/Erlang 20

3 Common Caveats

This section lists a few modules and BIFs to watch out for, not only from a performance point of view.

3.1 Timer Module

Creating timers using erlang:send_after/3 and erlang:start_timer/3 , is much more efficient than using the timers provided by the timer module in STDLIB. The timer module uses a separate process to manage the timers. That process can easily become overloaded if many processes create and cancel timers frequently (especially when using the SMP emulator).

The functions in the timer module that do not manage timers (such as timer:tc/3 or timer:sleep/1), do not call the timer-server process and are therefore harmless.

3.2 list_to_atom/1

Atoms are not garbage-collected. Once an atom is created, it is never removed. The emulator terminates if the limit for the number of atoms (1,048,576 by default) is reached.

Therefore, converting arbitrary input strings to atoms can be dangerous in a system that runs continuously. If only certain well-defined atoms are allowed as input, list_to_existing_atom/1 can be used to to guard against a denial-of-service attack. (All atoms that are allowed must have been created earlier, for example, by simply using all of them in a module and loading that module.)

Using list_to_atom/1 to construct an atom that is passed to apply/3 as follows, is quite expensive and not recommended in time-critical code:

apply(list_to_atom("some_prefix"++Var), foo, Args)

3.3 length/1

The time for calculating the length of a list is proportional to the length of the list, as opposed to tuple_size/1, byte_size/1, and bit_size/1, which all execute in constant time.

Normally, there is no need to worry about the speed of length/1, because it is efficiently implemented in C. In time-critical code, you might want to avoid it if the input list could potentially be very long.

Some uses of length/1 can be replaced by matching. For example, the following code:

foo(L) when length(L) >= 3 ->

can be rewritten to:

foo([_,_,_|_]=L) ->

One slight difference is that length(L) fails if L is an improper list, while the pattern in the second code fragment accepts an improper list.

3.4 setelement/3

setelement/3 copies the tuple it modifies. Therefore, updating a tuple in a loop using setelement/3 creates a new copy of the tuple every time.

There is one exception to the rule that the tuple is copied. If the compiler clearly can see that destructively updating the tuple would give the same result as if the tuple was copied, the call to setelement/3 is replaced with a special destructive setelement instruction. In the following code sequence, the first setelement/3 call copies the tuple and modifies the ninth element:

multiple_setelement(T0) ->
    T1 = setelement(9, T0, bar),
    T2 = setelement(7, T1, foobar),
    setelement(5, T2, new_value).

The two following setelement/3 calls modify the tuple in place.

For the optimization to be applied, all the followings conditions must be true:

  • The indices must be integer literals, not variables or expressions.
  • The indices must be given in descending order.
  • There must be no calls to another function in between the calls to setelement/3.
  • The tuple returned from one setelement/3 call must only be used in the subsequent call to setelement/3.

If the code cannot be structured as in the multiple_setelement/1 example, the best way to modify multiple elements in a large tuple is to convert the tuple to a list, modify the list, and convert it back to a tuple.

3.5 size/1

size/1 returns the size for both tuples and binaries.

Using the BIFs tuple_size/1 and byte_size/1 gives the compiler and the runtime system more opportunities for optimization. Another advantage is that the BIFs give Dialyzer more type information.

3.6 split_binary/2

It is usually more efficient to split a binary using matching instead of calling the split_binary/2 function. Furthermore, mixing bit syntax matching and split_binary/2 can prevent some optimizations of bit syntax matching.


<<Bin1:Num/binary,Bin2/binary>> = Bin,


{Bin1,Bin2} = split_binary(Bin, Num)

3.7 Operator "--"

The "--" operator has a complexity proportional to the product of the length of its operands. This means that the operator is very slow if both of its operands are long lists:


HugeList1 -- HugeList2

Instead use the ordsets module in STDLIB:


HugeSet1 = ordsets:from_list(HugeList1),
HugeSet2 = ordsets:from_list(HugeList2),
ordsets:subtract(HugeSet1, HugeSet2)

Obviously, that code does not work if the original order of the list is important. If the order of the list must be preserved, do as follows:


Set = gb_sets:from_list(HugeList2),
[E || E <- HugeList1, not gb_sets:is_element(E, Set)]

This code behaves differently from "--" if the lists contain duplicate elements (one occurrence of an element in HugeList2 removes all occurrences in HugeList1.)

Also, this code compares lists elements using the "==" operator, while "--" uses the "=:=" operator. If that difference is important, sets can be used instead of gb_sets, but sets:from_list/1 is much slower than gb_sets:from_list/1 for long lists.

Using the "--" operator to delete an element from a list is not a performance problem:


HugeList1 -- [Element]

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