tl;dr: Our intuition that Python is slow is often incorrect. Data structure bound Python computations are fast.

You may also want to see the companion post, Introducing CyToolz.

We think that Python is slow

Our intuition says that Python is slow:

>>> # Python speeds
>>> L = range(1000000)
>>> timeit sum(L)
timeit np.s100 loops, best of 3: 7.79 ms per loop

>>> # C speeds
>>> import numpy as np
>>> A = np.arange(1000000)
>>> timeit np.sum(A)
1000 loops, best of 3: 725 µs per loop

Numerical Python with lots of loops is much slower than the equivalent C or Java code. For this we use one of the numeric projects like NumPy, Cython, Theano, or Numba.

But that only applies to normally cheap operations

This slowdown occurs for cheap operations for which the Python overhead is large relative to their cost in C. However for more complex operations, like data structure random access, this overhead is less important. Consider the relative difference between integer addition and dictionary assignment.

>>> x, y = 3, 3
>>> timeit x + y
10000000 loops, best of 3: 43.7 ns per loop

>>> d = {1: 1, 2: 2}
>>> timeit d[x] = y
10000000 loops, best of 3: 65.7 ns per loop

A Python dictionary assignment is about as fast as a Python add.

Disclaimer: this benchmark gets a point across but is is very artificial, micro-benchmarks like this are hard to do well.

Micro-Benchmark: Frequency Counting

Warning: cherry-picked

To really show off the speed of Python data structures lets count frequencies of strings. I.e. given a long list of strings

>>> data = ['Alice', 'Bob', 'Charlie', 'Dan', 'Edith', 'Frank'] * 1000000

We want to count the occurence of each name. In principle we would write a little function like frequencies

def frequencies(seq):
    """ Count the number of occurences of each element in seq """
    d = dict()
    for item in seq:
        if item not in d:
            d[item] = 1
            d[item] = d[item] + 1
    return d

>>> frequencies(data)
{'Alice': 1000000,
 'Bob': 1000000,
 'Charlie': 1000000,
 'Dan': 1000000,
 'Edith': 1000000,
 'Frank': 1000000}

This simple operation tests grouping reductions on non-numerical data. This represents an emerging class of problems that doesn’t fit our performance intuition from our history with numerics.

We compare the naive frequencies function against the following equivalent implementations

  • The standard library’s collections.Counter
  • PyToolz’ benchmarked and tuned frequencies operation
  • Pandas’ Series.value_counts method
  • A naive implementation in Java, found here

We present the results from worst to best:

>>> timeit collections.Counter(data)        1.59  s     # Standard Lib
>>> timeit frequencies(data)                 805 ms     # Naive Python
>>> timeit toolz.frequencies(data)           522 ms     # Tuned Python
>>> series = Series(data)
>>> timeit series.value_counts()             286 ms     # Pandas
$ java Frequencies                           207 ms     # Straight Java

Lets observe the following:

  • The standard library collections.Counter performs surprisingly poorly. This is unfair because the Counter object is more complex, providing more exotic functionality that we don’t use here.
  • The Pandas solution uses C code and C data structures to beat the Python solution, but not by a huge amount. This isn’t the 10x-100x speedup that we expect from numerical applications.
  • The toolz.frequencies function improves on the standard Python solution and gets to within a factor of 2x of Pandas. The PyToolz development team has benchmarked and tuned several implementatations. I believe that this is the fastest solution available in Pure Python.
  • The compiled Java Solution is generally fast but, as with the Pandas case it’s not that much faster.

For data structure bound computations, like frequency counting, Python is generally fast enough for me. I’m willing to pay a 2x cost in order to gain access to Pure Python’s streaming data structures and low entry cost.


Personally, I’m fine with fast Python speeds. Erik Welch on the other hand, wanted unreasonably fast C speeds so he rewrote toolz in Cython; he calls it CyToolz. His results are pretty amazing.

>>> # import toolz
>>> import cytoolz

>>> timeit toolz.frequencies(data)           522 ms
>>> timeit series.value_counts()             286 ms
>>> timeit cytoolz.frequencies(data)         214 ms
$ java Frequencies                           207 ms

CyToolz actually beats the Pandas solution (in this one particular benchmark.) Lets appreciate this for a moment.

Cython on raw Python data structures runs at Java speeds. We discuss CyToolz further in our next blog post


We learn that data structure bound computations aren’t as slow in Python as we might think. Although we incur a small slowdown (2x-5x), probably due to Python method dispatching, this can be avoided through Cython. When using Cython, the use of Python data structures can match perofrmance we expect from compiled languages like Java.

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