IntelliJ IDEA's indexing framework provides a quick way to locate certain elements (for example, files containing a certain word or methods with a particular name) in large code bases. Plugin developers can use the existing indexes built by IntelliJ IDEA itself, as well as build and use their own indexes.
IntelliJ IDEA supports two main types of indexes: file-based indexes and stub indexes. File-based indexes are built directly over the content of files, and stub indexes are built over serialized stub trees. A stub tree for a source file is a subset of its PSI tree which contains only externally visible declarations and is serialized in a compact binary format. Querying a file-based index gets you the set of files matching a certain condition, and querying a stub index gets you the set of matching PSI elements. Therefore, custom language plugin developers should typically use stub indexes in their plugin implementations.
File-based indexes in IntelliJ IDEA are based on a map/reduce architecture. Each index has a certain type of key and a certain type of value. The key is what's later used to retrieve data from the index; for example, in the word index the key is the word itself. The value is arbitrary data which is associated with the key in the index; for example, in the word index the value is a mask indicating in which context the word occurs (code, string literal or comment). In the simplest case (when we only need to know in what files some data occurs), the value has type Void and is not stored in the index.
When the index implementation indexes a file, it receives the content of a file and returns a map from the keys found in the file to the associated values. When the index is accessed, you specify the key that you're interested in and get back the list of files in which the key occurs and the value associated with each file.
The standard word index has a fairly straightforward implementation; you can refer to it as an example to understand this discussion better.
Each specific index implementation is a class extending FileBasedIndexExtension, registered in the <fileBasedIndex> extension point. The implementation contains of the following main parts:
If you don't need to associate any value with the files (i.e. your value type is Void), you can simplify the implementation by using ScalarIndexExtension as the base class.