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Mark Nelson

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

C++11 Hash Containers and Debug Mode

November 29, 2011

Microsoft has never been a slacker in the C++ department — it has always worked hard to provide a top-notch, compliant product. Visual Studio 10 supports its current incarnation, and for the most part it is up to Microsoft's usual standards. It's a great development environment, and I am a dedicated user, but I have to give Microsoft a demerit in one area: Its C++11 hash containers have some serious performance problems — so much that the debug versions of the containers may well be unusable in your application.


I first noticed the problem with unordered_map when I was working on the code for my updated LZW article. I found that when running in the debugger, my program would hang after exiting the compression routine. A little debugging showed that the destructor for my hash table was taking a long time to run. And by a long time, I mean it was approaching an hour.

Destroying a hash table didn't seem to be a complicated task, so I decided to see if I could come up with a reasonable benchmark. I wrote a test program that does a simple word frequency count. As a starter data set, I used the first one million whitespace-delimited words in the 2010 CIA factbook, as published by Project Gutenberg. This data set yields 74,208 unique tokens.

I wrote a simple test rig that I used to test the word count program using four different containers:

  • unordered_map indexed by std::string
  • unordered_map indexed by std::string *
  • map indexed by std::string
  • map indexed by std::string *

Testing with std::string * reduces the cost of copying strings into the hash table as it was filled, and then reduces the cost of destroying those strings when the table was destroyed.

I ran tests against map, expecting to see a pretty big difference in performance. Because map is normally implemented using a balanced binary tree structure, it has O(log(N)) performance on insertions. A sparsely populated hash table can have O(1) performance. By using fairly large data sets, I expected to see a big difference between the two.

I tried to eliminate a few obvious sources for error in my test function — and I used a template function so that I could use the same code on all the different container types:

template<class CONTAINER, class DATA>
void test( const DATA &data, const char *test_name )
  std::cout << "Testing container: " << test_name << std::endl;

#ifdef _DEBUG
  const int passes = 2;
  const int passes = 10;
  double fill_times = 0;
  double delete_times = 0;
  size_t entries;
  for ( int i = 0 ; i < passes ; i++ ) {
    CONTAINER *container = new CONTAINER();
    std::cout << "Filling... " << std::flush;
    clock_t t0 = clock();
    for ( auto ii = data.begin() ; ii != data.end() ; ii++ ) 
    double span = double(clock() - t0)/CLOCKS_PER_SEC;
    fill_times += span;
    entries = container->size();
    std::cout << " " << span << " Deleting... " << std::flush;
    t0 = clock();
    delete container;
    span = double(clock() - t0)/CLOCKS_PER_SEC;
    delete_times += span;
    std::cout << span << " " << std::endl;
  std::cout << "Entries: " << entries 
            << ", Fill time: " << (fill_times/passes) 
            << ", Delete time: " << (delete_times/passes) 
            << std::endl;

I didn't go overboard when it came to instrumenting this problem, I just used the timing functions built into the C++ library. On my Windows and Linux test systems, the values of CLOCKS_PER_SEC are both high enough that I'm not worried about granularity issues.

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