25x Performance Boost in Two Hours

Our system has a find_child_regions API, which, as the name indicates, can find subregions of a region up to a certain level. It needs to look up two MongoDB collections, combine the data in a certain structure, and return the result in JSON.

One day, it was reported that the API was slow for big data sets. Tests showed that it took more than 50 seconds to return close to 6000 records. Er . . . that means the average processing speed is only about 100 records a second—not terribly slow, but definitely not ideal.

When there is a performance problem, a profiler is always your friend.1 Profiling quickly revealed that a database read function was called about twice the number of returned records, and occupied the biggest chunk of time. The reason was that the function first found out all the IDs of the regions to return, and then it read all the data and generated the result. Since the data were already read once when the IDs were returned, they could be saved and reused. I had to write a new function, which resembled the function that returned region IDs, but returned objects that contained all the data read instead (we had such a class already). I also needed to split the result-generating function into two, so that either the region IDs, or the data objects, could be accepted. (I could not change these functions directly, as they have many other users than find_child_regions; changing all of them at once would have been both risky and unnecessary.)

In about 30 minutes, this change generated the expected improvement: call time was shortened to about 30 seconds. A good start!

While the improvement percentage looked nice, the absolute time taken was still a bit long. So I continued to look for further optimization chances.

Seeing that database reading was still the bottleneck and the database read function was still called for each record returned, I thought I should try batch reading. Fortunately, I found I only needed to change one function. Basically, I needed to change something like the following

result = []
for x in xs:
    object_id = f(x)
    obj = get_from_db(object_id, …)
    if obj:
        result.append(obj)
return result

to

object_ids = [f(x) for x in xs]
return find_in_db({"_id": {"$in": object_ids}}, …)

I.e. in that specific function, all data of one level of subregions were read in one batch. Getting four levels of subregions took only four database reads, instead of 6000. This reduced the latency significantly.

In 30 minutes, the call time was again reduced, from 30 seconds to 14 seconds. Not bad!

Again, the profiler showed that database reading was still the bottleneck. I made more experiments, and found that the data object could be sizeable, whereas we did not always need all data fields. We might only need, say, 100 bytes from each record, but the average size of each region was more than 50 KB. The functions involved always read the full record, something equivalent to the traditional SQL statement ‘SELECT * FROM ...’. It was convenient, but not efficient. MongoDB APIs provided a projection parameter, which allowed callers to specify which fields to read from the collection, so I tried it. We had the infrastructure in place, and it was not very difficult. It took me about an hour to make it fully work, as many functions needed to be changed to pass the (optional) projection/field names around. When it finally worked, the result was stunning: if one only needed the basic fields about the regions, the call time could be less than 2 seconds. Terrific!

While Python is not a performant language, and I still like C++, I am glad that Python was chosen for this project. The performance improvement by the C++ language would have been negligible when the call time was more than 50 seconds, and still a small number when I improved its performance to less than 2 seconds. In the meanwhile, it would have been simply impossible for me to refactor the code and achieve the same performance in two hours if the code had been written in C++. I highly doubt whether I could have finished the job in a full day. I would probably have been fighting with the compiler and type system most of the time, instead of focusing on the logic and testing.

Life is short—choose your language wisely.


  1. Being able to profile Python programs easily was actually the main reason I purchased a professional licence of PyCharm, instead of just using the Community Edition. 

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