Parser Speedups

It wasn’t my primary goal to improve parser performance nor to measure it. I’ve been working on optimizations to reduce the runtime overhead of including source reference into packages (this is not done by default due to space and execution time overheads). I’ve added an option to exclude parse data from source references and enabled it by default for packages, as parse data account for most of the runtime overhead of source references while they are rarely needed. Trivially, not collecting parse data also speeds up parsing with source references. While debugging a bug in parse data I found that parental information in the parse data was updated even when source references were not collected; fixing this also improved performance. I’ve then made some fixes to initialization, memory allocation and memory protection of the parser structures, following on bug reports and addressing bugs I’ve discovered while reading the code, including the potential problem of mixing UNPROTECT_PTR with UNPROTECT calls. I’ve been profiling my changes to verify that I was not unnecessarily adding performance regressions, and this profiling has uncovered pathological performance overhead of parse data post-processing on large inputs. For the profiling, I artificially created a large file by concatenating all files from R base packages and I got over 90% of time spent in parse data post-processing (and 10% in all the rest including parsing), but this percentage depends on the size of the input, for smaller files it is much smaller. I fixed its primary cause (the pass of finding parent nodes for comments). While profiling on real (non-concatenated) files from CRAN and BIOC packages, I found and fixed another pathological case that made parse data post-processing very slow with large generated expressions (updating parental information with nodes excluded from the parse data). While profiling I’ve also found that there was some performance improvement recently in the parser (between 3.4 and 3.5) for which I could not find any plausible explanation in commit logs for the parser code. I became curious which they were, so I decided to measure parser performance in a bit more detail.

Sample files

The performance numbers below need to be seen in context of that they depend on the files chosen for measurements. It would not be hard at all to create input files to report an arbitrarily large relative performance improvement with some of the optimizations - at least for the finding of parents for comments, larger the input file with comments is, larger is the relative speedup of the optimization. I’ve chosen to measure parse time of concatenated sources of the base package, compiler, tools, utils, and stats from R 3.5.2 to represent different coding styles and file sizes. I’ve also added all as concatenation of all sources from the packages in the base distribution, including the previous ones measured individually, to represent large, hand-written code with comments (this is also the same set I was profiling while working on the optimizations). Then I added the largest files from CRAN/BIOC packages which also represent some of the pathological cases: rgtk2 is gtkFuncs.R from package RGtk2 version 2.20.35 (a large file with no comments), phylosim is PhyloSimSource.R from package phylosim version 3.0.2 (a large file with a lot of inline comments used for inline technical documentation), and rcoletum is test-GetAnswersComplexForm.R from package RColetum version 0.2.0 (a large generated file with a call to structure() with a very large number of arguments). These are also the three files with the largest number of lines from CRAN+BIOC packages (from the subset that I regularly check, which excludes several packages with dependencies not easily available).

Lines Chars
base 20K 730K
stats 29K 1057K
compiler 3K 102K
tools 42K 1634K
utils 20K 729K
all 156K 5793K
phylosim 52K 1074K
rcoletum 82K 5418K
rgtk2 41K 780K


Each iteration runs a fresh instance of RScript with

options( = KEEP_PARSE_DATA)
  dummy <- parse(FILENAME, keep.source= KEEP_SRCREFS)

I’ve run each of the three settings (no source references, source references without parse data, source references with parse data) 20 times, with every R version and source file, reporting average elapsed time. I’ve calculated also 95% bootstrap confidence intervals, which are used to decide to how many digits to round the results to, but are not reported directly. Measured on 64-bit Ubuntu laptop. The numbers are in seconds, so lower is better.

I’ve used the latest R tarballs for versions 3.3, 3.4, and 3.5 and then selected R-devel versions (I had to measure a bit more than shown here to validate where the interesting changes happened; note that 73746 and 73747 are between 3.4 and 3.5, so in the “old” R-devel, but 75177 and later are already the current R-devel).

Source references with parse data

KEEP_PARSE_DATA=TRUE, KEEP_SRCREFS=TRUE (source references with parse data) corresponds to calling parse() explicitly to parse a file with default arguments.

3.3.3 3.4.4 3.5.2 73746 73747 75177 75178 75754 75873 75883
all.r 20.700 20.600 25.8000 26.0000 25.7000 25.800 25.8000 25.0000 1.560 1.600
base.r 0.372 0.370 0.4400 0.4480 0.4480 0.440 0.4390 0.4600 0.103 0.102
compiler.r 0.017 0.023 0.0218 0.0189 0.0189 0.023 0.0222 0.0229 0.019 0.019
phylosim.r 2.000 1.500 2.4000 2.3900 2.4000 2.400 2.4200 2.6000 0.110 0.110
rcoletum.r 18.700 18.600 19.0000 18.6000 18.0000 19.000 19.0000 18.3000 18.300 0.770
rgtk2.r 0.293 0.308 0.1990 0.2070 0.2060 0.199 0.2000 0.1200 0.120 0.130
stats.r 0.720 0.720 0.7800 0.7990 0.7900 0.790 0.8100 0.7900 0.178 0.178
tools.r 0.720 0.702 0.6890 0.6890 0.6230 0.700 0.7000 0.7000 0.300 0.298
utils.r 0.270 0.270 0.2720 0.2680 0.2690 0.274 0.2710 0.2880 0.100 0.101

The numbers show a speedup in R-devel 75873 for all sample files except rcoletum and rgtk2. This is the speedup in finding parent nodes for comments, rcoletum is not affected because it has only a trivial number of comments, rgtk2 because it has no comments at all. The original algorithm for finding parent nodes is quadratic in the worst case as it has to go potentially through the whole remaining parse data for each comment. The new algorithm is almost linear in the size of the parse data, it takes advantage of the parental information already available in the parse data for non-comment nodes, and of certain ordering properties of entries in the parse data met by the parser (more details available in the source code comments). All large files are likely to benefit, and there is even some improvement visible for the smallest sample file (compiler, about 33%).

The numbers also show a speedup in R-devel 75883 for rcoletum. This is a simple optimization in updating parental information with nodes excluded from the parse data. For each node, one has to traverse through a sequence of excluded nodes until one finds a non-excluded node. For very large expressions (list of arguments in this case, but could also be a large arithmetic expression), the sequences of excluded nodes are long and the excluded nodes are repeated, hence the searches are repeated as well. The optimization keeps record of the parents already found and re-uses it during followup searches. The speedup depends on the shape of the expression tree and likely only generated files would benefit. The cost for other files should be negligible (and this is in line with the numbers).

There also seem to be some slowdowns between 3.4.4 and 3.5.2 for all, phylosim and base. These slowdowns are erased in 75873 and 75883. They may be (but I did not verify) caused by virtualization of access to integer vectors used in parse data post-processing. In principle, one could get further speedups over 75883 by rewriting two loops for parse data post-processing, but it is not clear whether is worth the somewhat increased cognitive complexity of the code. 73747 helped in some cases, but this is again not interesting anymore due to big changes in 75873 and 75883.

Source references without parse data

KEEP_PARSE_DATA=FALSE, KEEP_SRCREFS=TRUE (source references without parse data) corresponds to what is now done by default when installing packages using R_KEEP_PKG_SOURCE=yes.

75177 75178 75754 75873 75883
all.r 1.2700 1.0000 0.8100 0.813 0.820
base.r 0.0720 0.0640 0.0610 0.062 0.063
compiler.r 0.0138 0.0122 0.0122 0.012 0.013
phylosim.r 0.0730 0.0600 0.0600 0.070 0.070
rcoletum.r 0.3900 0.3280 0.3470 0.347 0.400
rgtk2.r 0.1670 0.1560 0.0900 0.088 0.087
stats.r 0.1200 0.1040 0.1100 0.107 0.107
tools.r 0.2100 0.2000 0.1980 0.200 0.200
utils.r 0.0680 0.0590 0.0610 0.062 0.062

The numbers are only for the current R-devel versions, because the option to exclude parse data has been added in R-devel 74761. In prior versions, one always got parse data with source references (which had nearly 25x overhead with all).

There is a visible speedup for all and rgtk2 in R-devel 75754. This optimization uses stretchy lists for intermediate structures in the parser that hold source references before they are compacted into fixed-size newlist blocks. Stretchy lists are linked lists that allow constant-time append operation and have been already in use in the parser, but the temporary source reference lists used the traditional pairlists with linear time append operation. This optimization is expected to help only when such lists are long, such as in large files with a lot of (short) functions (probably it is why it helps so much in rgtk2) or with functions with very long bodies.

There is an improvement in version 75178, the optimization removes unnecessary updating parental information for the parse data. Such updating is not needed when parse data are not collected.

No source references, no parse data

KEEP_PARSE_DATA=FALSE, KEEP_SRCREFS=FALSE (no source references, no parse data) corresponds to what is now (in 3.5 and current R-devel) done by default when installing packages.

3.3.3 3.4.4 3.5.2 73746 73747 75177 75178 75754 75873 75883
all.r 0.7310 0.7200 0.4490 0.7040 0.5500 0.5220 0.460 0.470 0.480 0.4810
base.r 0.0630 0.0632 0.0477 0.0500 0.0511 0.0570 0.049 0.051 0.052 0.0520
compiler.r 0.0090 0.0092 0.0090 0.0080 0.0082 0.0110 0.010 0.010 0.010 0.0102
phylosim.r 0.0618 0.0620 0.0482 0.0500 0.0507 0.0570 0.049 0.051 0.052 0.0520
rcoletum.r 0.5600 0.5720 0.3000 0.5310 0.3640 0.3600 0.300 0.330 0.330 0.3300
rgtk2.r 0.0849 0.0840 0.0659 0.0690 0.0700 0.0761 0.067 0.069 0.071 0.0710
stats.r 0.0980 0.0972 0.0760 0.0900 0.0900 0.0880 0.077 0.081 0.083 0.0830
tools.r 0.1570 0.1560 0.0960 0.1150 0.1200 0.1140 0.097 0.102 0.104 0.1100
utils.r 0.0640 0.0629 0.0470 0.0498 0.0501 0.0562 0.048 0.051 0.051 0.0510

In absolute numbers, parse times are small in this configuration even for large source files, but they still contribute to the installation time of packages.

Like when collecting source references without parse data, there is an improvement in version 75178 (not updating parents for parse data as they are not collected).

In addition, there has been a speedup between 3.4.4 and 3.5.2 for all sample files (perhaps except compiler). Having a closer look it is clear that while there are almost no changes in the parser code; one exception is a port of 75178, which avoided updating parental information when source references were not collected, ported because it was a bugfix. Most of the speedups between 3.4.4 and 3.5.2 happen indirectly through other changes in the R code, and seem to be a result of many smaller performance changes, both slowdowns and speedups.

One of the bigger speedups was in 73747 (when R-devel was to become R 3.5). In this commit, Luke Tierney changed the GC heuristics to grow the heap for nodes (cells) more aggressively in the first few heap adjustments after R starts. This followed profiling we have been doing that identified several situations when byte-compiled code in the byte-code interpreter ran slower than AST interpreter (the overhead was not in compilation - the code has already been compiled). This turned up to be caused by GC pressure (unnecessarily too many GC runs) with compiled code when the code took a non-trivial amount of memory for the initial heap sizes. The parser and particularly the tokenizer take quite a bit of memory, so it is not surprising GC heuristics had an impact.

Another speedup was in 73554 (not shown in these numbers, I just measured for gtk2), again due to GC, I’ve updated the GC initial vector memory size, causing the vector heap to grow faster. The change made sense given the current usual memory sizes and it followed again profiling some cases when loading of the compiled code has been taking too long, resulting in some cases in slowdown with already compiled byte-code.


R parser performance has been improved since version 3.4 already in version 3.5 and the current R-devel has additional improvements when source references with parse data are collected. In the current R-devel, one can also collect source references without parse data, which is significantly faster in addition to reduced installation size.