Selecting a Random Object in S3 (and in SQL, and others)


By using UUIDv4 identifiers as names or hash hex digests, there is a nice trick to efficiently select a random item as long as the database support querying with a range condition (S3, SQL, DynamoDB, etc.)

The use case

I have a collection of pictures I took (more than 5000) stored as objects in a S3 bucket, and I want to select one randomly (the "picture of the day").

Two solutions:

Both work well as long as you can generate a random name following the same nomenclature, and then query a range with a StartAfter parameter. The "next" item returned is your randomly chosen object.

This method works because:

This is the real example for S3 with the Python SDK:

from uuid import uuid4
import boto3

s3_client = boto3.client(...)

random_key = str(uuid4())
resp = s3_client.list_objects_v2(
key = resp["Contents"][0]["Key"]

# Now get your object
resp = s3_client.get_object(

Beware of some edge cases though.

Edge case 1: the lowest object of the bucket is impossible to choose. Solution: define a blank object named 00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000. The real lowest object is now in the second position and can be chosen randomly.

Edge case 2: if the random key is higher than the highest object in the bucket, no object can be chosen. Solution: just retry. (Taking the highest object in this case would be biased.)

Those edge cases are pretty rare with a certain volume (with +5000 objects I've never encountred them), but they must be handled gracefully.

Same principle for SQL, DynamoDB, etc.

The same principle works as long as your database or storage engine supports indexing that works with range conditions, e.g., B trees, skip lists. It wont't work with a hash index, for instance, because it only supports the strict equality comparison.

In SQL, selecting a random row is surprisingly a not-so-trivial problem. A StackOverflow search will give a handful of results, more or less hacky depending on the RDBMS you use. But the method desribed here will work without hack or vendor-specific wizardry.
If you already use UUIDv4 identifiers or indexed hash digests, then you can apply the same solution.