Robert Mosolgo

Hash#key? vs Hash#[]

I read that Hash#key? was slower than Hash#[] and it made me sad because, shouldn’t Hash#key? generally require less work?

Besides that, there are cases where only Hash#key? will do the trick. For example, if you need to distinguish between these two cases:

  • Hash key is not present
  • Hash key is present, value is nil

then you must use Hash#key.

The Benchmark

So, I wrote a little benchmark:

require "benchmark/ips"

tiny_hash = {1 => 1, 2 => 2, 3 => 3}
huge_hash = (1..10_000).reduce({}) { |m, i| m[i] = i; m }

Benchmark.ips do |x|"tiny_hash.key? hit") { tiny_hash.key?(3) }"huge_hash.key? hit") { huge_hash.key?(3) }"tiny_hash.[]   hit") { tiny_hash[3] }"huge_hash.[]   hit") { huge_hash[3] }!

puts "\n====================================\n"

Benchmark.ips do |x|"tiny_hash.key? miss") { tiny_hash.key?(-1) }"huge_hash.key? miss") { huge_hash.key?(-1) }"tiny_hash.[]   miss") { tiny_hash[-1] }"huge_hash.[]   miss") { huge_hash[-1] }!

And here was my result

$ ruby -v
ruby 2.3.1p112 (2016-04-26 revision 54768) [x86_64-darwin14]
$ ruby hash_bench.rb
Warming up --------------------------------------
  tiny_hash.key? hit   252.873k i/100ms
  huge_hash.key? hit   245.380k i/100ms
  tiny_hash.[]   hit   280.718k i/100ms
  huge_hash.[]   hit   284.686k i/100ms
Calculating -------------------------------------
  tiny_hash.key? hit      8.538M (± 5.9%) i/s -     42.736M in   5.024150s
  huge_hash.key? hit      8.506M (± 5.4%) i/s -     42.451M in   5.006062s
  tiny_hash.[]   hit      9.240M (± 7.5%) i/s -     46.038M in   5.014504s
  huge_hash.[]   hit      9.743M (± 4.9%) i/s -     48.681M in   5.008925s

  huge_hash.[]   hit:  9743415.0 i/s
  tiny_hash.[]   hit:  9240225.3 i/s - same-ish: difference falls within error
  tiny_hash.key? hit:  8537718.1 i/s - 1.14x  slower
  huge_hash.key? hit:  8506284.7 i/s - 1.15x  slower


Warming up --------------------------------------
  tiny_hash.key? miss   281.127k i/100ms
  huge_hash.key? miss   265.594k i/100ms
  tiny_hash.[]   miss   270.277k i/100ms
  huge_hash.[]   miss   265.036k i/100ms
Calculating -------------------------------------
  tiny_hash.key? miss      8.798M (± 4.1%) i/s -     44.137M in   5.025380s
  huge_hash.key? miss      7.597M (± 7.7%) i/s -     37.714M in   5.004217s
  tiny_hash.[]   miss      8.323M (± 6.7%) i/s -     41.623M in   5.027045s
  huge_hash.[]   miss      7.824M (± 5.5%) i/s -     39.225M in   5.029239s

  tiny_hash.key? miss:  8798106.0 i/s
  tiny_hash.[]   miss:  8322700.3 i/s - same-ish: difference falls within error
  huge_hash.[]   miss:  7824137.4 i/s - 1.12x  slower
  huge_hash.key? miss:  7597444.9 i/s - 1.16x  slower

What’s up with that?!


Let’s compare the implementation of these methods:

rb_hash_aref(VALUE hash, VALUE key)
    st_data_t val;

    if (!RHASH(hash)->ntbl || !st_lookup(RHASH(hash)->ntbl, key, &val)) {
        return rb_hash_default_value(hash, key);
    return (VALUE)val;
rb_hash_has_key(VALUE hash, VALUE key)
    if (!RHASH(hash)->ntbl)
        return Qfalse;
    if (st_lookup(RHASH(hash)->ntbl, key, 0)) {
        return Qtrue;
    return Qfalse;

They’re remarkably similar. They both:

  • Check that self has an ntbl
  • Lookup the value for key in ntbl

But, Hash#key? does something a bit unusual: to doesn’t capture the value of key in self. Instead, it uses the return value of st_lookup to detect whether the lookup was a hit or a miss. In the case of a hit, it returns Qtrue (The C name for Ruby’s true.)

Digging deeper: st_lookup

st.c provides a general purpose hash table implementation. It is widely used by Ruby. st_lookup looks up a key in a table. On a hit, it writes the value to a pointer and returns 1. On a miss, it returns 0.

st_lookup accepts 0 as input for the value pointer. And in that case, it does nothing with value. For example, here’s a snippet from the hit case:

if (value != 0) *value = ptr->record;
return 1;

Referring back to Hash#[] and Hash#key?, that’s the most notable distinction:

  • Hash#[] sends a st_data_t* to st_lookup
  • Hash#key? sends 0 to st_lookup

But … why would it be slower to use 0? 😿

VM Optimization

I was going to report my failure to the twitter thread where I first saw this, but I noticed a new response from @schneems:

“It’s optimized by the interpreter to skip the usually more expensive method lookup”

Ok, let’s check that! We can see the Ruby bytecode by using the RubyVM module.

Let’s compare the output of a[:a] and a.key?(:a):

# a[:a] to Ruby bytecode
puts RubyVM::InstructionSequence.compile("a[:a]").disasm
# == disasm: <RubyVM::InstructionSequence:<compiled>@<compiled>>==========
# 0000 trace            1                                               (   1)
# 0002 putself
# 0003 opt_send_without_block <callinfo!mid:a, argc:0, FCALL|VCALL|ARGS_SIMPLE>
# 0005 putobject        :a
# 0007 opt_aref         <callinfo!mid:[], argc:1, ARGS_SIMPLE>
# 0009 leave

# a.key?(:a) to Ruby bytecode
puts RubyVM::InstructionSequence.compile("a.key?(:a)").disasm
# == disasm: <RubyVM::InstructionSequence:<compiled>@<compiled>>==========
# 0000 trace            1                                               (   1)
# 0002 putself
# 0003 opt_send_without_block <callinfo!mid:a, argc:0, FCALL|VCALL|ARGS_SIMPLE>
# 0005 putobject        :a
# 0007 opt_send_without_block <callinfo!mid:key?, argc:1, ARGS_SIMPLE>
# 0009 leave

Did you see the difference?

  • a[...] was compiled to opt_aref (an optimized call)
  • a.key?(...) was compiled to opt_send_without_block (a normal method call)

Here’s the definition for opt_aref:

  @c optimize
  @e []
  @j 最適化された recv[obj]。
(VALUE recv, VALUE obj)
(VALUE val)
  if (!SPECIAL_CONST_P(recv)) {
  	  val = rb_ary_entry(recv, FIX2LONG(obj));
      val = rb_hash_aref(recv, obj);
    else {
      goto INSN_LABEL(normal_dispatch);
  } else {

The earlier cases check if the receiver is an Array or Hash, and that the method hasn’t been redefined. In that case, it directly calls the C function for lookup. If any of those checks fail, it uses normal_dispatch to execute the instruction. Hash#key?, on the other hand, always uses a full method lookup.

Here’s opt_send_without_block:

  @c optimize
  @e Invoke method without block
  @j Invoke method without block
(VALUE val) // inc += -ci->orig_argc;
    struct rb_calling_info calling;
    calling.block_handler = VM_BLOCK_HANDLER_NONE;
    vm_search_method(ci, cc, calling.recv = TOPN(calling.argc = ci->orig_argc));
    CALL_METHOD(&calling, ci, cc);

You can see vm_search_method, where the method is looked up.


Hash#[] gets an optimized VM instruction, so it runs faster than Hash#key?. But sometimes only Hash#key? will do the trick!