F# tips weekly #14: Memoize

F# tips weekly #14: Memoize

The memoize function is my favorite method for solving performance problems. Its significant advantage is that it requires only a slight change in code, which doesn't increase the complexity of the original code. Despite its short implementation, it combines several techniques that are worth a detailed explanation.

let memoize f =
    let cache = System.Collections.Concurrent.ConcurrentDictionary()
    fun x -> cache.GetOrAdd(x, lazy f x).Value

The memoize function takes another function f and returns a new function with the same type as f, but the results of this new function are cached. Repeated calls to the function with the same parameter will not call f, but only return the cached return value. We can use it like this:

let cachedFun = memoize (fun x -> expensiveFun x)

It's important that cachedFun doesn't take any arguments; otherwise, it will not work, as the cache gets recreated with every call.

Another way is to use memoize on top of the function body:

let cachedFun = memoize <| fun x ->
    // expensiveFun body

Referential Transparency

Of course, memoize should be used only for functions that return the same result for the same input (and don't have any side effects). This property is called referential transparency and can also be rephrased as "we can replace a function call with its result without changing the meaning of the program". All F# functions that don't use mutability outside their scope or side effects fulfill this requirement.

Thread Safety

A more common variant of memoize uses System.Collections.Dictionary, but that is not thread-safe. By using ConcurrentDictionary, we can be sure that our cache is thread-safe. Also, by storing a Lazy value in the dictionary, we ensure that f will not be called twice in case of simultaneous calls. Here, we add a Lazy object into the dictionary, which when evaluated with .Value, actually executes the f function. Both the GetOrAdd method and the Value property on Lazy are thread-safe (more info: [GetOrAdd](learn.microsoft.com/en-us/dotnet/api/system..), Lazy).


The typical usage of memoize is to define it as a constant on the module level, which means the cache will be global and will live throughout the whole application lifetime. But of course, when we need to cache something only inside some algorithm, we can define the memoized function at a local level, and the cache will get garbage-collected when the memoized function goes out of scope.

Cache Invalidation

When we use memoize on a global level, we need to be careful with cache size; it's possible that non-relevant objects will remain in the cache, wasting precious memory. However, it's quite easy to customize memoize with various invalidation techniques.

The simplest approach is probably limiting the number of items in the cache:

let memoizeLimited limit (f: 'a -> 'b) =
    let keysStack = System.Collections.Concurrent.ConcurrentQueue<'a>()
    let cache = System.Collections.Concurrent.ConcurrentDictionary<'a, Lazy<'b>>()
    let f' x =
        if keysStack.Count >= limit then
            let (_, y) = keysStack.TryDequeue()
            cache.TryRemove(y) |> ignore
        f x
    fun x -> cache.GetOrAdd(x, lazy f' x).Value

Here, we use a ConcurrentQueue to store the order of keys inserted into the cache and remove older ones when we reach the limit. We put the invalidating logic into the computed function to take advantage of the thread safety already in place. This is just a basic sample and can be improved, for example, if we want to remove items that haven't been read for the longest time.

Another possibility is to invalidate entries based on the time of read/write.

Specify Cache Key

To allow more flexibility, the key for caching can be customized.

let memoizeBy projection f =
    let cache = System.Collections.Concurrent.ConcurrentDictionary()
    fun x -> cache.GetOrAdd(projection x, lazy f x).Value

More Parameters

Our memoize variant supports functions with only one argument; for multiple arguments, we need to use tuples. To avoid this, we can define helpers for more arguments:

let memoize2 f = memoize (fun (x, y) -> f x y) |> fun f' x y -> f' (x, y)
let memoize3 f = memoize (fun (x, y, z) -> f x y z) |> fun f' x y z -> f' (x, y, z)