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PEP 266 -- Optimizing Global Variable/Attribute Access

PEP: 266
Title: Optimizing Global Variable/Attribute Access
Author: Skip Montanaro <skip at>
Status: Withdrawn
Type: Standards Track
Created: 13-Aug-2001
Python-Version: 2.3


    The bindings for most global variables and attributes of other
    modules typically never change during the execution of a Python
    program, but because of Python's dynamic nature, code which
    accesses such global objects must run through a full lookup each
    time the object is needed.  This PEP proposes a mechanism that
    allows code that accesses most global objects to treat them as
    local objects and places the burden of updating references on the
    code that changes the name bindings of such objects.


    Consider the workhorse function sre_compile._compile.  It is the
    internal compilation function for the sre module.  It consists
    almost entirely of a loop over the elements of the pattern being
    compiled, comparing opcodes with known constant values and
    appending tokens to an output list.  Most of the comparisons are
    with constants imported from the sre_constants module.  This means
    there are lots of LOAD_GLOBAL bytecodes in the compiled output of
    this module.  Just by reading the code it's apparent that the
    author intended LITERAL, NOT_LITERAL, OPCODES and many other
    symbols to be constants.  Still, each time they are involved in an
    expression, they must be looked up anew.

    Most global accesses are actually to objects that are "almost
    constants".  This includes global variables in the current module
    as well as the attributes of other imported modules.  Since they
    rarely change, it seems reasonable to place the burden of updating
    references to such objects on the code that changes the name
    bindings.  If sre_constants.LITERAL is changed to refer to another
    object, perhaps it would be worthwhile for the code that modifies
    the sre_constants module dict to correct any active references to
    that object.  By doing so, in many cases global variables and the
    attributes of many objects could be cached as local variables.  If
    the bindings between the names given to the objects and the
    objects themselves changes rarely, the cost of keeping track of
    such objects should be low and the potential payoff fairly large.

    In an attempt to gauge the effect of this proposal, I modified the
    Pystone benchmark program included in the Python distribution to
    cache global functions.  Its main function, Proc0, makes calls to
    ten different functions inside its for loop.  In addition, Func2
    calls Func1 repeatedly inside a loop.  If local copies of these 11
    global idenfiers are made before the functions' loops are entered,
    performance on this particular benchmark improves by about two per
    cent (from 5561 pystones to 5685 on my laptop).  It gives some
    indication that performance would be improved by caching most
    global variable access.  Note also that the pystone benchmark
    makes essentially no accesses of global module attributes, an
    anticipated area of improvement for this PEP.

Proposed Change

    I propose that the Python virtual machine be modified to include
    associate a global name or attribute of a global name with a slot
    in the local variable array and perform an initial lookup of the
    associated object to fill in the slot with a valid value.  The
    association it creates would be noted by the code responsible for
    changing the name-to-object binding to cause the associated local
    variable to be updated.  The UNTRACK_OBJECT opcode would delete
    any association between the name and the local variable slot.


    Operation of this code in threaded programs will be no different
    than in unthreaded programs.  If you need to lock an object to
    access it, you would have had to do that before TRACK_OBJECT would
    have been executed and retain that lock until after you stop using

    FIXME: I suspect I need more here.


    Global variables and attributes rarely change.  For example, once
    a function imports the math module, the binding between the name
    "math" and the module it refers to aren't likely to change.
    Similarly, if the function that uses the math module refers to its
    "sin" attribute, it's unlikely to change.  Still, every time the
    module wants to call the math.sin function, it must first execute
    a pair of instructions:

        LOAD_GLOBAL     math
        LOAD_ATTR       sin

    If the client module always assumed that math.sin was a local
    constant and it was the responsibility of "external forces"
    outside the function to keep the reference correct, we might have
    code like this:

        TRACK_OBJECT       math.sin
        LOAD_FAST          math.sin
        UNTRACK_OBJECT     math.sin

    If the LOAD_FAST was in a loop the payoff in reduced global loads
    and attribute lookups could be significant.

    This technique could, in theory, be applied to any global variable
    access or attribute lookup.  Consider this code:

        l = []
        for i in range(10):
        return l

    Even though l is a local variable, you still pay the cost of
    loading l.append ten times in the loop.  The compiler (or an
    optimizer) could recognize that both math.sin and l.append are
    being called in the loop and decide to generate the tracked local
    code, avoiding it for the builtin range() function because it's
    only called once during loop setup.  Performance issues related to
    accessing local variables make tracking l.append less attractive
    than tracking globals such as math.sin.

    According to a post to python-dev by Marc-Andre Lemburg [1],
    LOAD_GLOBAL opcodes account for over 7% of all instructions
    executed by the Python virtual machine.  This can be a very
    expensive instruction, at least relative to a LOAD_FAST
    instruction, which is a simple array index and requires no extra
    function calls by the virtual machine.  I believe many LOAD_GLOBAL
    instructions and LOAD_GLOBAL/LOAD_ATTR pairs could be converted to
    LOAD_FAST instructions.

    Code that uses global variables heavily often resorts to various
    tricks to avoid global variable and attribute lookup.  The
    aforementioned sre_compile._compile function caches the append
    method of the growing output list.  Many people commonly abuse
    functions' default argument feature to cache global variable
    lookups.  Both of these schemes are hackish and rarely address all
    the available opportunities for optimization.  (For example,
    sre_compile._compile does not cache the two globals that it uses
    most frequently: the builtin len function and the global OPCODES
    array that it imports from


    Q.  What about threads?  What if math.sin changes while in cache?

    A.  I believe the global interpreter lock will protect values from
        being corrupted.  In any case, the situation would be no worse
        than it is today.  If one thread modified math.sin after another
        thread had already executed "LOAD_GLOBAL math", but before it
        executed "LOAD_ATTR sin", the client thread would see the old
        value of math.sin.

        The idea is this.  I use a multi-attribute load below as an
        example, not because it would happen very often, but because by
        demonstrating the recursive nature with an extra call hopefully
        it will become clearer what I have in mind.  Suppose a function
        defined in module foo wants to access spam.eggs.ham and that
        spam is a module imported at the module level in foo:

            import spam
            def somefunc():
                x = spam.eggs.ham

        Upon entry to somefunc, a TRACK_GLOBAL instruction will be

            TRACK_GLOBAL spam.eggs.ham n

        "spam.eggs.ham" is a string literal stored in the function's
        constants array.  "n" is a fastlocals index.  "&fastlocals[n]"
        is a reference to slot "n" in the executing frame's fastlocals
        array, the location in which the spam.eggs.ham reference will
        be stored.  Here's what I envision happening:

        1. The TRACK_GLOBAL instruction locates the object referred to
           by the name "spam" and finds it in its module scope.  It
           then executes a C function like

               _PyObject_TrackName(m, "spam.eggs.ham", &fastlocals[n])

           where "m" is the module object with an attribute "spam".

        2. The module object strips the leading "spam." stores the
           necessary information ("eggs.ham" and &fastlocals[n]) in
           case its binding for the name "eggs" changes.  It then
           locates the object referred to by the key "eggs" in its
           dict and recursively calls

               _PyObject_TrackName(eggs, "eggs.ham", &fastlocals[n])

        3. The eggs object strips the leading "eggs.", stores the
           ("ham", &fastlocals[n]) info, locates the object in its
           namespace called "ham" and calls _PyObject_TrackName once

               _PyObject_TrackName(ham, "ham", &fastlocals[n])

        4. The "ham" object strips the leading string (no "." this
           time, but that's a minor point), sees that the result is
           empty, then uses its own value (self, probably) to update
           the location it was handed:

               &fastlocals[n] = self;

        At this point, each object involved in resolving
        "spam.eggs.ham" knows which entry in its namespace needs to be
        tracked and what location to update if that name changes.
        Furthermore, if the one name it is tracking in its local
        storage changes, it can call _PyObject_TrackName using the new
        object once the change has been made.  At the bottom end of
        the food chain, the last object will always strip a name, see
        the empty string and know that its value should be stuffed
        into the location it's been passed.

        When the object referred to by the dotted expression
        "spam.eggs.ham" is going to go out of scope, an
        "UNTRACK_GLOBAL spam.eggs.ham n" instruction is executed.  It
        has the effect of deleting all the tracking information that
        TRACK_GLOBAL established.

        The tracking operation may seem expensive, but recall that the
        objects being tracked are assumed to be "almost constant", so
        the setup cost will be traded off against hopefully multiple
        local instead of global loads.  For globals with attributes
        the tracking setup cost grows but is offset by avoiding the
        extra LOAD_ATTR cost.  The TRACK_GLOBAL instruction needs to
        perform a PyDict_GetItemString for the first name in the chain
        to determine where the top-level object resides.  Each object
        in the chain has to store a string and an address somewhere,
        probably in a dict that uses storage locations as keys
        (e.g. the &fastlocals[n]) and strings as values.  (This dict
        could possibly be a central dict of dicts whose keys are
        object addresses instead of a per-object dict.)  It shouldn't
        be the other way around because multiple active frames may
        want to track "spam.eggs.ham", but only one frame will want to
        associate that name with one of its fast locals slots.

Unresolved Issues

    Threading -

    What about this (dumb) code?

        l = []
        lock = threading.Lock()
        def fill_l():
            for i in range(1000):
        def consume_l():
            while 1:
                if l:
                    elt = l.pop()

    It's not clear from a static analysis of the code what the lock is
    protecting.  (You can't tell at compile-time that threads are even
    involved can you?)  Would or should it affect attempts to track
    "l.append" or "math.sin" in the fill_l function?

    If we annotate the code with mythical track_object and untrack_object
    builtins (I'm not proposing this, just illustrating where stuff would
    go!), we get

        l = []
        lock = threading.Lock()
        def fill_l():
            track_object("l.append", append)
            track_object("math.sin", sin)
            for i in range(1000):
            untrack_object("math.sin", sin)
            untrack_object("l.append", append)
        def consume_l():
            while 1:
                if l:
                    elt = l.pop()

    Is that correct both with and without threads (or at least equally
    incorrect with and without threads)?

    Nested Scopes -

    The presence of nested scopes will affect where TRACK_GLOBAL finds
    a global variable, but shouldn't affect anything after that.  (I

    Missing Attributes -

    Suppose I am tracking the object referred to by "spam.eggs.ham"
    and "spam.eggs" is rebound to an object that does not have a "ham"
    attribute.  It's clear this will be an AttributeError if the
    programmer attempts to resolve "spam.eggs.ham" in the current
    Python virtual machine, but suppose the programmer has anticipated
    this case:

        if hasattr(spam.eggs, "ham"):
            print spam.eggs.ham
        elif hasattr(spam.eggs, "bacon"):
            print spam.eggs.bacon
            print "what? no meat?"

    You can't raise an AttributeError when the tracking information is
    recalculated.  If it does not raise AttributeError and instead
    lets the tracking stand, it may be setting the programmer up for a
    very subtle error.

    One solution to this problem would be to track the shortest
    possible root of each dotted expression the function refers to
    directly.  In the above example, "spam.eggs" would be tracked, but
    "spam.eggs.ham" and "spam.eggs.bacon" would not.

    Who does the dirty work? -

    In the Questions section I postulated the existence of a
    _PyObject_TrackName function.  While the API is fairly easy to
    specify, the implementation behind-the-scenes is not so obvious.
    A central dictionary could be used to track the name/location
    mappings, but it appears that all setattr functions might need to
    be modified to accommodate this new functionality.

    If all types used the PyObject_GenericSetAttr function to set
    attributes that would localize the update code somewhat.  They
    don't however (which is not too surprising), so it seems that all
    getattrfunc and getattrofunc functions will have to be updated.
    In addition, this would place an absolute requirement on C
    extension module authors to call some function when an attribute
    changes value (PyObject_TrackUpdate?).

    Finally, it's quite possible that some attributes will be set by
    side effect and not by any direct call to a setattr method of some
    sort.  Consider a device interface module that has an interrupt
    routine that copies the contents of a device register into a slot
    in the object's struct whenever it changes.  In these situations,
    more extensive modifications would have to be made by the module
    author.  To identify such situations at compile time would be
    impossible.  I think an extra slot could be added to PyTypeObjects
    to indicate if an object's code is safe for global tracking.  It
    would have a default value of 0 (Py_TRACKING_NOT_SAFE).  If an
    extension module author has implemented the necessary tracking
    support, that field could be initialized to 1 (Py_TRACKING_SAFE).
    _PyObject_TrackName could check that field and issue a warning if
    it is asked to track an object that the author has not explicitly
    said was safe for tracking.


    Jeremy Hylton has an alternate proposal on the table [2].  His
    proposal seeks to create a hybrid dictionary/list object for use
    in global name lookups that would make global variable access look
    more like local variable access.  While there is no C code
    available to examine, the Python implementation given in his
    proposal still appears to require dictionary key lookup.  It
    doesn't appear that his proposal could speed local variable
    attribute lookup, which might be worthwhile in some situations if
    potential performance burdens could be addressed.

Backwards Compatibility

    I don't believe there will be any serious issues of backward
    compatibility.  Obviously, Python bytecode that contains
    TRACK_OBJECT opcodes could not be executed by earlier versions of
    the interpreter, but breakage at the bytecode level is often
    assumed between versions.


    TBD.  This is where I need help.  I believe there should be either
    a central name/location registry or the code that modifies object
    attributes should be modified, but I'm not sure the best way to go
    about this.  If you look at the code that implements the
    STORE_GLOBAL and STORE_ATTR opcodes, it seems likely that some
    changes will be required to PyDict_SetItem and PyObject_SetAttr or
    their String variants.  Ideally, there'd be a fairly central place
    to localize these changes.  If you begin considering tracking
    attributes of local variables you get into issues of modifying
    STORE_FAST as well, which could be a problem, since the name
    bindings for local variables are changed much more frequently.  (I
    think an optimizer could avoid inserting the tracking code for the
    attributes for any local variables where the variable's name
    binding changes.)


    I believe (though I have no code to prove it at this point), that
    implementing TRACK_OBJECT will generally not be much more
    expensive than a single LOAD_GLOBAL instruction or a
    LOAD_GLOBAL/LOAD_ATTR pair.  An optimizer should be able to avoid
    converting LOAD_GLOBAL and LOAD_GLOBAL/LOAD_ATTR to the new scheme
    unless the object access occurred within a loop.  Further down the
    line, a register-oriented replacement for the current Python
    virtual machine [3] could conceivably eliminate most of the
    LOAD_FAST instructions as well.

    The number of tracked objects should be relatively small.  All
    active frames of all active threads could conceivably be tracking
    objects, but this seems small compared to the number of functions
    defined in a given application.






    This document has been placed in the public domain.