDB tables with data from R. Of course, we didn’t have to do this from R, but most of our data analysis and reporting stack is based on R, so why not keep it all in the same environment. We were surprised, however, that there are very limited resources on how to put data into DynamoDB from R. A quick Google search with these keywords did not reveal any tutorials or blogposts, which are usually plentiful for many other topics in the excellent R community.

To our knowledge so far, there are two R packages designed to interact with {DynamoDB}. One is the {aws.dynamodb} package by cloudyr that is no longer maintained. The other option is of course, {paws} – a comprehensive R SDK for AWS, which provides access to over 150 AWS services through R. {paws}’ documentation is extensive, including its coverage of the features of DynamoDB endpoints. So, it was straightforward to write a few functions wrapping paws::dynamodb, to make it easier to put all the rows of a data.frame as items in DynamoDB.

Loading items into a DynamoDB table from R using the paws SDK

DynamoDB’s put_item API query requires a JSON with the following format:

    'AlbumTitle': {
      'S': 'Somewhat Famous',
    'Artist': {
      'S': 'No One You Know',
    'SongTitle': {
      'S': 'Call Me Today',

In R terms this would translate to a named nested list with sublists further named with the field’s data type as described in the documentation:

  AlbumTitle = list(S = "Somewhat Famous"),
  Artist = list(S = "No One You Know"),
  SongTitle = list(S = "Call Me Today")
## $AlbumTitle
## $AlbumTitle$S
## [1] "Somewhat Famous"
## $Artist
## $Artist$S
## [1] "No One You Know"
## $SongTitle
## $SongTitle$S
## [1] "Call Me Today"

To write a function to bulk load a data frame into DynamoDB using the R SDK {paws}, we follow the next steps, each with its own R function:

  1. Guess the appropriate field type (attribute) for a data.frame column
guess_attrib <- function(types) {
  # add more as needed
         "numeric" = "N",
         "integer" = "N",
         "character" = "S",
         "logical" = "BOOL")
  1. Format the named nested list for a single row of the data.frame, which would become a DynamoDB item
dynamo_item_prep <- function(.item) {
  types <- lapply(.item, class)
  attribs <- lapply(types, guess_attrib)
  nested <- lapply(seq_along(.item), function(i) as.list(setNames(.item[[i]], attribs[[i]])))
  setNames(nested, names(.item))
  1. Wrap the dynamodb_put_item function (exported by paws.database) to put the formatted item in our remote table
dynamo_item_put <- function(.con, .table, .prep) {
    TableName = .table,
    Item = .prep

To test this setup we load the {paws} package and create a connection to our DynamoDB:

con <- paws::dynamodb(
  config = list(
    credentials = list(
      creds = list(
        access_key_id = Sys.getenv("ACCESS_KEY_ID"),
        secret_access_key = Sys.getenv("SECRET_ACCESS_KEY")
      profile = Sys.getenv("PROFILE")
    region = Sys.getenv("REGION")

Meanwhile, our project .Renviron needs to have these entries set:

PROFILE = "default"
REGION = "us-east-1"

Now, if we have a DynamoDB table called Iris with a numeric partition key called ID, we can use our functions to put items into it from R:

iris_to_put <- iris
iris_to_put$Species <- as.character(iris_to_put$Species)
iris_to_put$ID <- 1:150

preped_item <- dynamo_item_prep(.item = iris_to_put[1, ])
dynamo_item_put(.con = con, .table = "Iris", .prep = preped_item)

Finally, we can wrap our functions to send a whole data.frame in one step:

dynamo_bulk_put <- function(.con, .table, .df) {
  lapply(1:nrow(.df), function(i)
    dynamo_item_prep(.item = .df[i, ]) |>
      dynamo_item_put(.con = .con, .table = .table))

Then, to send the whole iris table, we can run

dynamo_bulk_put(.con = con, .table = "Iris", .df = iris_to_put)

Next steps

Great! This worked pretty well, however, so far our setup only allows for simple data types. We can’t for example send a list as one of the item components, which is obviously important for a noSQL database – so far we haven’t done anything more than sending a “flat” table. Also, our simple function doesn’t yet know anything about our DynamoDB’s throughput and capacity, so its going to naively try to send all data even though the table provisioning on AWS might not be configured to receive all the data in one go. Finally, there are other options in the paws SDK for writing larger volume of data to DynamoDB. We’ll explore some of these topics in future posts.

Teofil Nakov
Teofil Nakov

My interests include R, Shiny, Bioinformatics, and integrating these in the cloud