PHP and the million array baby

Imagine you have the following array of integers:

array(1, 2, 1, 0, 0, 1, 2, 4, 3, 2, [...] );

The integers go on up to one million entries; only instead of being hardcoded they've been pre-generated and stored in a JSON formatted file (of approximately 2MB in size). The order of these integers matters, I can't randomly generate it every time because it should be consistent and always have the same values at the same indexes.

If this file is read back in PHP afterwards (e.g. using file_get_contents + json_decode) it takes from 700 to 900ms just to get the array back — "Okay" I thought, "it's probably reasonable since json_decode has to parse about 2 million characters, let's cache it". APC caches it in a entry that takes about 68MB, probably normal, zvals are large. Retrieving however this array back from APC also takes some good 600ms which is in my eyes still way too much.

Edit: APC does serialize/unserialize to store and retrieve content which with a million item array is a lengthy and heavy process.

So the questions:

  • Should I expect this latency if I intend to load a one million entries array, no matter the data store or the method, in PHP? As far as I understand APC stores the zval itself, so theoretically retrieving it from APC should be as fast as it can possibly get (no parsing, no conversion, no disk access)

  • Why is APC so slow for something so seemingly simple?

  • Is there any efficient way to load a one million entries array entirely in memory using PHP? assuming RAM usage is not a problem.

  • If I were to access only slices of this array based on indexes (e.g. loading the chunk from index 15 to index 76) and never actually have the entire array in memory (yes, I understand this is the sane way of doing it, but I wanted to know all the sides), what would be the most efficient data store system for the complete array? Obviously not a RDBM; I'm thinking redis, but I would be happy to hear other ideas.


Say the integers are all 0-15. Then you can store 2 per byte:

$data = '';
for ($i = 0; $i < 500000; ++$i)
  $data .= chr(mt_rand(0, 255));

echo serialize($data);

To run: php ints.php > ints.ser

Now you have a file with a 500000 byte string containing 1,000,000 random integers from 0 to 15.

To load:

$data = unserialize(file_get_contents('ints.ser'));

function get_data_at($data, $i)
  $data = ord($data[$i >> 1]);

  return ($i & 1) ? $data & 0xf : $data >> 4;

for ($i = 0; $i < 1000; ++$i)
  echo get_data_at($data, $i), "\n";

The loading time on my machine is about .002 seconds.

Of course this might not be directly applicable to your situation, but it will be much faster than a bloated PHP array of a million entries. Quite frankly, having an array that large in PHP is never the proper solution.

I'm not saying this is the proper solution either, but it definitely is workable if it fits your parameters.

Note that if your array had integers in the 0-255 range, you could get rid of the packing and just access the data as ord($data[$i]). In that case, your string would be 1M bytes long.

Finally, according to the documentation of file_get_contents(), php will memory map the file. If so, your best performance would be to dump raw bytes to a file, and use it like:

$ints = file_get_contents('ints.raw');
echo ord($ints[25]);

This assumes that ints.raw is exactly one million bytes long.

APC stores the data serialized, so it has to be unserialized as it is loaded back from APC. That's where your overhead is.

The most efficient way of loading it is to write to file as PHP and include(), but you're never going to have any level of efficiency with an array containing a million elements... it takes an enormous amount of memory, and it takes time to load. This is why databases were invented, so what is your problem with a database?


If you want to speed up serialize/deserialize, take a look at the igbinary extension

I can't randomly generate it every time because it should be consistent and always have the same values at the same indexes.

Have you ever read up on pseudo-random numbers? There's this little thing called a seed which addresses this issue.

Also benchmark your options and claims. Have you timed the file_get_contents vs. the json_decode? There is a trade-off to be made here between storage and access costs. Eg. if your numbers are 0..9 (or 0..255) then it may be easier to store them in a 2Mb string and use an access function on this. 2Mb will load faster whether from the FS or APC.

As Mark said, this is why databases was created - to allow you to search (and manipulate, but you might not need that) data effectively based on your regular usage patterns. It'll also might also be faster than implementing your own search using the array. I'm guessing we're talking about somewhere close to 2-300MB of data (before serialization) being serialized and unserialized each time you're accessing the array.

If you want to speed it up, try to assign each element of the array separately - you might trade function call overhead for time spent in serialization. You could also extend this with your own extension, wrapping your dataset in a small retrieval interface.

I'm guessing the reason why you can't directly store the zvals are because they contain internal state, and you simply can't just point the variable symbol table to the previous table.

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