FP techniques in Lisp: Data sharing

Common Lisp has often been called a “multi-paradigm” language, in that it allows you to program in many different styles, sometimes simultaneously: imperative, object-oriented, functional, statically typed, etc. It depends on what style you want to adopt, how your code will look.

Recently I’ve been porting a C++ accounting system to Common Lisp. And after only six weeks, the port is nearly complete – a feat I credit to the power of the Lisp language and the facilities it offers I’d been forced to replicate in C++.

But as the port nears completion, I find myself questioning some of the design decisions. Did C++ force me down a path where Lisp can offer a better alternative?

The imperative approach

One thing C++ does not support well at all is Functional Programming, or the idea that a program is simply a group of functions, each taking inputs and producing outputs, with none of them changing the environment. This has powerful implications for things like concurrency, an area where Erlang is currently experiencing considerable success.

There are many facets to FP, but one of its core tenets is this: That all inputs to a function are immutable; that all outputs from a function must remain immutable; and that no environmental side-effects can occur in any function.

In a language like C++, this approach incurs considerable data copying. In cases where data often cannot be changed – such as strings – it requires the evolution of “copy on write” strategies, to defer the copying until the last possible moment. Take for example a function which receives a vector, and must add a new element to the beginning of that vector, afterwards returning the new version:

std::vector push_element(std::vector foo, const int x) {
  return foo;

Of course for longer lists this gets extremely expensive, causing most C+ programmers coders to switch to using references, modifying the list in place. While more efficient, the question then becomes: who else holds a reference to the list, and do they need to be informed of the insertion? If the vector had been one of objects, rather than integers, full copying would not be an option for non-trivial lists. In that case, pointers would have to be used to avoid the cost of all the additional copies. But then how do we know when the last pointer is freed? So not pointers, really, but rather thin objects of type shared_ptr which use reference counting to track object lifetimes. And believe me, the complexity has only just begun.

This level of complexity is avoided in C++ by carefully drawing lines between code boundaries, and safely allowing direct modification of data. It’s simple, straightforward and efficient. But it also places the burden on the author to know when data can be shared, and when it can’t. If the program is multi-threaded, certain ranges of code must be guarded against concurrent access, leading to sophisticated strategies involving multiple-reader, one-writer gates, with concomitant algorithms to prevent resource exhaustion. In other words, the simplicity gained in the single-threaded case in almost entirely lost in the multi-threaded case.

FP and maximal sharing

FP languages get around these two extreme by using a technique I call “maximal sharing”. Instead of the first case above, where the entire list was copied; and the second case, where an existing list was modified; FP creates a third alternative: create a new list by sharing one new value with the contents of the old. In this scenario, only the first element of the new list is truly “new”. The remainder of the old list is pointed to by the new list, meaning that all of its contents are shared between the two lists.

The type of scheme relies on memory algorithms like garbage collection to work well, because it becomes very important to know when an item is no longer referenced. In a typical FP-style program, a single element might be shared by hundreds of other objects, since each time that element is passed to a function, a new value involving that element might be created.

This sort of approach can be used quite readily in Common Lisp. Here’s a simple version of the push routine above which makes the single assumption that both lists must remain immutable after the call:

(defun push-element (list element)
  (cons element list))

Note two things about this implementation: 1) It does not change the input list; and 2) the output list results required the allocation of only a single cons cell. As long as neither list is ever changed, it works beautifully. It’s fast, memory efficient, and as straightforward as possible (though granted, it’s a trivial example).

But can such an approach pan out when we’re modifying elements further down, in longer lists?

A new function: apply-to-list

To test this theory, I’ve created an algorithm called apply-to-list, as part of a functional programming library I’m working on. The job of apply-to-list is to generate a new list from an old one, while sharing as much structure as possible from the original list. Using apply-to-list, I’ve implemented a function called mapcar-if, which can be used just like mapcar to selectively generate new list elements, but with the new advantage of maximal sharing. Here’s the documentation for apply-to-list, which describes how it works:

(defmacro apply-to-list (list predicate function &key (first-only nil)
                         (skip-to-next t) (lookahead t))

APPLY-TO-LIST: Given an input LIST, replicate as much of its structure as possible while applying some kind of transform on its value. This is implemented as macro simply to remove the redundant boolean tests involving the keyed parameters. Testing showed that as a macro, in the case where APPLY-TO-LIST is used to mimic MAPCAR exactly, it led to a 10 percent speed gain over the MAPCAR provided by SBCL; but as a function, it was always slower by up to 20 percent due to these constant checks.

For every member of the list where PREDICATE returns T, FUNCTION is called with the list whose CAR is that member; FUNCTION should return the list which will be substituted at that point (this makes it possible to remove, change or insert the matched cell). If FIRST-ONLY is NIL, this is done for every cell that matches. If SKIP-TO-NEXT is T, scanning resumes using the CDR of the value returned by FUNCTION. Note: Be very careful when setting SKIP-TO-NEXT to NIL, since if FUNCTION returns a new list which also matches the PREDICATE, an infinitely recursive loop can occur. If LOOKAHEAD is T, the list is pre-scanned to see if PREDICATE matches, otherwise copying is done regardless of whether there is a match in LIST or not; this mimics the behavior of CL:MAPCAR and is better for very short lists. In fact, the only reason for LOOKAHEAD is to allow for the function to be used as an implementation of MAPCAR in such cases.

This function depends on the following contract with the caller:

  1. The input LIST is immutable after any call to APPLY-TO-LIST until the end of the program.
  2. The returned LIST is likewise immutable.

The memory savings offered by this function comes at two costs: The first is the subsequent immutability of the input data, and the second is an increase in functional complexity. Specifically, while CL:MAPCAR is O(N) for a given list, FPROG:APPLY-TO-LIST – when used to implement a sharing form of MAPCAR, such as FPROG:MAPCAR-IF – has complexity O(N) in the best case, and is twice as costly in the worst case (when LOOKAHEAD is T and the element to be substituted occurs at the end of the list).

Now, the cost of speed in the worst case can lead to dramatic improvements in memory usage in the average case, with an attendant speed advantage. Take the case of a list which is 500 elements long. In my environment, here are the timings for using MAPCAR to generate a new list from an old one where only one cons cell needs to be changed. These times were determined by calling the same code repeatedly 1,000,000 times (that code is near the end of this file, in the function TIMING-TESTS):

Evaluation took:
  8.367 seconds of real time
  7.931782 seconds of user run time
  0.342331 seconds of system run time
  [Run times include 2.679 seconds GC run time.]
  0 calls to %EVAL
  0 page faults and
  4,024,029,056 bytes consed.

That’s 4 gigabytes of memory, probably to be expected. The only reason this doesn’t blow the heap is because all of the intermediate results are being thrown away, making a lot of the cons’ing “free”. If the results are kept, the MAPCAR solution becomes impossible without dramatically increasing Lisp’s heap size.

The memory and time costs of using MAPCAR in this example are constant no matter whether the cons cell is substituted at the beginning, middle or end of the 500 element list. To compare, here are the time and memory statistics from FPROG:MAPCAR-IF for the same data, in all three cases (best, average, worst):

Evaluation took:
  3.478 seconds of real time
  3.474324 seconds of user run time
  0.003887 seconds of system run time
  [Run times include 0.026 seconds GC run time.]
  0 calls to %EVAL
  0 page faults and
  40,007,952 bytes consed.

In the best case, memory usage is reduced by two orders of magnitude, with an appreciable boost in speed. If the results of this case are saved (using COLLECT in the LOOP instead of DO), the speed savings can become dramatic. Note also that except for the immutability constraints, the results from the two different approaches are EQUAL.

Evaluation took:
  7.495 seconds of real time
  7.272269 seconds of user run time
  0.173947 seconds of system run time
  [Run times include 1.416 seconds GC run time.]
  0 calls to %EVAL
  0 page faults and
  2,032,015,008 bytes consed.

In the average case (middle of the list), memory usage is cut in half, while runtime speed is still faster. The cons’ing of CL:MAPCAR also gets more expensive the more the results are kept, so this trivial speed tests – where no results are saved – is not exactly fair between the two. But even still FPROG:MAPCAR-IF is doing well.

Evaluation took:
  11.343 seconds of real time
  10.969349 seconds of user run time
  0.327477 seconds of system run time
  [Run times include 2.679 seconds GC run time.]
  0 calls to %EVAL
  0 page faults and
  4,024,030,568 bytes consed.

Finally, the pathological case, where MAPCAR-IF degenerates into an exact duplicate of MAPCAR. Memory use is the same, but speed is much slower because the call to MEMBER-IF is searching the entire list before we decide that all of it needs duplication.

The functionality offered by APPLY-TO-LIST is that every cons cell from the original LIST, after the last matching member, is shared entirely. This is quite different from COPY-LIST, which creates new cons cells for every position – even those that do not require a unique structure. For example, consider the following list:

(defparameter *alist* '((a . 1) (b . 2) (e . 3) (f . 6) (g . 7)))

The idea is to return another version of this immutable list, while sharing as much structure as possible – because the return value is also considered immutable. The following function call achieves this, using the Modify pattern from above:

(apply-to-list *alist* #'(lambda (member) (eq 'e (car member)))
                       #'(lambda (list) (cons (cons (caar list) 5)
                                        (cdr list))))
  => '((a . 1) (b . 2) (e . 5) (f . 6) (g . 7))

In the returned list, 15 atoms are shared with the original, while one new cons cell and one new atom are created:

1, 2, 3:         (a . 1)
4, 5, 6:         (b . 2)
7:               e
8, 9, 10 11:     ((f . 6) ...)
12, 13, 14, 15:  ((g . 7))

The usual practice of calling MAPCAR and changing the incorrect element would have result in sharing only 13 atoms. That code might have looked like this:

(mapcar #'(lambda (cell)
            (if (eq 'e (car cell))
                (cons (car cell) 5)

Further, while a discrepancy of 2 cons cells may not seem like much in this example, the difference increases by one for every cell beyond the cell that matches. Thus, if the input list had contained 100 cells beyond (e . 3), the difference would have been 102 cells, and not merely 2.

Finally, in our example exactly 4 new cons cells and 1 new atom were created as a result of the call:

1: ((a . 1) ...)
2: ((b . 2) ...)
3: ((e . 5) ...)
4: (e . 5)
5: 5

This is the minimum amount of new information required to represent a new structure where the only change is that ‘e’ is paired with 5 instead of 3.


The idea of APPLY-TO-LIST is to support efficient functional programming, wherein immutable outputs are derived from immutable inputs by efficiently sharing as much structure as possible – resulting in the least new memory allocated. In cases where no references are held, this offers only a little gain over advanced generational garbage collection (such as lists passed within a recursive function); but if the results are held over the longer term, such as a series of computed values stored in a result list, the savings of this function become quite substantial. It was exactly this sort of situation which motivated the creation of APPLY-TO-LIST: it made it possible to reduce overall memory consumption by a factor of 20, without introducing any additional complexity in the calling code.