# Efficient Ragged Arrays in R and Rcpp

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## When is R Slow, and Why?

Computational speed is a common complaint lodged against R.

Some recent posts on r-bloggers.com have compared

the speed of R with some other programming languages [1], and showed the

favorable impact of the new compiler package on run-times [2]. I and

others have written about using Rcpp to easily write C++ functions to speed-up bottlenecks

in R [3,4]. With the new Rcpp attributes framework,

writing fully vectorized C++ functions and incorporating them in R code is now very easy [5].

On a day-to-day basis, though, R’s performance is largely a function of coding style.

R allows novices users to write horribly inefficient code [6]

that produces the correct answer (eventually). Yet by failing to utilize vectorization

and pre-allocation of data structures, naive R code can be many orders of magnitude slower than

need be. R-help is littered with the

tears of novices, and there’s even a (fantastic)

parody of Dante’s Inferno outlining the common “Deadly Sins of R” [7].

## Problem Statement: Appending to Ragged Arrays

I recently stumbled onto an interesting code optimization problem that I *didn’t* have a quick solution for,

and that I’m sure others

have encountered. What is the “R way” to vectorize computations on ragged array?

One example of a ragged array is

a list of vectors that have varying and different lengths. Say you need to dynamically grow

many vectors by varying lengths

over the course of a stochastic simulation. Using a simple tool like `lapply`

, the entire data

structure will be allocated anew with every assignment. This problem is briefly touched

on in the official

Introduction

to R documentation, which simply notes that “when the subclass sizes [e.g. vector sizes] are all the same the indexing

may be done implicitly and much more efficiently”. But what if you’re data *isn’t* rectangular? How

might one intelligently vectorize a ragged array to prevent (sloooow) memory allocations at every step?

The obvious answer is to pre-allocate a rectangular matrix (or array) that is larger than the maximum

possible vector length, and store each vector as a row (or column?) in the matrix. Now we can use matrix

assignment, and for each vector track the index of the start of free space.

If we try to write past the end of the matrix, R emits the appropriate error.

This method requires some book-keeping on our part. One nice addition would be

an S4 class with slots for the data matrix and the vector of free-space

indices, as well as methods to dynamically expand the data matrix and validate the object.

As an aside, this solution is essentially the inverse of a sparse matrix. Sparse matrices use

much less memory at the expense of slower access times [8].

Here, we’re using more memory than is strictly needed to achieve much faster access times.

Is pre-allocation and book-keeping worth the trouble? `object.size(matrix(1.5, nrow=1e3,`

shows that a data structure of 1,000 vectors, each of length approximately 1,000,

ncol=1e3))

occupies about 8Mb of memory. Let’s say I resize this structure 1,000 times. Now I’m looking

at almost a gigabyte of memory allocations. Perhaps you’re getting a sense of what a terrible idea

it is to *not* pre-allocate a frequently-resized ragged list?

## Three Solutions and Some Tests

Using the above logic, I prototyped a solution as an R function, and then transcribed the result into

a C++ function (boundary checks are important in C++).

The result is three methods: a “naive” list-append method, an R method that uses matrix assignment,

and a final C++ method that modifies the pre-allocated matrix in-place.

In C++/Rcpp, functions can use pass-by-reference semantics [9],

which can have major speed advantages by

allowing functions to modify their arguments in-place. Full disclosure: pass-by-reference semantics requires

some caution on the user’s part. Pass-by-reference is very different from R’s “function

programming” semantics (pass-by-value, copy-on-modify), where side-effects are minimized and an explicit

assignment call is required to modify an object [10].

I added a unit test to ensure identical results between all three methods, and then used the fantastic rbenchmark package to time each solution.

As expected, the naive method is laughably slow. By comparison, and perhaps counter-intuitively, the R and C++

pre-allocation methods are close in performance. Only with more iterations and larger

data structures does the C++ method really start to pull ahead. And by that time, the naive R

method takes *forever*.

Refactoring existing code to use the pre-allocated compound data structure (matrix plus indices)

is a more challenging exercise that’s “left to the reader”, as mathematics textbooks oft say.

`lapply()`

is

conceptually simple, and is often fast *enough*. Some work is required to transcribe code from this

simpler style to use the “anti-sparse” matrix (and indices). There’s a temptation to prototype a solution

using `lapply()`

and then “fix” things later. But if you’re using ragged arrays and doing any heavy lifting

(large data structures, many iterations), the timings show that pre-allocation is more than worth the effort.

## Code

Note: you can find the full code here and

here.

Setup: two helper functions are used to generate ragged arrays via random

draws. First, draws from the negative binomial distribution determine the length of the each new vector (with a

minimum length of 1, `gen.lengths()`

), and draws from the normal distribution fill each

vector with data (`gen.dat()`

).

## helper functions gen.lengths

Three solutions: a naive `lapply()`

method, followed by pre-allocation

in R.

## naive method appendL

Next, the solution as a C++ function. This goes in a separate file that I’ll call `helpers.cpp`

(compiled below).

#includeusing namespace Rcpp ; // [[Rcpp::export]] void appendRcpp( List fillVecs, NumericVector newLengths, NumericMatrix retmat, NumericVector retmatLengths) { // "append" fill oldmat w/ // we will loop through rows, filling retmat in with the vectors in list // then update retmat_size to index the next free // newLenths isn't used, added for compatibility NumericVector fillTmp; int sizeOld, sizeAdd, sizeNew; // pull out dimensions of matrix to fill int nrow = retmat.nrow(); int ncol = retmat.ncol(); // check that dimensions match if ( nrow != retmatLengths.size() || nrow != fillVecs.size()) { throw std::range_error("In appendC(): dimension mismatch"); } for (int ii = 0; ii= ncol) { throw std::range_error("In appendC(): exceeded max cols"); } // iterator for row to fill NumericMatrix::Row retRow = retmat(ii, _); // fill row of return matrix, starting at first non-zero elem std::copy( fillTmp.begin(), fillTmp.end(), retRow.begin() + sizeOld); // update size of retmat retmatLengths[ii] = sizeNew; } }

Putting the pieces together: a unit test ensures the results of all three methods are identical, and a function that runs each

solution with identical data will be used for timing.

## unit test test.correct.append

Finally, we run it all:

library(rbenchmark) ## Obviously, Rcpp requires a C++ compiler library(Rcpp) ## compilation, linking, and loading of the C++ function into R is done behind the scenes sourceCpp("helpers.cpp") ## run unit test, verify both functions return identical results is.identical

Benchmark results show that the list-append method is 500 times slower than the improved

R method, and 1,000 times slower than the C++ method (`timings`

).

As we move to larger data structures

(`timings.fast`

), the advantage of modifying in-place with C++ rather than having to

explicitly assign the results quickly add up.

> timings test replications elapsed relative user.self sys.self 2 c 10 0.057 1.000 0.056 0.000 3 list 10 52.792 926.175 52.674 0.036 1 r 10 0.128 2.246 0.123 0.003 > timings.fast test replications elapsed relative user.self sys.self 2 c 10 0.684 1.000 0.683 0.000 1 r 10 24.962 36.494 24.934 0.027

## References

[1] How slow is R really?

[2] Speeding

up R computations Pt II: compiling

[3] Efficient loops in R – the complexity versus speed trade-off

[4] Faster (recursive) function calls: Another quick Rcpp case study

[5] Rcpp attributes: A simple example ‘making pi’

[6] StackOverflow: Speed up the loop operation in R

[7] The R Inferno

[8] Sparse matrix formats: pros and cons

[9] Advanced R: OO field guide: Reference Classes

[10] Advanced R: Functions: Return Values

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