Archive for Robert Gentleman

“simply start over and build something better”

Posted in R, Statistics, University life with tags , , , on September 13, 2010 by xi'an

The post on the shortcomings of R has attracted a huge number of readers and Ross Ihaka has now posted a detailed comment that is fairly pessimistic… Given the radical directions drafted in this comment from the father of R (along with Robert Gentleman), I once again re-post it as a main entry to advertise more broadly its contents. (Obviously, the whole debate is now far beyond my reach! Please comment on the most current post, i.e. this one.)

Since (something like) my name has been taken in vain here, let me chip in.

I’ve been worried for some time that R isn’t going to provide the base that we’re going to need for statistical computation in the future. (It may well be that the future is already upon us.) There are certainly efficiency problems (speed and memory use), but there are more fundamental issues too. Some of these were inherited from Sand some are peculiar to R.

One of the worst problems is scoping. Consider the following little gem.

f =function() {
if (runif(1) > .5)
x = 10
x
}

The x being returned by this function is randomly local or global. There are other examples where variables alternate between local and non-local throughout the body of a function. No sensible language would allow this. It’s ugly and it makes optimisation really difficult. This isn’t the only problem, even weirder things happen  because of interactions between scoping and lazy evaluation.

In light of this, I’ve come to the conclusion that rather than “fixing” R, it would be much more productive to simply start over and build something better. I think the best you could hope for by fixing the efficiency problems in R would be to boost performance by a small multiple, or perhaps as much as an order of magnitude. This probably isn’t enough to justify the effort (Luke Tierney has been working on R compilation for over a decade now).

To try to get an idea of how much speedup is possible, a number of us have been carrying out some experiments to see how much better we could do with something new. Based on prototyping we’ve been doing at Auckland, it looks like it should be straightforward to get two orders of magnitude speedup over R, at least for those computations which are currently bottle-necked. There are a couple of ways to make this happen.

First, scalar computations in R are very slow. This in part because the R interpreter is very slow, but also because there are a no scalar types. By introducing scalars and using compilation it looks like its possible to get a speedup by a factor of several hundred for scalar computations. This is important because it means that many ghastly uses of array operations and the apply functions could be replaced by simple loops. The cost of these improvements is that scope declarations become mandatory and (optional) type declarations are necessary to help the compiler.

As a side-effect of compilation and the use of type-hinting it should be possible to eliminate dispatch overhead for certain (sealed) classes (scalars and arrays in particular). This won’t bring huge benefits across the board, but it will mean that you won’t have to do foreign language calls to get efficiency.

A second big problem is that computations on aggregates (data frames in particular) run at glacial rates. This is entirely down to unnecessary copying because of the call-by-value semantics. Preserving call-by-value semantics while eliminating the extra copying is hard. The best we can probably do is to take a conservative approach. R already tries to avoid copying where it can, but fails in an epic fashion. The alternative is to abandon call-by-value and move to reference semantics. Again, prototyping indicates that several hundredfold speedup is possible (for data frames in particular).

The changes in semantics mentioned above mean that the new language will not be R. However, it won’t be all that far from R and it should be easy to port R code to the new system, perhaps using some form of automatic translation.

If we’re smart about building the new system, it should be possible to make use of multi-cores and parallelism. Adding this to the mix might just make it possible to get a three order-of-magnitude performance boost with just a fraction of the memory that R uses. I think it’s something really worth putting some effort into.

I also think one other change is necessary. The license will need to a better job of protecting work donated to the commons than GPL2 seems to have done. I’m not willing to have any more of my work purloined by the likes of Revolution Analytics, so I’ll be looking for better protection from the license (and being a lot more careful about who I work with).

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