24 Days of Hackage: data-memocombinators

Today we look at a tiny little library that packs an awfully strong punch for it’s size. That library is data-memocombinators, maintained by Luke Palmer and Dmitry Malikov.

data-memocombinators is one of a handful of memoization libraries available for Haskell, and to me, stands out for its simplicity. Before we go into the library, lets recap on what it means for a function to be memoized, and why we would need a library for this in Haskell.

Memoization is a technique for trading run-time space for execution time, and is often used to improve the performance of heavily recursive definitions in order to save recomputing the same information over and over again. One of the canonical examples of memoization is the Fibonacci series. Naively, one might write this as:

fib :: Int -> Int
fib 0 = 1
fib 1 = 1
fib n = fib (n - 1) + fib (n - 2)

However, to compute fib 4 we have to compute fib 3 and fib 2. To compute fib 3 we also need to compute fib 2 and fib 1. Thus we actually need to compute fib 2 twice - once for fib 4 (n - 2) and once for fib 3 (n - 1). There is already plenty of material on this, so I’ll leave further research for you to do, if you’ve not already encountered this.

Of interest to the working Haskell programmer is the question: why do I care? Surely the calculation fib 2 is the same every time - after all, fib :: Int -> Int, and due to referential transparency, the result of this computation applied to the same argument must be constant. Why can’t our compiler help us out and prevent duplicate work?

The answer is due to how terms are evaluated. When we assign a value to a name, we usually store an unevaluated thunk, that when forced will finally produce the value under that computation. Once forced, the binding now points to the final value, and not the computation. Thus, subsequent accesses will incur almost no cost at all. This is why in let y = 4 * 4 in y + y, we would only calculate 4 * 4 once. Once these bindings go out of scope, the garbage collector is free to come along and remove all of this work.

Now we are in a position to understand the poor performance of our fib definition. In fib, we never bound recursive calls to names, and so there is no ability to share information between calls. Therefore, there is no ability to share the work, so we end up creating new thunks every time we recurse.

Confused? Don’t worry I was too, and it’s a tricky topic. Thankfully, you’re not the first person to be confused, and there is some great information on Stack Overflow discussing this problem:

While it is often possible to reformulate code to achieve sharing, sometimes it’s just more convenient to stick on some explicit memoization over the top, and that’s what data-memocombinators is all about.

data-memocombinators provides a few combinators that transform a function into an equivalent function that uses it first argument as the memoization key. There are no data structures that you as a user have to worry about, this is all taken care behind the scenes. Thus the code is exactly as expressive as before - you are not restricted to working under newtypes or passing around explicit caches. Remarkably, data-memocombinators is entirely pure - which at first glance seems impossible. After all, isn’t memoization about mutating some sort of shared store of data? With lazy evaluation available, we’ll see that it’s possible to get memoization and purity.

For example, we can add memoization to our fib example from earlier, by the use of the integral combinator. This is the same example from the data-memocombinators documentation, but I’ll reproduce it here to discuss how it works:

fibFast :: Int -> Int
fibFast = Memo.integral fib'
 where fib' 0 = 1
       fib' 1 = 1
       fib' n = fibFast (n - 1) + fibFast (n - 2)

The type of our fib-like function has not changed, but we’ve moved the work out into a locally defined fib' function. Notice the relation between fibFast and fib' - when we call fibFast we first check (indirectly) if this value has already been computed, and if not, we use fib' to perform the work. fib' then calls fibFast with smaller value, and the cycle repeats. Now we’ve got the sharing that was mentioned earlier, and we only have to pay for the cost of computing fib n once (for each n).

But how on earth does this all work? data-memocombinators is built by building an infinitely large trie. Each value in the trie can be thought of as a thunk to compute that value. Building up the thunks is almost free, and it’s only when we lookup the value for a specific key (function argument) that we pay for the work. After that, we still have a binding to that value, and that’s why subsequent accesses don’t require the work to be calculated again.

Now while data-memocombinators has a simple interface that is powerful to use, it does sadly only go so far. For example, there is no general memoization routine for types where all we have is an Eq instance. This seems like it should be possible, but unfortunately we are given no such combinator. However, data-memocombinators does have some points for extension. If you are able to define a Bits instance on the result type, then you can use the bits combinator to build a memoization routine, to consider one example.

When you do need to start working with more arbitrary types you have a few options. If you want to stay in data-memocombinators you may be able to form an isomorphism with your type and something that is easily memoized - for example, an isomorphism to a unique Integer. The other option is to bite the bullet and use something more powerful, like working inside a Map - here monad-memo may be more help.

I’ll finish by saying that not only is data-memocombinators a very powerful library, it’s a fantastic starting point for exploring some programming techniques that truly shine in Haskell. The underlying “trick” in data-memocombinators is really due to the idea of sharing in lazy evaluation. data-memocombinators is a tiny amount of code, and I highly encourage you to dig into the guts of this library and teach yourself how it all works. I guarantee, even if you don’t have a need to use data-memocombinators, you’ll come away feeling a little more enlightened.

You can contact me via email at ollie@ocharles.org.uk or tweet to me @acid2. I share almost all of my work at GitHub. This post is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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