Generators in PHP 5.5

Now that PHP 5.5 alpha versions are being released, I decided to grab the latest PHP source from GitHub, build it and give the new Generators feature a spin. I have used generators in the past in Python, and was excited to hear they are coming to PHP. While they are useful mostly in advanced use cases they can make a lot of simple use cases much more efficient, and I think its a handy addition to the advanced PHP programmer’s toolbox.

What are Generators?

I like to describe Generators as special functions which are iterable and maintain state. Think of a function that instead of returning once and destroying its state (local variables) after returning, can return multiple times, while maintaining the state of local variables, thus allowing iteration over an instance of that function state. In fact, a call to a generator function creates a special Generator object which can be iterated. The object maintains the internal state of the generator, and on each iteration generates a new value. The same result can be achieved by implementing a Traversable class, but with much less code.

This is very different from the way we are used to think of functions, so maybe an example is the best way to demonstrate this. I will use a simplified example based on the one given in the documentation:


function xrange($start, $end, $step = 1)
{
  for ($i = $start; $i <= $end; $i += $step) {
    yield $i;
  }
}

$start = microtime(true);
foreach (xrange(0, 1000000) as $i) {
  // do nothing
}
$end = microtime(true);

echo "Total time: " . ($end - $start) . " sec\n";
echo "Peak memory usage: " . memory_get_peak_usage() . " bytes\n";

In the example above, the xrange function is a Generator which operates in a similar yet simplified version of the range() PHP function (just like in Python!). The main thing to notice is the yield keyword – this tells the function to yield a value – which means a value is “returned” but the state of the generator is maintained.

When iterating over a generator function, as you can see in the foreach loop, iteration continues as long as a value is yielded. Once the function returns without yielding (as xrange in our example would do once the inner for loop is done), iteration stops. We get a behaviour which is (almost) equivalent to range in the sense that it allows us to iterate over numbers – but, without allocating the entire array of numbers in advance. In our example, we save a lot of memory and in fact execution is faster when a generator is used.

To demonstrate, here is the output of the script above (ok, I added some formatting to the output, but the results are real!):

$ /usr/local/bin/php /tmp/with-generators.php
Total time: 0.20149302482605 sec
Peak memory usage: 234,256 bytes

This is on a one-million integers “array” (unlike range, no real array is allocated so we can’t do random access on members, but during iteration it behaves just like an array).

By comparison, executing the same code with range() instead of xrange(), results in the following:

$ /usr/local/bin/php /tmp/without-generators.php
Fatal error: Allowed memory size of 134217728 bytes exhausted (tried to allocate 32 bytes) in /private/tmp/generators.php on line 12

Ok, we reach our memory limit. Lets try to go crazy (not a good idea in production):

$ /usr/local/bin/php -d memory_limit=200M /tmp/without-generators.php
Total time: 0.31754398345947 sec
Peak memory usage: 144,617,256 bytes

After increasing the memory limit to 200 MB, the script runs: but it takes longer (honestly, to my surprise), and consumes an order of magnitude more memory.

Pretty cool, huh?

Just to demonstrate, calling var_dump on a generator would result in this:


var_dump(xrange(0, 100));
// Output:
// object(Generator)#2 (0) {
// }

But I can do the same thing with Iterator interfaces, no?

Yes! pretty much anything you can do with Generators can be done by creating class which implements either the Iterator or IteratorAggregate interfaces. But in many cases, a lot of boilerplate code can be removed if a Generator is used instead. For example, a class equivalent to the xrange generator above would look like this:


class XrangeObject implements Iterator
{
  private $value = 0;
  private $start = 0;
  private $end   = 0;
  private $step  = 1;

  public function __construct($start, $end, $step = 1)
  {
    $this->value = (int) $start;
    $this->start = (int) $start;
    $this->end   = (int) $end;
    $this->step  = (int) $step;
  }

  public function rewind()
  {
    $this->value = $this->start;
  }

  public function current()
  {
    return $this->value;
  }

  public function key()
  {
    return $this->value;
  }

  public function next()
  {
    return ($this->value += $this->step);
  }

  public function valid()
  {
    return $this->value <= $this->end;
  }
}

$start = microtime(true);
$xrange = new XRangeObject(0, 1000000);
foreach ($xrange as $i) {
  // do nothing
}
$end = microtime(true);

echo "Total time: " . ($end - $start) . " sec\n";
echo "Peak memory usage: " . memory_get_peak_usage() . " bytes\n";

Wow, that’s much more code for something we achieved very simply with a generator. BTW, the results are:


$ /usr/local/bin/php /tmp/with-iterator.php
Total time: 0.61971187591553 sec
Peak memory usage: 240,968 bytes

As you can see, memory usage is comparable to a Generator. Run time is more than 3 times slower, but in most realistic use cases this time is usually negligible – in any case unless we would have seen an order of magnitude of difference, performance is not a major issue here. The interesting thing really is the amount of boilerplate code we had to use when creating an iterator – most of this code is just generic boring stuff and not what we really care about. With Generators, the implementation is much shorter.

How about a realistic use case?

Ok, so we have used a generator to iterate over numbers. Woopti-doo. We can just drop the generator and use the for loop inside it to achieve the same thing. How about a more realistic use case?

Take a look at the following example, which I believe can be pretty useful and still has fairly straightforward code: a generator which combines the efficiency of XMLReader with the simple API of SimpleXML to bring you an efficnet yet easy to use XML reader function for possibly large XML streams with repeating structure – for example, RSS or Atom feeds.


function xml_stream_reader($url, $element)
{
  $reader = new XMLReader();
  $reader->open($url);

  while (true) {
    // Skip to next element
    while (! ($reader->nodeType == XMLReader::ELEMENT && $reader->name == $element)) {
      if (! $reader->read()) break(2);
    }

    if ($reader->nodeType == XMLReader::ELEMENT && $reader->name == $element) {
      yield simplexml_load_string($reader->readOuterXml());
      $reader->next();
    }
  }
}

The xml_stream_reader() generator defined above will use XMLReader to open and read from an XML stream. Unlike PHP’s SimpleXML or DOM extensions, it will not read an entire XML document into memory, thus avoiding potential blowups on very large XML files. To keep things simple for the user however, whenever it encounters the XML element searched by the user (e.g. the item element in RSS feeds), it will read the entire element into memory (assume each item is small but there are potentially thousands of items) and return it as a SimpleXMLElement object – thus still providing the ease of use of SimpleXML for the consumer.

Here is how it can be used:


$feed = xml_stream_reader('http://news.google.com/?output=rss&num=100', 'item');
foreach($feed as $itemXml) {
  echo $itemXml->title . "\n";
}

While I couldn’t find a large-enough XML file to test this on, even with 2mb files, this can be much more efficient than DOM or SimpleXML, and without too much more coding.

So I’m really happy about the addition of generators – it’s a cool feature. Not one you’d use every day, but in some places where complex Iterators had to be implemented (and where OO features such as polymorphism are not required), generators can be a real neat, concise and maintainable solution.

One thought on “Generators in PHP 5.5

  1. Pingback: Generators in PHP 5.5 | Open Source Code | Scoop.it