[Rd] we need an exists/get hybrid

Winston Chang winstonchang1 at gmail.com
Wed Dec 3 21:48:59 CET 2014

I've looked at related speed issues in the past, and have a couple
related points to add. (I've put the info below at

There’s a significant amount of overhead just from calling the R
function get(). This is true even when you skip the pos argument and
provide envir. For example, if you call get(), it takes much more time
than .Internal(get()), which is what get() does.

If you already know that the object exists in an environment, it's
faster to use e$x, and slightly faster still to use e[["x"]]:

e <- new.env()
e$a <- 1

# Accessing objects in environments
  get("a", e, inherits = FALSE),
  get("a", envir = e, inherits = FALSE),
  .Internal(get("a", e, "any", FALSE)),
  .Primitive("[[")(e, "a"),

  unit = "us"
#>   median                                  name
#> 1 1.0300         get("a", e, inherits = FALSE)
#> 2 0.9425 get("a", envir = e, inherits = FALSE)
#> 3 0.3080  .Internal(get("a", e, "any", FALSE))
#> 4 0.2305                                   e$a
#> 5 0.1740                              e[["a"]]
#> 6 0.2905              .Primitive("[[")(e, "a")

A similar thing happens with exists(): the R function wrapper adds
significant overhead on top of .Internal(exists()). It’s also faster
to use $ and [[, then test for NULL, but of course this won’t
distinguish between objects that don’t exist, and those that do exist
but have a NULL value:

# Test for existence of `a` (which exists), and `c` (which doesn't)
  exists('a', e, inherits = FALSE),
  exists('a', envir = e, inherits = FALSE),
  .Internal(exists('a', e, 'any', FALSE)),
  'a' %in% ls(e, all.names = TRUE),

  exists('c', e, inherits = FALSE),
  exists('c', envir = e, inherits = FALSE),
  .Internal(exists('c', e, 'any', FALSE)),
  'c' %in% ls(e, all.names = TRUE),

  unit = "us"
#>    median                                     name
#> 1  1.2015         exists("a", e, inherits = FALSE)
#> 2  1.0545 exists("a", envir = e, inherits = FALSE)
#> 3  0.3615  .Internal(exists("a", e, "any", FALSE))
#> 4  7.6345         "a" %in% ls(e, all.names = TRUE)
#> 5  0.3055                        is.null(e[["a"]])
#> 6  0.3270                             is.null(e$a)
#> 7  1.1890         exists("c", e, inherits = FALSE)
#> 8  1.0370 exists("c", envir = e, inherits = FALSE)
#> 9  0.3465  .Internal(exists("c", e, "any", FALSE))
#> 10 7.5475         "c" %in% ls(e, all.names = TRUE)
#> 11 0.2675                        is.null(e[["c"]])
#> 12 0.3010                             is.null(e$c)


On Tue, Dec 2, 2014 at 8:46 PM, Peter Haverty <haverty.peter at gene.com> wrote:
> Hi All,
> I've been looking into speeding up the loading of packages that use a lot
> of S4.  After profiling I noticed the "exists" function accounts for a
> surprising fraction of the time.  I have some thoughts about speeding up
> exists (below). More to the point of this post, Martin Mächler noted that
> 'exists' and 'get' are often used in conjunction.  Both functions are
> different usages of the do_get C function, so it's a pity to run that twice.
> "get" gives an error when a symbol is not found, so you can't just do a
> 'get'.  With R's C library, one might do
> SEXP x = findVarInFrame3(symbol,env);
> if (x != R_UnboundValue) {
>     // do stuff with x
> }
> It would be very convenient to have something like this at the R level. We
> don't want to do any tryCatch stuff or to add args to get (That would kill
> any speed advantage. The overhead for handling redundant args accounts for
> 30% of the time used by "exists").  Michael Lawrence and I worked out that
> we need a function that returns either the desired object, or something
> that represents R_UnboundValue. We also need a very cheap way to check if
> something equals this new R_UnboundValue. This might look like
> if (defined(x <- fetch(symbol, env))) {
>   do_stuff_with_x(x)
> }
> A few more thoughts about "exists":
> Moving the bit of R in the exists function to C saves 10% of the time.
> Dropping the redundant pos and frame args entirely saves 30% of the time
> used by this function. I suggest that the arguments of both get and
> exists should
> be simplified to (x, envir, mode, inherits). The existing C code handles
> numeric, character, and environment input for where. The arg frame is
> rarely used (0/128 exists calls in the methods package). Users that need to
> can call sys.frame themselves. get already lacks a frame argument and the
> manpage for exists notes that envir is only there for backwards
> compatibility. Let's deprecate the extra args in exists and get and perhaps
> move the extra argument handling to C in the interim.  Similarly, the
> "assign" function does nothing with the "immediate" argument.
> I'd be interested to hear if there is any support for a "fetch"-like
> function (and/or deprecating some unused arguments).
> All the best,
> Pete
> Pete
> ____________________
> Peter M. Haverty, Ph.D.
> Genentech, Inc.
> phaverty at gene.com
>         [[alternative HTML version deleted]]
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