Ruby Hash[key] Showdown :symbol vs “string”

Who cares?

There was recently a discussion on Trailblazer Gitter channel about Hashes as params, how to pass them around, and as customary a flame-war ~~ensued~~ never happened, and it came down to a measuring contest: ~~whose~~ which key is better and faster.

For the impatient: for small hashes it doesn’t really matter, for larger ones :symbol is upto 1.3x — 2x faster than string’ keys on really large Hashes. Frozen string’ keys are almost as fast as :symbol keys..

The best way to argue, is to present facts. So I coded a couple of benchmarks, and submitted a pull request to fast-ruby (Github). Here are the details.

Round 1: Hash[:symbol] vs Hash[“string”]

First lets measure allocating Hash in various ways that Ruby gives us

require "benchmark/ips"

def symbol_key
{symbol: 42}
end

def symbol_key_arrow
{:symbol => 42}
end

def symbol_key_in_string_form
{'sym_str': 42}
end

def string_key_arrow_double_quotes
{"string" => 42}
end

def string_key_arrow_single_quotes
{'string' => 42}
end

Full code for the benchmark is here on Github and the results on rig with 8 cores and 16 GB of RAM, running on Ruby 2.4.2

Comparison:
{symbol: 42}: 1731221.3 i/s
{:symbol => 42}: 1714113.4 i/s - same-ish
{'sym_str': 42}: 1711084.8 i/s - same-ish
{"string" => 42}: 1508413.1 i/s - 1.15x slower
{'string' => 42}: 1452896.9 i/s - 1.19x slower

So while 19% slower maybe a fairly big difference, keep in mind that this is for 1.5 million iterations per second. Who in their right mind creates 1,500,000 single pair hashes per seconds? Right?

string keys are not going to be the speed bottleneck in your app.

Round 2: But what about large hashes?

Don’t worry I got you covered. You can check out specific benchmark right here on Github. Lets try it out for a 1000 key-value pairs.

require "benchmark/ips"
STRING_KEYS = (1..1000).map{|x| "key_#{x}"}.shuffle
FROZEN_KEYS = STRING_KEYS.map{|x| "fr_#{x}".freeze}
SYMBOL_KEYS = STRING_KEYS.map(&:to_sym)
# If we use static values for Hash, speed improves even more.
def symbol_hash
SYMBOL_KEYS.collect { |k| [ k, rand(1..100)]}.to_h
end
def string_hash
STRING_KEYS.collect { |k| [ k, rand(1..100)]}.to_h
end
# See this article for the discussion of using frozen strings instead of symbols
# http://blog.arkency.com/could-we-drop-symbols-from-ruby/
def frozen_hash
FROZEN_KEYS.collect { |k| [ k, rand(1..100)]}.to_h
end
SYMBOL_HASH = symbol_hash
STRING_HASH = string_hash
FROZEN_HASH = frozen_hash
def reading_symbol_hash
SYMBOL_HASH[SYMBOL_KEYS.sample]
end
def reading_string_hash
STRING_HASH[STRING_KEYS.sample]
end
def reading_frozen_hash
FROZEN_HASH[FROZEN_KEYS.sample]
end

Full benchmark code . Let’s see the results:

Creating large Hash

Comparison:
Symbol Keys: 3262.0 i/s
Frozen Keys: 3023.2 i/s - same-ish
String Keys: 2476.7 i/s - 1.32x slower

Reading large Hash

Comparison:
Symbol Keys: 5280882.7 i/s
Frozen Keys: 4791128.0 i/s - same-ish
String Keys: 4275730.5 i/s - 1.24x slower

So as we can see on a larger Hashes with with 1000’s of keys, the difference become more apparent and being mindful of it can help improve speed, if you are using a lot of large hashes. Otherwise, my recommendation, keep using what works better for you app. If string keys make it easier, let’s say you are importing them from an external file, don’t go through the trouble of converting them to symbols, it’s probably not worth it.

But don’t take my word for it. Just measure it.


Originally published at History Bits.