How to get the size of Rust types with -Zprint-type-sizes

When optimizing Rust code it’s sometimes useful to know how big a type is, i.e. how many bytes it takes up in memory. std::mem::size_of can tell you, but often you want to know the exact layout as well. For example, an enum might be surprisingly big, in which case you probably will want to know if, for example, there is one variant that is much bigger than the others.

The -Zprint-type-sizes option does exactly this. Just pass it to a nightly version of rustc — it isn’t enabled on release versions, unfortunately — and it’ll print out details of the size, layout, and alignment of all types in use. For example, for this type:

enum E {
    A,
    B(i32),
    C(u64, u8, u64, u8),
    D(Vec<u32>),
}

it prints the following, plus info about a few built-in types:

print-type-size type: `E`: 32 bytes, alignment: 8 bytes
print-type-size     discriminant: 1 bytes
print-type-size     variant `A`: 0 bytes
print-type-size     variant `B`: 7 bytes
print-type-size         padding: 3 bytes
print-type-size         field `.0`: 4 bytes, alignment: 4 bytes
print-type-size     variant `C`: 23 bytes
print-type-size         field `.1`: 1 bytes
print-type-size         field `.3`: 1 bytes
print-type-size         padding: 5 bytes
print-type-size         field `.0`: 8 bytes, alignment: 8 bytes
print-type-size         field `.2`: 8 bytes
print-type-size     variant `D`: 31 bytes
print-type-size         padding: 7 bytes
print-type-size         field `.0`: 24 bytes, alignment: 8 bytes

It shows:

  • the size and alignment of the type;
  • for enums, the size of the discriminant;
  • for enums, the size of each variant;
  • the size, alignment, and ordering of all fields (note that the compiler has reordered variant C‘s fields to minimize the size of E);
  • the size and location of all padding.

Every detail you could possibly want is there. Brilliant!

For rustc developers, there’s an extra-special trick for getting the size of a type within rustc itself. Put code like this into a file a.rs:

#![feature(rustc_private)]
extern crate syntax;
use syntax::ast::Expr;
fn main() {
    let _x = std::mem::size_of::<Expr>();
}

and then compile it like this:

RUSTC_BOOTSTRAP=1 rustc -Zprint-type-sizes a.rs

I won’t pretend to understand how it works, but the use of rustc_private and RUSTC_BOOTSTRAP somehow let you see inside rustc while using it, rather than while compiling it. I have used this trick for PRs such as this one.

How to speed up the Rust compiler in 2018: NLL edition

Niko Matsakis recently blogged about the Rust compiler’s new borrow checker, which implements non-lexical lifetimes (NLL). The new borrow checker is a really nice improvement to Rust, because it accepts many sound programs that the old borrow checker rejected.

In the blog post, Niko wrote briefly about the performance of the new borrow checker.

Finally, those of you who read the previous posts may remember that the performance of the NLL checker was a big stumbling block. I’m happy to report that the performance issues were largely addressed: there remains some slight overhead to using NLL, but it is largely not noticeable in practice, and I expect we’ll continue to improve it over time.

This paragraph is true, but glosses over a lot of details! This post will be about my contributions to this performance work.

Wins

Before I describe individual improvements, it’s worth mentioning that the new borrow checker uses bitsets (1D) and bit matrices (2D) heavily. A number of my wins involved these data structures.

#51869: This PR changed some code so that it overwrote an existing dense bitset rather than replacing it with a newly created one of the same size, reducing instruction counts for most benchmarks, the best by 1.5%.

#51870: This PR reused a structure containing two bitsets rather than recreating it afresh for every statement in a basic block, reducing instruction counts for numerous benchmarks, the best by 1%.

#52250: The compiler has a SparseBitMatrix type. Rows were added on demand, and each row was implemented as a sparse bitset using a BTreeMap. In practice, many of the rows were relatively dense, with 10–90% of the bits being set. This PR changed SparseBitMatrix to use a dense representation for rows, reducing instruction counts on one benchmark by 33% and by 1% on a few others. The PR had a mixed effect on memory usage, increasing the peak on some benchmarks and reducing it on others. (Never fear! #54318 below ended up fixing the regressions.)

#52342: This PR avoided a bunch of allocations in Canonicalizer methods, reducing instruction counts on numerous benchmarks, the best by 2%.

#53383: Further profiling showed that some dense bitsets were large, but had very few bits set within them, so the dense representation was wasteful. This PR implemented a new hybrid bitset type that uses a sparse representation for bitsets with up to 8 bits set and switches to a dense representation beyond that, and used it to replace dense bitsets in several places, reducing instruction counts on the five slowest benchmarks by 55%, 21%, 16%, 10% and 9%, and reducing peak memory usage of three benchmarks by 53%, 33%, and 9%.

#53513: This PR force-inlined a function at one hot callsite, reducing instruction counts on two benchmarks by 1%.

#53551: This PR avoided some clone calls, reducing instruction counts for one benchmark by 0.5%.

#53733: This PR added special handling for a very common and simple case in unroll_place, reducing the instruction counts on one benchmark by 25%.

#53942: A function called precompute_borrows_out_of_scope does a traversal of one or more basic blocks. In order to detect whether a basic block had been previously visited, it recorded the ID of every visited statement in a hash table. Some basic blocks can have many statements, resulting in many hash table lookups. This PR changed the code to record the ID of visited basic blocks in the hash table instead of visited statements — trickier than it sounds because the analysis can start in the middle of a basic block, in which case the first half might need to be eventually visited — reducing instruction counts on one benchmark by 60%.

#54211: Liveness analysis created an array that could get very large. Each element in the array was a struct containing two u32s and a bool. Each of those elements took up 12 bytes, but only 9 of the bytes held data. This PR split the array into three separate arrays, one per field, making the code slightly less readable but reducing peak memory usage on one benchmark by 20%. (Fun fact: those u32s used to be usizes, but I shrunk them back in May.)

#54213: This PR tweaked some code so that the lifetimes of two large data structures didn’t overlap, reducing peak memory usage by 27% on one benchmark and 8% on another. (Note: those data structures are dominated by, you guessed it, bitsets!)

#54318: This PR changed SparseBitMatrix so that each instantiated row used the hybrid bitset representation from #53383 instead of the dense representation, reducing peak memory usage by 14–45% on four benchmarks, and 96% (from 29.1GB to 1.2GB) on one external crate! This PR also fixed the peak memory regression that #52250 introduced for a few benchmarks.

#54420: I subsequently realized that #54211 didn’t go far enough. Some debugging println! statements showed that both of the u32s in each liveness entry almost always held a special value that meant “invalid”. When data is repetitive, compression is possible: I could use a packed representation where the common (INVALID, INVALID, true) and (INVALID, INVALID, false) cases were represented by special u32 values, and all other triples were represented by a u32 index into an auxiliary table. This PR changed the representation as described, reducing instruction counts on numerous benchmarks, the best by 16%, and reducing peak memory usage on numerous benchmarks, the best by 38%. (I also tried a more compact representation where each element was a single byte; it reduced peak memory usage some more by the instruction count reduction was less, so I went with the earlier approach.)

Progress and current status

You probably noticed that some of the improvements in the previous section were large, and I wasn’t the only one working on NLL performance; Niko Matsakis and David Wood also contributed some big wins. This is because the new borrow checker’s performance was originally, to be honest, terrible. This is understandable; the focus had been on functionality and correctness, which is fair enough for a large and complex new component. Nonetheless, in June I was very nervous about its performance.

To be more specific, “check” builds (which don’t generate code) ran as much as 50x slower with the new borrow checker on some benchmarks. And multiple benchmarks were disabled on CI because they were simply too slow or used too much memory.

Issue #52028 tells a representative story. It was originally filed because the html5ever benchmark was triggering out-of-memory failures on CI. Measurements with Massif and DHAT showed that its peak heap memory usage was over 14 GB, largely caused by a single 12 GB allocation! In comparison, the peak with the old borrow checker was roughly 200–300 MB. If you read through that issue, you can see that over a period of 2.5 months we reduced the memory usage from 14 GB, to 10 GB, to 2 GB, to 1.2 GB, to 600 MB, to 501 MB, and finally to 266 MB.

And things are pretty good now. The instruction counts on “check” builds for all benchmarks are at most 18% higher with the new borrow checker than the old borrow checker, and are typically around 5%. (And note that “check” builds are the worst-case scenario; non-“check” builds will see a smaller relative slowdown because of the extra time needed for code generation, which is unaffected by the borrow checker.) Memory usage is similar: all benchmarks except one have peak memory usage that is at most 20% higher, with the typical value around 3%. (The one remaining exceptional benchmark uses 2.7x memory.) The worse numbers generally occur on programs containing very large constants.

I’m not entirely happy even with this level of performance regression, but for now I have run out of ideas for improving it further. The new borrow checker is a lot more sophisticated and tracks a lot more data, so strict performance parity is a tough ask. Nonetheless, given how bad performance was a few months ago, I’m happy that we’ve got it down to a level where most people probably won’t notice any difference. Given that the new borrow checker makes Rust a significantly nicer and easier language to use, I hope it’s an acceptable trade-off.

Slimmer and simpler static atoms

String interning is:

a method of storing only one copy of each distinct string value, which must be immutable. Interning strings makes some string processing tasks more time- or space-efficient at the cost of requiring more time when the string is created or interned. The distinct values are stored in a string intern pool. The single copy of each string is called its intern.

In Firefox’s code we use the term atom rather than intern, and atom table rather than string intern pool. I don’t know why; those names have been used for a long time.

Furthermore, Firefox distinguishes between static atoms, which are those that are chosen at compile time and can be directly referred to via an identifier, and dynamic atoms, which are added on-demand at runtime. This post is about the former.

In 2016, Firefox’s implementation of static atoms was complex and inefficient. I filed a bug about this that included the following ASCII diagram showing all the data structures involved for a single atom for the string “foobar”.

static nsFakeStringBuffer<N=7> foobar_buffer (.data, 8+2N bytes)
/-----------------------------------------\ <------+
| int32_t mRefCnt = 1 // never reaches 0  |        | 
| uint32_t mSize = 14 // 7 x 16-bit chars |        | 
| u"foobar"           // the actual chars | <----+ | 
\-----------------------------------------/      | | 
                                                 | | 
PermanentAtomImpl (heap, 32 bytes)               | | 
/----------------------------------------------\ | | <-+
| void* vtablePtr    // implicit               | | |   | 
| uint32_t mLength = 6                         | | |   | 
| uint32_t mHash = ...                         | | |   | 
| char16_t* mString = @------------------------|-+ |   | 
| uintptr_t mRefCnt  // from NS_DECL_ISUPPORTS |   |   | 
\----------------------------------------------/   |   | 
                                                   |   | 
static nsIAtom* foobar (.bss, 8 bytes)             |   | 
/---\ <-----------------------------------+        |   | 
| @-|-------------------------------------|------------+
\---/                                     |        |   | 
                                          |        |   | 
static nsStaticAtom (.d.r.ro.l, 16 bytes) |        |   | 
(this element is part of a larger array)  |        |   | 
/------------------------------------\    |        |   | 
| nsStringBuffer* mStringBuffer = O--|----|--------+   | 
| nsIAtom** mAtom = @----------------|----+            | 
\------------------------------------/                 | 
                                                       | 
AtomTableEntry (heap, ~2 x 16 bytes[*])                | 
(this entry is part of gAtomTable)                     | 
/-------------------------\                            | 
| uint32_t mKeyHash = ... |                            | 
| AtomImpl* mAtom = @-----|----------------------------+
\-------------------------/                            | 
                                                       | 
StaticAtomEntry (heap, ~2 x 16 bytes[*])               | 
(this entry is part of gStaticAtomTable)               | 
/-------------------------\                            | 
| uint32_t mKeyHash = ... |                            | 
| nsIAtom* mAtom = @------|----------------------------+
\-------------------------/

[*] Each hash table is half full on average, so each entry takes up
approximately twice its actual size.

There is a lot going on in that diagram, but putting that all together gave the following overhead per atom.

  • Static shared: 0 bytes
  • Static unshared: 8 + 2(length+1) + 8 + 16
  • Dynamic: 32 + ~32 + ~32 bytes
  • Total bytes: (2(length+1) + 64 + ~64) * num_processes

(Although these atoms are “static” in the sense of being known at compile-time, a lot of the associated data was allocated dynamically.)

At the time there were about 2,700 static atoms, and avg_length was about 11, so the overhead was roughly:

  • 0 bytes fixed, and
  •  410,400 bytes per process. (Or more, depending on how the relocations required for the static pointers were represented, which depended on the platform.)

Today, things have improved greatly and now look like the following.

const char16_t[7] (.rodata, 2(N+1) bytes)
(this is detail::gGkAtoms.foobar_string)
/-----------------------------------------\ <--+
| u"foobar"           // the actual chars |    | 
\-----------------------------------------/    | 
                                               | 
const nsStaticAtom (.rodata, 12 bytes)         | 
(this is within detail::gGkAtoms.mAtoms[])     | 
/-------------------------------------\ <---+  | 
| uint32_t mLength:30 = 6             |     |  | 
| uint32_t mKind:2 = AtomKind::Static |     |  | 
| uint32_t mHash = ...                |     |  | 
| uint32_t mStringOffset = @----------|-----|--+
\-------------------------------------/     | 
                                            | 
constexpr nsStaticAtom* (0 bytes) @---------+
(this is nsGkAtoms::foobar)                 | 
                                            | 
AtomTableEntry (heap, ~2 x 16 bytes[*])     | 
(this entry is part of gAtomTable)          | 
/-------------------------\                 | 
| uint32_t mKeyHash = ... |                 | 
| nsAtom* mAtom = @-------|-----------------+
\-------------------------/

[*] Each hash table is half full on average, so each entry takes up
approximately twice its actual size.

That gives the following overhead per atom.

  • Static shared: 12 + 2(length+1) bytes
  • Static unshared: 0 bytes
  • Dynamic: ~32 bytes
  • Total: 12 + 2(length+1) + ~32 * num_processes

We now have about 2,300 static atoms and avg_length is still around 11, so the overhead is roughly:

  • 82,800 bytes fixed, and
  • 73,600 bytes per process.

I won’t explain all the parts of the two diagrams, but it can be seen that we’ve gone from six pieces per static atom to four; the size and complexity of the remaining pieces are greatly reduced; there are no static pointers (only constexpr pointers and integral offsets) and thus no relocations; and there is a lot more interprocess sharing thanks to more use of const. Also, there is no need for a separate static atom table any more, because the main atom table is thread-safe and the HTML5 parser (the primary user of the separate static atom table) now has a small but highly effective static atoms cache.

Things that aren’t visible from the diagrams: atoms are no longer exposed to JavaScript code via XPIDL, there are no longer any virtual methods involved, and all atoms are defined in a single place (with no duplicates) instead of 7 or 8 different places. Notably, the last few steps were blocked for some time by a bug in MSVC involving the handling of constexpr.

The bug dependency tree gives a good indication of how many separate steps were involved in this work. If there is any lesson to be had here, it’s that small improvements add up over time.

Ad Hoc Profiling

I have used a variety of profiling tools over the years, including several I wrote myself.

But there is one profiling tool I have used more than any other. It is capable of providing invaluable, domain-specific profiling data of a kind not obtainable by any general-purpose profiler.

It’s a simple text processor implemented in a few dozen lines of code. I use it in combination with logging print statements in the programs I am profiling. No joke.

Post-processing

The tool is called counts, and it tallies line frequencies within text files, like an improved version of the Unix command chain sort | uniq -c. For example, given the following input.

a 1
b 2
b 2
c 3
c 3
c 3
d 4
d 4
d 4
d 4

counts produces the following output.

10 counts:
(  1)        4 (40.0%, 40.0%): d 4
(  2)        3 (30.0%, 70.0%): c 3
(  3)        2 (20.0%, 90.0%): b 2
(  4)        1 (10.0%,100.0%): a 1

It gives a total line count, and shows all the unique lines, ordered by frequency, with individual and cumulative percentages.

Alternatively, when invoked with the -w flag, it assigns each line a weight, determined by the last integer that appears on the line (or 1 if there is no such integer).  On the same input, counts -w produces the following output.

30 counts:
(  1)       16 (53.3%, 53.3%): d 4
(  2)        9 (30.0%, 83.3%): c 3
(  3)        4 (13.3%, 96.7%): b 2
(  4)        1 ( 3.3%,100.0%): a 1

The total and per-line counts are now weighted; the output incorporates both frequency and a measure of magnitude.

That’s it. That’s all counts does. I originally implemented it in 48 lines of Perl, then later rewrote it as 48 lines of Python, and then later again rewrote it as 71 lines of Rust.

In terms of benefit-to-effort ratio, it is by far the best code I have ever written.

counts in action

As an example, I added print statements to Firefox’s heap allocator so it prints a line for every allocation that shows its category, requested size, and actual size. A short run of Firefox with this instrumentation produced a 77 MB file containing 5.27 million lines. counts produced the following output for this file.

5270459 counts:
( 1) 576937 (10.9%, 10.9%): small 32 (32)
( 2) 546618 (10.4%, 21.3%): small 24 (32)
( 3) 492358 ( 9.3%, 30.7%): small 64 (64)
( 4) 321517 ( 6.1%, 36.8%): small 16 (16)
( 5) 288327 ( 5.5%, 42.2%): small 128 (128)
( 6) 251023 ( 4.8%, 47.0%): small 512 (512)
( 7) 191818 ( 3.6%, 50.6%): small 48 (48)
( 8) 164846 ( 3.1%, 53.8%): small 256 (256)
( 9) 162634 ( 3.1%, 56.8%): small 8 (8)
( 10) 146220 ( 2.8%, 59.6%): small 40 (48)
( 11) 111528 ( 2.1%, 61.7%): small 72 (80)
( 12) 94332 ( 1.8%, 63.5%): small 4 (8)
( 13) 91727 ( 1.7%, 65.3%): small 56 (64)
( 14) 78092 ( 1.5%, 66.7%): small 168 (176)
( 15) 64829 ( 1.2%, 68.0%): small 96 (96)
( 16) 60394 ( 1.1%, 69.1%): small 88 (96)
( 17) 58414 ( 1.1%, 70.2%): small 80 (80)
( 18) 53193 ( 1.0%, 71.2%): large 4096 (4096)
( 19) 51623 ( 1.0%, 72.2%): small 1024 (1024)
( 20) 45979 ( 0.9%, 73.1%): small 2048 (2048)

Unsurprisingly, small allocations dominate. But what happens if we weight each entry by its size? counts -w produced the following output.

2554515775 counts:
( 1) 501481472 (19.6%, 19.6%): large 32768 (32768)
( 2) 217878528 ( 8.5%, 28.2%): large 4096 (4096)
( 3) 156762112 ( 6.1%, 34.3%): large 65536 (65536)
( 4) 133554176 ( 5.2%, 39.5%): large 8192 (8192)
( 5) 128523776 ( 5.0%, 44.6%): small 512 (512)
( 6) 96550912 ( 3.8%, 48.3%): large 3072 (4096)
( 7) 94164992 ( 3.7%, 52.0%): small 2048 (2048)
( 8) 52861952 ( 2.1%, 54.1%): small 1024 (1024)
( 9) 44564480 ( 1.7%, 55.8%): large 262144 (262144)
( 10) 42200576 ( 1.7%, 57.5%): small 256 (256)
( 11) 41926656 ( 1.6%, 59.1%): large 16384 (16384)
( 12) 39976960 ( 1.6%, 60.7%): large 131072 (131072)
( 13) 38928384 ( 1.5%, 62.2%): huge 4864000 (4866048)
( 14) 37748736 ( 1.5%, 63.7%): huge 2097152 (2097152)
( 15) 36905856 ( 1.4%, 65.1%): small 128 (128)
( 16) 31510912 ( 1.2%, 66.4%): small 64 (64)
( 17) 24805376 ( 1.0%, 67.3%): huge 3097600 (3100672)
( 18) 23068672 ( 0.9%, 68.2%): huge 1048576 (1048576)
( 19) 22020096 ( 0.9%, 69.1%): large 524288 (524288)
( 20) 18980864 ( 0.7%, 69.9%): large 5432 (8192)

This shows that the cumulative count of allocated bytes (2.55GB) is dominated by a mixture of larger allocation sizes.

This example gives just a taste of what counts can do.

(An aside: in both cases it’s good the see there isn’t much slop, i.e. the difference between the requested sizes and actual sizes are mostly 0. That 5432 entry at the bottom of the second table is curious, though.)

Other Uses

This technique is often useful when you already know something — e.g. a general-purpose profiler showed that a particular function is hot — but you want to know more.

  • Exactly how many times are paths X, Y and Z executed? For example, how often do lookups succeed or fail in data structure D? Print an identifying string each time a path is hit.
  • How many times does loop L iterate? What does the loop count distribution look like? Is it executed frequently with a low loop count, or infrequently with a high loop count, or a mix? Print the iteration count before or after the loop.
  • How many elements are typically in hash table H at this code location? Few? Many? A mixture? Print the element count.
  • What are the contents of vector V at this code location? Print the contents.
  • How many bytes of memory are used by data structure D at this code location? Print the byte size.
  • Which call sites of function F are the hot ones? Print an identifying string at the call site.

Then use counts to aggregate the data. Often this domain-specific data is critical to fully optimize hot code.

Worse is better

Print statements are an admittedly crude way to get this kind of information, profligate with I/O and disk space. In many cases you could do it in a way that uses machine resources much more efficiently, e.g. by creating a small table data structure in the code to track frequencies, and then printing that table at program termination.

But that would require:

  • writing the custom table (collection and printing);
  • deciding where to define the table;
  • possibly exposing the table to multiple modules;
  • deciding where to initialize the table; and
  • deciding where to print the contents of the table.

That is a pain, especially in a large program you don’t fully understand.

Alternatively, sometimes you want information that a general-purpose profiler could give you, but running that profiler on your program is a hassle because the program you want to profile is actually layered under something else, and setting things up properly takes effort.

In contrast, inserting print statements is trivial. Any measurement can be set up in no time at all. (Recompiling is often the slowest part of the process.) This encourages experimentation. You can also kill a running program at any point with no loss of profiling data.

Don’t feel guilty about wasting machine resources; this is temporary code. You might sometimes end up with output files that are gigabytes in size. But counts is fast because it’s so simple… and the Rust version is 3–4x faster than the Python version, which is nice. Let the machine do the work for you. (It does help if you have a machine with an SSD.)

Ad Hoc Profiling

For a long time I have, in my own mind, used the term ad hoc profiling to describe this combination of logging print statements and frequency-based post-processing. Wikipedia defines “ad hoc” as follows.

In English, it generally signifies a solution designed for a specific problem or task, non-generalizable, and not intended to be able to be adapted to other purposes

The process of writing custom code to collect this kind of profiling data — in the manner I disparaged in the previous section — truly matches this definition of “ad hoc”.

But counts is valuable specifically makes this type of custom profiling less ad hoc and more repeatable. I should arguably call it “generalized ad hoc profiling” or “not so ad hoc profiling”… but those names don’t have quite the same ring to them.

Tips

Use unbuffered output for the print statements. In C and C++ code, use fprintf(stderr, ...). In Rust code use eprintln!.

Pipe the stderr output to file, e.g. firefox 2> log.

Sometimes programs print other lines of output to stderr that should be ignored by counts. (Especially if they include integer IDs that counts -w would interpret as weights!) Prepend all logging lines with a short identifier, and then use grep $ID log | counts to ignore the other lines. If you use more than one prefix, you can grep for each prefix individually or all together.

Occasionally output lines get munged together when multiple print statements are present. Because there are typically many lines of output, having a few garbage ones almost never matters.

It’s often useful to use both counts and counts -w on the same log file; each one gives different insights into the data.

To find which call sites of a function are hot, you can instrument the call sites directly. But it’s easy to miss one, and the same print statements need to be repeated multiple times. An alternative is to add an extra string or integer argument to the function, pass in a unique value from each call site, and then print that value within the function.

It’s occasionally useful to look at the raw logs as well as the output of counts, because the sequence of output lines can be informative. For example, I recently diagnosed an occurrences of quadratic behaviour in the Rust compiler by seeing that a loop iterated 1, 2, 3, …, 9000+ times.

The Code

counts is available here.

Conclusion

I use counts to do ad hoc profiling all the time. It’s the first tool I reach for any time I have a question about code execution patterns. I have used it extensively for every bout of major performance work I have done in the past few years, as well as in plenty of other circumstances. I even built direct support for it into rustc-perf, the Rust compiler’s benchmark suite, via the profile eprintln subcommand. Give it a try!

San Francisco Oxidation meeting notes

At last week’s Mozilla All Hands meeting in San Francisco we had an Oxidation meeting about the use of Rust in Firefox. It was low-key, being mostly about status and progress. The notes are here for those who are interested.

How to speed up the Rust compiler some more in 2018

I recently wrote about some work I’ve done to speed up the Rust compiler. Since then I’ve done some more.

rustc-perf improvements

Since my last post, rustc-perf — the benchmark suite, harness and visualizer — has seen some improvements. First, some new benchmarks were added: cargo, ripgrep, sentry-cli, and webrender. Also, the parser benchmark has been removed because it was a toy program and thus not a good benchmark.

Second, I added support for several new profilers: Callgrind, Massif, rustc’s own -Ztime-passes, and the use of ad hoc eprintln! statements added to rustc. (This latter case is more useful than it might sound; in combination with post-processing it can be very helpful, as we will see below.)

Finally, the graphs shown on the website now have better y-axis scaling, which makes many of them easier to read. Also, there is a new dashboard view that shows performance across rustc releases.

Failures and incompletes

After my last post, multiple people said they would be interested to hear about optimization attempts of mine that failed. So here is an incomplete selection. I suggest that rustc experts read through these, because there is a chance they will be able to identify alternative approaches that I have overlooked.

nearest_common_ancestors 1: I managed to speed up this hot function in a couple of ways, but a third attempt failed. The representation of the scope tree is not done via a typical tree data structure; instead there is a HashMap of child/parent pairs. This means that moving from a child to its parent node requires a HashMap lookup, which is expensive. I spent some time designing and implementing an alternative data structure that stored nodes in a vector and the child-to-parent links were represented as indices to other elements in the vector. This meant that child-to-parent moves only required stepping through the vector. It worked, but the speed-up turned out to be very small, and the new code was significantly more complicated, so I abandoned it.

nearest_common_ancestors 2: A different part of the same function involves storing seen nodes in a vector. Searching this unsorted vector is O(n), so I tried instead keeping it in sorted order and using binary search, which gives O(log n) search. However, this change meant that node insertion changed from amortized O(1) to O(n) — instead of a simple push onto the end of the vector, insertion could be at any point, which which required shifting all subsequent elements along. Overall this change made things slightly worse.

PredicateObligation SmallVec: There is a type Vec<PredicationObligation> that is instantiated frequently, and the vectors often have few elements. I tried using a SmallVec instead, which avoids the heap allocations when the number of elements is below a threshold. (A trick I’ve used multiple times.) But this made things significantly slower! It turns out that these Vecs are copied around quite a bit, and a SmallVec is larger than a Vec because the elements are inline. Furthermore PredicationObligation is a large type, over 100 bytes. So what happened was that memcpy calls were inserted to copy these SmallVecs around. The slowdown from the extra function calls and memory traffic easily outweighed the speedup from avoiding the Vec heap allocations.

SipHasher128: Incremental compilation does a lot of hashing of data structures in order to determine what has changed from previous compilation runs. As a result, the hash function used for this is extremely hot. I tried various things to speed up the hash function, including LEB128-encoding of usize inputs (a trick that worked in the past) but I failed to speed it up.

LEB128 encoding: Speaking of LEB128 encoding, it is used a lot when writing metadata to file. I tried optimizing the LEB128 functions by special-casing the common case where the value is less than 128 and so can be encoded in a single byte. It worked, but gave a negligible improvement, so I decided it wasn’t worth the extra complication.

Token shrinking: A previous PR shrunk the Token type from 32 to 24 bytes, giving a small win. I tried also replacing the Option<ast::Name> in Literal with just ast::Name and using an empty name to represent “no name”. That  change reduced it to 16 bytes, but produced a negligible speed-up and made the code uglier, so I abandoned it.

#50549: rustc’s string interner was structured in such a way that each interned string was duplicated twice. This PR changed it to use a single Rc‘d allocation, speeding up numerous benchmark runs, the best by 4%. But just after I posted the PR, @Zoxc posted #50607, which allocated the strings out of an arena, as an alternative. This gave better speed-ups and was landed instead of my PR.

#50491: This PR introduced additional uses of LazyBTreeMap (a type I had previously introduced to reduce allocations) speeding up runs of multiple benchmarks, the best by 3%. But at around the same time, @porglezomp completed a PR that changed BTreeMap to have the same lazy-allocation behaviour as LazyBTreeMap, rendering my PR moot. I subsequently removed the LazyBTreeMap type because it was no longer necessary.

#51281: This PR, by @Mark-Simulacrum, removed an unnecessary heap allocation from the RcSlice type. I had looked at this code because DHAT’s output showed it was hot in some cases, but I erroneously concluded that the extra heap allocation was unavoidable, and moved on! I should have asked about it on IRC.

Wins

#50339: rustc’s pretty-printer has a buffer that can contain up to 55 entries, and each entry is 48 bytes on 64-bit platforms. (The 55 somehow comes from the algorithm being used; I won’t pretend to understand how or why.) Cachegrind’s output showed that the pretty printer is invoked frequently (when writing metadata?) and that the zero-initialization of this buffer was expensive. I inserted some eprintln! statements and found that in the vast majority of cases only the first element of the buffer was ever touched. So this PR changed the buffer to default to length 1 and extend when necessary, speeding up runs for numerous benchmarks, the best by 3%.

#50365: I had previously optimized the nearest_common_ancestor function. Github user @kirillkh kindly suggested a tweak to the code from that PR which reduced the number comparisons required. This PR implemented that tweak, speeding up runs of a couple of benchmarks by another 1–2%.

#50391: When compiling certain annotations, rustc needs to convert strings from unescaped form to escaped form. It was using the escape_unicode function to do this, which unnecessarily converts every char to \u{1234} form, bloating the resulting strings greatly. This PR changed the code to use the escape_default function — which only escapes chars that genuinely need escaping — speeding up runs of most benchmarks, the best by 13%. It also slightly reduced the on-disk size of produced rlibs, in the best case by 15%.

#50525: Cachegrind showed that even after the previous PR, the above string code was still hot, because string interning was happening on the resulting string, which was unnecessary in the common case where escaping didn’t change the string. This PR added a scan to determine if escaping is necessary, thus avoiding the re-interning in the common case, speeding up a few benchmark runs, the best by 3%.

#50407: Cachegrind’s output showed that the trivial methods for the simple BytePos and CharPos types in the parser are (a) extremely hot and (b) not being inlined. This PR annotated them so they are inlined, speeding up most benchmarks, the best by 5%.

#50564: This PR did the same thing for the methods of the Span type, speeding up incremental runs of a few benchmarks, the best by 3%.

#50931: This PR did the same thing for the try_get function, speeding up runs of many benchmarks, the best by 1%.

#50418: DHAT’s output showed that there were many heap allocations of the cmt type, which is refcounted. Some code inspection and ad hoc instrumentation with eprintln! showed that many of these allocated cmt instances were very short-lived. However, some of them ended up in longer-lived chains, in which the refcounting was necessary. This PR changed the code so that cmt instances were mostly created on the stack by default, and then promoted to the heap only when necessary, speeding up runs of three benchmarks by 1–2%. This PR was a reasonably large change that took some time, largely because it took me five(!) attempts (the final git branch was initially called cmt5) to find the right dividing line between where to use stack allocation and where to use refcounted heap allocation.

#50565: DHAT’s output showed that the dep_graph structure, which is a IndexVec<DepNodeIndex,Vec<DepNodeIndex>>, caused many allocations, and some eprintln! instrumentation showed that the inner Vec‘s were mostly only a few elements. This PR changed the Vec<DepNodeIndex> to SmallVec<[DepNodeIndex;8]>, which avoids heap allocations when the number of elements is less than 8, speeding up incremental runs of many benchmarks, the best by 2%.

#50566: Cachegrind’s output shows that the hottest part of rustc’s lexer is the bump function, which is responsible for advancing the lexer onto the next input character. This PR streamlined it slightly, speeding up most runs of a couple of benchmarks by 1–3%.

#50818: Both Cachegrind and DHAT’s output showed that the opt_normalize_projection_type function was hot and did a lot of heap allocations. Some eprintln! instrumentation showed that there was a hot path involving this function that could be explicitly extracted that would avoid unnecessary HashMap lookups and the creation of short-lived Vecs. This PR did just that, speeding up most runs of serde and futures by 2–4%.

#50855: DHAT’s output showed that the macro parser performed a lot of heap allocations, particular on the html5ever benchmark. This PR implemented ways to avoid three of them: (a) by storing a slice of a Vec in a struct instead of a clone of the Vec; (b) by introducing a “ref or box” type that allowed stack allocation of the MatcherPos type in the common case, but heap allocation when necessary; and (c) by using Cow to avoid cloning a PathBuf that is rarely modified. These changes sped up runs of html5ever by up to 10%, and crates.io by up to 3%. I was particularly pleased with these changes because they all involved non-trivial changes to memory management that required the introduction of additional explicit lifetimes. I’m starting to get the hang of that stuff… explicit lifetimes no longer scare me the way they used to. It certainly helps that rustc’s error messages do an excellent job of explaining where explicit lifetimes need to be added.

#50932: DHAT’s output showed that a lot of HashSet instances were being created in order to de-duplicate the contents of a commonly used vector type. Some eprintln! instrumentation showed that most of these vectors only had 1 or 2 elements, in which case the de-duplication can be done trivially without involving a HashSet. (Note that the order of elements within this vector is important, so de-duplication via sorting wasn’t an option.) This PR added special handling of these trivial cases, speeding up runs of a few benchmarks, the best by 2%.

#50981: The compiler does a liveness analysis that involves vectors of indices that represent variables and program points. In rare cases these vectors can be enormous; compilation of the inflate benchmark involved one that has almost 6 million 24-byte elements, resulting in 143MB of data. This PR changed the type used for the indices from usize to u32, which is still more than large enough, speeding up “clean incremental” builds of inflate by about 10% on 64-bit platforms, as well as reducing their peak memory usage by 71MB.

What’s next?

These improvements, along with those recently done by others, have significantly sped up the compiler over the past month or so: many workloads are 10–30% faster, and some even more than that. I have also seen some anecdotal reports from users about the improvements over recent versions, and I would be interested to hear more data points, especially those involving rustc nightly.

The profiles produced by Cachegrind, Callgrind, and DHAT are now all looking very “flat”, i.e. with very little in the way of hot functions that stick out as obvious optimization candidates. (The main exceptions are the SipHasher128 functions I mentioned above, which I haven’t been able to improve.) As a result, it has become difficult for me to make further improvements via “bottom-up” profiling and optimization, i.e. optimizing hot leaf and near-leaf functions in the call graph.

Therefore, future improvement will likely come from “top-down” profiling and optimization, i.e. observations such as “rustc spends 20% of its time in phase X, how can that be improved”? The obvious place to start is the part of compilation taken up by LLVM. In many debug and opt builds LLVM accounts for up to 70–80% of instructions executed. It doesn’t necessarily account for that much time, because the LLVM parts of execution are parallelized more than the rustc parts, but it still is the obvious place to focus next. I have looked at a small amount of generated MIR and LLVM IR, but there’s a lot to take in. Making progress will likely require a lot broader understanding of things than many of the optimizations described above, most of which require only a small amount of local knowledge about a particular part of the compiler’s code.

If anybody reading this is interested in trying to help speed up rustc, I’m happy to answer questions and provide assistance as much as I can. The #rustc IRC channel is also a good place to ask for help.

The Rust compiler is getting faster

TL;DR: The Rust compiler has gotten 1.06x–4x faster over the past month.

As changes are made to the Rust compiler, a suite of benchmarks measuring compile time is run regularly on the development version. The data is viewable at http://perf.rust-lang.org. The default view is graphical, showing data from the past month.

Screenshot of perf.rust-lang.org showing measurements of the html5ever benchmark

The screenshot above shows the graphs for a single benchmark called “html5ever”, which consists of an old version of the project of the same name. Each one shows measurements for a different kind of build: a debug build, a “check” build (which detect errors but don’t generate code), and an optimized build. Within each graph there are the following three data series.

  • Clean: a normal build.
  • Baseline incremental: an incremental build with no prior incremental runs. Such a build is a little slower than a normal build, because it does normal compilation and also gathers information to guide subsequent incremental builds.
  • Clean incremental: an incremental build run immediately after a baseline incremental build. This is the best-case scenario for incremental compilation in which the minimal amount of work is done.

If you visit the site yourself you’ll see that most of the benchmarks have more than three data series, including ones for incremental builds done after small code changes (a more realistic use case), and one for builds with non-lexical lifetimes enabled.

The x-axis shows time and the y-axis shows instruction counts. Other units of measurements are available, including cycles, time, and memory usage. Instruction counts are shown as the default; this isn’t ideal because it’s only a proxy for the measurement that really matters (time)… but it’s a pretty good proxy, and it has a lot lower variation than the time measurements, which is important when detecting changes.

This graphical view is particularly useful for detecting major changes. For example, you can see that in early May there was a major regression for “clean” and “baseline incremental” builds, which Alex Crichton fixed a few days later.

As well as the graphical view, the site also provides a textual “compare” view, which can be reached via the link at the top left of each page. This view compares measurements from two revisions of the compiler; by default it compares the most recently measured revision with one from a month ago. (It can also be used locally, which is very useful to evaluate changes that speed up the compiler.)

The screenshot above is of the “compare” view at the time of writing. Each line corresponds to a single graph from the graphical view. (If you visit the site and click on an individual entry it will expand and show all of the measurements. The resemblance between those measurements and this screenshot will of course diminish over time.) The “avg” column shows the average change across all the data series. The “min” and “max” columns show the minimum and maximum changes for any of the data series. The “serde” and “script-servo” lines are empty because those benchmarks were added to the suite less than a month ago, so no comparison can be made.

The table has many numbers, but the thing to take away is that they are almost all significantly negative, meaning that compile time has reduced. The “avg” numbers range from 6% to 38%; the “min” numbers (i.e. best result) go as high as 75%; the “max” numbers (i.e. worst result) go as high as 36%.

In conclusion: the Rust compiler has gotten significantly faster in the past month. Across a wide range of programs, and a wide range of build configurations, compile times have reduced by between 6% and 75%. To put it another way, the compiler has gotten between 1.06x and 4x faster.

These benefits are available right now to users of the Nightly channel. Users of the Release channel will see them more gradually, spread across one or two versions released over the next few months.

How to speed up the Rust compiler in 2018

18 months ago I wrote about some work I did to speed up the Rust compiler (rustc). I’ve recently taken this work up again. Also, in the meantime rustc’s build system has been replaced and its benchmark suite has been overhauled. So it’s a good time for an update.

Getting the code

The steps for getting the rustc code haven’t changed. First, I fork the main Rust repository on GitHub. Then I make two local clones: a base clone that I won’t modify, which serves as a stable comparison point (rust0), and a second clone where I make my modifications (rust1). I use commands something like this:

user=nnethercote
for r in rust0 rust1 ; do
  git clone https://github.com/$user/rust $r
  cd $r
  git remote add upstream https://github.com/rust-lang/rust
  git remote set-url origin git@github.com:$user/rust
done

Building the Rust compiler

The compiler’s build system is complex with many possible invocations and configurations. I’ll cover the absolute minimum information required to understand how I’ve been using it.

First, you need a config.toml file, which sits at the root of the repository and dictates the compiler’s configuration. I used the provided config.toml.example as a starting point, cut it down a lot, and ended up with the following.

[llvm]
optimize = true
release-debuginfo = true
assertions = false

[rust]
optimize = true
codegen-units = 1
debug-assertions = false
debuginfo = true
debuginfo-lines = true
use-jemalloc = false

It’s possible that some of these lines just restate defaults, but I figure it doesn’t hurt to be explicit. This configuration has the following characteristics.

  • It results in the production of a fully optimized rustc, which is important for profiling. The exception to this is that I disable jemalloc, because DHAT doesn’t work when jemalloc is enabled.
  • It has maximal debug info present, which ensures that profiles are as detailed as possible.

Building rustc can be confusing, particularly because of the multiple compiler stages and the terminology around them. Here is the command I use.

./x.py build --stage 2 src/rustc

This produces a stage 2 compiler that can handle procedural macros and so is suitable for profiling the benchmark suite.

The benchmark suite

rustc’s benchmark suite is called rustc-perf. It consists of two parts:

  • collector: The 24 benchmark programs, 14 of which are “real” code (i.e. crates used in real applications), and 10 of which are toy programs or stress test microbenchmarks. Also, the harness code that runs and measures them.
  • site: Code for displaying measurements as a website.

The test harness is very thorough. For each benchmark, it measures Debug, Opt, and Check (no code generation) invocations. Furthermore, within each of those categories, it does five or more runs, including a normal build and various kinds of incremental builds. A full benchmarking run measures over 400 invocations of rustc. Note however that only the compilation of the final crate is measured in each benchmark; compilation of dependent crates is not included.

rustc-perf was created primarily for the perf.rust-lang.org site, which tracks rustc’s performance over time. I recently modified it so it could be used to compare two builds of rustc on a local machine, which is a fundamental operation when optimizing. This can be done by running the suite and site locally and navigating to the local “compare” page, which looks like this:

Screenshot of rustc-perf's compare page

Note that rustc-perf uses perf-stat for its measurements, so the benchmarking functionality currently only works on Linux.

I also extended rustc-perf so the benchmarks can be run under a profiler. I implemented support for perf-record, Cachegrind, and DHAT, because they are the profilers that I am most familiar with; it isn’t hard to add support for other profilers (including non-Linux ones). The advantage of integrating support for a profiler intto rustc-perf is that it gets the profiler invocations underneath the Cargo invocations, ensuring that the right rustc invocations are measured.

Wins

Here are the improvements I’ve made to rustc over the past few weeks.

#49993: Cachegrind’s output showed that derived methods for the Token type were taking up significant time. This PR changed the ‘#’ counts in raw Lit variants from usize to u16, which reduced the size of Token from 32 to 24 bytes, speeding up some of the runs for coercions and html5ever by 1%.

#50051: Rust’s Option::ok_or function transforms an Option<T> value into a Result<T, E>. It’s a bit of a footgun… as the docs say:

Arguments passed to ok_or are eagerly evaluated; if you are passing the result of a function call, it is recommended to use ok_or_else, which is lazily evaluated.

DHAT’s output showed that one hot allocation site involved the creation of a String while getting the value of the MIRI_BACKTRACE environment variable. This seemed to me like a strange thing to be happening frequently, and it turns out that it was at the end of a chain of calls that were only needed in the (rare) error case of an ok_or call. This PR changed the code to use a trivial closure with ok_or_else, speeding up runs for a lot of benchmarks, the best by 6%.

#50052: DHAT’s output showed that the char_lit function, which parses “\u{…}” literals, was doing a lot of allocations while stripping out ‘_’ chars. This PR avoided that allocation, speeding up various runs — particularly ones for regex, futures, clap, coercions, hyper, and encoding — the best by 6%.

#50106: Cachegrind’s output showed that the nearest_common_ancestor function, which computes the lowest common ancestor of two nodes in a scope tree, was very hot. The algorithm in use constructed the full scope chain for each node, and then worked backward from the end of the two scope chains until a difference was found. This is a reasonable algorithm in many circumstances, but some ad hoc instrumentation (eprintln! statements plus some simple post-processing) showed that the scope chains usually only differ by a handful of elements at the front and then have very long common tails, with dozens or even hundreds of elements. This PR switched to a different algorithm that looks for differences from the front of the scope chain, speeding up runs for many benchmarks, the best by 8%.

#50174: By default, Rust’s HashSet and HashMap use a hash function that is very high quality but also very slow. Therefore, the Rust compiler internally uses different types, FxHashSet and FxHashMap, which are identical to the standard ones except they use a much faster hash function. Unfortunately, it’s easy to forget about them and use the standard hash tables instead. Cachegrind’s output showed that the default hash function code (SipHash) was executed a lot, and that one particularly hot hash table (the symbol interner) was using HashMap. This PR (trivially) changed that table to an FxHashMap, speeding up runs for numerous benchmarks, the best by 5%.

#50240: Some of Rust’s standard containers, such as Vec, HashSet, and HashMap, have the nice property that by default they don’t allocate until an element is inserted. This is good because it’s surprising how often such containers are created but never inserted into. DHAT’s output showed that such behaviour would also help with a couple of the compiler’s uses of BTreeMap. I tried and failed to implement this behaviour directly in BTreeMap; according to Gankro, “BTreeMap is some of the most complex unsafe code in libstd” and “I just scared off a grizzled firefox dev explaining it“! Instead this PR introduced a thin wrapper type (LazyBTreeMap) around BTreeMap and used it in the handful of relevant places within the compiler, speeding up the runs for several benchmarks, the best by 3%. #50266 is open to do the general fix for BTreeMap, whereupon LazyBTreeMap will be able to be removed.

#50246: Cachegrind’s output showed that a function named dump_allocs was hot for some benchmarks. This sounded to me like a logging or debugging function of some kind, and investigation confirmed that it was traversing data structures in order to build up strings that went unused in the standard case where logging is disabled. This PR (trivially) changed this function and a couple of related ones to be no-ops if logging is disabled, speeding up runs for coercions, tuple-stress, html5ever, and encoding, the best by almost 15%! This shows how not doing unclever things is often as important as doing clever things when it comes to optimizing software.

Update: It’s worth noting that I also made three or four optimization attempts that didn’t work out — where I made a change that seemed like it should help, based on profiling data, but the effect was negligible. Success isn’t guaranteed!

Future work

All of the PRs mentioned above (except for the aborted BTreeMap change) involved small, simple changes to the Rust compiler’s code. I’m not a rustc expert, but I do know how to use a couple of profilers well, and I’ve been able to make a difference. I’m sure there are more improvements of this nature to be made, and I encourage other people to try profiling rustc with their favourite profilers to see what they can find. This is valuable because rustc’s speed is something that Rust users often complain about. And it’s fun, if you like that sort of thing 🙂  I’m happy to help people, and the members of the #rustc IRC channel are very friendly and helpful.

Having said that, in a lot of cases, especially for opt builds, the majority of execution time is within LLVM, which rustc uses for code generation. Speeding up LLVM itself may be difficult, but I hope/suspect there is room for improvement in the way that rustc interacts with LLVM. If anyone has ideas on that front I’d love to hear about them.

A New Preferences Parser for Firefox

Firefox’s preferences system uses data files to store information about default preferences within Firefox, and user preferences in a user’s profile (such as prefs.js, which records changes to preference values, and user.js, which allows users to override default preference values).

A new parser

These data files use a custom format, and therefore Firefox has a custom parser for them. I recently rewrote the parser. The new parser has the following benefits over the old parser.

  • It is faster (raw parsing speed is close to 2x faster).
  • It is safer (because it’s written in Rust rather than C++).
  • It is more correct and better tested (the old one got various obscure edge cases wrong).
  • It is more readable, and easier to modify.
  • It issues no warnings, only errors.
  • It is slightly stricter (e.g. doesn’t allow any malformed input, and it catches integer overflow).
  • It has error recovery and better error messages (including correct line numbers).

Modifiability

Modifiability was the prime motivation for the change. I wanted to make some adjustments to the preferences file grammar, but this would have been very difficult in the old parser, because it was written in an awkward style.

It was essentially a single loop containing a giant switch statement on a state variable. This switch was executed for every single char in a file. The states held by the state variable had names like PREF_PARSE_QUOTED_STRING, PREF_PARSE_UNTIL_OPEN_PAREN, PREF_PARSE_COMMENT_BLOCK_MAYBE_END. It also had a second state variable, because in some places a single one wasn’t enough; the parser had to return to the previous state after exiting the current state. Furthermore, lexing and parsing were not separate, so code to handle comments and whitespace was spread around in various places.

The new parser is a recursive descent parser — even though the grammar doesn’t actually have any recursion — in which the structure of the code reflects the structure of the grammar. Lexing is distinct from parsing. As a result, the new parser is much easier to read and modify. In particular, after landing it I added error recovery without too much effort; that would have been almost impossible in the old parser.

Note that the idea of error recovery for preferences parsing was first proposed in bug 107264, filed in 2001! After landing it, I tweeted the following.

Amazingly enough, the original reporter is on Twitter and responded!

Strictness

The new parser is slightly stricter and rejects some malformed input that the old parser accepted.

Junk chars

Disconcertingly, the old parser allowed arbitrary junk between preferences (including at the start and end of the prefs file) so long as that junk didn’t include any of the following chars: ‘/’, ‘#’, ‘u’, ‘s’, ‘p’. This means that lines like these:

!foo@bar&pref("prefname", true);
ticky_pref("prefname", true);    // missing 's' at start
User_pref("prefname", true);     // should be 'u' at start

would all be treated the same as this:

pref("prefname", true);

The new parser disallows such junk because it isn’t necessary and seems like an unintentional botch by the old parser. In practice, this caught a couple of prefs that accidentally had an extra ‘;’ at the end.

SUB char

The old parser allowed the SUB (0x1a) character between tokens and treated it like ‘\n’.

The new parser does not allow this character. SUB was used to indicate end-of-file (not end-of-line) in some old operating systems such as MS-DOS, but this doesn’t seem necessary today.

Invalid escapes

The old parser tolerated (with a warning) invalid escape sequences within  string literals — such as “\q” (not a valid escape) and “\x1” and “\u12″(both of which have insufficient hex digits) — accepting them literally.

The new parser does not tolerate invalid escape sequences because it doesn’t seem necessary and would complicate things.

NUL char

The old parser tolerated the NUL character (0x00) within string literals; this is
dangerous because C++ code that manipulates string values with embedded NULs will almost certainly consider those chars as end-of-string markers.

The new parser treats the NUL character as end-of-file, to avoid this danger. (The escape sequences “\x00” and “\u0000” are also disallowed.)

Integer overflow

The old parser allowed integer literals to overflow, silently wrapping them.

The new parser treats integer overflow as a parse error. This seems better,
and it caught overflows of several existing prefs.

Consequences

Error recovery minimizes the risk of data loss caused by the increased strictness because malformed pref lines in prefs.js will be removed but well-formed pref lines afterwards are preserved.

Nonetheless, please keep an eye out for any other problems that might arise from this change.

Attributes

I mentioned before that I wanted to make some adjustments to the preferences file grammar. Specifically, I changed the grammar used by default preference files (but not user preference files) to support annotating each preference with one or more boolean attributes. The attributes supported so far are ‘sticky’ and ‘locked’. For example:

pref("sticky.pref", true, sticky);
pref("locked.pref", 123, locked);
pref("sticky-and-locked-pref", "blah", sticky, locked);

Note that the addition of the ‘locked’ attribute fixed a 10 year old bug.

When will this ship?

All of these changes are on track to ship in Firefox 60, which is due to release on May 9th.

Nicer commands for content processes

The current Firefox release creates content processes with very long and ugly commands. Here’s an example, as reported by ‘ps’ on my Linux64 machine (with wrapping to make it show up entirely on your screen):

/home/njn/moz/mi8/o64/dist/bin/firefox -contentproc -childID 2 -isForBrowser -in
tPrefs 6:50|7:-1|20:0|35:1000|43:20|44:5|45:10|52:0|58:128|59:10000|64:0|66:400|
67:1|68:0|69:0|70:100|75:0|76:120|77:120|162:2|163:1|167:60|168:30|169:512000|17
8:5000|180:6|194:8192|195:524288|196:5|209:10000|230:24|231:32768|233:0|234:0|24
3:5|247:1048576|249:100|250:5000|252:600|253:4|254:1|262:20|279:4|291:60000|309:
300|310:30| -boolPrefs 1:0|2:0|4:1|5:1|25:1|28:1|29:1|30:1|32:1|33:1|34:1|37:1|3
8:1|39:1|42:1|46:1|47:0|48:0|49:1|50:1|51:1|53:0|56:1|57:1|60:1|61:0|62:0|63:0|6
5:0|71:1|72:1|73:1|74:1|78:1|79:1|80:0|81:0|82:1|83:1|84:1|85:1|86:1|89:0|90:0|9
3:1|94:1|98:1|99:1|100:0|101:1|102:1|103:1|104:0|105:0|107:0|108:0|109:1|110:1|1
11:1|114:1|115:1|116:1|117:1|118:1|119:0|120:0|121:1|122:0|123:0|124:1|125:1|126
:0|127:1|128:1|129:0|131:1|132:0|133:0|134:1|135:1|136:0|137:0|138:0|139:1|140:1
|141:1|142:1|143:0|144:1|145:1|146:1|147:1|148:1|149:1|150:0|151:1|152:1|153:0|1
54:1|155:0|156:0|157:0|158:1|159:1|160:1|161:1|164:1|165:0|172:1|175:0|176:0|177
:1|181:0|183:1|184:0|185:1|187:1|189:0|190:0|193:0|197:1|198:0|199:1|200:1|201:0
|204:1|208:1|210:1|211:0|213:1|216:0|228:0|229:0|232:1|235:0|237:1|238:1|240:1|2
41:0|248:1|251:1|256:0|257:0|258:0|259:1|260:1|261:0|266:1|269:1|270:1|271:1|272
:1|273:1|274:0|275:1|281:1|284:0|285:1|286:1|287:0|288:1|289:1|290:1|292:0|293:0
|295:1|304:1|305:1|306:0|307:0|308:0| -stringPrefs 3:7;default|215:3;1.0|226:332
;  ¼½¾ǃː??։֊׃״؉؊٪۔܁܂܃܄ᅟᅠ᜵           ???‐ ’․‧??????? ‹›⁁⁄⁒ ⅓⅔⅕⅖⅗⅘⅙⅚?⅜⅝⅞⅟∕∶⎮╱⧶⧸⫻⫽>
⿰⿱⿲⿳⿴⿵⿶⿷⿸⿹⿺⿻ 。〔〕〳゠ㅤ㈝㈞㎮㎯㏆㏟꞉︔︕︿﹝﹞?./。ᅠ???�|227:4;
high|280:36;97c47c17-80b5-497c-b5ee-1c5db2d06af6| -schedulerPrefs 0001,2 -appdir
 /home/njn/moz/mi8/o64/dist/bin/browser 4500 true tab

That’s 1733 characters! Most of it is for three flags, called -intPrefs, -boolPrefs, and -stringPrefs, which are used to pass values of prefs that are required very early in the content process’s existence, before the first normal IPC message is received. These pref values are encoded compactly, but there are enough of them that they make the command quite long.

Furthermore, there is one pref (network.IDN.blacklist_chars) that contains a bunch of unusual characters. That explains the gobbledygook on the 4th and 3rd last lines. Unsurprisingly, this gobbledygook was reported as a bug… which has been duplicated five times.

The good news is that I recently fixed this, by changing things so that only pref values that have changed since startup get passed in this way. (Content processes are able to see the startup values, and so don’t need to be told them.) On my machine and profile, this reduces the number of pref values passed via the command from ~222 to ~3. It also reduces the number sent later via IPC from ~3165 to ~180.

The command now looks like this:

/home/njn/local/install/firefox/firefox -contentproc -childID 4 -isForBrowser -b
oolPrefs 37:1|235:1|257:1|294:1| -stringPrefs 280:36;8bdf7a6e-d39a-494c-b55a-829
2c4fc6254| -schedulerPrefs 0001,2 -greomni /home/njn/local/install/firefox/omni.
ja -appomni /home/njn/local/install/firefox/browser/omni.ja -appdir /home/njn/lo
cal/install/firefox/browser 3237 true tab

That’s 361 characters, all of them ASCII. Much better! And I have a plan to reduce things even further.

This change is in Firefox 60, which is on track to be released around May 9th.