With Ken Powers comes Ken Responsibility

Introducing instant.bible - An as-you-type Bible search engine written in Rust, Swift, Kotlin, and TypeScript!

Topics: docker, kubernetes, bible, rust, typescript, swift, kotlin


It's been over three years since I've last posted to this blog. Today I am happy to announce, after nearly a year of work, the release of instant.bible, a Bible search engine that delivers results from multiple translations of the Bible instantly, as you type. You can try it out now by heading over to instant.bible, or you can find the app on the Apple App Store as well as on Google Play.

Technical Overview

The search engine is written in Rust, and each of the clients are written in the native languages for their respective platforms (TypeScript with Rust compiled to WASM for the web, Swift with Rust compiled to a dynamic library used via FFI for iOS, and Kotlin with Rust compiled to a JNI library for Android).

The source code is available on Github at knpwrs/instant.bible.

This is the first time I've written a search engine. Likewise, this is the first time I've written anything substantial in Rust, Kotlin, or Swift. It goes without saying I learned a lot while working on this project.

Search and Indexing

For my original attempts to write a reverse index I was using Rust's built-in BTreeMap and HashMap data structures. I had also attempted to organize my index keys as a prefix trie in order to support prefix lookups. This wound up using multiple gigabytes of memory, which is far more than I really wanted to use for a search index, especially for a fixed search space of nothing but Bible verses. After looking for solutions I wound up creating maps using Andrew Gallant's excellent FST library. Briefly:

This crate provides a fast implementation of ordered sets and maps using finite state machines. In particular, it makes use of finite state transducers to map keys to values as the machine is executed. Using finite state machines as data structures enables us to store keys in a compact format that is also easily searchable. For example, this crate leverages memory maps to make range queries very fast.

Using FST instead of Rust's built-in data structures reduced ram usage from multiple gigabytes to under 200 megabytes. Using FST additionally enabled me to not only lookup keys by prefix, but also gave me typo tolerance by being able to search for keys within a given Levenshtein distance. I highly recommend reading Andrew Gallant's blog post, Index 1,600,000,000 Keys with Automata and Rust, for more details on how the FST crate works. I can't say enough about how awesome this crate is.

Textual Relevance

For a long time, I tried to rank verses purely by textual relevance to search queries; however, this did not return quality results. I was searching for specific verses and they weren't ranked how I was expecting them to be ranked. It occurred to me that most people would be searching for verses they had heard before or were otherwise memorable, and I could approximate this by additionally ranking verses by their relative popularity.

Determining the Most Popular Bible Verses

In order to get a rough approximation of how popular any given Bible verse was I decided that I should compile a ranked list of how many times each verse in the Bible is referenced across the Internet. My original idea was going to be to use the Bing Web Search API from Azure to execute a search for each verse in the Bible (Genesis 1:1, Genesis 1:2, etc) and collect the number of estimated results for each search. The idea is that the number of times each verse is referenced across the Internet (i.e., how often people quote that verse) could be used as a rough estimate of how likely people are to be searching for that verse. As of this writing, the API costs $7 per thousand searches — so at ~31,102 verses in the Bible this would come to cost ~$224; however, as I looked into the terms and conditions I saw the following:

Do not:

  • Copy, store, or cache any data from responses (except retention to the extent permitted by continuity of service.
  • Use data received from the Search APIs as part of any machine learning or similar algorithmic activity. Do not use this data to train, evaluate, or improve new or existing services that you or third parties might offer.

Well, it sounds like my exact use case for the API is not allowable. Fair enough. I needed a different way to determine the ranking of Bible verses.

Common Crawl

Common Crawl is an organization that crawls the Internet and makes the data available to anyone to use. The data is hosted free of charge for anyone to access on AWS S3 as a part of the AWS Public Dataset Program. Common Crawl provides a monthly digest of web crawl data available in WARC (everything), WAT (metadata), and WET (text) formats. For my purposes, I just needed to count verse references in WET files. I decided to run against the January 2020 Common Crawl, which contains 56,000 gzip-compressed WET files totaling about 10TiB in size. That's a lot of text to scan!

My initial attempt to scan the text was a program written in Rust. Unfortunately, my program was not very efficient and when I started to run it on a compute-optimized DigitalOcean instance (I used an instance with 32 dedicated hyperthreads and 64GB of memory, which as of this writing costs $0.952 per hour) it became apparent to me that at best my program would finish in about 40 hours. Now, a cost of about $38 isn't bad, especially considering the previous estimate of $224 for using an API, but 40 hours was too long to be able to try things quickly and fix any problems that arise.

That's when I remembered Andrew Gallant's post, Index 1,600,000,000 Keys with Automata and Rust. In it, he used a simple bash script utilizing curl, zcat, xargs, and grep to process Common Crawl data. I decided to try that approach for my project. Some 19 lines of Bash scripting later (which is mostly ceremony, it could be shorter if I didn't care about readability) I had a system in place that could scan CommonCrawl WET files streaming out of curl and zcat for 66 regular expressions, with exponential backoff retries to boot! On the same instance where my inefficient Rust program would have taken at least 40 hours to complete, my Bash script did the job in less than five hours. My initial estimated cost of $224 was actualized to $5, and I got a 1.3 GiB list of Bible verse references from the January 2020 Common Crawl.

Not bad.

Here's a screenshot of gtop running during the crawl:


And here's a screenshot from the DigitalOcean dashboard for the entire duration of the crawl:

DigitalOcean Dashboard

Using the Bible Verse Popularity Data

The data I collected included a lot of invalid scripture references, like Acts 00:00 and First Second Corinthians 55:16. The total list of Bible verses actually came to be greater than 80,000, which meant that I had on the order of 50,000 invalid scriptures referenced. This turned out not to be an issue for me for two reasons:

  1. While there were a lot of invalid scripture references, valid scripture was cited far more frequently than invalid scripture (the list of 80,000 verses was a sorted and deduplicated list).
  2. I only needed the data during my index build phase in order to give each verse a popularity multiplier.

Due to textual variants, some translations have verses that other translations do not. For the translations that I support I simply iterated over all of their verses and indexed into the map of scripture references, invalid and all.

Ranking Verses

Ultimately I landed on the following algorithm for ranking verses:

  1. Sort by total matching words and exactly matching words, descending
  2. Sort by popularity, descending

Essentially this will end up with the verses with the most matching words ranked first, with ties broken by sorting by individual verse popularity (currently a raw count of how many times that verse was referenced in the Common Crawl data).

Odds and Ends

  • Continuous deployment for the server is done with GitHub Actions and GitHub packages. I build a docker image, push it to the GitHub Container registry, and then deploy to a Kubernetes cluster hosted at DigitalOcean.
  • The website is similarly built on GitHub Actions but is deployed to Netlify using the Netlify CLI. I don't use Netlify's build service in order to save on build minutes for my other websites.
  • Currently the mobile apps are are built and deployed manually, though theoretically I could use something l could use something like fastlane to automate these processes as well.

Possible Improvements

  • Abstract away my usage of the FST library.
  • Make the engine more generic. Right now the search engine is very much
  • designed around my data structures that I use to represent the biblical texts.
  • Collect popularity data for multi-verse references instead of just single-verse references.
  • Synonym expansion and number expansion.
  • The Android App is in need of a lot of love. I felt like Android had much better development tooling than iOS, but something about the programming model didn't quite click with me. I could have used Jetpack Compose but I elected not to given the pre-release state of the library when I was starting the project.
  • There's probably a more consistent way to do FFI cross-platform.
  • Supporting partial highlighting could possibly make things feel faster or at least less clunky.
  • Stop word refinement. Removing "the" from my index reduced the index size by nearly 60 MB, but now it's hard to search for "in the beginning" because "the" expands to the nearest index words "them," "there," etc.

Other Observations

  • wasm was a lot easier to work with than FFI. I'm really looking forward to more wasm hosts! To quote Josh Tripplet of The Bytecode Alliance:

    Imagine extensions for applications or databases, written in any language you want, with no ability to exfiltrate data. Imagine supporting a safe plugin API that isn't just for C and languages that FFI to C, but works natively with safe datatypes.

  • Protobufs don't allow for custom keys, which is very unfortunate but understandable
  • I'm interested in the combination of Dart/Rust, it sounds intriguing: https://dev.to/sunshine-chain/dart-meets-rust-a-match-made-in-heaven-9f5
  • Rust is amazing, even if my systems programming chops aren't (see comic).

Rewriting Everything in Rust


I could not have done this project without the following individuals:

  • My Lord and Savior Jesus Christ
  • My Wife, Laura, for being patient with me while I worked on this project, and who constantly encouraged me as I learned to use several new technologies
  • Andrew Gallant, author of ripgrep, as well as the FST crate on which instant.bible depends, and the one who inspired me to process Common Crawl data with a Bash script (I actually learned about Common Crawl through his blog post).

Call for Feedback / Contributions

This is the first time I've designed and implemented anything like a search engine, and the first time I've used Rust, Swift, and Kotlin to this extent. I'd really love to hear any feedback from anyone experienced in any of these technologies. Feel free to comment here, open an issue or pull request on the Github repository, or email me at ken@kenpowers.net!

A Final Thank You

If you made it this far, thank you for reading! This blog post only barely scratches the surface of everything I learned over the past year. Please go check out the source code and don't hesitate to ask any questions!

Previous PostCreating and Scaling a Docker Swarm Cluster with Terraform
Next Post