Interpreters and Compilers

— Alex Reinhart and Christopher Genovese

Standard R and Python advice – or any other dynamic language, like Ruby or PHP – is to write performance-critical code in C or C++. Use built-in vectorized functions, write hot loops in Rcpp or Cython, and rely on external libraries as much as possible.

But why should R and Python be so much slower than C?


Let’s take a meandering tour through CPU architecture, programming language design, interpreters, and compilers, so we can see where these performance differences come from.

A bit of CPU architecture #

CPUs execute instructions. Each instruction is very low-level: add these numbers, move this to memory, jump to these other instructions in memory, load a number from memory, etc.

Everything that runs on your computer is eventually turned into these instructions. They can be written in textual form as assembly language:

pushq   %rbp
movq    %rsp, %rbp
addq    %rsi, %rdi
movq    %rdi, %rax
popq    %rbp

This is the code for a function adding two integers. We push the function pointer onto the stack, shuffle some values around, add two values, pop off the stack, and return.

The names (%rbp, %rax, etc.) refer to registers: cells of fast memory inside the processor. Registers are blazing fast, but each can only hold small values (usually 64 bits), and there are a limited number. Every instruction works on values in registers, so other instructions have to load registers from main memory, store their values back to memory, etc.

Compilers work hard to allocate registers, since you usually have way more variables than registers. Running out of registers and having to move stuff in and out of RAM (“spilling”) is inefficient.

Cache #

Besides registers, processors have caches. These are in a hierarchy of L1, L2, L3, etc. caches, in decreasing order of speed. Caches are usually a few megabytes of extremely fast RAM situated directly on the processor, so they can be accessed at high speed.

The processor automatically manages the cache. You can’t directly manipulate it with your code. The cache contains copies of frequently used chunks of memory, automatically discarding the least recently used chunks to make space for new ones. When your program uses a certain memory location, an entire chunk of memory containing that location is copied into the cache.

If you’re lucky, your data fits in the cache and operations will be extremely fast. If you’re unlucky, or your program accesses a great deal of data spread widely over memory, the processor will have to wait (“stall”) to retrieve data from RAM.

This is why it can be faster to iterate over a matrix in the right order. In R, matrices are stored in column-major order: the matrix

1 2 3
4 5 6

is actually stored in memory as 1 4 2 5 3 6. If we iterate over the whole matrix, one column at a time, contiguous chunks of the matrix can be loaded into the cache. But if we iterate over rows, we keep skipping from one memory location to one far away, and new chunks have to be brought in from main memory, making the loop much slower.

(Numpy for Python stores arrays in row-major order by default, so the opposite is true there.)

Interpreters, ASTs, JITs, VMs, and more #

Interpreted languages like R and Python are not translated into machine code – there is no compiler that turns R into assembly code. Instead, they run with the help of an interpreter.

But why not compile? #

Operations in a high-level language don’t directly correspond to machine instructions. Consider:

add <- function(x, y) { x + y }

An innocuous function. But:

  • x and y might be numbers, which can be added by the processors.

  • x and y might be vectors, which have to be added elementwise. One might be shorter than the other, which has to be checked and handled. We’ll have to allocate a vector to store the result.

  • x and y may be S4 classes with a special + method defined for them (like the hyperreal numbers I showed in class). We may need to allocate memory for the results, tracking this memory with the garbage collector.

  • x and y may be objects for which addition is not defined.

None of this is known until the program runs. When R sees “+”, it has to check which of these is true, and potentially do some very complex processing (like for S4 classes). Running + means loading x and y, checking their types, determining which operation is appropriate, and then invoking the relevant code.

We could turn this into machine code – very long, very tedious machine code – but there’s no point. Instead, we write a program which reads the code and executes it. The program is, in effect, pretending to be a computer processor that understands R.

Simple interpreters #

Interpreting starts by turning the source code into a parse tree or abstract syntax tree (AST), data structures representing the meaning of the code. Here’s the AST for our add function, as printed by the pryr package:

> ast(function(x, y) { x + y } )
\- ()
  \- `function
  \- []
    \ x =`MISSING
    \ y =`MISSING
  \- ()
    \- `{
    \- ()
      \- `+
      \- `x
      \- `y
  \- <srcref>

This is just a textual representation. The built-in quote function returns this representation as an R list: you can process the list to retrieve the function calls, arguments, and so on:

> foo <- quote(function(x, y) { x + y } )
> foo[[1]]
> foo[[2]]


> foo[[3]][[1]]

The simplest possible interpreters simply read in the AST and operate on it. These are known as AST walkers.

AST walking is dead simple: read in the code piece by piece and do what it says. If it references a variable, look up the variable in a table and find its value; if it has a mathematical expression, fill out the values and calculate it. You could write R code that interprets R code by taking the output of quote and reading through it, element by element.

AST walking is also usually slow. Everything is referred to by name (variables, functions, objects, etc.), so everything has to be looked up in a set of tables (to determine what’s in scope) every time it’s accessed. There’s a lot of overhead. The processor’s cache is filled with AST data, variable scope tables, garbage collector data, and other stuff that’s not your code or your data.

Aside: Functions that transform code #

Hang on – if you can turn R code into an AST, and then read and even modify that AST, can you write functions that take code and return new code?


This is a bit painful in R, since we have to work with deeply nested lists, but it’s entirely possible. Imagine a function like this:

## Recurse deeply into an AST object, applying the provided function
## to elements that are numerics
replace_numeric <- function(ast, fn) {
    if ( || is.pairlist(ast) || inherits(ast, "srcref")) {
    } else if ( {
        replaced <- sapply(as.list(ast),
                           function(el) { replace_numeric(el, fn) })
    } else if (is.numeric(ast)) {
    } else {

randomize_constants <- function(const) {
    const + rnorm(1)

foo <- quote(function(x) { x + 4 })

bar <- replace_numeric(foo, randomize_constants)

## function(x) {
##    x + 3.64477015719487

Now, foo and bar are both AST objects, not functions, but we can evaluate these trees and turn them back into functions with eval:

foo_fn <- eval(foo)
bar_fn <- eval(bar)

foo_fn(4)  #=> 8
bar_fn(4)  #=> 7.64477

Why might it be useful to rewrite code like this? In R, it’s not usually a good idea. Changing how the language works can be confusing. It’s tough to write a good code-mangling function – you have to handle the AST properly.

But in other languages, functions that modify code are common – even part of the core language. Consider Lisp and its derivatives (Scheme, Clojure, Racket, etc.). You’ve seen some examples where code is written in a weird notation with lots of parentheses:

(/ (+ (- b) (sqrt (- (expt b 2) (* 4 a c))))
   (* 2 a))

But this notation reveals an elegant advantage. The notation for a list – a linked list of elements – is just

'(1 2 3 4 5 6)

The ‘ at the front is the quote operator – sound familiar? quote tells Lisp that this is a bare list. If there is no quote, as in

(* 2 a)

Lisp takes the list, assumes the first element is a function, and applies it to with the remaining elements as arguments. So we can write

'(/ (+ (- b) (sqrt (- (expt b 2) (* 4 a c))))
    (* 2 a))

with the quote, and this returns a list representing the code. Just like code can operate on lists, it can operate on code, returning new lists that are also code.

Users of Scheme and Lisp-like languages often write macros, which take their arguments as lists of code and return new code, to do useful things, letting them essentially build their own programming language. When could this be useful? Imagine doing some operation on every row of results from an SQL query:

(doquery (:select 'x 'y :from 'some-imaginary-table) (x y)
  (format t "On this row, x = ~A and y = ~A.~%" x y))

Here doquery is a macro which takes a query, names the resulting columns, and executes a piece of code once for every row, using the values from each column. When the code is read – not when it runs – the doquery macro runs and transforms this code into the full code needed to convert this to an SQL query, send it to the database, and do the loop over the results.

(This example is from Postmodern, a PostgreSQL package for Common Lisp.)

The key lesson: code is data. Interpreters and compilers are just programs that work on code as their data.

Bytecode and virtual machines #

Before compiling, the next-best option is to produce bytecode, which is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike assembly language. Bytecode is a set of instructions for a virtual machine – a hypothetical CPU. Instead of having the typical operations your CPU provides, this hypothetical CPU has instructions that do the types of things your programming language needs. For example, here’s some Python bytecode for a function called min(x, y):

2           0 LOAD_FAST                0 (x)
            3 LOAD_FAST                1 (y)
            6 COMPARE_OP               0 (<)
            9 POP_JUMP_IF_FALSE       16

3          12 LOAD_FAST                0 (x)
           15 RETURN_VALUE

5     >>   16 LOAD_FAST                1 (y)
           19 RETURN_VALUE
           20 LOAD_CONST               0 (None)
           23 RETURN_VALUE

Python’s hypothetical processor is a stack machine: each instruction takes arguments off the stack and pushes results onto the stack. The two LOAD_FAST instructions push the arguments onto the stack, and COMPARE_OP compares them and pushes True or False onto the stack, and so on.

Instead of parsing the code into an AST and stopping, the AST has to be converted into bytecode. Notice the bytecode doesn’t reference variables by name, so variable accesses and lookups are faster. (This is why global variables are slow in languages like Python: function arguments are known when the function is parsed, so they can be pushed on the stack easily, but globals are only know when the function runs, so the interpreter has to look them up in a table every time.)

Stack machines are easy to write but require shuffling data around on the stack, which may require extra instructions and overhead. Consider a simple Scheme function in the Guile interpreter:

(lambda (x y)
  (let ((z (+ x y)))
    (* z z)))

In bytecode, it is:

> ,disassemble (lambda (x y)
                 (let ((z (+ x y)))
                   (* z z)))

   0    (assert-nargs-ee/locals 10)     ;; 2 args, 1 local
   2    (local-ref 0)                   ;; `x'
   4    (local-ref 1)                   ;; `y'
   6    (add)
   7    (local-set 2)                   ;; `z'
   9    (local-ref 2)                   ;; `z'
  11    (local-ref 2)                   ;; `z'
  13    (mul)
  14    (return)

We push the two arguments onto the stack, add them, name the result, push it onto the stack twice, multiply, and then return the result. This is inefficient – only two of the instructions are actual math.

Other languages, like Lua (and more recent Guile versions), use a register-based VM with named locations for storing data, more like actual processors use.

Lots of languages run on bytecode: Python, Java, PHP, Lua, C#, and many others.

R gained a bytecode compiler several years ago, and base R functions are bytecode-compiled. This gives a modest speed benefit over the default AST walker.

Optimizers #

Because bytecode is intended to be a simple set of core instructions, it’s easier to optimize. The interpreter can pattern-match certain sets of bytecode and replace them with more efficient constructions. This is known as peephole optimization, because the optimizer only looks at a few instructions at a time.

Bytecode optimization can be combined with other types of optimization which use knowledge of the AST and the control flow in the program:

Constant folding
Constant expressions (like 1/sqrt(2 * pi)) can be recognized and evaluated in advance, instead of evaluated every time the code runs.
Loop invariant code motion
Expressions inside a loop which do not change from one iteration to the next are pulled out, so they are only calculated once.
Constant subexpression elimination
If the same expression appears multiple times, it can be calculated once and stored to a temporary variable.
Dead code elimination
Calculations whose results are not used can be skipped entirely.

There are many others. Sophisticated compilers do dozens of separate optimization passes; bytecode interpreters like Python are usually much less sophisticated, since fancy optimization delays execution. LLVM, a framework for building compilers, has an industrial-strength optimization system, as does GCC.

Just-in-time compilation #

It’s hard to produce efficient machine code for an interpreted language because any variable could have any type – a number, a list, an object with overloaded operators, whatever. Many types of optimization aren’t feasible.

But sometimes the interpreter can deduce the possible types. It might observe the program running and see what types are common, or use type inference using the code it can see. What then?

In just-in-time compilation, the interpreter recognizes when the types of variables are known and generates specialized machine code for them. JITed languages include Java, C#, JavaScript, Julia, and even Python with the PyPy system.

This compilation adds overhead: the interpreter does extra work recognizing when code can be JIT compiled, but saves time interpreting that code.

Compiling to machine code #

C, C++, Common Lisp, Go, Haskell, OCaml and many others can be compiled directly to machine code instead of run by an interpreter.

Ahead-of-time (AOT) compilation changes the tradeoffs. An AOT compiler can spend massive amounts of time optimizing code, since the optimization only happens once. A JIT compiler needs to work as fast as possible so the program isn’t slowed down by compilation. An AOT compiler can analyze the entire program at once, inferring data types and properties to make better optimization decisions. AOT compilers can even use profile-guided optimization (PGO), which involves running the program and observing its behavior to make better optimization decisions.

Resources #