[Rd] Small changes to big objects (1)

John Chambers jmc at r-project.org
Thu Jan 3 20:08:30 CET 2013

Martin Morgan commented in email to me that a change to any slot of an 
object that has other, large slot(s) does substantial computation, 
presumably from copying the whole object.  Is there anything to be done?

There are in fact two possible changes, one automatic but only partial, 
the other requiring some action on the programmer's part.  Herewith the 
first; I'll discuss the second in a later email.

Some context:  The notion is that our object has some big data and some 
additional smaller things.  We need to change the small things but would 
rather not copy the big things all the time.  (With long vectors, this 
becomes even more relevant.)

There are three likely scenarios: slots, attributes and named list 
components.  Suppose our object has "little" and "BIG" encoded in one of 

The three relevant computations are:

x at little <- other
attr(x, "little") <- other
x$little <- other

It turns out that these are all similar in behavior with one important 
exception--fixing that is the automatic change.

I need to review what R does here. All these are replacement functions, 
`@<-`, `attr<-`, `$<-`.  The evaluator checks before calling any 
replacement whether the object needs to be duplicated (in a routine 
EnsureLocal()).  It does that by examining a special field that holds 
the reference status of the object.

Some languages, such as Python (and S) keep reference counts for each 
object, de-allocating the object when the reference count drops back to 
zero.  R uses a different strategy. Its NAMED() field is 0, 1 or 2 
according to whether the object has been assigned never, once or more 
than once.  The field is not a reference count and is not 
decremented--relevant for this issue.  Objects are de-allocated only 
when garbage collection occurs and the object does not appear in any 
current frame or other context.
(I did not write any of this code, so apologies if I'm misrepresenting it.)

When any of these replacement operations first occurs for a particular 
object in a particular function call, it's very likely that the 
reference status will be 2 and EnsureLocal will duplicate it--all of it. 
Regardless of which of the three forms is used.

Here the non-level-playing-field aspect comes in.  `@<-` is a normal R 
function (a "closure") but the other two are primitives in the main code 
for R.  Primitives have no frame in which arguments are stored.  As a 
result the new version of x is normally stored with status 1.

If one does a second replacement in the same call (in a loop, e.g.) that 
should not normally copy again.  But the result of `@<-` will be an 
object from its frame and will have status 2 when saved, forcing a copy 
each time.

So the change, naturally, is that R 3.0.0 will have a primitive 
implementation of `@<`.  This has been implemented in r-devel (rev. 61544).

Please try it out _before_ we issue that version, especially if you own 
a package that does things related to this question.


PS:  Some may have noticed that I didn't mention a fourth approach: 
fields in a reference class object.  The assumption was that we wanted 
classical, functional behavior here.  Reference classes don't have the 
copy problem but don't behave functionally either.  But that is in fact 
the direction for the other approach.  I'll discuss that later, when the 
corresponding code is available.

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