Memory matters – even in Erlang

By: on February 28, 2010

Some time ago we got an interesting bug report for RabbitMQ. Surprisingly, unlike other complex bugs, this one is easy to describe: 

At some point basic.get suddenly starts being very slow – about 9 times slower!

Basic.get doesn’t do anything complex – it just pops a message from a queue. This behaviour was quite unexpected. Our initial tests confirmed that we have a problem when a queue contains thousands of elements:

queue_length: 90001  basic_get 3333 times took: 1421.250ms
queue_length: 83335  basic_get 3333 times took: 1576.664ms
queue_length: 60004  basic_get 3333 times took: 1403.086ms
queue_length: 53338  basic_get 3333 times took: 9659.434ms [ look at that! ]
queue_length: 50005  basic_get 3333 times took: 9885.598ms
queue_length: 46672  basic_get 3333 times took: 8562.136ms

Let me repeat that. Usually popping a message from a queue takes Xms. At some point, it slows down to 9*Xms.

It turned out that the problem is with the queue:len() function, which is executed during the basic.get. Actually, queue:len() calls only erlang:length() builtin. At some point it switches to the “slow” mode. 

Erlang:length() is a builtin that iterates through a linked list and counts it’s length. It’s complexity is O(N), where N is the length of the list. This function is implemented in the VM so it’s expected to be very, very fast.

The problem is not with erlang:length() being slow. It’s about being unpredictably slow. Let’s take a look at Erlang interpreter source code (erl_bif_guard.c:erts_gc_length_1). Here’s the main loop for erlang:length():

while (is_list(list)) {
    list = CDR(list_val(list));

It does nothing unusual – it just iterates through list elements. However, recompiling Erlang with some debugging information confirms that the problem is indeed here:

clock_gettime(CLOCK_REALTIME, &t0);
while (is_list(list)) {
    list = CDR(list_val(list));
clock_gettime(CLOCK_REALTIME, &t1);
td_ms = TIMESPEC_NSEC_SUBTRACT(t1, t0) / 1000000.0;
if (i > 200000 || td_ms > 2.0) {
    fprintf(stderr, "gc_length_1(%p)=%i %.3fmsnr", reg[live], i, td_ms);
gc_length_1(0x7f4dbfa7fc19)=499999 2.221ms
gc_length_1(0x7f4dbfa7fc19)=499999 2.197ms
gc_length_1(0x7f4dbfa7fc19)=499999 2.208ms
gc_length_1(0x7f4db0572049)=499999 13.793ms
gc_length_1(0x7f4db0572049)=499999 12.806ms
gc_length_1(0x7f4db0572049)=499999 12.531ms

This confirms Matthias’ initial guess – the slowdown starts after Erlang process hibernation.

For those who aren’t Erlang experts: Hibernation is an operation that compacts an Erlang process. It does aggressive garbage collection and reduces the memory footprint of a process to absolute minimum.

The intended result of hibernation is recovering free memory from the process. However its side effect is a new memory layout of objects allocated on the heap.

Ah, how could I have forgotten! The memory is nowadays slow! What happens, is that before hibernation list elements are aligned differently, more dense. Whereas after hibernation they are sparse. It’s easy to test it – let’s count the average distance between pointers to list elements:

gc_length_1(0x7f5c626fbc19)=499999 2.229ms avg=16.000 dev=0.023
gc_length_1(0x7f5c626fbc19)=499999 3.349ms avg=16.000 dev=0.023
gc_length_1(0x7f5c626fbc19)=499999 3.345ms avg=16.000 dev=0.023
gc_length_1(0x7f5c61f7d049)=499999 13.800ms avg=136.000 dev=0.266
gc_length_1(0x7f5c61f7d049)=499999 12.726ms avg=136.000 dev=0.266
gc_length_1(0x7f5c61f7d049)=499999 12.367ms avg=136.000 dev=0.266

Confirmed! Standard deviation is surprisingly small, so we can read the numbers as:

  • Before hibernation list elements are aligned exactly one after another, values are somewhere else.
  • After hibernation list elements are interleaved with values. 

This behavior does make sense. In most cases when you traverse the list, you actually do something with the values. After hibernation, when you access list item, the value will be already loaded to the CPU cache.

Knowing the mechanism, it’s easy to write a test case that reproduces the problem.

The average distance between pointers in my case is constant – the standard deviation is negligible. This information has a practical implication – we can “predict” where the next pointer will be. Let’s use that information to “fix” the Erlang VM by prefetching memory!

while (is_list(list)) {
    list2 = CDR(list_val(list));
    __builtin_prefetch((char*)list2 + 128*((long)list2-(long)list));
    list = list2;

Test script running on original Erlang VM:

length: 300001  avg:0.888792ms dev:0.061587ms
length: 300001  avg:0.881030ms dev:0.040961ms
length: 300001  avg:0.875158ms dev:0.019436ms
length: 300001  avg:14.861762ms dev:0.150635ms
length: 300001  avg:14.833733ms dev:0.017405ms
length: 300001  avg:14.884861ms dev:0.220119ms

Patched Erlang VM:

length: 300001  avg:0.742822ms dev:0.029322ms
length: 300001  avg:0.739149ms dev:0.012897ms
length: 300001  avg:0.739465ms dev:0.014417ms
length: 300001  avg:7.543693ms dev:0.284355ms
length: 300001  avg:7.342802ms dev:0.330158ms
length: 300001  avg:7.265960ms dev:0.053176ms

The test runs only a tiny bit faster for the “fast” case (dense conses) and twice as fast for the “slow” case (sparse conses).

Should this patch be merged into mainline Erlang? Not really. I have set the prefetch multiplier value to 128 and I don’t even know if it’s optimal. This was only an experiment. But it was fun to see how low-level system architecture can affect high-level applications.



  1. Will Farr says:

    Apparently, the garbage collector of the T Scheme implementation used a depth-first heap traversal scheme by Clark that put the cons cells close together in memory after a GC. You can read about it here: . (The paragraph describing it begins “T also used a pretty cool GC.”

  2. my god, why does the Erlang VM use O(N) counting here? I actually never looked at the code, but I was expecting the VM to keep a “length” field…

  3. Masklinn says:

    my god, why does the Erlang VM use O(N) counting here?

    Because it’s a cons cell?

    but I was expecting the VM to keep a “length” field…

    Why would it?

  4. Paul Crowley says:

    Thanks for the link to the article on T Scheme! At one point it asserts “Norman Ramsey at harvard has cleverly shown that you can implement mark&sweep with exactly the same asymptotic costs as stop&copy.” Anyone know where I can read more about this?

  5. ryeguy says:

    I’m not understanding something here. Hibernate is a BIF to erlang. Does it automatically call it once in awhile or something (maybe during a GC sweep)? How else would it be getting called?

  6. I’m wondering, why do you actually need the queue length anyway?

  7. Amadiro says:

    ryeguy: It doesn’t get called automatically, nope. Either he calls it himself or he specified to his behaviour to hibernate.

    Thijs: That’s not really possible, it would break many other more interesting optimisations, like sublist-reusing etc.

  8. marek says:

    ryeguy: Hibernate is a BIF to erlang. Does it automatically call it?

    We use gen_server clone which does hibernation automatically after some timeout. See:

    Sylvain Hellegouarch: why do you actually need the queue length anyway?

    It’s just simpler to count length, rather store it somewhere. But apparently counting length isn’t very good.

  9. matthew says:

    @Sylvain. We don’t need it internally at all, it’s simply because various AMQP methods like queue.declare and basic.get return the queue length in the result. Also people tend to like being able to inspect how long the queue has become. But no, operationally, we don’t need it.

    That said, we do need it in the new persister branch because controlling sending messages out to disk uses various statistics about the queue, in which the queue length is involved. That’s why in the new persister branch, we carry the queue length explicitly.

    @Amadiro. Why couldn’t you hold the count with the reference to the queue? Thus even if you’re doing sublist sharing, you can still have different counters for each pointer into the queue.

  10. Fair enough. I suppose it’s one aspect of functional programing for you :)

  11. Nick says:

    A sidecount making it O(1): Why not?

  12. alex says:
    1. Why do you need length to pop the next message at most you all you need is whether queue is empty or not?

    2. And some people advertise suitability of Erlang for high performance communication systems.

  13. paul says:

    why is basic.get calling list.length 100’s(?) of times? I can understand occasionally wanting to know a list length, but operations like basic.get should only care whether the list is empty.

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