Some musings on minimal program size and startup overhead

I have been playing a little with Google’s Go language – the report that they are working a way of translating CPython code into Go for better ability to run in massively parallel systems got my interest. A project called Grumpy.

I have never used Go so intrigued by the introductory video available at the Go site I installed it on my Centos 7 Linux machine.

Here is that ubiquitous “Hello World” program in Go:

package main

import "fmt"

func main() {
    fmt.Printf("hello, world\n")

Unlike languages like Python and Perl, Go is very fussy where your code is before it will compile it for you.

In order to use the go compiler (simply) you need to set up a shell variable called GOPATH to where you are working. You also need to create a src directory under this then a directory for your project that finally contains the above code in a hello.go file

go install hello

Will if there are no errors quickly create a bin/hello program under the same directory specified by $GOPATH.

NOTE! You will need to be in the directory you have defined as GOPATH for this to work. Not the src sub directory or the directory containing the hello.go file itself. This took a little getting used to.

This blog is not about how to program with Go however. What interested me to take time out from my own learning of Go to write this is the comparative size and execution speeds of different languages.

Google’s motivation to undertake the work of running existing Python code is one of speed. Many key Google sites such as YouTube rely heavily on Python code so a faster and more scale-able way to run it (free from the Global Interpreter Lock) is obviously of great value to them.

The super simple Go program weighs in at 1.6M in size! When stripped it goes down to just under 1MB. I have been programming long enough to have considered this wildly extravagant in my youth 😉

The equivalent absolutely minimal C program:

main() {
    puts("hello world\n");

when similarly stripped weighs in at just 6240 bytes. This figure may differ slightly depending on compiler version and options but it will always be a LOT less than 1MB.

OK what gives? The first thing I tested was if this program is genuinely compiled or has any outside dependencies. I did this by temporarily renaming the whole tree that the Go compiler had been installed into. The compiled program still ran without any issues – proving it is a true compiler. The complied program has everything it needs to function within that 1MB code budget. It could be deployed to another computer and run easily – a true compiler.

Is there any speed penalty for carrying around this code?

Well the super simple C version executes in 0.002 seconds – the resolution of the Linux time command only goes down to 0.001 second so this 0.002 seconds represents the absolute overhead for loading a program (any program) from a standing start.

The Go version? Only an extra thousandth of a second! That is not bad considering the program is so much larger. In terms of Linux system calls invoked (which can be found with the strace program) the Go version needs to make 146 syscalls compared to just 30 from the minimal C version.

How do other languages do?

Perl has long been used for quick fix scripts and it’s “hello world” is pretty impressive too!

time perl -e 'print "Hello World\n"'
Hello World

real 0m0.006s
user 0m0.002s
sys 0m0.004s

So only twice as slow as the compiled Go version – but only 30 bytes long

234 syscalls were required which goes some of the way to explaining why it is slower.


time python -c 'print "Hello World\n"'
Hello World

real 0m0.070s
user 0m0.063s
sys 0m0.007s

Considerably slower! Lets look at the number of syscalls needed:

strace python -c 'print "Hello World\n"' 2>&1 | wc -l

Well that’s more than 4 times as many syscalls which explains why things take longer.

These numbers will vary depending on just how much each work each language system has to do on startup. It may be that much more code is available to the Python compared to the Perl on my machine. Search paths that have to be initialised as the program starts to run.

Lastly Ruby.

Ruby is a pure interpreter. This gives the flexibility to write Ruby code on the fly within the program as it executes. This power in one way has a price to pay in pure speed however:

time ruby -e 'puts "Hello World\n"'
Hello World

real	0m0.100s
user	0m0.085s
sys	0m0.015s

A whole tenth of a second. The number of syscalls used (1106) is actually lower than for Python so the slowness cannot be blamed on latency in the OS.


Which language is best for writing “Hello World” 😉

The Ruby version is some 500 times slower than the pure C version. But still.. a 10th of a second is fast enough! In any of these languages a program would have to get considerably more complex (such as doing lots and lots of looping) before the run time would go up much. There is a relatively large penalty for starting up a new process in the first place. This is why time critical tasks inside computer systems are served by pools of ready loaded and waiting for action processes.

Go seems a worth-while language to learn. The per compiled program 1MB space overhead may be an issue in some very tight on space environments but in general purpose computers 1MB is nothing now (but remember this was more than the entire address space of MS-DOS & the original IBM PC – how times have changed!)

Author: Martin Houston

This is my own little corner of the Internet. You will find a mixed bunch of stuff about Open Source (what I have done for a job for the last quarter of a century) and wider issues of what is wrong with the world. I am a freelancer so if you would like any software written (for money) get in touch!

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