performance - Why is Haskell (GHC) so darn fast?

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I agree with Dietrich Epp: it's a combination of several things that make GHC fast.

First and foremost, Haskell is very high-level. This enables the compiler to perform aggressive optimisations without breaking your code.

Think about SQL. Now, when I write a SELECT statement, it might look like an imperative loop, but it isn't. It might look like it loops over all rows in that table trying to find the one that matches the specified conditions, but actually the "compiler" (the DB engine) could be doing an index lookup instead — which has completely different performance characteristics. But because SQL is so high-level, the "compiler" can substitute totally different algorithms, apply multiple processors or I/O channels or entire servers transparently, and more.

I think of Haskell as being the same. You might think you just asked Haskell to map the input list to a second list, filter the second list into a third list, and then count how many items resulted. But you didn't see GHC apply stream-fusion rewrite rules behind the scenes, transforming the entire thing into a single tight machine code loop that does the whole job in a single pass over the data with no allocation — the kind of thing that would be tedious, error-prone and non-maintainable to write by hand. That's only really possible because of the lack of low-level details in the code.

Another way to look at it might be… why shouldn't Haskell be fast? What does it do that should make it slow?

It's not an interpreted language like Perl or JavaScript. It's not even a virtual machine system like Java or C#. It compiles all the way down to native machine code, so no overhead there.

Unlike OO languages [Java, C#, JavaScript…], Haskell has full type erasure [like C, C++, Pascal…]. All type checking happens at compile-time only. So there's no run-time type-checking to slow you down either. (No null-pointer checks, for that matter. In, say, Java, the JVM must check for null pointers and throw an exception if you deference one. Haskell doesn't have to bother with that check.)

You say it sounds slow to "create functions on the fly at run-time", but if you look very carefully, you don't actually do that. It might look like you do, but you don't. If you say (+5), well, that's hard-coded into your source code. It cannot change at run-time. So it's not really a dynamic function. Even curried functions are really just saving parameters into a data block. All the executable code actually exists at compile-time; there is no run-time interpretation. (Unlike some other languages that have an "eval function".)

Think about Pascal. It's old and nobody really uses it any more, but nobody would complain that Pascal is slow. There are plenty of things to dislike about it, but slowness is not really one of them. Haskell isn't really doing that much that's different to Pascal, other than having garbage collection rather than manual memory management. And immutable data allows several optimisations to the GC engine [which lazy evaluation then complicates somewhat].

I think the thing is that Haskell looks advanced and sophisticated and high-level, and everybody thinks "oh wow, this is really powerful, it must be amazingly slow!" But it isn't. Or at least, it isn't in the way you'd expect. Yes, it's got an amazing type system. But you know what? That all happens at compile-time. By run-time, it's gone. Yes, it allows you to construct complicated ADTs with a line of code. But you know what? An ADT is just a plain ordinary C union of structs. Nothing more.

The real killer is lazy evaluation. When you get the strictness / laziness of your code right, you can write stupidly fast code that is still elegant and beautiful. But if you get this stuff wrong, your program goes thousands of times slower, and it's really non-obvious why this is happening.

For example, I wrote a trivial little program to count how many times each byte appears in a file. For a 25KB input file, the program took 20 minutes to run and swallowed 6 gigabytes of RAM! That's absurd!! But then I realized what the problem was, added a single bang-pattern, and the run-time dropped to 0.02 seconds.

This is where Haskell goes unexpectedly slowly. And it sure takes a while to get used to it. But over time, it gets easier to write really fast code.

What makes Haskell so fast? Purity. Static types. Laziness. But above all, being sufficiently high-level that the compiler can radically change the implementation without breaking your code's expectations.

But I guess that's just my opinion...

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For a long time it was thought that functional languages couldn't be fast -- and especially lazy functional languages. But this was because their early implementations were, in essence, interpreted and not genuinely compiled.

A second wave of designs emerged based on graph reduction, and opened up the possibility for much more efficient compilation. Simon Peyton Jones wrote about this research in his two books The Implementation of Functional Programming Languages and Implementing functional languages: a tutorial (the former with sections by Wadler and Hancock, and the latter written with David Lester). (Lennart Augustsson also informed me that one key motivation for the former book was describing the way that his LML compiler, which was not extensively commented, accomplished its compilation).

The key notion behind graph reduction approaches such as described in these works is that we do not think of a program as a sequence of instructions, but of a dependency graph which is evaluated through a series of local reductions. The second key insight is that the evaluation of such a graph need not be interpreted but instead the graph itself can be built of code. In particular, we can represent a node of a graph not as "either a value or an 'opcode' and the values to operate on" but instead as a function that when invoked, returns the desired value. The first time it is invoked, it asks the subnodes for their values and then operates on them, and then it overwrites itself with a new instruction that just says "return the result."

This is described in a later paper that lays the basics out for how GHC still works today (though modulo many various tweaks): "Implementing Lazy Functional Languages on Stock Hardware: The Spineless Tagless G-Machine.". The current execution model for GHC is documented in more detail at the GHC Wiki.

So the insight is that the strict distinction of "data" and "code" which we think of as "fundamental" to how machines work is not how they must work, but is imposed by our compilers. So we can throw that out, and have code (a compiler) that generates self-modifying code (the executable) and it can all work quite nicely.

Thus it turns out that while machine architectures are imperative in a certain sense, languages may map to them in very surprising ways that don't look like conventional C-style flow control, and if we think low-level enough, this may also be efficient.

On top of this there are many other optimizations opened up by purity in particular, as it allows a greater range of "safe" transformations. When and how to apply these transformations such that they make things better and not worse is of course an empirical question, and on this and many other small choices, years of work have been put into both theoretical work and practical benchmarking. So this of course plays a role as well. A paper that provides a good example of this sort of research is "Making a Fast Curry: Push/Enter vs. Eval/Apply for Higher-Order Languages."

Finally, it should be noted that this model still introduces an overhead due to indirections. This can be avoided in cases where we know that it is "safe" to do things strictly and thus elide graph indirections. The mechanisms that infer strictness/demand are again documented in some detail at the GHC Wiki.

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Well, there's a lot to comment on here. I'll try to answer as much as I can.

Used correctly, it can get close-ish to low-level languages.

In my experience, it's usually possible to get within 2x the performance of Rust in many cases. But there are also some (broad) use cases where performance is poor compared to low-level languages.

or even beat it, but that means you are using an inefficient C program, since GHC compiles Haskell to C)

That is not entirely correct. Haskell compiles to C-- (a subset of C), which is then compiled via the native code generator to assembly. The native code generator usually generates faster code than the C compiler, because it can apply some optimizations that an ordinary C compiler can't.

Machine architectures are clearly imperative, being based on turing machines, roughly.

That's not a good way to think about it, particularly since modern processors will evaluate instructions out of order and possibly at the same time.

Indeed, Haskell doesn't even have a specific evaluation order.

Actually, Haskell does implicitly define an evaluation order.

Also, instead of dealing with machine data types, you make algebraic data types all the time.

They correspond in many cases, provided you have a sufficiently advanced compiler.

You would think that creating functions on the fly, and throwing them around, would make a program slower.

Haskell is compiled, and so higher-order functions are not actually created on the fly.

it seems to optimize Haskell code, you need to make it more elegant and abstract, instead of more machine like.

In general, making code more "machine like" is an unproductive way to get better performance in Haskell. But making it more abstract is not always a good idea either. What is a good idea is using common data structures and functions that have been heavily optimized (such as linked lists).

f x = [x] and f = pure are the exact same thing in Haskell, for instance. A good compiler would not yield better performance in the former case.

Why is Haskell (compiled with GHC) so fast, considering its abstract nature and differences from physical machines?

The short answer is "because it was designed to do exactly that." GHC uses the spineless tagless g-machine (STG). You can read a paper about it here (it's quite complex). GHC does a lot of other things as well, such as strictness analysis and optimistic evaluation.

The reason I say C and other imperative languages are somewhat similar to Turing Machines (but not to the extent that Haskell is similar to Lambda Calculus) is that in an imperative language, you have a finite number of states (a.k.a. line number), along with a Tape (the ram), such that the state and the current tape determine what to do to the tape.

Is the point of confusion then that mutability should lead to slower code? Haskell's laziness actually means that mutability doesn't matter as much as you think it would, plus it's high-level so there are many optimizations the compiler can apply. Thus, modifying a record in-place will rarely be slower than it would in a language such as C.

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Wow!!! 9 years of question but I've just come across a series of internal article on Windows Command Line history and I think some part of it might be relevant Windows side of the question:

For those who care about such things: Many have asked whether Windows is written in C or C++. The answer is that - despite NT's Object-Based design - like most OS', Windows is almost entirely written in 'C'. Why? C++ introduces a cost in terms of memory footprint, and code execution overhead. Even today, the hidden costs of code written in C++ can be surprising, but back in the late 1990's, when memory cost ~$60/MB (yes … $60 per MEGABYTE!), the hidden memory cost of vtables etc. was significant. In addition, the cost of virtual-method call indirection and object-dereferencing could result in very significant performance & scale penalties for C++ code at that time. While one still needs to be careful, the performance overhead of modern C++ on modern computers is much less of a concern, and is often an acceptable trade-off considering its security, readability, and maintainability benefits ... which is why we're steadily upgrading the Console’s code to modern C++.

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