Questions to ask when optimizing code

When people start looking at profiling data, they're often unsure of where to start.

If you have a slow program that you want to start optimizing, here are a few questions to consider using your profiling tools to answer.

Is my program mostly using the CPU or mostly waiting?

If your program is slow, the first most important thing to find out is whether it's slow because it's using the CPU or if it's slow because it's waiting for the disk or network or something.

If your program is spending 98% of its time waiting for the result of a database query, it's very possible that you don't need to change your program's code at all, and what you need to do is work on your database's indexes!

Is my program swapping memory to disk?

This isn't a question that profilers can answer, but if your program is using a lot of memory (more than is available on your machine), it's worth checking whether the program is swapping memory to disk. Swapping will make your program run a lot slower, especially if your swap partition is encrypted.

Is there a single function where all the time is being spent?

Sometimes when a program is really unexpectedly slow, there's one function which is overwhelmingly the culprit. Profilers can tell you what % of your program's execution time was spent in each function.

When thinking about this question it's useful to understand the difference between "self time" and "total time" spent in a function -- a lot of profilers (including rbspy) will give you a report like this:

% self  % total  name
  3.05    10.09  each_child_node
  2.52    31.14  block (2 levels) in on_send
  2.17    14.31  do_parse
  1.76     3.28  cop_config
  1.70     2.29  block (2 levels) in <class:Node>
  1.41     1.41  end_pos

The self time is the percentage of time that function was at the top of the call stack. Basically -- if the function is doing computations itself (vs calling other functions), it's what % of time was spent in those functions.

Looking for functions with high self time can be a good way to find low-hanging fruit for optimizations -- if 20% of the time is being spent in a single function's calculations and you can make that function 90% faster, then you've improved your program's overall speed a lot! For example, if you have a slow calculation, maybe you can cache it!

The total time is the percentage of time that function appeared in a call stack. Basically it's the % of time spent in the function itself + every other function it called.

Both self time and total time are important to consider -- for example, if I have a function that does this:

def parent_fun
    for x in list1
        for y in list2

your profiler might report that parent_fun has 0% "self time" (because all it does is call child_fun over and over again), but maybe it's still possible to optimize the algorithm it uses.

How many times is function X being called?

If your profiler says that 98% of the time is being spent inside a single function like calculate_thing, you're not done! There are 2 possible cases here:

  • calculate_thing is taking a long time
  • calculate_thing is fast, but another function is calling that function way too many times. No use having a fast function if it's being called 100 million times!

Because rbspy is a sampling profiler (not a tracing profiler), it actually can't tell you how times a function was called -- it just reports "hey, I observed your program 100,000 times, and 98,000 of those times it was in the calculate_thing function".

ruby-prof is a tracing profiler for Ruby, which can tell you exactly how many times each function was called at the cost of being higher overhead.