Misc scribbles

Notes on performance profiling JS applications


Keeping your program fast is important for

In our application, we visualize some large-ish datasets using the browser and javascript

#The Chrome profiler

I use the Chrome DevTools "Performance" profiler, which is a statistical/sampling profiler https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Profiling_(computer_programming)#Statistical_profilers

This means it samples at some rate and see's where in the callstack the program is executing.

Note: sometimes your function may be so fast, it is rarely or never encountered by the sampling. It is a good thing (TM) to be this fast, but I mention it to note that the sampling profiler does not give us a complete log of all function calls.

#Creating a flamegraph from the Chrome profiler results

Note: sometimes, it is also useful to see the results as a "flamegraph" (see https://www.brendangregg.com/flamegraphs.html)

The website https://www.speedscope.app/ can create "flamegraph" style figures for Chrome profiling results

Update: Firefox actually has the concept of flamegraph built into their profiler. In 2022, I switched to using Firefox as my daily driver, so enjoy this built-in feature.

#Stacking up many small optimizations

Working with large datasets, sometimes your program will take a long time to complete. Especially if you work with javascript in the browser, it is a challenge to make things go fast. But you can use micro optimizations to help improve performance over time.

For example, say a program takes 30 seconds to run on a certain dataset

If you do profiling and find a couple microoptimizations that give you a 15%, 10% and 5% performance improvement, then you program now takes 20 seconds to run. That is still not instantaneous, but it is saving users a good 10 seconds.

#Examples of micro optimizations

I have tried to keep track of more microoptimizations here, but they are pretty specific to small examples and may not generalize across browsers or browser versions https://gist.github.com/cmdcolin/ef57d2783e47b16aa07a03967fd870d8

#Examples of macro optimizations

Oftentimes, large scale re-workings of your code or "macro" optimizations are the way to make progress.

A macro optimization may be revealed if you are looking at your performance profiling result and you think: this entire section of the program could be reworked to remove this overhead

In this case, it is hard to advise on because most of these will be very specific to your particular app.

Just as a specific example of a macro optimization I undertook:

We use web workers, and had to serialize a lot of data from the web worker to the main thread. I did a large re-working of the codebase to allow, in particular examples, the main thread to request smaller snippets of data from the web worker thread on-demand (the web worker is kept alive indefinitely) instead of serializing all the web worker data and sending to the main thread.

This change especially pays off with large datasets, where all that serialization/data duplication is computationally and memory expensive. Fun fact: I remember sitting at a table at a conference in Jan 2020 talking with my team at the Plant and Animal Genome conference, thinking that we should make this change -- finally did it, just took 2 years. [1]

#End-to-end optimization testing

In order to comprehensively measure whether micro or macro optimizations are actually improving your real world performance, it can be useful to create an end-to-end test

For our app, I created a puppeteer based test where I loaded the website and waited for a "DONE" condition. I created a variety of different tests which allowed me to see e.g. some optimizations may only affect certain conditions.

Developing the end-to-end test suite tool awhile to develop (read: weeks to mature, though some earlier result were available), but it let me compare the current release vs experimental branches, and over time, the experimental branches were merged and things got faster. [2]

#Note that memory usage can be very important to your programs performance.

Excessive allocations will increase "GC pressure" (the garbage collector will invoke more Minor and Major GC, which you will see in your performance profiling reuslts as yellow boxes)


It is really important to look at the profiling to see what your program actually is spending time on. You can make hypothetical optimizations all day and dream of rewriting in rust but you may just have a slow hot path in your JS code that, if optimized, can get big speedups.

Let me know about your favorite optimizations in the comments!


[1] Note that things like SharedArrayBuffer also offer a means to share data between worker and main thread, but these come with many security limitations from the browser (and was even removed for a time while these security implications were sussed out, due to Spectre/Meltdown vulnerabilities)

[2] I still have not found a good way to get automated memory usage profiling via puppeteer. You can access window.process.memory in puppeteer, but this variable does not provide info about webworker memory usage https://github.com/puppeteer/puppeteer/issues/8258