TurboPFor: an analysis

published 2019-02-05 in tag debian
Table of contents

Motivation

I have recently been looking into speeding up Debian Code Search. As a quick reminder, search engines answer queries by consulting an inverted index: a map from term to documents containing that term (called a “posting list”). See the Debian Code Search Bachelor Thesis (PDF) for a lot more details.

Currently, Debian Code Search does not store positional information in its index, i.e. the index can only reveal that a certain trigram is present in a document, not where or how often.

From analyzing Debian Code Search queries, I knew that identifier queries (70%) massively outnumber regular expression queries (30%). When processing identifier queries, storing positional information in the index enables a significant optimization: instead of identifying the possibly-matching documents and having to read them all, we can determine matches from querying the index alone, no document reads required.

This moves the bottleneck: having to read all possibly-matching documents requires a lot of expensive random I/O, whereas having to decode long posting lists requires a lot of cheap sequential I/O.

Of course, storing positions comes with a downside: the index is larger, and a larger index takes more time to decode when querying.

Hence, I have been looking at various posting list compression/decoding techniques, to figure out whether we could switch to a technique which would retain (or improve upon!) current performance despite much longer posting lists and produce a small enough index to fit on our current hardware.

Literature

I started looking into this space because of Daniel Lemire’s Stream VByte post. As usual, Daniel’s work is well presented, easily digestible and accompanied by not just one, but multiple implementations.

I also looked for scientific papers to learn about the state of the art and classes of different approaches in general. The best I could find is Compression, SIMD, and Postings Lists. If you don’t have access to the paper, I hear that Sci-Hub is helpful.

The paper is from 2014, and doesn’t include all algorithms. If you know of a better paper, please let me know and I’ll include it here.

Eventually, I stumbled upon an algorithm/implementation called TurboPFor, which the rest of the article tries to shine some light on.

TurboPFor

If you’re wondering: PFor stands for Patched Frame Of Reference and describes a family of algorithms. The principle is explained e.g. in SIMD Compression and the Intersection of Sorted Integers (PDF).

The TurboPFor project’s README file claims that TurboPFor256 compresses with a rate of 5.04 bits per integer, and can decode with 9400 MB/s on a single thread of an Intel i7-6700 CPU.

For Debian Code Search, we use unsigned integers of 32 bit (uint32), which TurboPFor will compress into as few bits as required.

Dividing Debian Code Search’s file sizes by the total number of integers, I get similar values, at least for the docid index section:

  • 5.49 bits per integer for the docid index section
  • 11.09 bits per integer for the positions index section

I can confirm the order of magnitude of the decoding speed, too. My benchmark calls TurboPFor from Go via cgo, which introduces some overhead. To exclude disk speed as a factor, data comes from the page cache. The benchmark sequentially decodes all posting lists in the specified index, using as many threads as the machine has cores¹:

  • ≈1400 MB/s on a 1.1 GiB docid index section
  • ≈4126 MB/s on a 15.0 GiB position index section

I think the numbers differ because the position index section contains larger integers (requiring more bits). I repeated both benchmarks, capped to 1 GiB, and decoding speeds still differed, so it is not just the size of the index.

Compared to Streaming VByte, a TurboPFor256 index comes in at just over half the size, while still reaching 83% of Streaming VByte’s decoding speed. This seems like a good trade-off for my use-case, so I decided to have a closer look at how TurboPFor works.

① See cmd/gp4-verify/verify.go run on an Intel i9-9900K.

Methodology

To confirm my understanding of the details of the format, I implemented a pure-Go TurboPFor256 decoder. Note that it is intentionally not optimized as its main goal is to use simple code to teach the TurboPFor256 on-disk format.

If you’re looking to use TurboPFor from Go, I recommend using cgo. cgo’s function call overhead is about 51ns as of Go 1.8, which will easily be offset by TurboPFor’s carefully optimized, vectorized (SSE/AVX) code.

With that caveat out of the way, you can find my teaching implementation at https://github.com/stapelberg/goturbopfor

I verified that it produces the same results as TurboPFor’s p4ndec256v32 function for all posting lists in the Debian Code Search index.

On-disk format

Note that TurboPFor does not fully define an on-disk format on its own. When encoding, it turns a list of integers into a byte stream:

size_t p4nenc256v32(uint32_t *in, size_t n, unsigned char *out);

When decoding, it decodes the byte stream into an array of integers, but needs to know the number of integers in advance:

size_t p4ndec256v32(unsigned char *in, size_t n, uint32_t *out);

Hence, you’ll need to keep track of the number of integers and length of the generated byte streams separately. When I talk about on-disk format, I’m referring to the byte stream which TurboPFor returns.

The TurboPFor256 format uses blocks of 256 integers each, followed by a trailing block — if required — which can contain fewer than 256 integers:

SIMD bitpacking is used for all blocks but the trailing block (which uses regular bitpacking). This is not merely an implementation detail for decoding: the on-disk structure is different for blocks which can be SIMD-decoded.

Each block starts with a 2 bit header, specifying the type of the block:

Each block type is explained in more detail in the following sections.

Note that none of the block types store the number of elements: you will always need to know how many integers you need to decode. Also, you need to know in advance how many bytes you need to feed to TurboPFor, so you will need some sort of container format.

Further, TurboPFor automatically choses the best block type for each block.

Constant block

A constant block (all integers of the block have the same value) consists of a single value of a specified bit width ≤ 32. This value will be stored in each output element for the block. E.g., after calling decode(input, 3, output) with input being the constant block depicted below, output is {0xB8912636, 0xB8912636, 0xB8912636}.

The example shows the maximum number of bytes (5). Smaller integers will use fewer bytes: e.g. an integer which can be represented in 3 bits will only use 2 bytes.

Bitpacking block

A bitpacking block specifies a bit width ≤ 32, followed by a stream of bits. Each value starts at the Least Significant Bit (LSB), i.e. the 3-bit values 0 (000b) and 5 (101b) are encoded as 101000b.

Bitpacking with exceptions (bitmap) block

The constant and bitpacking block types work well for integers which don’t exceed a certain width, e.g. for a series of integers of width ≤ 5 bits.

For a series of integers where only a few values exceed an otherwise common width (say, two values require 7 bits, the rest requires 5 bits), it makes sense to cut the integers into two parts: value and exception.

In the example below, decoding the third integer out2 (000b) requires combination with exception ex0 (10110b), resulting in 10110000b.

The number of exceptions can be determined by summing the 1 bits in the bitmap using the popcount instruction.

Bitpacking with exceptions (variable byte)

When the exceptions are not uniform enough, it makes sense to switch from bitpacking to a variable byte encoding:

Decoding: variable byte

The variable byte encoding used by the TurboPFor format is similar to the one used by SQLite, which is described, alongside other common variable byte encodings, at github.com/stoklund/varint.

Instead of using individual bits for dispatching, this format classifies the first byte (b[0]) into ranges:

  • [0—176]: the value is b[0]
  • [177—240]: a 14 bit value is in b[0] (6 high bits) and b[1] (8 low bits)
  • [241—248]: a 19 bit value is in b[0] (3 high bits), b[1] and b[2] (16 low bits)
  • [249—255]: a 32 bit value is in b[1], b[2], b[3] and possibly b[4]

Here is the space usage of different values:

  • [0—176] are stored in 1 byte (as-is)
  • [177—16560] are stored in 2 bytes, with the highest 6 bits added to 177
  • [16561—540848] are stored in 3 bytes, with the highest 3 bits added to 241
  • [540849—16777215] are stored in 4 bytes, with 0 added to 249
  • [16777216—4294967295] are stored in 5 bytes, with 1 added to 249

An overflow marker will be used to signal that encoding the values would be less space-efficient than simply copying them (e.g. if all values require 5 bytes).

This format is very space-efficient: it packs 0-176 into a single byte, as opposed to 0-128 (most others). At the same time, it can be decoded very quickly, as only the first byte needs to be compared to decode a value (similar to PrefixVarint).

Decoding: bitpacking

Regular bitpacking

In regular (non-SIMD) bitpacking, integers are stored on disk one after the other, padded to a full byte, as a byte is the smallest addressable unit when reading data from disk. For example, if you bitpack only one 3 bit int, you will end up with 5 bits of padding.

SIMD bitpacking (256v32)

SIMD bitpacking works like regular bitpacking, but processes 8 uint32 little-endian values at the same time, leveraging the AVX instruction set. The following illustration shows the order in which 3-bit integers are decoded from disk:

In Practice

For a Debian Code Search index, 85% of posting lists are short enough to only consist of a trailing block, i.e. no SIMD instructions can be used for decoding.

The distribution of block types looks as follows:

  • 72% bitpacking with exceptions (bitmap)
  • 19% bitpacking with exceptions (variable byte)
  • 5% constant
  • 4% bitpacking

Constant blocks are mostly used for posting lists with just one entry.

Conclusion

The TurboPFor on-disk format is very flexible: with its 4 different kinds of blocks, chances are high that a very efficient encoding will be used for most integer series.

Of course, the flip side of covering so many cases is complexity: the format and implementation take quite a bit of time to understand — hopefully this article helps a little! For environments where the C TurboPFor implementation cannot be used, smaller algorithms might be simpler to implement.

That said, if you can use the TurboPFor implementation, you will benefit from a highly optimized SIMD code base, which will most likely be an improvement over what you’re currently using.