Pre-allocate arrays to improve efficiency

Recently Charlie Huang showed how to use the SAS/IML language to compute an exponentially weighted moving average of some financial data. In the commentary to his analysis, he said:

I found that if a matrix or a vector is declared with specified size before the computation step, the program’s efficiency would be significantly improved. It may suggest that declaring matrices explicitly could be a good habit for SAS/IML programming.

Charlie has stated a general rule: in matrix/vector languages such as SAS/IML, MATLAB, or R, you should allocate space for a matrix outside of a loop, rather than using concatenation to grow the matrix inside of a loop. I cover this in Chapter 2 (p. 42-43) of my book, Statistical Programming with SAS/IML Software. You can download Chapter 2 at no cost from the book's Web site.

Do Not Grow Arrays Dynamically

This general rule is relevant when you compute values of a matrix one element at a time. That is, you are using np separate computations to fill all elements of an n x p matrix.

Suppose that you want to compute a vector that contains the results of several similar computations. Naturally, you write a DO loop and compute each value within the loop. For example, the following SAS/IML statements define a SAS/IML module and call it eight times within a DO loop:

proc iml;
start Func(x);
   /** compute any quantity **/
   return (ssq(x)); /** sums of squares **/
/** grow the result array dynamically **/
do i = 1 to 8;
   x = i:8;
   result = result || Func(x);
print result;

The program is not efficient because it uses the horizontal concatenation operator (||) to grow the result vector dynamically within the DO loop. After the ith iteration, the vector contains i elements, but during the ith iteration, the previous i – 1 elements are needlessly copied from the old array to the new (larger) array. If the DO loop iterates n times, then

  1. the first element is copied n times
  2. the second element is copied n – 1 times
  3. the third element is copied n – 2 times, and so forth

In summary, when you grow an array dynamically within a loop, there are n allocations and n (n – 1) / 2 elements are needlessly copied.

A Better Approach: Pre-Allocate the Array

When you know the ultimate size of an array, it is best to allocate the array prior to the loop. You can then assign values to the elements of the array inside the loop, as shown in the following statements:

/** EFFICIENT: Pre-allocate result array **/
result = j(1, 8);      
do i = 1 to 8;
   x = i:8;
   result[i] = Func(x);

This computation does not contain any needless allocations, nor any unnecessary copying of elements that were previously computed.

This technique is essential for efficient sampling in the SAS/IML language: when you want random values from a specified distribution (such as the normal distribution), you should pre-allocate a matrix and then call the RANDGEN subroutine once in order to fill the matrix with random numbers.

tags: Efficiency, Getting Started, Statistical Programming


  1. Peter Borysov
    Posted June 21, 2011 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Hello Rick!

    Thank you for your blog! I know that it is very difficult to come up with interesting ideas on a schedule:) Even though I am not using IML currently, I still can find a lot of very useful things here.

    I am using Matlab, and I also find that if you have two nested loops, then it runs much faster if you set the inside loop to go through the rows and the outside loop to go through the columns, especially for big matrices. I think it has to do with the way the matrices are stored in the memory. How is it done in IML?


  2. Rick Wicklin
    Posted June 21, 2011 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    Yes, MATLAB and R both store their matrices column-wise. In contrast, SAS/IML software stores matrices row-wise. I haven't done the computation, but I'd wager that for large matrices it is more efficient to access the matrix in a way that is compatible with its storage structure.

4 Trackbacks

  1. [...] Do not use concatenation operators to grow the size of matrix dynamically within a loop! Instead, allocate space for results prior to the loop that computes the results. Similarly, if you need to generate random numbers, fill an entire array of random values in a [...]

  2. [...] number of observations, but almost always get fewer observations than is requested. The program builds up the array dynamically in a loop, which is very [...]

  3. […] Notice that I generated the largest frame first and inserted the smaller frames inside of it. That is more efficient than generating the smaller frames and then using concatenation to grow the matrix. […]

  4. […] Concatenation inside a loop is a "rookie mistake" that experienced statistical programmers avoid. The better way to accumulate a vector or matrix of results is to allocate an array for the results prior to the loop and fill the array inside the loop. […]

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