Do modern JavaScript JITers need array-length caching in loops?

I find the practice of caching an array's length property inside a for loop quite distasteful. As in,

for (var i = 0, l = myArray.length; i < l; ++i) {
    // ...
}

In my eyes at least, this hurts readability a lot compared with the straightforward

for (var i = 0; i < myArray.length; ++i) {
    // ...
}

(not to mention that it leaks another variable into the surrounding function due to the nature of lexical scope and hoisting.)

I'd like to be able to tell anyone who does this "don't bother; modern JS JITers optimize that trick away." Obviously it's not a trivial optimization, since you could e.g. modify the array while it is being iterated over, but I would think given all the crazy stuff I've heard about JITers and their runtime analysis tricks, they'd have gotten to this by now.

Anyone have evidence one way or another?

And yes, I too wish it would suffice to say "that's a micro-optimization; don't do that until you profile." But not everyone listens to that kind of reason, especially when it becomes a habit to cache the length and they just end up doing so automatically, almost as a style choice.

Answers:

Answer

It depends on a few things:

  • Whether you've proven your code is spending significant time looping
  • Whether the slowest browser you're fully supporting benefits from array length caching
  • Whether you or the people who work on your code find the array length caching hard to read

It seems from the benchmarks I've seen (for example, here and here) that performance in IE < 9 (which will generally be the slowest browsers you have to deal with) benefits from caching the array length, so it may be worth doing. For what it's worth, I have a long-standing habit of caching the array length and as a result find it easy to read. There are also other loop optimizations that can have an effect, such as counting down rather than up.

Here's a relevant discussion about this from the JSMentors mailing list: http://groups.google.com/group/jsmentors/browse_thread/thread/526c1ddeccfe90f0

Answer

My tests show that all major newer browsers cache the length property of arrays. You don't need to cache it yourself unless you're concerned about IE6 or 7, I don't remember exactly. However, I have been using another style of iteration since those days since it gives me another benefit which I'll describe in the following example:

var arr = ["Hello", "there", "sup"];
for (var i=0, str; str = arr[i]; i++) {
  // I already have the item being iterated in the loop as 'str'
  alert(str);
}

You must realize that this iteration style stops if the array is allowed to contain 'falsy' values, so this style cannot be used in that case.

Answer

First of all, how is this harder to do or less legible?

var i = someArray.length;
while(i--){
    //doStuff to someArray[i]
}

This is not some weird cryptic micro-optimization. It's just a basic work avoidance principle. Not using the '.' or '[]' operators more than necessary should be as obvious as not recalculating pi more than once (assuming you didn't know we already have that in the Math object).

[rantish elements yoinked]

If someArray is entirely internal to a function it's fair game for JIT optimization of its length property which is really like a getter that actually counts up the elements of the array every time you access it. A JIT could see that it was entirely locally scoped and skip the actual counting behavior.

But this involves a fair amount of complexity. Every time you do anything that mutates that Array you have to treat length like a static property and tell your array altering methods (the native code side of them I mean) to set the property manually whereas normally length just counts the items up every time it's referenced. That means every time a new array-altering method is added you have to update the JIT to branch behavior for length references of a locally scoped array.

I could see Chrome doing this eventually but I don't think it is yet based on some really informal tests. I'm not sure IE will ever have this level of performance fine-tuning as a priority. As for the other browsers, you could make a strong argument for the maintenance issue of having to branch behavior for every new array method being more trouble than its worth. At the very least, it would not get top priority.

Ultimately, accessing the length property every loop cycle isn't going to cost you a ton even in the old browsers for a typical JS loop. But I would advise getting in the habit of caching any property lookup being done more than once because with getter properties you can never be sure how much work is being done, which browsers optimize in what ways or what kind of performance costs you could hit down the road when somebody decides to move someArray outside of the function which could lead to the call object checking in a dozen places before finding what it's looking for every time you do that property access.

Caching property lookups and method returns is easy, cleans your code up, and ultimately makes it more flexible and performance-robust in the face of modification. Even if one or two JITs did make it unnecessary in circumstances involving a number of 'ifs', you couldn't be certain they always would or that your code would continue to make it possible to do so.

So yes, apologies for the anti-let-the-compiler-handle-it rant but I don't see why you would ever want to not cache your properties. It's easy. It's clean. It guarantees better performance regardless of browser or movement of the object having its property's examined to an outer scope.

But it really does piss me off that Word docs load as slowly now as they did back in 1995 and that people continue to write horrendously slow-performing java websites even though Java's VM supposedly beats all non-compiled contenders for performance. I think this notion that you can let the compiler sort out the performance details and that "modern computers are SO fast" has a lot to do with that. We should always be mindful of work-avoidance, when the work is easy to avoid and doesn't threaten legibility/maintainability, IMO. Doing it differently has never helped me (or I suspect anybody) write the code faster in the long term.

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