Tuesday, October 7th, 2008

Regex performance in modern JSVMs

Category: JavaScript, Performance

Based on its performance on the regexes it does handle, WREC (WebKit Regular Expression Compiler) is indeed an awesome design. regexp-dna.js, however, is flawed and exaggerates SFX performance.

We could use nanojit to make a regex compiler for SpiderMonkey that would perform as well as WREC. But I don’t know if it’s worthwhile yet. Regex performance is much less important for today’s web than it is for SunSpider–I hope to link to a report on that in a future post.

That was the conclusion that David Mandelin of the Tamarin project as he looked into how “SquirrelFish Extreme (SFX) is kicking our butts so badly on regexp-dna.js.”

I love David’s posts, as they go into the real meat of the tech:

Technical details: the design of WREC. There are two main ways to implement regular expressions: using a backtracking matching engine, or by transforming the regex to a finite automaton (NFA, aka “state machine”), which does not backtrack. Most Perl-type regex engines, including both SpiderMonkey’s and WREC, follow the backtracking design. I don’t know the exact history of that choice, but at present it is much easier to implement features like group capture and backreferences in the backtracking design. Also, although some regexes scale only if implemented as NFAs, my tests suggest that many simple regexes, including those in SunSpider, are faster with backtracking.

As of this writing, WREC’s implementation strategy is dirt simple (which is a good thing). There are no transformations or fancy optimizations on the regex. WREC simply generates native code that directly implements the backtracking search. Thus, within a single match operation, there are no function calls, no traversals of regular expression ASTs, and few option tests, so almost all of the overhead is eliminated.

WREC’s code is very easy to read, so if you want to know exactly how it works, just read it in WREC.cpp. It’s also great example code for anyone implementing a compiler for a simple language like regular expressions. The basic plan is to parse the regular expression with functions named things like parseDisjunction (the | operator). Those functions directly call functions like generateDisjunction that generate the native code using the same assembler that the call-threading interpreter uses. There’s also the oddly named “gererateParenthesesResetTrampoline”. Inexplicably preserved typo, or watermark to detect copying of WREC code?

Posted by Dion Almaer at 5:57 am
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