Roman Podoliaka's Blog

The story of one subtle optimization

written by Roman Podoliaka on

On my previous job I worked on an RPC-like Web-service that was passing JSON-blobs between workers via the Gearman task queue. One day I was hacking on our source code trying to find out why it took such a long time (a few seconds) to transfer a 3-megabyte JSON-blob. I was sure that it was a problem in our code. To my surprise the profiler showed that the bottleneck was in this function of python-gearman client library:

def read_data_from_socket(self, bytes_to_read=4096):
    """Reads data from socket --> buffer"""

    if not self.connected:

    recv_buffer = ''
        recv_buffer = self.gearman_socket.recv(bytes_to_read)
    except socket.error, socket_exception:

    if len(recv_buffer) == 0:
        self.throw_exception(message='remote disconnected')

    self._incoming_buffer += recv_buffer
    return len(self._incoming_buffer)

The problem is in the line: self._incoming_buffer += recv_buffer where the _incoming_buffer instance variable has the type str. I was always taught that it is a bad idea to do a massive string concatenation in a programming language where strings are considered to be immutable. So I wrote a small snippet to find out how slow it really was:

def f():
    spam = ''
    eggs = 'a' * 4096

    for i in xrange(1000):
        spam += eggs

The timeit.timeit() function showed that it took less than 1 ms to call the function f() that did 1000 string concatenation operations though. That was really amazing. I started to think that I was missing something. So I tried to run the following snippet:

def g():
    class Foo:
        def __init__(self):
            self.spam = ''

    eggs = 'a' * 4096

    f = Foo()
    for i in xrange(1000):
        f.spam += eggs

It took about 450 ms - that's much "better" (or probably closer to my expectations)! So what the heck? These two functions look very similar except that the latter uses an instance attribute instead of a simple variable.

The bytecode comparison of these two function didn't show anything interesting: the for-loop is completely the same except that the function g() uses LOAD_ATTR/STORE_ATTR bytecodes instead of LOAD_FAST/STORE_FAST ones. But how can attribute access be so slow? It surely must not be a bottleneck while concatenating strings in a loop.

Another interesting thing was that it took the same amount of time (about 1.6 s) to execute both f() and g() functions using the PyPy interpreter.

Now I was almost sure that CPython had some kind of optimization that allowed it to execute the f() function so fast. But the second question, why it didn't work for the g() function, remained. Running python with strace showed that execution the g() function did almost 100 times more memory allocations than execution of the f() function. The time came to debug the interpreter using gdb. The debugging allowed to find the CPython function that did string concatenation.

The source code of string_concatenate() function had a few interesting lines:

 if (v->ob_refcnt == 1 && !PyString_CHECK_INTERNED(v)) {
    /* Now we own the last reference to 'v', so we can resize it
     * in-place.
    if (_PyString_Resize(&v, new_len) != 0) {
        /* XXX if _PyString_Resize() fails, 'v' has been
         * deallocated so it cannot be put back into
         * 'variable'.  The MemoryError is raised when there
         * is no value in 'variable', which might (very
         * remotely) be a cause of incompatibilities.
        return NULL;
    /* copy 'w' into the newly allocated area of 'v' */
    memcpy(PyString_AS_STRING(v) + v_len,
           PyString_AS_STRING(w), w_len);
    return v;
else {
    /* When in-place resizing is not an option. */
    PyString_Concat(&v, w);
    return v;

So-so, strings actually can be mutable! This allows to resize ones in-place that makes strings concatenation very fast. But there is a strict constraint - there must be at most 1 reference to the string to be resized (otherwise the language contract that strings are immutable would be broken).

It's important to understand that this is only a CPython-specific optimization, and you'd better not take benefit of it in your code! Everyone knows that string concatenation in Python is a bad idea, so why to change our mind? If you really need to construct a string this way you should read the docs for str.join() method, StringIO and array modules first - this is the way to write code that works efficiently in all Python interpreters.

P. S. I wrote a small patch for python-gearman that uses an array type for handling of incoming data that greatly improves the performance. The patch was accepted in the master branch. Everyone who is interested in using of Gearman task queue in Python programs might want to check it out.