Perl 5 Internals - Part Three

This is a cross post from my blog.

In the previous post, we talked about some of the optimizations that perl performs when conducting string and array operations. This time, we'll be diving into how perl implements hashes. But first, a brief clarification…

"Perl Never Downgrades"

In the first two posts, I made a point of mentioning that “Perl never downgrades”; that is, once a scalar has been upgraded to a more inclusive type (ex. from an IV to a PV), it won't go back again. This concept is also reflected in Perl's usage of memory; once it's allocated memory to an XV, it won't shrink until that XV is freed up. I was chatting with Yves Orton about these blog posts, and he mentioned that there is (at least) one scenario in which perl will free this memory: if you invoke undef as a function on a scalar, rather than assigning undef to said scalar. For example:

my $s = 'foobar';
my $t = $s;
$s    = undef;
undef $t;
# SV = PV(0x7ff6cb002e70) at 0x7ff6cb02a4f0
#   REFCNT = 1
#   PV = 0x101902700 "foobar"\0
#   CUR = 6
#   LEN = 16
# SV = PV(0x7ff6cb002f00) at 0x7ff6cb02a550
#   REFCNT = 1
#   PV = 0

Note how $s retained a reference to its character buffer, but it doesn't have any of the OK flags set, whereas $t has freed up its character buffer. Similar behavior occurs if you do undef @array or undef %hash; I encourage you to try it out!

And now, back to our scheduled programming…</awful-pun>


Hashing and Splitting

Perl implements hashtables in a fairly typical way; a sparsely populated array of linked lists (AKA hash buckets). A hashtable implementation runs its keys through a hash function to generate an index, and usually applies a modulus operation to generate the final index into the bucket array. Perl has a clever microoptimization here: it always makes sure to allocate a bucket array that has a size equal to a power of two. Then, instead of using a modulus operation, perl can simply conduct a bitwise AND operation to discard the high bits. The modulus operation is by no means expensive, but a bitwise AND takes far fewer cycles.

When the load factor (the number of key/value pairs versus the size of the sparse array) gets too high, the number of collisions gets to be too high for the hashtable to be fully effective, so the hashtable is usually grown and the entries are reinserted. This is known internally as splitting, considering the routine responsible is named hv_split. Perl has a neat optimization for this as well: since it uses a bitwise AND to find the final array index, it only needs to consider one extra bit of the hash value when splitting the table.

For example, let's say I have a hash whose buckets array is 8 entries long, and two keys whose hash values are 0b11111111 and 0b11110111. If we apply a bitwise AND against 0b00000111 (8 - 1), we get the bucket index for these keys, which happens to be 7 for both of our keys. However, when we increase the bucket array size to 16 (the next power of two), we now bitwise AND the keys with 16 - 1, or 0b00001111, to get the bucket size, which results in 15 for the first key, and 7 for the second. The second key doesn't change positions! Therefore, when growing the bucket array from size 2n to 2n+1, we only need to reorganize entries for which bit n + 1 is set.

If you happen to know how many hash keys you will need (or if you at least have a good idea), you can tell Perl to preallocate hash buckets by using keys(%hash) as an l-value:

keys(%hash) = $num_expected_keys;

This can save your program from having to repeatedly splitting a hashtable that you're inserting a lot of data into.

Shared Keys

Consider the following program:

my @hashes;
for (1 .. 1_000_000) {
  push @hashes, { value => $_ };

This seems like it would take up a lot of space: not only are we creating one million hashes; we're also creating one million instances of the string “value” and one million numbers, right?

In some languages, you can do what's known as interning a string; this means for each individual string, there is exactly one copy of that string in memory. Lua does this by default (which makes sense, considering how heavily it relies on table lookups based on string keys), and Ruby offers the capability to do this with its Symbol type. Fortunately, Perl benefits from a similar trick. All strings that are used as hash keys are actually interned into a private hash table (accessible in XS via the PL_strtab variable); this allows any program using a lot of common hash keys to fit into a much smaller space in memory.

Next Time

Well, that about covers the three primary datatypes in Perl! Join me next time for an overview of the optree!


Could someone explain why is there a difference between undef $x; and $x = undef?

Do you consciously decide which one to use based on the difference, or do you just prefer one to the other? Which one?

@Gabor I think undef $x is better, since it free the memory.
@Rob waiting to the next episode!

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About Rob Hoelz

user-pic I'm a Perl programmer from Wisconsin.