[Rd] function call overhead

Paul Johnson pauljohn32 at gmail.com
Tue Mar 1 00:37:18 CET 2011

Snipping down to bare minimum history before comment:

On Wed, Feb 16, 2011 at 4:28 PM, Olaf Mersmann
<olafm at statistik.tu-dortmund.de> wrote:
> Dear Hadly, dear list,
> On Wed, Feb 16, 2011 at 9:53 PM, Hadley Wickham <hadley at rice.edu> wrote:
>>> system.time(replicate(1e4, base::print))
>>   user  system elapsed
>>  0.539   0.001   0.541
>>> system.time(replicate(1e4, print))
>>   user  system elapsed
>>  0.013   0.000   0.012

>> library("microbenchmark")
>> res <- microbenchmark(print, base::print, times=10000)
>> res
>> print(res, unit="eps")
> Unit: evaluations per second
>                    min          lq      median          uq        max
> print       17543859.65 15384615.38 14705882.35 14492753.62 20665.8538
> base::print    23944.64    23064.33    22584.32    20659.88   210.5329

I think it is important to say that this slowdown is not unique to R
and is unrelated to the fact that is R  interpreted.  The same happens
in compiled object-oriented languages like C++ or Objective-C. There
is an inherent cost in the runtime system to find a function or method
that is suitable to an object.

In agent-based modeling simulations, we call it the cost of "method
lookup" because the runtime system has to check for the existence of a
method each time it is called for a given object.   There is a
time-saving approach where one can cache the result of the lookup and
then call that result directly each time through the loop.
Implementing this is pretty complicated, however, and it is
discouraged unless you really need it.  It is especially dangerous
because this optimization throws-away the runtime benefit of matching
the correct method to the class of the object.  (See
where it shows how one can even cache C library functions to avoid
lookup overhead. I'm told that the Obj-C 2.0 runtime will try to
optimize this automatically, I've not tested.)

The R solution is achieving that exact same kind of speed-up by saving
the function lookup in a local variable. The R approach, however, is
implemented much more easily than the Objective-C solution. There is
an obvious danger: if the saved method is not appropriate to an object
to which it applies, something unpredictable will happen.

The same is true in C++.  I was fiddling around with the C++ code that
is included with the R package Siena (awesome package, incidentally)
last year and noticed a similar slowdown with method lookup.  In C++,
I was surprised to find a slowdown inside a class using an instance
variable prefixed with  "this.".  For an IVAR, "this.x" and "x" are
the same thing, but to the runtime system, well, there's slowdown in
finding "this" class and getting x, compared to just using  x.  To the
programmer who is trying to be clear and careful, putting "this." on
the front of IVAR is tidy, but it also slows down the runtime a lot.

Hope this is not more confusing than when I started :)

Paul E. Johnson
Professor, Political Science
1541 Lilac Lane, Room 504
University of Kansas

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