Method dispatch in Dylan is the process by which the compiler and run-time collaborate to choose the right implementation of a function to call. This can get rather complex as a number of factors are involved in choosing the right method to call and whether that can be done at compile-time or deferred to run-time.
Unfortunately, full generic method dispatch at run-time in Open Dylan is currently not as fast as we would like. This means that when performance issues strike, they may well be due to the overhead of method dispatch.
Discussing and improving the overall performance of method dispatch isn't the subject of this post. That's going to require a fair bit of planning and work before that is resolved.
Instead, we're going to look at what to do when you're experiencing performance problems at particular call sites due to the overhead of method dispatch.
Sometimes, this is readily visible in the profiler:
Here, we can see that the percent-encode method in the uri library is going through dispatch to call member?. (I've translated from the names of the functions in C to their names in Dylan. The name mangling isn't that difficult to pick up.)
In Dylan, this method looks like:
define method percent-encode (chars :: <sequence>, unencoded :: <byte-string>) => (encoded :: <string>) let encoded = ""; for (char in unencoded) encoded := concatenate(encoded, if (member?(char, chars)) list(char) else format-to-string("%%%X", as(<byte>, char)) end if); end for; encoded end method percent-encode;
And in C, we can see that the dispatch looks like this (from _build/build/uri/uri.c):
CONGRUENT_CALL_PROLOG(&KmemberQVKd, 3); T4 = CONGRUENT_CALL3(T16, chars_, &KPempty_vectorVKi);
Method dispatch in the generated C can take many forms. It won't always be a CONGRUENT_CALL. It might be an ENGINE_NODE_CALL, CALL, MEP_CALL among other things.
There are multiple implementations of the member? function. Some of the function signatures available are (simplifying a bit):
- member? (<object>, <sequence>)
- member? (<object>, <list>) (sealed)
- member? (<number>, <range>)
- member? (<object>, <vector>)
- member? (<byte-character>, <byte-string>) (sealed)
Looking at the Dylan code, one of the first things that we can see here is that the chars parameter is a plain <sequence> rather than a more specific class. This means that the compiler isn't seeing what type of data is actually being passed in, and has to make the most generic decision.
Because the applicable function is not sealed, the compiler can't be sure which implementation is the right one to invoke. This is because the types of the arguments at run-time could lead to the selection of a more specific member? implementation. Also, since the function isn't sealed, there may well be implementations of member? that aren't visible to the compiler yet (through shared libraries, plug-ins, etc.).
This leads to the compiler deciding to emit a fully generic method dispatch at run-time rather than directly invoking a more specific implementation by evaluating the method dispatch at compile time.
What we would like to see happen here instead is for the compiler to emit a call directly to the specialized implementation of member?(<byte-character>, <byte-string>). This is possible because that implementation is sealed (no more specific version can be provided) and, in all cases, what is passed in can be a <byte-string>, so we can change the signature of the method to:
define method percent-encode (chars :: <byte-string>, unencoded :: <byte-string>) => (encoded :: <string>) ... end method percent-encode;
Now, when we compile this and examine the C, we can see that it has eliminated the dispatch and is directly invoking the correct method, member?(<byte-character>, <byte-string>), which has been optimized for this case:
T16 = KmemberQVKdMM3I(T15, chars_, &KPempty_vectorVKi, &KEEVKd);
Other changes could still be made to improve this function to further reduce the dispatch, but we've solved the issue with member?. In particular, building a string by using concatenate to append each character won't perform all that well and should be addressed.
In reality, there wasn't yet a specialized implementation of member? defined on <byte-character> and <byte-string>, but one has been added to the 2014.1 release as a result of this work.
Indeed, there won't always be a way to fully eliminate all dispatch. This can have varying causes:
- There isn't a more specific method.
- There isn't a most specific method where the method or classes involved are sealed, so the compiler can't be sure it can eliminate the dispatch.
- The compiler can't figure out enough about the types of objects involved to find a more specific method.
- Generic dispatch is actually required at this call-site.
We'll look into some of these things in future blog posts.