Category: Software Engineering

Slides: Ruby to Elixir – what’s great and what you might miss

This is a talk I gave at the Polygot Tech Meetup in Berlin in April. It has parts of my previous elixir talk while adding a new perspective more directly comparing Ruby and Elixir as well as being shorter as it was used as an intro to a fun panel discussion.


Elixir and Phoenix are known for their speed, but that’s far from their only benefit. Elixir isn’t just a fast Ruby and Phoenix isn’t just Eails for Elixir. Through pattern matching, immutable data structures and new idioms your programs can not only become faster but more understandable and maintainable. While we look at the upsides we’ll also have a look at what you might be missing and could be improved.


Slides: Elixir & Phoenix – fast, concurrent and explicit

This is the first talk I ever gave about my two new favorite technologies to play with (at home and at work) – Elixir and Phoenix. I gave this talk at Vilnius.rb in march and at the Ruby User Group Berlin in April. Hope you enjoy it.


Elixir and Phoenix are all the hype lately – what’s great about them? Is there more to them than “just” fast, concurrent and reliable?

This talk will give a short intro into both Elixir and Phoenix, highlighting strengths, differences from Ruby/Rails and weaknesses.



Don’t you…).new(…)

As I just happened upon it again, I gotta take a moment to talk about one my most despised ruby code patterns: – ever since I happened upon it for the first time. is a convenient way to create a class with accessors:

2.2.2 :001 > Extend =, :length)
 => Extend 
2.2.2 :002 > instance =, 20)
 => #<struct Extend start=10, length=20> 
2.2.2 :003 > instance.start
 => 10 
2.2.2 :004 > instance.length
 => 20

That’s neat, isn’t it? It is, but like much of Ruby’s power it needs to be wielded with caution.

Where goes wrong – the second new

When you do you create an anonymous class, another new on it creates an instance of that class. Therefore, creates an anonymous class and creates an instance of it at the same time. This is bad as we create a whole class to create only one instance of it! That is a capital waste.

As a one-off use it might be okay, for instance when you put it in a constant. The sad part is, that this is not the only case I’ve seen it used. As in the first case where I encountered it, I see it used inside of code that is invoked frequently. Some sort of hot loop with calculations where more than one value is needed to represent some result of the calculation. Here programmers sometimes seem to reach for

Why is that bad?

Well it incurs an unnecessary overhead, creating the class every time is unnecessary. Not only that, as far as I understand it also creates new independent entries in the method cache. For JITed implementations (like JRuby) the methods would also be JITed independently. And it gets in the way of profiling, as you see lots of anonymous classes with only 1 to 10 method calls each.

But how bad is that performance hit? I wrote a little benchmark where an instance is created with 2 values and then those 2 values are read one time each. Once with, once where the is saved in an intermediary constant. For fun and learning I threw in a similar usage with Array and Hash.

Benchmark.ips do |bm| "" do
    value =, :end).new(10, 20)

  SavedStruct =, :end) "" do
    value =, 20)
  end "2 element array" do
    value = [10, 20]
  end "Hash with 2 keys" do
    value = {start: 10, end: 20}

I ran those benchmarks with CRuby 2.3. And the results, well I was surprised how huge the impact really is. The “new-new” implementation is over 33 times slower than the SavedStruct equivalent. And over 60 times slower than the fastest solution (Array), although that’s also not my preferred solution.    137.801k (± 3.0%) i/s -    694.375k      4.592M (± 1.7%) i/s -     22.968M
2 element array      7.465M (± 1.4%) i/s -     37.463M
Hash with 2 keys      2.666M (± 1.6%) i/s -     13.418M
2 element array:  7464662.6 i/s  4592490.5 i/s - 1.63x slower
Hash with 2 keys:  2665601.5 i/s - 2.80x slower   137801.1 i/s - 54.17x slower
Benchmark in iterations per second (higher is better)
Benchmark in iterations per second (higher is better)

But that’s not all…

This is not just about performance, though. When people take this “shortcut” they also circumvent one of the hardest problems in programming – Naming. What is that Struct with those values? Do they have any connection at all or were they just smashed together because it seemed convenient at the time. What’s missing is the identification of the core concept that these values represent. Anything that says that this is more than a clump of data with these two values, that performs very poorly.

So, please avoid using – use a better alternative. Don’t recreate a class over and over – give it a name, put it into a constant and enjoy a better understanding of the concepts and increased performance.

Benchmarking a Go AI in Ruby: CRuby vs. Rubinius vs. JRuby vs. Truffle/Graal

The world of Artificial Intelligences is often full of performance questions. How fast can I compute a value? How far can I look ahead in a tree? How many nodes can I traverse?

In Monte Carlo Tree Search one of the most defining questions is “How many simulations can I run per second?”. If you want to learn more about Monte Carlo Tree Search and its application to the board game Go I recommend you the video and slides of my talk about that topic from Rubyconf 2015.

Implementing my own AI – rubykon – in ruby of course isn’t going to get me the fastest implementation ever. It forces you to really do less and therefore make nice performance optimization, though. This isn’t about that either. Here I want to take a look at another question: “How fast can Ruby go?” Ruby is a language with surprisingly many well maintained implementations. Most prominently CRuby, Rubinius, JRuby and the newcomer JRuby + Truffle. How do they perform in this task?

The project

Rubykon is a relatively small project – right now the lib directory has less than 1200 lines of code (which includes a small benchmarking library… more on that later). It has no external runtime dependencies – not even the standard library. So it is very minimalistic and also tuned for performance.


The benchmarks were run pre the 0.3.0 rubykon version on the 8th of November (sorry writeups always take longer than you think!) with the following concrete ruby versions (versions slightly abbreviated in the rest of the post):

  • CRuby 1.9.3p551
  • CRuby 2.2.3p173
  • Rubinius 2.5.8
  • JRuby 1.7.22
  • JRuby
  • JRuby run in server mode and with invoke dynamic enabled (denoted as + id)
  • JRuby + Truffle Graal with master from 2015-11-08 and commit hash fd2c179, running on graalvm-jdk1.8.0

You can find the raw data (performance numbers, concrete version outputs, benchmark results for different board sizes and historic benchmark results) in this file.

This was run on my pretty dated desktop PC (i7 870):

tobi@tobi-desktop ~ $ uname -a
Linux tobi-desktop 3.16.0-38-generic #52~14.04.1-Ubuntu SMP Fri May 8 09:43:57 UTC 2015 x86_64 x86_64 x86_64 GNU/Linux
tobi@tobi-desktop ~ $ java -version
openjdk version "1.8.0_45-internal"
OpenJDK Runtime Environment (build 1.8.0_45-internal-b14)
OpenJDK 64-Bit Server VM (build 25.45-b02, mixed mode)
tobi@tobi-desktop ~ $ lscpu
Architecture:          x86_64
CPU op-mode(s):        32-bit, 64-bit
Byte Order:            Little Endian
CPU(s):                8
On-line CPU(s) list:   0-7
Thread(s) per core:    2
Core(s) per socket:    4
Socket(s):             1
NUMA node(s):          1
Vendor ID:             GenuineIntel
CPU family:            6
Model:                 30
Stepping:              5
CPU MHz:               1200.000
BogoMIPS:              5887.87
Virtualization:        VT-x
L1d cache:             32K
L1i cache:             32K
L2 cache:              256K
L3 cache:              8192K
NUMA node0 CPU(s):     0-7

First benchmark: Simulation + Scoring on 19×19

This benchmark uses benchmark-ips to see how many playouts (simulation + scoring) can be done per second. This is basically the “evaluation function” of the Monte Carlo Method. Here we start with an empty board and then play random valid moves until there are no valid moves anymore and then we score the game. The performance of a MCTS AI is hugely dependent on how fast that can happen.

Benchmarks were run with a warmup time of 60 seconds and a run time of 30 seconds. The small black bars in the graph denote standard deviation. Results:

Full 19×19 playout, iterations per second (higher is better)
Ruby Version iterations per second standard deviation
CRuby 1.9.3p551 44.952 8.90%
CRuby 2.2.3p173 55.403 7.20%
Rubinius 2.5.8 40.911 4.90%
JRuby 1.7.22 63.456 15.80%
JRuby 73.479 6.80%
JRuby + invoke dynamic 121.265 14.00%
JRuby + Truffle 192.42 14.00%

JRuby + Truffle runs on a slightly modified version of benchmark-ips. This is done because it is a highly optimizing and speculative runtime that leads to bad results after warmup. This is explained here.

Second benchmark: Full UCT Monte Carlo Tree Search with 1000 playouts

This benchmark does a full Monte Carlo Tree Search, meaning choosing a node to investigate, doing a full simulation and scoring there and then propagating the results back in the tree before starting over again. As the performance is mostly dependent on the playouts the graph looks a lot like the one above.

This uses benchmark-avg, which I wrote myself and (for now) still lives in the rubykon repository. Why a new benchmarking library? In short: I needed something for more “macro” benchmarks that gives nice output like benchmark-ips. Also, I wanted a benchmarking tool that plays nice with Truffle – which means doing warmup and run of a benchmark directly after one another, as detailed in this issue.

This uses a warmup time of 3 minutes and a run time of 2 minutes. Along with the iterations per minute, we have another graph depicting average run time.

MCTS on 19×19 with 1000 playouts, iterations per minute (higher is better)
MCTS on 19×19 with 1000 playouts, average run time (lower is better)
Ruby Version iterations per minute average time (s) standard deviation
CRuby 1.9.3p551 1.61 37.26 2.23%
CRuby 2.2.3p173 2.72 22.09 1.05%
Rubinius 2.5.8 2.1 28.52 2.59%
JRuby 1.7.22 3.94 15.23 1.61%
JRuby 3.7 16.23 2.48%
JRuby + invoke dynamic 7.02 8.55 1.92%
JRuby + Truffle 9.49 6.32 8.33%

Results here pretty much mirror the previous benchmark, although standard deviation is smaller throughout which might be because more non random code execution is involved.

Otherwise the relative performance of the different implementations is more or less the same, with the notable exception of JRuby 1.7 performing better than 9.0 (without invoke dynamic). That could be an oddity, but it is also well within the margin of error for the first benchmark.

For the discussion below I’ll refer to this benchmark, as it ran on the same code for all implementations and has a lower standard deviation overall.


The most striking observation certainly is JRuby + Truffle/Graal sits atop in the benchmarks with a good margin. It’s not that surprising when you look at previous work done here suggesting speedups of 9x to 45x as compared to CRuby. Here the speedup relative to CRuby is “just” 3.5 which teaches us to always run your own benchmarks.

It is also worth noting that Truffle first was unexpectedly very slow (10 times slower than 1.9) so I opened an issue and reported that somewhat surprising lack in performance. Then Chris Season was quick to fix it and along the way he kept an amazing log of things he did to diagnose and make it faster. If you ever wanted to take a peek into the mind of a Ruby implementer – go ahead and read it!

At the same time I gotta say that the warmup time it takes has got me worried a bit. This is a very small application with one very hot loop (generating the valid moves). It doesn’t even use the standard library. The warmup times are rather huge exactly for Truffle and I made sure to call no other code in benchmark/avg as this might deoptimize everything again. However, it is still in an early stage and I know they are working on it:)

Second, “normal” JRuby is faster than CRuby which is not much of a surprise to me – in most benchmarks I do JRuby comes up ~twice as fast CRuby. So when it was only ~30% faster I was actually a bit disappointed, but then remembered the --server -Xcompile.invokedynamic=true switches and enabled them. BOOM! Almost 2.6 times faster than CRuby! Almost 90% faster than JRuby without those switches.

Now you might ask: “Why isn’t this the default?” Well, it was the default. Optimizing takes time and that slows down the startup time, for say rails, significantly which is why it was deactivated by default.

If I’m missing any of these magic switches for any of the other implementations please let me know and I’ll add them.

I’m also a bit sad to see rubinius somewhere between 1.9 and 2.2 performance wise, I had higher hopes for its performance with some appropriate warmup time.

Also opal is notably missing, I couldn’t get it to run but will try again in a next version to see what V8 can optimize here.

An important word of warning to conclude the high level look at the different implementations: These benchmarks are most likely not true for your application! Especially not for rails! Benchmark yourself:)

Now for another question that you probably have on your mind: “How fast is this compared to other languages/implementations?” See, that’s hard to answer. No serious Go engine does pure random playouts, they all use some heuristics slowing them down significantly. But, they are still faster. Here’s some data from this computer go thread, they all refer to the 19×19 board size:

  • it is suggested than one should be able to do at least 100 000 playouts per second without heuristics
  • With light playouts Aya did 25 000 playouts in 2008
  • well known C engine pachi does 2000 heavy playouts per thread per second

Which leads us to the question…

Is this the end of the line for Ruby?

No, there are still a couple of improvements that I have in mind that can make it much faster. How much faster? I don’t know. I have this goal of 1000 playouts on 19×19 per second per thread in mind. It’s still way behind other languages, but hey we’re talking about Ruby here😉

Some possible improvements:

  • Move generation can still be improved a lot, instead of always looking for a new valid random moves a list of valid moves could be kept around, but it’s tricky
  • Scoring can also be done faster by leveraging neighbouring cells, but it’s not the bottleneck (yet)
  • a very clever but less accurate data structure can be used for liberty counting
  • also, of course, actually parallelize it and run on multiple threads
  • I could also use an up to date CPU for a change😉

Other than that, I’m also looking over to the ruby implementations to get better, optimize more and make it even faster. I have especially high hopes for JRuby and JRuby + Truffle here.

So in the future I’ll try to find out how fast this can actually get, which is a fun ride and has taught me a lot so far already! You should try playing the benchmark game for yourselves:)

Video + Slides: Beating Go Thanks to the Power of Randomness (Rubyconf 2015)

I was happy enough to present at rubyconf this year. Here go my video, slides and abstract!


Go is a board game that is more than 2,500 years old (yes, this is not about the programming language!) and it is fascinating from multiple viewpoints. For instance, go bots still can’t beat professional players, unlike in chess.

This talk will show you what is so special about Go that computers still can’t beat humans. We will take a look at the most popular underlying algorithm and show you how the Monte Carlo method, basically random simulation, plays a vital role in conquering Go’s complexity and creating the strong Go bots of today.

Slides: Optimizing For Readability (Codemotion Berlin 2015)

Slides: Optimizing For Readability (Codemotion Berlin 2015)

Yesterday I gave a talk at Codemotion Berlin, it was “Optimizing For Readability” – an updated version of my “Code is read many more times than written”. It features new insights and new organizational practices to keep the code base clean and nice. Abstract:

What do software engineers do all day long? Write code? Of course! But what about reading code, about understanding what’s happening? Aren’t we doing that even more? I believe we do. Because of that code should be as readable as possible! But what does that even mean? How do we achieve readable code? This talk will introduce you to coding principles and techniques that will help you write more readable code, be more productive and have more fun!

(pictures by Raluca Badoi

And here you can see the slides, sadly there is no video😦 Slides are CC BY-NC-SA.

Hope you like the code, please leave some feedback. I’d especially love suggestions for a better talk title:)

The not so low cost of calling dynamically defined methods

There are a couple of mantras that exist across programming communities, one of them is to avoid duplication or to keep it DRY. Programming languages equip us with different tools to avoid duplication. In Ruby a popular way to achieve this is Metaprogramming. Methods are dynamically defined to get rid off all duplication and we rejoice – yay! There might be other problems with metaprogrammed solutions, but at least we are sure that the performance is the same as if we’d had written that duplicated code. Or are we?

As the title suggests this post examines the performance of these meta programmed methodsIf you are looking for method definition performance or pure call overhead you’ll find this information in this post by Aaron Patterson.

Before we get into the details I want to quickly highlight that this is not some theoretical micro benchmark I pulled out of thin air. These examples are derived from performance improvements on an actual project. That work was done by my friend Jason R. Clark on this pull request over at Shoes 4. As he doesn’t have time to write it up – I get to, so let’s get to it!

Let’s look at some methods!

(Please be aware that this example is simplified, of course the real code has varying parts most importantly the name of the instance_variable which is the reason why the code was meta programmed in the first place)

class FakeDimension
  def initialize(margin_start)
    @margin_start = margin_start
    @margin_start_relative = relative? @margin_start

  def relative?(result)
    result.is_a?(Float) && result <= 1

  def calculate_relative(result)
    (result * 100).to_i

  define_method :full_meta do
    instance_variable_name = '@' + :margin_start.to_s
    value = instance_variable_get(instance_variable_name)
    value = calculate_relative value if relative? value

  IVAR_NAME = "@margin_start"
  define_method :hoist_ivar_name do
    value = instance_variable_get(IVAR_NAME)
    value = calculate_relative value if relative? value

  define_method :direct_ivar do
    value = @margin_start
    value = calculate_relative value if relative? value

  eval <<-CODE
  def full_string
    value = @margin_start
    value = calculate_relative value if relative? value

  def full_direct
    value = @margin_start
    value = calculate_relative value if relative? value

Starting at the first define_method these are all more or less the same method. We start at a fully meta programmed version, that even converts a symbol to an instance variable name, and end with the directly defined method without any meta programming. Now with all these methods being so similar you’d expect them all to have roughly the same performance characteristics, right? Well, such is not the case as demonstrated by the following benchmark. I benchmarked these methods both for the case where the value is relative and for when it is not. The results are not too different – see the gist for details. Running the non relative version on CRuby 2.2.2 with benchmark-ips I get the following results (higher is better):

           full_meta      1.840M (± 3.0%) i/s -      9.243M
     hoist_ivar_name      3.147M (± 3.3%) i/s -     15.813M
         direct_ivar      5.288M (± 3.1%) i/s -     26.553M
         full_string      6.034M (± 3.2%) i/s -     30.179M
         full_direct      5.955M (± 3.2%) i/s -     29.807M

         full_string:  6033829.1 i/s
         full_direct:  5954626.6 i/s - 1.01x slower
         direct_ivar:  5288105.5 i/s - 1.14x slower
     hoist_ivar_name:  3146595.7 i/s - 1.92x slower
           full_meta:  1840087.6 i/s - 3.28x slower

And look at that, the full_meta version is over 3 times slower than the directly defined method! Of course direct_ivar is also pretty close, but it’s an unrealistic scenario as the instance variable name is what is really changing. You can interpolate the string of the method definition in the full_string version, though. This achieves results as if the method had been directly defined. But what’s happening here?

It seems that there is a higher than expected cost associated with calling instance_variable_get, creating the necessary string and calling methods defined by define_method overall. If you want to keep the full performance but still alter the code you have to resort to the evil eval and stitch your code together in string interpolation. Yay.

So what, do we all have to eval method definitions for metaprogramming now?

Thankfully no. The performance overhead is constant – if your method does more expensive calculations the overhead diminishes. This is the somewhat rare case of a method that doesn’t do much (even the slowest version can be executed almost 2 Million times per second) but is called a lot. It is one of the core methods when positioning UI objects in Shoes. Obviously we should also do the hard work and try not to call that method that often, we’re working on that and already made some nice progress. But, to quote Jason, “regardless what we do I think that Dimension is bound to always be in our hot path.”.

What about methods that do more though? Let’s take a look at an example where we have an object that has an array set as an instance variable and has a method that concatenates another array and sorts the result (full gist):

class Try

  def initialize(array)
    @array = array

  define_method :meta_concat_sort do |array|
    value = instance_variable_get '@' + :array.to_s
    new_array = value + array

  def concat_sort(array)
    new_array = @array + array

We then benchmark those two methods with the same base array but two differently sized input arrays:

BASE_ARRAY        = [8, 2, 400, -4, 77]
SMALL_INPUT_ARRAY = [1, 88, -7, 2, 133]
BIG_INPUT_ARRAY   = (1..100).to_a.shuffle

What’s the result?

Small input array
Calculating -------------------------------------
    meta_concat_sort    62.808k i/100ms
         concat_sort    86.143k i/100ms
    meta_concat_sort    869.940k (± 1.4%) i/s -      4.397M
         concat_sort      1.349M (± 2.6%) i/s -      6.805M

         concat_sort:  1348894.9 i/s
    meta_concat_sort:   869940.1 i/s - 1.55x slower

Big input array
Calculating -------------------------------------
    meta_concat_sort    18.872k i/100ms
         concat_sort    20.745k i/100ms
    meta_concat_sort    205.402k (± 2.7%) i/s -      1.038M
         concat_sort    231.637k (± 2.5%) i/s -      1.162M

         concat_sort:   231636.7 i/s
    meta_concat_sort:   205402.2 i/s - 1.13x slower

With the small input array the dynamically defined method is still over 50% slower than the non meta programmed method! When we have the big input array (100 elements) the meta programmed method is still 13% slower, which I still consider very significant.

I ran these with CRuby 2.2.2, in case you are wondering if this is implementation specific. I ran the same benchmark with JRuby and got comparable results, albeit the fact that JRuby is usually 1.2 to 2 times faster than CRuby, but the slowdowns were about the same.

So in the end, what does it mean? Always benchmark. Don’t blindly optimize calls like these as in the grand scheme of things they might not make a difference. This will only be really important for you if a method gets called a lot. If it is in your library/application, then replacing the meta programmed method definitions might yield surprising performance improvements.

UPDATE 1: Shortly after this post was published coincidentally JRuby was released with improvements to the call speed of methods defined by define_method. I added the benchmarks to the comments of the gist. It is 7-15% faster for full_meta and hoist_ivar_name but now the direct_ivar is about as fast as its full_meta and full_string counterparts thanks to the optimizations!

UPDATE 2: I wrote a small benchmark about what I think is the bottle neck here – instance_variable_get. It is missing the slowest case but is still up to 3 times slower than the direct access.