FSharp runs my algorithm slower than Python


Years ago, I solved a problem via dynamic programming:


The solution was coded in Python.

As part of expanding my horizons, I recently started learning OCaml/F#. What better way to test the waters, than by doing a direct port of the imperative code I wrote in Python to F# - and start from there, moving in steps towards a functional programming solution.

The results of this first, direct port... are disconcerting:

Under Python:

  bash$ time python fitToSize.py
  real    0m1.482s
  user    0m1.413s
  sys     0m0.067s

Under FSharp:

  bash$ time mono ./fitToSize.exe
  real    0m2.235s
  user    0m2.427s
  sys     0m0.063s

(in case you noticed the "mono" above: I tested under Windows as well, with Visual Studio - same speed).

I am... puzzled, to say the least. Python runs code faster than F# ? A compiled binary, using the .NET runtime, runs SLOWER than Python's interpreted code?!?!

I know about startup costs of VMs (mono in this case) and how JITs improve things for languages like Python, but still... I expected a speedup, not a slowdown!

Have I done something wrong, perhaps?

I have uploaded the code here:


Note that the F# code is more or less a direct, line-by-line translation of the Python code.

P.S. There are of course other gains, e.g. the static type safety offered by F# - but if the resulting speed of an imperative algorithm is worse under F# ... I am disappointed, to say the least.

EDIT: Direct access, as requested in the comments:

the Python code: https://gist.github.com/950697

the FSharp code: https://gist.github.com/950699

6/1/2016 4:25:43 PM

Accepted Answer

Dr Jon Harrop, whom I contacted over e-mail, explained what is going on:

The problem is simply that the program has been optimized for Python. This is common when the programmer is more familiar with one language than the other, of course. You just have to learn a different set of rules that dictate how F# programs should be optimized... Several things jumped out at me such as the use of a "for i in 1..n do" loop rather than a "for i=1 to n do" loop (which is faster in general but not significant here), repeatedly doing List.mapi on a list to mimic an array index (which allocated intermediate lists unnecessarily) and your use of the F# TryGetValue for Dictionary which allocates unnecessarily (the .NET TryGetValue that accepts a ref is faster in general but not so much here)

... but the real killer problem turned out to be your use of a hash table to implement a dense 2D matrix. Using a hash table is ideal in Python because its hash table implementation has been extremely well optimized (as evidenced by the fact that your Python code is running as fast as F# compiled to native code!) but arrays are a much better way to represent dense matrices, particularly when you want a default value of zero.

The funny part is that when I first coded this algorithm, I DID use a table -- I changed the implementation to a dictionary for reasons of clarity (avoiding the array boundary checks made the code simpler - and much easier to reason about).

Jon transformed my code (back :-)) into its array version, and it runs at 100x speed.

Moral of the story:

  • F# Dictionary needs work... when using tuples as keys, compiled F# is slower than interpreted Python's hash tables!
  • Obvious, but no harm in repeating: Cleaner code sometimes means... much slower code.

Thank you, Jon -- much appreciated.

EDIT: the fact that replacing Dictionary with Array makes F# finally run at the speeds a compiled language is expected to run, doesn't negate the need for a fix in Dictionary's speed (I hope F# people from MS are reading this). Other algorithms depend on dictionaries/hashes, and can't be easily switched to using arrays; making programs suffer "interpreter-speeds" whenever one uses a Dictionary, is arguably, a bug. If, as some have said in the comments, the problem is not with F# but with .NET Dictionary, then I'd argue that this... is a bug in .NET!

EDIT2: The clearest solution, that doesn't require the algorithm to switch to arrays (some algorithms simply won't be amenable to that) is to change this:

let optimalResults = new Dictionary<_,_>()

into this:

let optimalResults = new Dictionary<_,_>(HashIdentity.Structural)

This change makes the F# code run 2.7x times faster, thus finally beating Python (1.6x faster). The weird thing is that tuples by default use structural comparison, so in principle, the comparisons done by the Dictionary on the keys are the same (with or without Structural). Dr Harrop theorizes that the speed difference may be attributed to virtual dispatch: "AFAIK, .NET does little to optimize virtual dispatch away and the cost of virtual dispatch is extremely high on modern hardware because it is a "computed goto" that jumps the program counter to an unpredictable location and, consequently, undermines branch prediction logic and will almost certainly cause the entire CPU pipeline to be flushed and reloaded".

In plain words, and as suggested by Don Syme (look at the bottom 3 answers), "be explicit about the use of structural hashing when using reference-typed keys in conjunction with the .NET collections". (Dr. Harrop in the comments below also says that we should always use Structural comparisons when using .NET collections).

Dear F# team in MS, if there is a way to automatically fix this, please do.

5/4/2011 7:12:13 AM

As Jon Harrop has pointed out, simply constructing the dictionaries using Dictionary(HashIdentity.Structural) gives a major performance improvement (a factor of 3 on my computer). This is almost certainly the minimally invasive change you need to make to get better performance than Python, and keeps your code idiomatic (as opposed to replacing tuples with structs, etc.) and parallel to the Python implementation.

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