Monthly Archives: May 2011

process table size in erlang

Whats the cost of increasing the process limit?

I was curious:

Ender@PROSPERO /j/git/erlang_decorators
$ erl +P 32768
Eshell V5.7.5  (abort with ^G)
1> io:format("~p",[erlang:memory()]).
2> init:stop().
Ender@PROSPERO /j/git/erlang_decorators
$ erl +P 10000000
Eshell V5.7.5  (abort with ^G)
1> io:format("~p",[erlang:memory()]).
2> init:stop().

So (on my 32 bit vm on windows), you pay 4 bytes per process whether you use it or not.
Pretty compact. Feels like its probably implemented as an array of pointers. Yep

People always seem to run into the default limit. Its quite low.
I wonder if any large Erlang project has ever been done without increasing the limit.

Erlang R14B03 out

See the readme here

Things Im excited about:

  • lots of halfword vm fixes and improvements
  • Open ssl now staticly linked to crypto on Windows.
  • Majority option for mnesia tables.
    This is one convenient way to handle network splits. I have to give it a go with a large distributed+fragmented table

        OTP-9304  Add {majority, boolean()} per-table option.
    	      With {majority, true} set for a table, write transactions
    	      will abort if they cannot commit to a majority of the nodes
    	      that have a copy of the table. Currently, the implementation
    	      hooks into the prepare_commit, and forces an asymmetric
    	      transaction if the commit set affects any table with the
    	      majority flag set. In the commit itself, the transaction will
    	      abort if it cannot satisfy the majority requirement for all
    	      tables involved in the transaction.(Thanks to Ulf Wiger)
  • better cover support for tests
    OTP-9204  add user specified compiler options on form reloading
    	      In order to be able to test non-exported functions from
    	      another (test) module it is necessary to compile the specific
    	      module (at least during the test phase) with the export_all
    	      compiler option. This allows complete separation of testing
    	      and productive code. At the moment it is not possible to
    	      combine this with a test code coverage using the cover
    	      module. The problem is that when cover compiling a module
    	      using cover:compile_* the code is reloaded into the emulator
    	      omitting/filtering the passed user options. In my example
    	      above the export_all option would be removed and the
    	      non-exported functions cannot be called any more. (Thanks to
    	      Tobias Schlager)
  • Table viewer can now display small binaries!
    I tend to use binaries for strings so this bugged me on a number of occasions (obviously not enough for me to fix it myself).

        OTP-9153  tv: Allow table viewer to display refs, ports and small
    	      Table viewer displayed #Port, #Ref, or #Bin as place holders
    	      for their respective object types in ets and mnesia tables.
    	      This can make table viewer difficult to use when viewing
    	      tables containing those data types. It doesn't make sense to
    	      render large binaries so #Bin will still be used for binaries
    	      that exceed 100 bytes. (Thanks to Blaine whittle)
  • Fixed a display problem with the Event Tracer on Windows.
    OTP-9238  The popup window 'contents viewer' did not display properly on Windows.

Hiding IO latency in generators by async prefetching

Tricks with generators

Hiding IO latency by async prefetching


Its very common for interesting problems to not fit into memory.
In cases like this being able to process a subset of the problem at once is necessary to solving the problem.
Streams present a nice way of processing a limited subset. They let you program as if you were working with the full list, but only work with a single element in memory at a time. Alex recently wrote about streams.
You may already be used to implementing streams in this fashion with generators (python), iterators(C++), coroutines (Lua).
Ill use the term “Generator”, because ill be using Python.

If the time to produce/fetch an element is high, you can easily find yourself alternating between working with an element, and fetching an element.
Often fetching an element is a high latency operation, so your program ends up waiting on IO a lot of the time.
There are a number of ways of addressing this issue. Some that spring to mind are

  1. For certain tasks, use a library that supports non blocking operation. eg eventlet
  2. Explicitely parallelize the processing code (actors, worker thread pools, multiprocessing.Pool)
  3. Fetch elements in the background while processing the current element.

All 3 techniques are suited to specific situations.
I will discuss the third one in this article.

Its possible to wrap any generator such that it prefetches from the source generater in the background.
This has the benefit of overlapping the fetching of elements with normal execution.
This works best when the cost of processing the item is high, and the cost of fetching is not quite as high.
This will ensure that there is always an element ready for us when we finish processing one.

However this will not overlap fetching of individual elements.
It cannot do this with generators in the general case as they are stateful.
So this technique is not as helpful when the time it takes to process an element is tiny compared to the time to fetch.
For example, Ive seen FQL queries take over 5 seconds.

The Code

import functools
import Queue
import threading
def async_prefetch_wrapper(iterable, buffer=10):
	wraps an iterater such that it produces items in the background
	uses a bounded queue to limit memory consumption
	done = object()
	def worker(q,it):
		for item in it:
	# launch a thread to fetch the items in the background
	queue = Queue.Queue(buffer)
	it = iter(iterable)
	thread = threading.Thread(target=worker, args=(queue, it))
	thread.daemon = True
	# pull the items of the queue as requested
	while True:
		item = queue.get()
		if item == done:
			yield item
def async_prefetch(func):
	decorator to make generator functions fetch items in the background
	def wrapper(*args, **kwds):
		return async_prefetch_wrapper( func(*args, **kwds) )
	return wrapper

Pretty straight forward.


So does it work?

First Ill do a simple test that creates a bunch of files and md5s them
heres the code

def test_setup():
	files = []
	lines = 1000000
	for i in xrange(100):
		filename = "tempfile%d.txt"%i
		with open(filename, "w") as f:
			f.write( ("%d\n"%i)*lines )
	return files
def test_cleanup():
	for f in glob("tempfile*.txt"):
def contents(iterable):
	for filename in iterable:
		with open(filename, "rb") as f:
			contents =
		yield contents
def test():
	files = test_setup()
	for c in contents(files):
from timeit import Timer
t = Timer("test()", "from __main__ import test; gc.enable()")
print t.repeat(5, 1)

To use the async prefetch we change the contents generator to the following:

def contents(iterable):
	for filename in iterable:
		with open(filename, "rb") as f:
			contents =
		yield contents

Here are the results

without async prefetch 11.282730626378491 5.430316841944997 3.947590615567062 4.129772568860009 4.102539568576454
with async prefetch 6.155376451476375 3.790340392424177 3.384881807604039 3.436732252283459 3.415469144821479
without async prefetch and no md5 6.315582636899382 3.342140062493976 3.197938983865267 3.102182470118409 3.2230784219782134

Not a spectacular improvement, but not bad.
The best speedup we can hope for is reducing the total runtime by N*min(fetch time, work time).
You can see from the 3rd row that the total runtime is dominated by IO still. Ie this is a case with tiny workload vs slow IO.

Lets try it by replacing md5 with zlib compression.

without async prefetch. zlib compress 12.757559200959898 12.518354357886267 16.015608687696343 12.331753337365505 12.05284226067839
with async prefetch. zlib compress 10.578236130569667 9.156545245275586 12.359309772610764 9.072958714026505 8.881738391331858

not bad.

So this technique can give you a speedup when you have producer style generators that take time to produce elements.