What’s the Fastest Data Structure to Implement a Game Board in Elixir?

Ever wanted to implement something board game like in Elixir? Chess? Go? Islands? Well, then you’re gonna need a board!

But what data structure would be the most efficient one to use in Elixir? Conventional wisdom for a lot of programming languages is to use some sort of array. However, most programming languages with immutable data structures don’t have a “real” array data structure (we’ll talk about erlangs array later, it’s not really like the arrays in non functional languages) . Elixir is one of those languages.

As I like board games this was one of the first questions I ever asked the community. It’s also an interesting and relatable example to see and understand the performance trade-offs of different data structures.

Complete sources can be found in my elixir_boards_benchmark repo.

Benchmark Design

For this benchmark I didn’t have a very specific board game in mind so I settled for a board size of 9×9 . It’s a bit bigger than a normal chess board (8×8), it’s exactly the size of the smallest “normal” Go-board and it’s one smaller than the board used in Islands implemented in Functional Web Development with Elixir, OTP and Phoenix, so it seemed like a good compromise. Different sizes are likely to sport different performance characteristics.

Without a concrete usage scenario in mind I settled on a couple of different benchmarks:

  • getting a value at the coordinates (0,0), (4, 4) and (8,8). This is a fairly nano/micro benchmark for data access and provides a good balance of values at the beginning/middle/end when thinking in list terms.
  • setting a value at the coordinates (0,0), (4, 4) and (8,8).
  • a still nano/micro benchmark that combines the two previous benchmarks by getting and setting all three mentioned values. I call this “mixed bag”.
  • Why stop at the previous one? The last benchmark just sets and gets every possible coordinate once (first it sets (0,0) then gets it, then it sets (0, 1), then gets it and so forth). This also simulates the board filling which can be important for some data structures. Completely filling a board is unrealistic for most board games however, as most games finish before this stage. This one is called “getting and setting full board”.

Something that is notably not benchmarked is the creation of boards. For (almost) all of the board implementations it could resolve to a constant value which should be similar in the time it takes to create. I wasn’t overly interested in that property and didn’t want to make the code less readable by inlining the constant after creation when I didn’t need to.

Also noteworthy is that these benchmark mostly treat reading and writing equally while in my experience most AIs/bots are much more read-heavy than write-heavy.

Take all these caveats of the benchmark design into consideration when looking at the results and if in doubt of course best write your own benchmark taking into account the concrete usage patterns of your domain.

Without further ado then let’s look at the different implementations I have benchmarked so far:

Contenders

All boards need to implement a simple Board behaviour:

All boards are built so that accessing a previously unset field will return nil. No assumptions about the data stored in the board have been made, which rules out String as an implementation type. In the benchmarks atoms are used as values.

In the descriptions of the data types below (x, y) is used to mark where what value is stored.

  • List2D: A 2 dimensional list representing rows and columns: [[(0, 0), (0, 1), (0, 2), ...], [(1, 0), (1, 1), ..], ..., [..., (8, 8)]]
  • List1D: Using the knowledge of a constant board size you can encode it into a one-dimensional list resolving the index as dimension * x + y: [(0, 0), (0, 1), (0, 2), ..., (1, 0), (1, 1), ..., (8, 8)]
  • Tuple2D: Basically like List2D but with tuples instead of lists: {{(0, 0), (0, 1), (0, 2), ...}, {(1, 0), (1, 1), ..}, ..., {..., (8, 8)}}
  • Tuple1D: Basically like List1D but with a tuple instead of a list: {(0, 0), (0, 1), (0, 2), ..., (1, 0), (1, 1),... (8, 8)}
  • Array2D: erlang arrays aren’t exactly a common sight, even learn you some Erlang basically skims over them and says to be cautious when using them. I even forgot about them for the first version of this post 😅. They internally map to tuple usage in an interesting way that will be discussed/illustrated further below. With that out of the way, conceptually this is much like Tuple2D.
  • Array1D: see above for the data structure in general, otherwise conceptually like Tuple1D.
  • MapTuple: A map that takes the tuple of the coordinates {x, y} as the key with the value  being whatever is on the board: %{{0, 0} => (0, 0), {0, 1} => (0, 1), ..., {8, 8} => (8, 8)}. It’s a bit unfair compared to others shown so far as it can start with an empty map which of course is a much smaller data structure that is not only smaller but usually faster to retrieve values from. As the benchmarks start with an empty board that’s a massive advantage, so I also included a full map in the benchmark, see next/
  • MapTupleFull: Basically the same as above but initialized to already hold all key value pairs initialized as nil. Serves not only the purpose to see how this performs but also to see how MapTuple performs once it has “filled up”.
  • MapTupleHalfFull: Only looking at complete full performance and empty performance didn’t seem good either, so I added another one initialized from 0 to 4 on all columns (a bit more than a board half, totalling 45 key/value pairs).
  • MapTupleQuarterFull: Another one of these, this time with 27 key/value pairs. Why? Because there is an interesting performance characteristic, read on to find out 🙂
  • Map2D: Akin to List2D etc. a map of maps: %{0 => %{0 => (0, 0), 1 => (0, 1), ...}, 1 => %{0 => (1, 0), ...}, ..., 8 => %{..., 8 => (8, 8)}}
  • ETSSet: erlang ETS storage with table type set. Storage layout wise it’s basically the same as MapTuple, with a tuple of coordinates pointing at the stored value.
  • ETSOrderedSet: Same as above but with table type ordered_set.
  • ProcessDictionary: On a special request for Michał 😉 This is probably not a great default variant as you’re practically creating (process-) global state which means you can’t have two boards within the same process without causing mayham. Also might accidentally conflict with other code using the process dictionary. Still might be worth considering if you want to always run a board in its own process.

It’s significant to point out that all mentioned data types except for ETS and the process dictionary are immutable. This means that especially for those in the benchmark a new board is created in a before_each hook (does not count towards measured time) to avoid “contamination”.

Another notable exception (save for String for the aforementioned constraints) is Record. Records are internally represented as tuples but give you the key/value access of maps, however in elixir it is more common to use Structs (which are backed by maps). As both maps and tuples are already present in the benchmark including these likely wouldn’t lead to new insights.

System Setup

Operating System Linux
CPU Information Intel(R) Core(TM) i7-4790 CPU @ 3.60GHz
Number of Available Cores 8
Available Memory 15.61 GB
Elixir Version 1.8.2
Erlang Version 22.0

Benchmarking Results

Benchmarks of course were run with benchee and the benchmarking script is here (nothing too fancy).

You can check them out in the repo as markdown (thanks to benchee_markdown) or HTML reports (benchee_html). Careful though if you’re on mobile some of the HTML reports contain the raw measurements and hence go up to 9MB in size and can take a while to load also due to the JS drawing graphs!

The results of getting and setting full board:

runtime_final.png
getting and setting full board iterations per second (higher is better)

It’s a tight race at the top when it comes to run time! Tupl1D, Tuple2D and MapTuple are all within striking range of each other and then there’s a sharp fall off.

Also there is a fair bit of variance involved as shown by the black “whiskers” (this is usual for benchmarks that finish in nanoseconds or microseconds because of garbage collection, interference etc.). Which one of these is best? To get a better picture let’s look at the whole table of results:

Name IPS Average Deviation Median Mode Minimum Maximum
Tuple1D 133.95 K 7.47 μs ±23.29% 6.93 μs 6.88 μs 6.72 μs 492.37 μs
Tuple2D 132.16 K 7.57 μs ±29.17% 7.21 μs 7.16 μs 7.03 μs 683.60 μs
MapTuple 126.54 K 7.90 μs ±25.69% 7.59 μs 7.56 μs 7.43 μs 537.56 μs
ProcessDictionary 64.68 K 15.46 μs ±14.61% 15.12 μs 15.05 μs 14.89 μs 382.73 μs
ETSSet 60.35 K 16.57 μs ±9.17% 16.04 μs 15.95 μs 15.79 μs 161.51 μs
Array2D 56.76 K 17.62 μs ±17.45% 17.15 μs 17.04 μs 16.54 μs 743.46 μs
MapTupleFull 55.44 K 18.04 μs ±11.00% 16.92 μs 16.59 μs 16.43 μs 141.19 μs
MapTupleHalfFull 53.70 K 18.62 μs ±8.36% 17.96 μs 17.87 μs 17.67 μs 160.86 μs
Array1D 50.74 K 19.71 μs ±10.60% 19.29 μs 18.99 μs 18.81 μs 469.97 μs
ETSOrderedSet 39.53 K 25.30 μs ±10.51% 24.82 μs 24.57 μs 24.34 μs 390.32 μs
Map2D 36.24 K 27.59 μs ±8.32% 27.71 μs 25.90 μs 25.12 μs 179.98 μs
List2D 29.65 K 33.73 μs ±4.12% 33.31 μs 33.04 μs 31.66 μs 218.55 μs
MapTupleQuarterFull 28.23 K 35.42 μs ±3.86% 34.96 μs 34.61 μs 34.39 μs 189.68 μs
List1D 15.41 K 64.90 μs ±2.84% 64.91 μs 64.14 μs 62.41 μs 175.26 μs

Median, and Mode are good values to look at when unsure what is usually fastest. These values are the “middle value” and the most common respectively, as such they are much less likely to be impacted by outliers (garbage collection and such).  These seem to reinforce that Tuple1D is really the fastest, if by a negligible margin.

MapTuple is very fast, but its sibling MapTupleFull, that already starts “full”, is more than 2 times slower. Whether this is significant for you depends if you start with a truly empty board (Go starts with an empty board, chess doesn’t for instance).

Somewhat expectedly List1D does worst as getting values towards to the end of the list it has to traverse the entire list which is incredibly slow.

As an aside, it’s easy to see in the box plot that the high deviation is mainly caused by some very big outliers:

boxplot_final.png
Boxplot of getting and setting full board – dots are outliers

The dots denote outliers and they are so big (but few) that the rest of the chart is practically unreadable as all that remains from the actual box is practically a thick line.

What about memory consumption?

memory_final.png
getting and setting full board memory usage (lower is better)

Here we can see the immediate drawback of Tuple1D – it’s memory consumption is many times worse than that of the others. My (educated) guess is that it’s because it has to replace/copy/update the whole tuple with it’s 9*9 = 81 values for every update operation. Tuple2D is much more economical here, as it only needs to to update the tuple holding the columns and the one holding the specific column we’re updating (2 * 9 = 18) to the best of my understanding.

Big Tuples like this are relatively uncommon in “the real world” in my experience though as their fixed size nature makes them inapplicable for a lot of cases. Luckily, our case isn’t one of them.

MapTuple does amazingly well overall as it’s probably the structure quite some people would have intuitively reached for for good constant memory access speed. It’s memory consumption is also impressively low.

ProcessDictionary is very memory efficient and also constantly in the top 4 when it comes to run time. However, at least run time wise there’s quite the margin ~15 μs to ~7 μs which doesn’t seem to make the risks worth it overall.

Other Observations

Let’s take a look at some other things that seem note worthy:

ETS isn’t the winner

This surprised me a bit (however I haven’t used ETS much). ETS was always tagged as the go to option for performance in my mind. Looking at the docs and use cases I know it makes sense though – we’re likely to see benefits for much larger data sets as ours is relatively small:

These (ETS) provide the ability to store very large quantities of data in an Erlang runtime system, and to have constant access time to the data.

81 values hardly qualifies as “very large”.

Don’t blindly follow conventional “wisdom” – always benchmark! 💪

get(0,0) vs. get(8,8)

Let’s have a look at some of the time it takes to retrieve a value – usually a much more common operation than writing:

get(0,0)

Name IPS Average Deviation Median Mode Minimum Maximum
Tuple1D 44.12 M 22.66 ns ±842.77% 20 ns 20 ns 9 ns 35101 ns
Tuple2D 42.46 M 23.55 ns ±846.67% 20 ns 19 ns 7 ns 36475 ns
Array1D 30.38 M 32.92 ns ±84.61% 32 ns 32 ns 20 ns 8945 ns
MapTuple 29.09 M 34.38 ns ±111.15% 32 ns 31 ns 19 ns 10100 ns
MapTupleQuarterFull 18.86 M 53.03 ns ±37.27% 50 ns 49 ns 38 ns 2579 ns
Array2D 18.62 M 53.70 ns ±67.02% 50 ns 49 ns 34 ns 10278 ns
List1D 18.26 M 54.75 ns ±56.06% 53 ns 52 ns 42 ns 8358 ns
ProcessDictionary 17.19 M 58.18 ns ±1393.09% 52 ns 51 ns 39 ns 403837 ns
Map2D 15.79 M 63.34 ns ±25.86% 60 ns 54 ns 41 ns 388 ns
MapTupleHalfFull 10.54 M 94.87 ns ±27.72% 91 ns 89 ns 76 ns 2088 ns
MapTupleFull 10.29 M 97.16 ns ±18.01% 93 ns 89 ns 70 ns 448 ns
ETSSet 9.74 M 102.63 ns ±26.57% 100 ns 99 ns 78 ns 2629 ns
List2D 9.04 M 110.57 ns ±69.64% 105 ns 109 ns 82 ns 4597 ns
ETSOrderedSet 6.47 M 154.65 ns ±19.27% 152 ns 149 ns 118 ns 1159 ns

get(8, 8)

Name IPS Average Deviation Median Mode Minimum Maximum
Tuple2D 42.47 M 23.55 ns ±788.60% 21 ns 20 ns 7 ns 33885 ns
Tuple1D 40.98 M 24.40 ns ±725.07% 22 ns 21 ns 10 ns 34998 ns
Array1D 29.67 M 33.70 ns ±161.51% 33 ns 32 ns 21 ns 18301 ns
MapTuple 28.54 M 35.03 ns ±986.95% 32 ns 32 ns 20 ns 230336 ns
ProcessDictionary 19.71 M 50.73 ns ±1279.45% 47 ns 47 ns 34 ns 377279 ns
Array2D 17.88 M 55.92 ns ±85.10% 52 ns 51 ns 35 ns 13720 ns
Map2D 13.28 M 75.31 ns ±32.34% 73 ns 65 ns 56 ns 2259 ns
MapTupleHalfFull 12.12 M 82.53 ns ±31.49% 80 ns 80 ns 60 ns 1959 ns
ETSSet 9.90 M 101.05 ns ±16.04% 99 ns 95 ns 78 ns 701 ns
MapTupleFull 9.85 M 101.53 ns ±19.29% 99 ns 90 ns 70 ns 487 ns
ETSOrderedSet 5.59 M 178.80 ns ±41.70% 169 ns 170 ns 135 ns 4970 ns
MapTupleQuarterFull 4.09 M 244.65 ns ±16.85% 242 ns 240 ns 226 ns 9192 ns
List2D 3.76 M 265.82 ns ±35.71% 251 ns 250 ns 231 ns 9085 ns
List1D 1.38 M 724.35 ns ±10.88% 715 ns 710 ns 699 ns 9676 ns

The top 3 remain relatively unchanged. What is very illustrative to look at is List1D and List2D though. For get(0, 0) List1D vastly outperforms its 2D sibling even being closest to the top group. That is easy to explain because it basically translates to looking at the first element of the list which is very fast for a linked list. However, looking at the last element is very slow and this is what get(8, 8) translates to. All elements have to be traversed until the end is reached. As such the whole thing is almost 16 times slower for List1D. List2D is still very slow but through it’s 2-dimenstional structure it only needs to look at 18 elements instead of 81.

MapTuple vs. MapTupleQuarterFull vs. MapTupleHalfFull vs. MapTupleFull

In most scenarios, including the biggest scenario, MapTupleQuarterFull performs worse than MapTuple (expected), MapTupleHalfFull (unexpected) and MapTupleFull (unexpected). I had expected its performance to be worse than MapTuple but better than MapTupleFull and MapTupleHalfFull. Why is that?

I had no idea but Johanna had one: it might have to do with the “magic” limit at which a map “really” becomes a map and not just a list that is linearly searched. That limit is defined as 32 entries in the erlang source code (link also provided by Johanna). Our quarter full implementation is below that limit (27 entries) and hence often performance characteristics more akin to List1D (see good get(0, 0) performance but bad get(8, 8) performance) than its “real” map cousins.

To the best of my understanding this “switch the implementation at size 32” is a performance optimization. With such a small data set a linear search often performs better than the overhead introduced by hashing, looking up etc. You can also see that the trade-off pays off as in the big benchmark where the whole board is filled incrementally MapTuple (which is initially empty and grows) still provides top performance.

What I still don’t fully understand is that sometimes MapTupleFull seems to still outperform MapTupleHalfFull – but only by a very negligible margin (most notably in the “big” getting and setting full board benchmark). The difference however is so small that it doesn’t warrant further investigation I believe, unless you have an idea of course.

Performance difference of Array vs. Tuple

In the introduction I said arrays are backed by tuples – how come their performance is way worse then? Well, let’s have a look at what an array actually looks like:

iex(3)> mine = :array.new(81, default: nil)
{:array, 81, 0, nil, 100}
iex(4)> :array.set(13, :boom, mine)
{:array, 81, 0, nil,
{10, {nil, nil, nil, :boom, nil, nil, nil, nil, nil, nil}, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10,
10, 10, 10, 10}}

It cleverly doesn’t even initialize all the fields but uses some kind of length encoding saying “the value is the default value of nil for the next 100 fields” but also saving its set size limit of 81 (fun fact: these arrays can be configured to also dynamically grow!).

Once we set a value (at index 13) the representation changes showing still some length encoding “there is nothing here for the first 10 entries” but then the indexes 10..19 are expanded as a whole tuple that’s holding our value. So, to the best of my understanding arrays work by adding “stretches” of tuples the size of 10 as they need to.

In general this is a performance optimization especially making writes/updates faster as compared to huge tuples as mainly the 10-tuple holding the concrete value needs to get updated instead of the whole thing.

However, our custom tuple implementations are perfectly sized to begin with and not too huge. Moreover, their whole size being set at compile-time probably enables some optimizations (or so I believe).  Hence the tuple implementations outperform them while arrays don’t do too shabby (especially with read access) as compared to other implementations.

Conclusion

Tuples can be very good for the use case of known at compile time sized collections that need fast access and a simple flat map performs amazingly well. All that least for the relatively small board size (9×9 = 81 fields) benchmarked against here. There is a big caveat for the map though – it is so fast if we can start with an empty map and grow it in size as new pieces are set. The completely initialized map (MapTupleFull) performs way worse, tuples are the clear winners then.

Missing a data structure? Please do a PR! There’s a behaviour to implement and then just to lists to add your module name to – more details.

Update 1 (2019-06-17): Fixed MapTupleHalfFull. Before the update it was actually just quarter full 😅 which has wildly different performance characteristics for reasons now described along with the MapTupleQuarterFull implementation. Thanks goes to Johanna for pointing that out. Also the process registry has been added as another possible implementation on a suggestion from Michał 😉 . Also added a run time box plot to show outliers clearer and visually.

Update 2 (2019-06-18): Added and investigated Arrays thanks to /u/Hauleth over on reddit. Also added a remark about records thanks to /u/friendlysock over on lobste.rs.

Revisiting “Tail Call Optimization in Elixir & Erlang” with benchee 1.0

All the way back in June 2016 I wrote a well received blog post about tail call optimization in Elixir and Erlang. It was probably the first time I really showed off my benchmarking library benchee, it was just a couple of days after the 0.2.0 release of benchee after all.

Tools should get better over time, allow you to do things easier, promote good practices or enable you to do completely new things. So how has benchee done? Here I want to take a look back and show how we’ve improved things.

What’s better now?

In the old benchmark I had to:

  • manually collect Opearting System, CPU as well as Elixir and Erlang version data
  • manually create graphs in Libreoffice from the CSV output
  • be reminded that performance might vary for multiple inputs
  • crudely measure memory consumption in one run through on the command line

The new benchee:

  • collects and shows system information
  • produces extensive HTML reports with all kinds of graphs I couldn’t even produce before
  • has an inputs feature encouraging me to benchmark with multiple different inputs
  • is capable of doing memory measurements showing me what consumers more or less memory

I think that these are all great steps forward of which I’m really proud.

Show me the new benchmark!

Here you go, careful it’s long (implementation of MyMap for reference):

We can easily see that the tail recursive functions seem to always consume more memory. Also that our tail recursive implementation with the switched argument order is mostly faster than its sibling (always when we look at the median which is worthwhile if we want to limit the impact of outliers).

Such an (informative) wall of text! How do we spice that up a bit? How about the HTML report generated from this? It contains about the same data but is enhanced with some nice graphs for comparisons sake:

newplot(4).png

newplot(5).png

It doesn’t stop there though, some of my favourite graphs are the once looking at individual scenarios:

newplot(6).png

This Histogram shows us the distribution of the values pretty handily. We can easily see that most samples are in a 100Million – 150 Million Nanoseconds range (100-150 Milliseconds in more digestible units, scaling values in the graphs is somewhere on the road map ;))

newplot(7).png

Here we can just see the raw run times in order as they were recorded. This is helpful to potentially spot patterns like gradually increasing/decreasing run times or sudden spikes.

Something seems odd?

Speaking about spotting, have you noticed anything in those graphs? Almost all of them show that some big outliers might be around screwing with our results. The basic comparison shows pretty big standard deviation, the box plot one straight up shows outliers (little dots), the histogram show that for a long time there’s nothing and then there’s a measurement that’s much higher and in the raw run times we also see one enormous spike.

All of this is even more prevalent when we look at the graphs for the small input (10 000 elements):

newplot(8).png

Why could this be? Well, my favourite suspect in this case is garbage collection. It can take quite a while and as such is a candidate for huge outliers – the more so the faster the benchmarks are.

So let’s try to take garbage collection out of the equation. This is somewhat controversial and we can’t take it out 100%, but we can significantly limit its impact through benchee’s hooks feature. Basically through adding after_each: fn _ -> :erlang.garbage_collect() end to our configuration we tell benchee to run garbage collection after every measurement to minimize the chance that it will trigger during a measurement and hence affect results.

You can have a look at it in this HTML report. We can immediately see in the results and graphs that standard deviation got a lot smaller and we have way fewer outliers now for our smaller input sizes:

newplot(9).png

newplot(10).png

Note however that our sample size also went down significantly (from over 20 000 to… 30) so increasing benchmarking time might be worth while to get more samples again.

How does it look like for our big 5 Million input though?

newplot(11).png

Not much of an improvement… Actually slightly worse. Strange. We can find the likely answer in the raw run time graphs of all of our contenders:

newplot(13).pngnewplot(12).png

The first sample is always the slowest (while running with GC it seemed to be the third run). My theory is that for the larger amount of data the BEAM needs to repeatedly grow the memory of the process we are benchmarking. This seems strange though, as that should have already happened during warmup (benchee uses one process for each scenario which includes warmup and run time). It might be something different, but it very likely is a one time cost.

To GC or not to GC

Is a good question. Especially for very micro benchmarks it can help stabilize/sanitize the measured times. Due to the high standard deviation/outliers whoever is fastest can change quite a lot on repeated runs.

However, Garbage Collection happens in a real world scenario and the amount of “garbage” you produce can often be directly linked to your run time – taking the cleaning time out of equation can yield results that are not necessarily applicable to the real world. You could also significantly increase the run time to level the playing field so that by the law of big numbers we come closer to the true average – spikes from garbage collection or not.

Wrapping up

Anyhow, this was just a little detour to show how some of these graphs can help us drill down and find out why our measurements are as they are and find likely causes.

The improvements in benchee mean the promotion of better practices and much less manual work. In essence I could just link the HTML report and then just discuss the topic at hand (well save the benchmarking code, that’s not in there… yet 😉 ) which is great for publishing benchmarks. Speaking about discussions, I omitted the discussions around tail recursive calls etc. with comments from José Valim and Robert Virding. Feel free to still read the old blog post for that – it’s not that old after all.

Happy benchmarking!

Released: benchee 0.99, 1.0 & friends

It’s finally here – benchee 1.0! 🎉🎉🎉

The first benchee release was almost 3 years ago – it started a mission to improve benchmarking tooling in the elixir eco system. And now we’re not at the goal – after all it’s never done and we’re not short of ideas of what to do.

What’s in a 1.0?

Also called “Why did you take so long to call it 1.0?” – 1.0 for me means a good level of stability. A level where not every second new benchee version all formatters would need updates because they would break otherwise. And in recent releases we have still shuffled major data structures around A LOT (just check all the Breaking Changes (Plugins)). Benchee was mostly stable from a user perspective – but this means it’s less of a risk factor to go ahead and write your own plugins, something that benchee always encouraged/was built to empower. I don’t have any plans for 2.0 right now – all features that I know of can easily be added to the existing structure.

It also means I’m happy with the features. What benchee offers is great, we have:

  •  nano second precise run time measurements
  •  memory measurements
  • rich statistics
  • show information such as CPU, elixir and erlang versions about the system running the benchmarks
  •  support for multiple inputs
  •  hooks to support even unconventional scenarios
  • you can access it all via your CLI, CSV, JSON or HTML (including nice graphs!)
  • and actually a lot more 😉

Benchee might have started out as “I want benchmark-ips in elixir” but it has surpassed it in many ways so that I’d actually want to have benchee in Ruby but that’s another topic. However, that makes me proud of what we accomplished.

With that amount of polish I can also easily sit back and not work on benchee for some time because I know it’s good – it is “done” in the sense that it can do everything I wanted it to do when I started the project (and even more!).

As for what is actually in it mostly removing deprecations. You can check out the Changelog.

What’s 0.99?

I found it nice how rspec did their 2.99 –> 3.0 switch – get it to run on 2.99 without deprecation warnings and then you can safely use 3.0. That was a great user experience. Ember.js handles their major versions similarly. Now, benchee is nowhere near as complex as those 2 but we thought providing that nicety would still be great.

Features

As mentioned before 0.99/1.0 don’t actually include many features – the previous 0.14.0 release from about a month ago was very feature packed. These releases are a lot about polish. Redoing the documenation, updating names, fixing typespecs, being more careful about what is and isn’t exposed in the public interface.

A small but important feature made it in though – displaying the absolute difference between measurements:

Comparison:
flat_map           2.34 K
map.flatten        1.22 K - 1.92x slower +393.09 μs

See that little+393.09 μs? It’s how much slower it was on average in absolute terms. With these comparisons people often focus too much on “OMG it’s almost 2 times as slow!!!” but this number helps put it into context: It’s not even half a millisecond. If you only do this once in a web request the difference likely doesn’t matter. It’s a calculation I always did in my head, I’m happy to make it easily accessible for everyone.

Along with this patch those values were added to our Statistics struct – including the “x-times slower” values, which means formatters no longer have to implement this themselves! Hooray!

We’re an org now!

An astute observer might have seen that all my benchee repos have been moved to the github organization bencheeorg. What’s that all about? It’s mostly a tribute to benchee not being a personal project but a community project. Many people have contributed massively to benchee, most notably Devon and Eric. Without Devon we probably still wouldn’t have memory measurements and without Eric our unit scaling wouldn’t be as great as it is. Others such as Michał and OvermindDL1 have also contributed a lot through ideas, testing and help (especially with memory measurements :)). Feels wrong to keep the repositories attached to a single person.

Also, should anything happen to me (which I hope won’t happen), the others could still add people to the organization and carry on.

It also helps with another problem I’ve had: I want to extract small useful libraries from benchee: Statistics (introduced by me), System Information gathering (introduced by Devon) and unit scaling (introduced by Eric) – where do I put these repos? All under their own name space? All under my name space? Nah, I put them in the benchee organization where we share ownership – that’s where they belong.

The future of benchee

As I said benchee isn’t done – there is an open PR to add reference jobs which didn’t make it into the release. We’d like to add more types of memory measurements, as well as measuring reductions, incorporating profiling right after benchmarking to drill down on those bottle necks sounds great, more compact console output and also include the benchmarking code itself in the suite so that formatters could display it. Finally, now might finally be the time to brush up on meta programming and write that DSL wrapper that people apparently want.

Help with all of those is very welcome. Personally, I’m really itching to extract these libraries I mentioned – let’s see about that. Also to showcase benchee with some nice benchmarks – after all what good is a great benchmarking tool if you rarely use it?

Benchee 0.14.0 – Micro Benchmarks? Pah, how about Nano Benchmarks!

Long time since the last benchee release, heh? Well, this one really packs a punch to compensate! It brings you a higher precision while measuring run times as well as a better way to specify formatter options. Let’s dive into the most notable changes here, the full list of changes can be found in the Changelog.

Of course, all formatters are also released in compatible versions.

Nanosecond precision measurements

Or in other words making measurements 1000 times more precise 💥

This new version gives you much more precision which matters especially if you benchmark very fast functions. It even enables you to see when the compiler might completely optimize an operation away. Let’s take a look at this in action:

You can see that the averages aren’t 0 ns because sometimes the measured run time is very high – garbage collection and such. That’s also why the standard deviation is huge (big difference from 0 to 23000 or so). However, if you look at the median (basically if you sort all measured values, it’s the value is in the middle) and the mode (the most common value) you see that both of them are 0. Even the accompanying memory measurements are 0. Seems like there isn’t much happening there.

So why is that? The compiler optimizes these “benchmarks” away, because they evaluate to one static value that can be determined at compile time. If you write 1 + 1 – the compiler knows you probably mean 2. Smart compilers. To avoid these, we have to trick the compiler by randomizing the values, so that they’re not clear at compile time (see the “right” integer addition).

That’s the one thing we see thanks to our more accurate measurements, the other is that we can now measure how long a map over a range with 10 elements takes (which is around 355 ns for me (I trust the mode and median more her than the average).

How did we accomplish this? Well it all started looking into why measurements on Windows seemed to be weird. We noticed that the implementation of :timer.tc/1 had hard coded the values to be measured in micro seconds:

But, in fact nanoseconds are supported! So we now have our own simple time measuring code. This is operating system dependent though, as the BEAM knows about native time units. To the best of our knowledge nanosecond precision is available on Linux and MacOS – not on Windows.

It wasn’t just enough to switch to nano second precision though. See, once you get down to nanoseconds the overhead of simply invoking an anonymous function (which benchee needs to do a lot) becomes noticeable. On my system this overhead is 78 nanoseconds. To compensate, benchee now measures the function call overhead and deducts it from the measured times. That’s how we can achieve measurements of 0ns above – all the code does is return a constant as the compiler optimized it away as the value can be determined at compile time.

A nice side effect is that the overhead heavy function repetition is practically not used anymore on Linux and macOS as no function is faster than nanoseconds. Hence, no more imprecise measurements due to function repetition to make it measurable at all (on Windows we still repeat the function call for instance 100 times and then divide the measured time by this).

Formatter Configuration

This is best shown with an example, up until now if you wanted to pass options to any of the formatters you had to do it like this:

This always felt awkward to me, but it really hit hard when I watched a benchee video tutorial. There the presenter said “…here we configure the formatter to be used and then down here we configure where it should be saved to…” – why would that be in 2 different places? They could be far apart in the code. There is no immediate visible connection between Benchee.Formatters.HTML and the html: down in the formatter_options:.  Makes no sense.

That API was never really well thought out, sadly.
So, what can we do instead? Well of course, bring the options closer together:

So, if you want to pass along options instead of just specifying the module, you specify a tuple of module and options. Easy as pie. You know exactly what formatter the options belong to.

Road to 1.0?

Honestly, 1.0 should have happened many versions ago. Right now the plan is for this to be the last release with user facing features. We’ll mingle the data structure a bit more (see the PR if interested), then put in deprecation warnings for functionality we’ll remove and call it 0.99. Then, remove deprecated functionality and call it 1.0. So, this time indeed – it should be soon ™. I have a track record of sneaking in just one more thing before 1.0 though 😅. You can track our 1.0 progress here.

Why did this take so long?

Looking at this release it’s pretty packed. It should have been 2 releases (one for every major feature described above) that should have happened much sooner.

It’s definitely sad, I double checked: measuring with best available precision landed 21st of May and function call overhead measurement was basically done 27th of June. And the formatter options landed 10th of August. Keeping those out of your hands for so long really saddens me 😖.

Basically, these required updating the formatters, which isn’t particularly fun, but necessary as I want all formatters to be ready to release along a new benchee version. In addition, we put in even more work (specifically Devon in big parts) and added support for memory measurements to all the formatters.

Beyond this? Well, I think life. Life happened. I moved apartments, which is a bunch  of work. Then a lot of things happened at work leading to me eventually quitting my job. Some times there’s just no time or head space for open source. I’m happy though that I’m as confident as one can be in that benchee is robust and bug free software, so that I don’t have to worry about it breaking all the time. I can already see this statement haunting me if this release features numerous weird bugs 😉

In that vain, hope you enjoy the new benchee version – happy to hear feedback, bugs or feature ideas!

And because you made it so far, you deserve an adorable bunny picture:

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benchee is now called bunny!

edit: This was an April’s fools joke. However, bunny will remain functional. It’s only implemented as a thing wrapper around benchee so unless we completely break API (which I don’t see coming) it’ll remain functional. Continue reading for cute bunny pictures.

It is time for benchee to take the next step in its evolution as one of the prime benchmarking libraries. Going forward benchee will be called bunny!

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Al likes the naming change!

We waited for this very special day to announce this very special naming change – what better day to announce something is being named bunny than Easter Sunday?

It is available on hex.pm now!

But why?

We think this is an abstraction that’s really going to offer us all the flexibility that we’re going to need for future development. As we approach 1.0, we wanted to get the API just right.

This is true courage.

We also haven’t been exactly subtle dropping hints that this naming change was coming. For once I have described benchmarking as bunnies eating food on numerous occasions (each bunny is a function that tries to eat it’s input as fast as it can!). Other than that, the frequently occurring bunny pictures (or even gifs) in benchee Pull Requests could have been a hint.

Also, eating is what they do best:

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Yum yum we like benchmarking

For now bunny still works a lot like benchee. However, it exposes a better and more expressive API for your pleasure. You know, bunny can’t only run like the good old benchee. No! Bunny can also sleep, hop, eat and jump!

This all comes with your own personal bunny assistant that helps you benchmark:

After all this hard work, the bunny needs to sleep a bit though:

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This is clearly better than any other (benchmarking) library out there. What are you waiting for? Go and get bunny now. Also, I mean… just LOOK AT THEM!

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The curious case of the query that gets slower the fewer elements it affects

I wrote a nice blog post for the company I’m working at (Liefery) called “The curious case of the query that gets slower the fewer elements it affects“, which goes through a real world benchmarking with benchee. It involves a couple of things that can go wrong but how combined indexes and PostgreSQL’s EXPLAIN ANALYZE can help you overcome it problems. It’s honestly one of the blog posts I think I ever wrote so head over and read it if that sounds interesting to you 🙂

Released: benchee 0.10, HTML, CSV and JSON plugins

It’s been a little time since the last benchee release, have we been lazy? Au contraire mes ami! We’ve been hard at work, greatly improving the internals, adding a full system for hooks (before_scenarion, before_each, after_each, after_scenario) and some other great improvements thanks to many contributions. The releases are benchee 0.10.0 (CHANGELOG), benchee_csv 0.7.0 (CHANGELOG), benchee_html 0.4.0 (CHANGELOG) and benchee_json 0.4.0 (CHANGELOG).

Sooo… what’s up? Why did it take so long?

benchee

Before we take a look at the exciting new features, here’s a small summary of major things that happened in previous releases that I didn’t manage to blog about due to lack of time:

0.7.0 added mainly convenience features, but benchee_html 0.2.0 split up the HTML reports which made it easier to find what you’re looking for but also alleviated problems with rendering huge data sets (the graphing library was reaching its limits with that many graphs and input values)

0.8.0 added type specs for the major public functions, configuration is now a struct so errors out on unrecognized options

0.9.0 is one of my favorite releases as it now gathers and shows system data like number of cores, operating system, memory and cpu speed. I love this, because normally when I benchmark I and write about it I need to write it up in the blog post. Now with benchee I can just copy & paste the output and I get all the information that I need! This version also facilitates calling benchee from Erlang, so benchee:run is in the cards.

Now ahead, to the truly new stuff:

Scenarios

In benchee each processing step used to have its own main key in the main data structure (suite): run_times, statistics, jobs etc. Philosophically, that was great. However, it got more cumbersome in the formatters especially after the introduction of inputs as access now required an additional level of indirection (namely, the input). As a result, to get all the data for a combination of job and input you want to format you have got to merge the data of multiple different sources. Not exactly ideal. To make matters worse, we want to add memory measurements in the future… even more to merge.

Long story short, Devon and I sat down in person for 2 hours to discuss how to best deal with this, how to name it and all accompanying fields. We decided to keep all the data together from now on – for every entry of the result. That means each combination of a job you defined and an input. The data structure now keeps that along with its raw run times, statistics etc. After some research we settled on calling it a scenario.

This was a huge refactoring but we really like the improvements it yielded. Devon wrote about the refactoring process in more detail.

It took a long time, but it didn’t add any new features – so no reason for a release yet. Plus, of course all formatters also needed to get updated.

Hooks

Another huge chunk of work went into a hooks system that is pretty fully featured. It allows you to execute code before and after invoking the benchmark as well as setup code before a scenario starts running and teardown code for after a scenario stopped running.

That seems weird, as most of the time you won’t need hooks. We could have released with part of the system ready, but I didn’t want to (potentially) break API again and so soon if we added arguments or found that it wasn’t quite working to our liking. So, we took some time to get everything in.

So what did we want to enable you to do?

  • Load a record from the database in before_each and pass it to the benchmarking function, to perform an operation with it without counting the time for loading the record towards the benchmarking results
  • Start up a process/service in before_scenario that you need for your scenario to run, and then…
  • …shut it down again in after_scenario, or bust a cache
  • Or if you want your benchmarks to run without a cache all the time, you can also bust it in before_each or after_each
  • after_each is also passed the return value of the benchmarking function so you can run assertions on it – for instance for all the jobs to see if they are truly doing the same thing
  • before_each could also be used to randomize the input a bit to benchmark a more diverse set of inputs without the randomizing counting towards the measured times

All of these hooks can be configured either globally so that they run for all the benchmarking jobs or they can be configured on a per job basis. The documentation for hooks over at the repo is a little blog post by itself and I won’t repeat it here 😉

As a little example, here is me benchmarking hound:

Hound needs to start before we can benchmark it. Howeer, hound seems to remember the started process by the pid of self() at that time. That’s a problem because each benchee scenario runs in its own process, so you couldn’t just start it before invoking Benchee.run. I found no way to make the benchmark work with good old benchee 0.9.0, which is also what finally brought me to implement this feature. Now in benchee 0.10.0 with before_scenario and after_scenario it is perfectly feasible!

Why no 1.0?

With all the major improvements one could easily call this a 1.0. Or 0.6.0 could have been a 1.0 then we’d be at 2.0 now – wow that sounds mature!

Well, I see 1.0 as a promise – a promise for plugin developers and others that compatibility won’t be broken easily and not soon. Can’t promise this when we just broke plugin compatibility in a major way. That said, I really feel good about the new structure, partly because we put so much time and thought into figuring it out, but also because it has greatly simplified some implementations and thinking about some future features it also makes them a lot easier to implement.

Of course, we didn’t break compatibility for users. That has been stable since 0.6.0 and to a (quite big) extent beyond that.

So, 1.0 will of course be coming some time. We might get some more bigger features in that could break compatibility (although I don’t think they will, it will just be new fields):

  • Measuring memory consumption
  • recording and loading benchmarking results
  • … ?

Also before a 1.0 release I probably want to extract more not directly benchmarking related functionality from benchee and provide as general purpose libraries. We have some sub systems that we build for us and would provide value to other applications:

  • Unit: convert units (durations, counts, memory etc.), scale them to a “best fit” unit, format them accordingly, find a best fit unit for a collection of values
  • Statistics: All the statistics we provide including not so easy/standard ones like nth percentile and mode
  • System: gather system data like elixir/erlang version, CPU, Operating System, memory, number of cores

Thanks to the design of benchee these are all already fairly separate so extracting them is more a matter of when, not how. Meaning, that we have all the functionality in those libraries that we need so that we don’t have to make a coordinated release for new features across n libraries.

benchee_html

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Especially due to many great community contributions (maybe because of Hacktoberfest?) there’s a number of stellar improvements!

  • System information is now also available and you can toggle it with the link in the top right
  • unit scaling from benchee “core” is now also used so it’s not all in micro seconds as before but rather an appropriate unit
  • reports are automatically opened in your browser after the formatter is done (can of course be deactivated)
  • there is a default file name now so you don’t HAVE to supply it

What’s next?

Well this release took long – hope the next one won’t take as long. There’s a couple of improvements that didn’t quite make it into the release so there might be a smaller new release relatively soon. Other than that, work on either serializing or the often requested “measure memory consumption” will probably start some time. But first, we rest a bit 😉

Hope you enjoy benchmarking and if you are missing a feature or getting hit by a bug, please open an issue

 

 

Slides: How fast is it really? Benchmarking in Elixir

I’m at Elixirlive in Warsaw right now and just gave a talk. This talk is about benchmarking – the greater concepts but concrete examples are in Elixir and it works with my very own library benchee to also show some surprising Elixir benchmarks. The concepts are applicable in general and it also gets into categorizing benchmarks into micro/macro/application etc.

If you’ve been here and have feedback – positive or negative. Please tell me 🙂

Slides are available as PDF, speakerdeck and slideshare.

Abstract

“What’s the fastest way of doing this?” – you might ask yourself during development. Sure, you can guess what’s fastest or how long something will take, but do you know? How long does it take to sort a list of 1 Million elements? Are tail-recursive functions always the fastest?

Benchmarking is here to answer these questions. However, there are many pitfalls around setting up a good benchmark and interpreting the results. This talk will guide you through, introduce best practices and show you some surprising benchmarking results along the way.

Released: benchee 0.6.0, benchee_csv 0.5.0, benchee_json and benchee_html – HTML reports and nice graphs!

The last days I’ve been hard at work to polish up and finish releases of benchee (0.6.0 – Changelog), benchee_csv (0.5.0 – Changelog) as well as the initial releases of benchee_html and benchee_json!

I’m the proudest and happiest of finally getting benchee_html out of the door along with great HTML reports including plenty of graphs and the ability to export them! You can check out the example online report or glance at this screenshot of it:

reportWhile benchee_csv had some mere updates for compatibility and benchee_json just transforms the general suite to JSON (which is then used in the HTML formatter) I’m particularly excited about the big new features in benchee and of course benchee_html!

Benchee

The 0.6.0 is probably the biggest release of the “core” benchee library with some needed API changes and great features.

New run API – options last as keyword list

The “old” way you’d optionally pass in options as the first argument into run as a map and then define the jobs to benchmark in another map. I did this because in my mind the configuration comes first and maps are much easier to work with through pattern matching as opposed to keyword lists. However, having an optional first argument already felt kind of weird…

Thing is, that’s not the most elixir way to do this. It is rather conventional to pass in options as the last argument and as a keyword list. After voicing my concerns in the elixirforum, the solution was to allow passing in options as keyword lists but convert to maps internally to still have the advantage of good pattern matching among other advantages.

The old style still works (thanks to pattern matching!) – but it might get deprecated in the future. In this process though the run interface of the very first version of run, which used a list of tuples, doesn’t work anymore 😦

Multiple inputs

The great new feature is that benchee now supports multiple inputs – so that in one suite you can run the same functions against multiple different inputs. That is important as functions can behave very differently on inputs of different sizes or a different structure. Therefore it’s good to check the functions against multiple inputs. The feature was inspired by a discussion on an elixir issue with José Valim.

So what does this look like? Here it goes:

The hard thing about it was that it changed how benchmarking results had to be represented internally, as another level to represent the different inputs was needed. This lead to quite some work both in benchee and in plugins – but in the end it was all worth it 🙂

benchee_html

This has been in the making for way too long, should have released a month or 2 ago. But now it’s here! It provides a nice HTML table and four different graphs – 2 for comparing the different benchmarking jobs and 2 graphs for each individual job to take a closer look at the distribution of run times of this particular job. There is a wiki page at benchee_html to discern between the different graphs highlighting what they might be useful for. You can also export PNG images of the graphs at click of a simple icon 🙂

Wonder how to use it? Well it was already shown earlier in this post when showing off the new API. You just specify the formatters and the file where it should be written to 🙂

But without further ado you can check out the sample report or just take a look at these images 🙂

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raw_run_timesClosing Thoughts

Hope you enjoy benchmarking, with different inputs and then see great reports of them. Let me know what you like about benchee or what you don’t like about it and what could be better.