Open Postdoc Position on Language Implementation and Concurrency

King Arthur watching over project Camelot.

We have an open Postdoc position here in the Programming Languages and Systems group at Kent.

It’s a 2 year position in our CaMELot research project, where we want to “Catch and Mitigate Event-Loop Concurrency Issues”.

Even so event loops prevent various low-level concurrency issues, we are still left with many high-level ones [1]. But, there are various mechanisms that allow us to prevent concurrency bugs from causing harm [2, 3, 4] even though they may have slipped into our software.

The problem with current approaches is that they typically have high run-time overhead. The techniques for detecting concurrency issues such as race conditions and message interleaving issues can slow down systems too much, making them impractical.

And we want to change that by creatively borrowing language implementation ideas [5, 6].

If this sounds exciting to you, please reach out, and apply for our position. We’re a pretty friendly and supportive bunch here at Kent and hope this position can be your stepping stone whether you want to stay in academia or perhaps go into industrial research.

If you have any questions, wonder whether you qualify, or are simply curious, please send me an email or a message @smarr on Twitter.

Towards a Synthetic Benchmark to Assess VM Startup, Warmup, and Cold-Code Performance

One of the hard problems in language implementation research is benchmarking. Some people argue, we should benchmark only applications that actually matter to people. Though, this has various issues. Often, such applications are embedded in larger systems, and it’s hard to isolate the relevant parts. In many cases, these applications can also not be made available to other researchers. And, of course, things change over time, which means maintaining projects like DaCapo, Renaissance, or Jet Stream is a huge effort.

Which brought me to the perhaps futile question of how we could have more realistic synthetic benchmarks. ACDC and ACDC-JS are synthetic garbage collection benchmarks. While they don’t seem to be widely used, they seemed to have been a useful tool for specific tasks. Based on observing metrics for a range of relevant programs, these synthetic benchmarks were constructed to be configurable and allow us to measure a range of realistic behaviors.

I am currently interested in the startup, warmup, and cold-code performance of virtual machines, and want to study their performance issues. To me it seems that I need to look at large programs to get interesting and relevant results. With large, I mean millions of lines of code, because that’s where our systems currently struggle. So, how could we go about to create a synthetic benchmark for huge code bases?

Generating Random Code that Looks Real

In my last two blog posts [1, 2], I looked at the shape of large code bases in Pharo and Ruby to obtain data for a new kind of synthetic benchmark. I want to try to generate random code that looks “real”. And by looking real I mean for the moment that it is shaped in a way that is similar to real code. This means, methods have realistic length, number of local variables, and arguments. For classes, they should have a realistic number of methods and instance variables. In the last two blog posts, I looked at the corresponding static code metrics to get an idea of how large code bases actually look like.

In this post, I am setting out to use the data to get a random number generator that can be used to generate “realistic looking” code bases. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the code does do anything realistic.

Small steps… One at a time… 👨🏼‍🔬

So, let’s get started by looking at how the length of methods looks like in large code bases.

Before we get started, just one more simplification: I will only consider methods that have 1 to 30 lines (of code). Setting an upper bound will make some of the steps here simpler, and plots more legible.

And a perhaps little silly, but nonetheless an issue, it will avoid me having to change one of the language implementations I am interested in, which is unfortunately limited to 128 bytecodes and 128 literals (constants, method names, etc.), which in practice translates to something like 30 lines of code. While this could be fixed, let’s assume 30 lines of code per method ought to be enough for anybody…

Length of Methods

When it comes to measuring the length of methods, there are plenty of possibly ways to go about. Pharo counts the non-empty lines. And for Ruby, I counted either all lines, or the lines that are not just empty and not just comments.

The histogram below shows the results for methods with 1-30 lines.

Distribution of the length of methods.

Despite difference in languages and metrics, we see a pretty similar shape. Perhaps with the exception of the methods with 1-3 lines.

Generating Realistic Method Length from Uniform Random Numbers

Before actually generating method length randomly, let’s define the goal a bit more clearly.

In the end, I do want to be able to generate a code base where the length of methods has a distribution very similar to what we see for Ruby and Pharo.

Though, the random number generators we have in most systems generate numbers in a uniform distribution typically in the range from 0 to 1. This means, each number between 0 and 1 is going to be equally likely to be picked. To get other kinds of distributions, for instance the normal distribution, we can use what is called the inverted cumulative distribution function. When we throw our uniformly distributed numbers into this function, we should end up with random numbers that are distributed according to the distribution that we want.

One of the options to do this would be:

  1. determine the cumulative distribution of the method length
  2. approximate a function to represent the cumulative distribution
  3. and invert the function

I found this post here helpful. Though, I struggled defining a good enough function to get results I liked.

So, instead, let’s do it the pedestrian way:

  1. calculate the cumulative sum for the method length (cumulative distribution)
  2. normalize it to the sum of all lengths
  3. use the result to look up the desired method length for a uniform random number

Determining the Cumulative Distribution

Ok, so, the first step is to determine the cumulative distribution. Since we have the three different cases for Pharo, Ruby with all lines and lines of code, this is slightly more interesting.

Percentage of methods with a specific length in lines or LOC.

The plot above shows the percentage of methods that have a length smaller or equal to a specific size.

So, the next question is, which metrics should I choose? Since the data is a bit noisy, especially for small methods, let’s try and see what the different types of means give us.

Different means applied to the cumulative percentage of methods for a given length.

From the above plot, the geometric mean seems a good option. Mostly because I don’t want to have a too high and too low number of methods with a single line.

Using the geometric mean, gives us the following partial cumulative distribution table:

length cum.perc
1 0.0520631
2 0.2647386
3 0.5137505
4 0.6068893
5 0.6851248
6 0.7377313
7 0.7861208
8 0.8200427
9 0.8490800

In R, the language I use for these blog posts, I can then use something like the following to take a uniform random number from the range of 0-1 to determine the desired method length in the range of 1-30 lines (u being here the random number):

loc_from_u <- function (u) {
  Position(function (e) { u < e }, cumulative_distribution_tbl)

There are probably more efficient ways of going about it. I suppose a binary search would be a good option, too.

The general idea is that with our random number u, we find the last position in our array with the cumulative distribution, where u is smaller than the value in the array at that position. The position then corresponds to the desired length of a method.

Three examples of methods generated, for 100, 1,000, or 100,000 methods.

As a test, the three plots above are generated from 100, 1,000, and 100,000 uniformly distributed random numbers, and it looks pretty good. Comparing to the very first set of plots in this post, this seems like a workable and relatively straightforward approach.

To use these results and generate methods of realistic sizes in other languages, the full cumulative distribution is as follows: [0.0520631241473676, 0.264738601144803, 0.51375051909561, 0.606889305644881, 0.685124787391578, 0.737731315373305, 0.786120782303596, 0.820042695503066, 0.849080035429476, 0.872949669419948, 0.893437469528804, 0.909716501217452, 0.923766913966731, 0.935357118689879, 0.945074445934092, 0.953001059092301, 0.959743413722937, 0.965457396618992, 0.97072530951053, 0.975142363341172, 0.979105371695575, 0.982654867280203, 0.985723232507825, 0.988399223471247, 0.990960559703172, 0.993172997617124, 0.9951015059492, 0.996855138214434, 0.998541672752458, 1].

Method Arguments and Local Variables

With the basics down, we can look at the number of arguments and local variables of methods. One thing I haven’t really thought about in the previous posts is that there’s a connection between the various metrics. They are not independent of each other.

Perhaps this is most intuitive for the number of local variables a method has. We wouldn’t expect a method with a single line of code to have many local variables, while longer methods may tent to have more local variables, too.

Number of Method Arguments

Let’s start out by looking at how method length and number of arguments relate to each other.

I’ll use the cumulative distribution for these plots, since that’s what I am looking for in the end.

Percentage of methods with a specific number of arguments.

The two plots above show for each method length from 1-30 a line (so, this is where limiting the method length becomes actually handy). Though, because there are many, I highlight only every third length, including length 1 methods. The bluest blue is length 1, and the red is length 30.

We can see here differences between the languages. For instance, for methods with only 1 line in Pharo, only ≈45% of them have no argument. While for Ruby methods, that’s perhaps around 70%.

The other interesting bit that is clearly visible is that the number of arguments doesn’t have a simple direct relationship to length. Indeed, longer methods seem to have more likely fewer arguments. While medium length methods are more likely to have a few more arguments, at least for the Ruby data this seems to be the case.

So, from these plots, I conclude that I actually need a different cumulative distribution table for each method length. Since we saw how they look for method length, I won’t include the details. Though, of course happy to share the data if anyone wants it.

Number of Methods Locals

Next up, let’s look at the number of locals.

Percentage of methods with a specific number of local variables.

For the Pharo data, it’s not super readable, but basically 100% of methods of length 1 have zero local variables. Compared to the plot on arguments, we also see a pretty direct relationship to length, because the blue-to-red gradient comes out nicely in the plot.

In the case of Ruby, this seems to be similar, but perhaps not as cleanly as for Pharo. The different y-axis start points are also interesting, because they indicate that longer methods in Pharo are more likely to have arguments than in Ruby.

For generating code, I suppose one needs to select the distributions that are most relevant for one’s goal.

Classes: Number of Methods and Fields

After looking at properties for methods, let’s look at classes. I fear, these various metrics are pretty tangled up, and one could probably find many more interesting relationships between them, but I’ll restrict myself for this post to the most basic ones. First I’ll look at the cumulative distribution for the number of methods per class, and then look at the number of instance variables classes have depending on their size.

Number of Methods per Class

I’ll restrict my analysis here to classes with a maximum of 100 methods, because the data I have does not include enough classes with more than 100 methods.

Percentage of classes with a specific number of methods.

As we saw in the previous post, we can here see that Ruby has many more classes with only one or two methods. On the other hand, it seems to have slightly fewer larger classes. Expressed differently, about 60% of all Ruby methods (which includes closures) have 1 or 2 arguments, while in the case of Pharo (where closures where ignored), we need about 5-6 arguments to reach the same level.

Number of Fields for Classes with a Specific Number of Methods

For the number of fields of a class, I can easily look at the relation to the number of methods, too.

Percentage of classes with a specific number of fields.

In the two plots above, we see that there is an almost clear relationship between the number of methods and fields. A class having more methods seems to indicate that is may have more fields. For both languages, there’s some middle ground where things are not as clear, but at least for classes with fewer methods, it seems to hold well.


The most important insight for me from this exercise is that I can generate code that has a realistic shape relatively straightforwardly based on the data collected.

At least, it seems easy and reliable to get a random number distribution of the desired shape.

In addition, we saw that there are indeed interdependencies between the different metrics. This is not too surprising, but something one needs to keep in mind when generating “realistic” code.

So, where from here? Well, I already got a code generator that can generate millions of lines of code that use basic arithmetic operations. The next step would be to fit this code into a shape that’s more realistic. One problem I had before is that my generated code started stressing things like the method look up, in a way real code doesn’t. Shaping things more realistically, will help avoid optimizing things that may not matter. Then again, we see pathologic cases also in real code.

Ending this post, there are of course more open questions, for instance:

  • how do I generate realistic behavior?
  • do large chunks of generated code allow me to study warmup and cold-code performance in a meaningful way? Or asked differently, does the generated code behave similar enough to real code?
  • which other metrics are relevant to generate realistic code?

Though, I fear, I’ll need to wait until spring or summer to revisit those questions.

For suggestions, comments, or questions, find me on Twitter @smarr.

The Shape of 6M Lines of Ruby

Following up on my last blog post, I am going to look at how Ruby is used to get a bit of an impression of whether there are major differences between Ruby and Smalltalk in their usage.

Again, I am going to look into the structural aspects of code bases. This means, looking at classes, methods, modules, and files.


Not being a Ruby expert, I searched for large Ruby on Rails applications that could be of relevance. I found 10 that sounded promising: Diaspora, Discourse, Errbit, Fat Free CRM, GitLab, Kandan, Redmine, Refinery CMS, Selfstarted, Spree.

For each, I checked out the git repository (see version detail in appendix), and installed the Gems in a local directory. Since there’s a lot of overlap, I moved all gems into a single directory, and only kept the latest version to avoid counting the same, or sufficiently similar code multiple times.

With these projects and their dependencies, I had in the end 10 projects and 861 gems. Looking exclusively at the *.rb files, the analysis considered 50,865 files, with a total of 6,081,070 lines.

To analyze the code, I am building on top of the parser gem. The code to determine the statistics can be found in the ruby-stats project on GitHub.

Size of the Overall Code Base

Looking at the 50,865 files with their overall 6,081,070 lines, the first thing I noticed is that only about 64% of the lines are code, i.e., they are not empty and are not just comments. However, only 46% of all lines are attributed to some form of method or closure, which seemed unexpected to me.

2% of the code lines are simply in the direct body of a file, 6% are directly in modules, and 11% are directly in classes. And there are 19 gems that don’t define a single method or closure. The examples I looked at looked like either meta gems, including others (rspec), gems with JavaScript (babel-source), or data (mime-types-data).

In total, there are 625,761 methods (incl. closures), 32,897 classes, and 11,057 modules defined in all projects.

Of the 50,865 files, 12,150 were classified as tests, for which I more or less checked whether the file name or path contains a variant of “test” or “spec”.

To get an impression how files and classes are used by projects, let’s look at the number of files per project as a histogram:

Number of files per project.

The histograms show how many projects have a specific number of files in them. There’s less than 20 projects with just a single *.rb file. The largest project is GitLab with more than 9,500 files. The next project is Discourse, with about 3,300 files.

Number of classes per project.

When looking at classes, 823 out of 871 projects have at least one. In the histogram above, we can see that most of the projects that have classes, have indeed rather few of them. Discourse with about 2,000 classes and GitLab with about 3,000 classes again have the most.

Number of modules per project.

The use of modules seems to be somewhat similar as we can see in the histograms above.

When looking at methods per project, we see that the results look a bit different. There also seem to be some strange patterns and spikes, especially in the range from 1 to 100 methods per project.

Number of methods per project

Structure of Classes

When looking at the defined classes, we can see in the following histograms that there are many classes that have no or very few methods.

Number of methods per class

However, there’s also a bunch of classes with more than 200 methods. Most of these classes are for Ruby parsers of the different versions of Ruby. Others are unit test classes in the Redmine project.

While Ruby and Smalltalk are two very different programming systems, the languages have some similarities. So, let’s see whether classes have a similar number of methods:

The percent of classes with a given number of methods.

The above plot is similar to our histograms before. But instead of showing the number of classes, it shows the percent of classes with a specific number of methods. By normalizing the values, we can more easily compare between the two corpora. Just to make the semantics of the plot clear: the length of all bars together add up to 100% for Ruby and Pharo separately.

One artifact of how the data is collected, is that Pharo does not show any classes without methods, because I collected it per method, and didn’t get details for classes separately.

The major difference we can see is that Ruby has many more classes with only one or two methods. On the other hand, it seems to have a little fewer larger classes, but then ends up having also a few really large classes. As mentioned previously, the really large classes grouping around 430-ish methods are all variants of Ruby parsers. I’d assume there to be a large amount of code duplication between those classes.

Number of direct fields in a class.

The histograms above show how many classes have a specific number of fields that they access directly, for instance, with expressions like @count.

We can see that an overwhelming number of classes do not access fields at all, which seems a bit surprising to me. Though, there also seem to be a number of classes that have many fields. The two largest classes have 180 (RBPDF) and 52 distinct fields (csv.Parser).

I’ll refrain from a direct comparison with Pharo here, because it’s not really clear to me how to do this in a comparable way. The only way that would seem somewhat comparable would be to build the inheritance hierarchy, and resolve mixins, but so far, I haven’t implemented either.

Number of class fields, i.e., static fields per class.

However, we can look at the use of class variables with the double-at syntax: @@count. Here, the situation looks very different. Only 189 classes have one class field, and only 61 have more than one. This means, 117,079 classes don’t use class fields at all.

Structure of Methods

After looking at classes, let’s investigate the methods a bit closer.

Lines of code per method.

Let’s first look at the lines of code per method. This means, at how many non-empty lines there are that do not only contain comments.

There don’t seem to be any empty methods, but there are almost an equal number of methods with 1 (87,217) or 2 lines of code (82,467).

The largest method in the corpus is parser.Lexer.advance. I suppose, unsurprisingly that’s the Ruby parser again with 8,888 lines of code. It also has 55 local variables.

The other methods with over 3,000 lines of code are actually blocks in specs. There’s 5 of them in the mongoid gem, one in grape, and one in Discourse.

Number of lines per method (incl. blank lines and comments).

When looking at the data for method length in lines, which also counts blank lines and comments, the results seem a bit wonky. From the previous results, I would expect that there are no empty methods, which indeed is the case.

Then we got 88,803 methods with just one line, which seems in line with expectations. However, we got 2,267 methods with two lines, and 185,876 methods with three lines, which seems a little odd. Perhaps there is some code formatting convention at play.

The rest looks reasonably similar to the lines of code results. The huge methods are again the parser this time with 12,619 lines, and the spec blocks.

Comparing to Pharo is a little bit of an issue, because neither the line count nor the lines of code metric match what Pharo gives me. Pharo reports the number of non-empty lines, including comments. So, Pharo’s metric is somewhere between the lines and lines of code I got here for Ruby.

Percentage of methods with a specific length in lines or LOC.

While the metrics are not identical, having both the lines and lines of code for Ruby lets us draw at least one conclusion from the comparison. There seems to be a tendency for longer methods in Ruby. At least in the range from 30 to 250 lines, there seem to be more methods with this size in Ruby.

Percent of methods with a specific number of arguments.

When it comes to arguments, Ruby seems to have a few methods/blocks/lambdas without any argument. But a bit few with one argument. When it comes to methods/blocks/lambdas with many arguments, Pharo seems to have a few more of those. Though, the numbers here are not entirely comparable, because the Pharo numbers do not actually include blocks/closures.

The Ruby methods with the largest number of arguments (16 and 17) are RBPDF.Text and RBPDF.Image.

Percent of methods with a specific number of local variables.

In both languages, a lot of methods don’t have any local variables. However, in the Ruby corpus there are three methods with more than 50 local variables. That is the very long Lexer.advance method in the Ruby parser, a Markdown code processing method, and RBPDF’s writeHTML method.


For me, the main take away from this exercise is that when it comes to structural metrics, there are visible differences between Ruby and Pharo code. This isn’t surprising, since they are different languages, with different features, communities, and style guides.

However, there also seem to be similarities that are worth noting. Overall, number of methods in a class seems to be fairly similar. And while Ruby methods might have a small tendency of being larger when they are large, the majority of methods isn’t actually large and here both languages seem to show fairly similar method sizes.

The difference in the usage of arguments may or may not be explainable with syntax, such as implicit block arguments, or that I didn’t actually consider closures in Pharo. The use of local variables however, seems to be fairly similar between both languages.

Not sure there are any big lessons to be learned yet, but one could probably go further and study other metrics to gain additional insights. I’d probably start with class hierarchy, mixins, and other features that require either a bit of dynamic evaluation, or implementing the Ruby semantics in the tool determining the metrics.

For suggestions, comments, or questions, find me on Twitter @smarr.


The following table contains the details on the projects included in this analysis.

Project Commit URL
Diaspora d2acad1
Discourse f040b5d
Errbit cf792c0
Fat Free CRM 4e72e0c
GitLab 21e08b6
Kandan 380efaf
Redmine 988a36b
Refinery CMS 1b73e0b
Selfstarted 740075f
Spree 901cb64

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