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Managing External Data

⚠️ This is an advanced feature for very specific situations and not recommended except if there's absolutely no other alternative. In most cases, alternatives like the to-cache or to-remote strategies of dvc add and dvc import-url are more convenient. Note that external outputs are not pushed or pulled from/to remote storage.

There are cases when data is so large, or its processing is organized in such a way, that its impossible to handle it in the local machine disk. For example versioning existing data on a network attached storage (NAS), processing data on HDFS, running Dask via SSH, or any code that generates massive files directly to the cloud.

External outputs (and external dependencies) provide ways to track and version data outside of the project.

How external outputs work

External outputs will be tracked by DVC for versioning, detecting when they change (reported by dvc status, for example).

To use existing files or directories in an external location as outputs, give their remote URLs or external paths to dvc add, or put them in dvc.yaml (deps field). Use the same format as the url of the following supported dvc remote types/protocols:

  • Amazon S3
  • SSH
  • HDFS
  • Local files and directories outside the workspace

Avoid using the same DVC remote used for dvc push, dvc pull, etc. as external cache, because it may cause data collisions: the hash of an external output could collide with that of a local file with different content.

Note that remote storage is a different feature.

Setting up an external cache

DVC requires that the project's cache is configured in the same external location as the data that will be tracked (external outputs). This avoids transferring files to the local environment and enables file links within the external storage.

As an example, let's create a directory external to the workspace and set it up as cache:

$ mkdir -p /home/shared/dvcstore
$ dvc cache dir /home/shared/dvcstore

See dvc cache dir and dvc config cache for more information.

💡 Note that in real-life scenarios, often the directory will be in a remote location, e.g. s3://mybucket/cache or ssh://user@example.com/cache (see the examples below).

⚠️ An external cache could be shared among copies of a DVC project. Do not use external outputs in that scenario, as dvc checkout in any project would overwrite the working data for all projects.


Let's take a look at the following operations on all the supported location types:

  1. Configure an external cache directory (added as a dvc remote*) in the same location as the external data, using dvc config.
  2. Tracking existing data on the external location using dvc add (--external option needed). This produces a .dvc file with an external URL or path in its outs field.
  3. Creating a simple stage with dvc stage add (--external option needed) that moves a local file to the external location. This produces an external output in dvc.yaml.

* Note that for certain remote storage authentication methods, extra config steps are required (see dvc remote modify for details). Once access is setup, use the special remote:// URL format in step 2. For example:
dvc add --external remote://myxcache/existing-data.

$ dvc remote add s3cache s3://mybucket/cache
$ dvc config cache.s3 s3cache

$ dvc add --external s3://mybucket/existing-data

$ dvc stage add -d data.txt \
          --external \
          -o s3://mybucket/data.txt \
          aws s3 cp data.txt s3://mybucket/data.txt
$ dvc remote add sshcache ssh://user@example.com/cache
$ dvc config cache.ssh sshcache

$ dvc add --external ssh://user@example.com/existing-data

$ dvc stage add -d data.txt \
          --external \
          -o ssh://user@example.com/data.txt \
          scp data.txt user@example.com:/data.txt

DVC requires both SSH and SFTP access to work with SSH remote storage. Check that you can connect both ways with tools like ssh and sftp (GNU/Linux).
Note that your server's SFTP root might differ from its physical root (/).

$ dvc remote add hdfscache hdfs://user@example.com/cache
$ dvc config cache.hdfs hdfscache

$ dvc add --external hdfs://user@example.com/existing-data

$ dvc stage add -d data.txt \
          --external \
          -o hdfs://user@example.com/data.txt \
          hdfs fs -copyFromLocal \
                  data.txt \

Note that as long as there is a hdfs://... URL for your data, DVC can handle it. So systems like Hadoop, Hive, and HBase are supported!

$ dvc remote add webhdfscache webhdfs://user@example.com/cache
$ dvc config cache.webhdfs webhdfscache

$ dvc add --external webhdfs://user@example.com/existing-data

$ dvc stage add -d data.txt \
          --external \
          -o webhdfs://user@example.com/data.txt \
          curl --upload-file data.txt \

The default cache is in .dvc/cache, so there is no need to set a custom cache location for local paths outside of your project.

Exceptions to the above include: external data on different storage devices, and partitions mounted on the same file system (e.g. /mnt/raid/data). In such cases, set up an external cache in the same drive to enable file links and avoid copying data.

$ dvc add --external /home/shared/existing-data

$ dvc stage add -d data.txt \
          --external \
          -o /home/shared/data.txt \
          cp data.txt /home/shared/data.txt

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