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Once upon a time, I wrote two blog entries about precompiling the dispatch for generic functions in order to improve the responsiveness at application startup, and obviously planned a third but didn't get around to writing it. Some time later, I asked the lazyweb about it, and unfortunately this time didn't get anything much back. On further reflection, I think I was going to discuss a couple of additional technical points.

First of all, there's the question about having this kind of precompilation on all the time; wouldn't it be nice if generic functions were always at their most efficient, ready to be called? Well, yes, but what we actually want is for functions to be at their most efficient when we want to call them, and we don't particularly care at other times. Why draw that distinction? Well, when we write code that uses generic functions, it is usually of the form:

(defgeneric foo (x y))
(defmethod foo ((x t) (y t)) ...)
(defmethod foo ((x integer) (y integer)) ...)
(defmethod foo ((x rational) (y float)) ...)

a sequence of method definitions; sometimes contiguous, as above; often distributed among various files. loading such code will execute the defmethod forms in series. And each of those executions will call add-method, changing the generic function's methods, so any aggressive dispatch precompilation scheme will kick in at every defmethod. That would be bad enough, being O(N) in the number of methods, but it's actually worse than that: the amount of work involved in precompilation will tend to be O(N) in the number of methods, or in the number of concrete classes applicable to those methods, so there's O(N2) or worse behaviour from having precompilation active all the time. SBCL is routinely mocked for having slow-loading FASL files (originally, FASL probably stood for FASt Load; we don't advertise that much); expensive and poorly-scaling computations at load-time probably won't win us any extra friends. (Though having written that, I now wonder if recording changed generic functions using the dependent-update protocol, and hooking load or asdf:load-system to precompile after loading a whole file or system, might be a tasteful compromise).

Secondly, there's the detail of exactly how to pre-fill the cache for a given generic function (given that its specializers are mostly or entirely classes). The simplest strategy, of filling the cache with exactly those classes used as specializers, fails as soon as abstract or protocol classes are used to organize the implementation of the generic function. The next simplest, which is to fill the cache with all possible subclasses of specializers at all argument positions, well, just reading that should set alarm bells ringing – it might not be too problematic for generic functions with one argument, but the cross-product effect of multiple arguments will probably cause the implementation to collapse under its own weight into a virtual black hole. It might be that the best approach is to allow the user to specify an exact set of classes: and to allow the user to introspect a running system to find out which class combinations have actually been seen and hence cached in a given session.

In fact, SBCL itself depends on a particular, specific version of this. The generic function print-object is used for printing almost everything; even without user specialization, it is called whenever a structure-object or standard-object needs to be output to any stream. Users can write methods on it, though, and that then invalidates any previous precomputed dispatch information. But there are times when it's really important that print-object just work, without any kind of extra computation to go on: in particular, when the debugger needs to inform the user that the Lisp is running out of storage space (heap or stack), it's pretty important that that reporting can happen without using more heap or stack than necessary. So for print-object, we never reset the cache state to empty; it is always prefilled with entries for control-stack-exhausted, binding-stack-exhausted, alien-stack-exhausted, heap-exhausted-error and restart for its first argument. (This strategy only works if there are no specializations of the second argument to print-object anywhere in the system; there's no good reason for a user to try to specialize the second argument in any case, so we emit a warning if they do that and hope that they read and learn from it.)