Linq is awesome, right?

Dec 11, 2019

Recently I’ve seen a curious blog on Dev.to, C# and .NET Core Appreciation Post. The most beautiful piece of code I have ever seen… this month!.

In short, author was amazed by how beautiful Linq is, supporting their feelings with this code snippet:

public User GetUserByToken(string token) {
  var user = (from u in Users
              join t in Tokens on u.Id equals t.UserId
              where t.Body == token
              select u).SingleOrDefault();

  return user;
}

Let’s tear this example apart and check how really performant beautiful Linq is!

The boilerplate code to make the thing not fall apart:

using System;
using System.Collections.Generic;
using System.Linq;

class User {
    public string Id { get; set; }

    public User(string Id) {
        this.Id = Id;
    }
}

class Token {
    public string UserId { get; set; }

    public string Body { get; set; }

    public Token(string UserId, string Body) {
        this.UserId = UserId;
        this.Body = Body;
    }
}

class Context {
    public List<User> Users = new List<User>();
    public List<Token> Tokens = new List<Token>();

    public User GetUserByToken(string token) {
        var user = (from u in Users
                    join t in Tokens on u.Id equals t.UserId
                    where t.Body == token
                    select u).SingleOrDefault();

        return user;
    }
}

public class MainClass {
    public static void Main(string[] args) {
        Context context = new Context();

        context.Users.Add(new User("1001"));
        context.Users.Add(new User("1002"));
        context.Users.Add(new User("1006"));

        context.Tokens.Add(new Token("1002", "Weirdo"));
        context.Tokens.Add(new Token("1001", "Waldo"));

        // at this point we want to start counting accesses from scratch
        Console.WriteLine("---");

        Console.WriteLine("User by token {0} = {1}", "Waldo", context.GetUserByToken("Waldo"));
    }
}

I am going to modify it slightly for the sake of metrics a bit later, but first let us see what code does C# generate in order for those magical SQL-like operators to do their thing. I am using https://sharplab.io/ for that purpose.

The code generated for Context#GetUserByToken:

[CompilerGenerated]
private sealed class <>c__DisplayClass2_0
{
    public string token;

    internal bool <GetUserByToken>b__3(<>f__AnonymousType0<User, Token> <>h__TransparentIdentifier0)
    {
        return <>h__TransparentIdentifier0.t.Body == token;
    }
}

[Serializable]
[CompilerGenerated]
private sealed class <>c
{
    public static readonly <>c <>9 = new <>c();

    public static Func<User, string> <>9__2_0;

    public static Func<Token, string> <>9__2_1;

    public static Func<User, Token, <>f__AnonymousType0<User, Token>> <>9__2_2;

    public static Func<<>f__AnonymousType0<User, Token>, User> <>9__2_4;

    internal string <GetUserByToken>b__2_0(User u)
    {
        return u.Id;
    }

    internal string <GetUserByToken>b__2_1(Token t)
    {
        return t.UserId;
    }

    internal <>f__AnonymousType0<User, Token> <GetUserByToken>b__2_2(User u, Token t)
    {
        return new <>f__AnonymousType0<User, Token>(u, t);
    }

    internal User <GetUserByToken>b__2_4(<>f__AnonymousType0<User, Token> <>h__TransparentIdentifier0)
    {
        return <>h__TransparentIdentifier0.u;
    }
}

public User GetUserByToken(string token)
{
    <>c__DisplayClass2_0 <>c__DisplayClass2_ = new <>c__DisplayClass2_0();
    <>c__DisplayClass2_.token = token;
    return Enumerable.SingleOrDefault(Enumerable.Select(Enumerable.Where(Enumerable.Join(Users, Tokens, <>c.<>9__2_0 ?? (<>c.<>9__2_0 = new Func<User, string>(<>c.<>9.<GetUserByToken>b__2_0)), <>c.<>9__2_1 ?? (<>c.<>9__2_1 = new Func<Token, string>(<>c.<>9.<GetUserByToken>b__2_1)), <>c.<>9__2_2 ?? (<>c.<>9__2_2 = new Func<User, Token, <>f__AnonymousType0<User, Token>>(<>c.<>9.<GetUserByToken>b__2_2))), new Func<<>f__AnonymousType0<User, Token>, bool>(<>c__DisplayClass2_.<GetUserByToken>b__3)), <>c.<>9__2_4 ?? (<>c.<>9__2_4 = new Func<<>f__AnonymousType0<User, Token>, User>(<>c.<>9.<GetUserByToken>b__2_4))));
}

If you format it a bit, you might see few issues with it:

public User GetUserByToken(string token)
{
    <>c__DisplayClass2_0 <>c__DisplayClass2_ = new <>c__DisplayClass2_0();

    <>c__DisplayClass2_.token = token;

    return Enumerable.SingleOrDefault(
        Enumerable.Select(
            Enumerable.Where(
                Enumerable.Join(
                    Users,
                    Tokens,
                    <>c.<>9__2_0 ?? (<>c.<>9__2_0 = new Func<User, string>(<>c.<>9.<GetUserByToken>b__2_0)),
                    <>c.<>9__2_1 ?? (<>c.<>9__2_1 = new Func<Token, string>(<>c.<>9.<GetUserByToken>b__2_1)),
                    <>c.<>9__2_2 ?? (<>c.<>9__2_2 = new Func<User, Token, <>f__AnonymousType0<User, Token>>(<>c.<>9.<GetUserByToken>b__2_2))
                ),
                new Func<<>f__AnonymousType0<User, Token>, bool>(<>c__DisplayClass2_.<GetUserByToken>b__3)),
                <>c.<>9__2_4 ?? (<>c.<>9__2_4 = new Func<<>f__AnonymousType0<User, Token>, User>(<>c.<>9.<GetUserByToken>b__2_4))
        )
    );
}

Now remove those mangled names:

[CompilerGenerated]
private sealed class Result
{
    public string token;

    internal bool IsMatching(Pair<User, Token> userTokenPair)
    {
        return userTokenPair.Second.Body == token;
    }
}

[Serializable]
[CompilerGenerated]
private sealed class c
{
    public static readonly c cInstance = new c();

    public static Func<User, string> fn1;

    public static Func<Token, string> fn2;

    public static Func<User, Token, Pair<User, Token>> fn3;

    public static Func<Pair<User, Token>, User> fn4;

    internal string <GetUserByToken>GetUserId(User u)
    {
        return u.Id;
    }

    internal string <GetUserByToken>GetTokenUserId(Token t)
    {
        return t.UserId;
    }

    internal Pair<User, Token> <GetUserByToken>MakeUserTokenPair(User u, Token t)
    {
        return new Pair<User, Token>(u, t);
    }

    internal User <GetUserByToken>GetUserFromUserTokenPair(Pair<User, Token> pair)
    {
        return pair.u;
    }
}

public User GetUserByToken(string searchToken)
{
    Result result = new Result();

    result.token = searchToken;

    return Enumerable.SingleOrDefault(
        Enumerable.Select(
            Enumerable.Where(
                Enumerable.Join(
                    Users,
                    Tokens,
                    c.fn1 ?? (c.fn1 = new Func<User, string>(c.cInstance.<GetUserByToken>GetUserId)),
                    c.fn2 ?? (c.fn2 = new Func<Token, string>(c.cInstance.<GetUserByToken>GetTokenUserId)),
                    c.fn3 ?? (c.fn3 = new Func<User, Token, Pair<User, Token>>(c.cInstance.<GetUserByToken>MakeUserTokenPair))
                ),
                new Func<Pair<User, Token>, bool>(result.IsMatching)
            ),
            c.fn4 ?? (c.fn4 = new Func<Pair<User, Token>, User>(c.cInstance.<GetUserByToken>GetUserFromUserTokenPair))
        )
    );
}

And, simplifying everything with lambdas:

public User GetUserByToken(string searchToken)
{
    User result;

    return Enumerable.SingleOrDefault(
        Enumerable.Select(
            Enumerable.Where(
                Enumerable.Join(
                    Users,
                    Tokens,
                    user => user.Id,
                    token => token.UserId,
                    (user, token) => new Pair<User, Token>(user, token)
                ),
                userTokenPair.Second.Body == searchToken
            ),
            userTokenPair => userTokenPair.First
        )
    );
}

If you have not noticed the issue just yet, continue reading.

Now I am adding a simple debug output to check the calls LINQ makes whenever we call Context#GetUserByToken. To do that, I am simply going to smash Console.WriteLine statement to each getter of both User and Tag classes:

class User {
    private string _Id;

    public string Id {
        get { Console.WriteLine("User<{0}>.Id was accessed", _Id); return _Id; }

        set { _Id = value; }
    }

    public User(string Id) {
        this.Id = Id;
    }
}

class Token {
    private string _UserId;
    private string _Body;

    public string UserId {
        get { Console.WriteLine("Token<{0}>.UserId was accessed", _Body); return _UserId; }

        set { _UserId = value; }
    }

    public string Body {
        get { Console.WriteLine("Token<{0}>.Body was accessed", _Body); return _Body; }

        set { _Body = value; }
    }

    public Token(string UserId, string Body) {
        this.UserId = UserId;
        this.Body = Body;
    }
}

Seems like LINQ goes through all users and all their tokens:

---
Token<Weirdo>.UserId was accessed
Token<Waldo>.UserId was accessed
User<1001>.Id was accessed
Token<Waldo>.Body was accessed
User<1002>.Id was accessed
Token<Weirdo>.Body was accessed
User<1006>.Id was accessed

If I was to add one more user like this

context.Users.Add(new User("1008"));

then the lookup iterates over those ones too:

---
Token<Weirdo>.UserId was accessed
Token<Waldo>.UserId was accessed
User<1001>.Id was accessed
Token<Waldo>.Body was accessed
User<1002>.Id was accessed
Token<Weirdo>.Body was accessed
User<1006>.Id was accessed
User<1008>.Id was accessed

If I assign a token to that user, it also will be visited:

context.Tokens.Add(new Token("1008", "Quattro"));
---
Token<Weirdo>.UserId was accessed
Token<Waldo>.UserId was accessed
Token<Quattro>.UserId was accessed
User<1001>.Id was accessed
Token<Waldo>.Body was accessed
User<1002>.Id was accessed
Token<Weirdo>.Body was accessed
User<1006>.Id was accessed
User<1008>.Id was accessed
Token<Quattro>.Body was accessed

And it is quite well reflected in the generated code - LINQ essentially generates a list of pairs for every user and token matching a join condition:

public User GetUserByToken(string searchToken)
{
    User result;

    List<Pair<User, Token>> tempCollection = Enumerable.Join(
        Users,
        Tokens,
        user => user.Id,
        token => token.UserId,
        (user, token) => new Pair<User, Token>(user, token)
    );

    return Enumerable.SingleOrDefault(
        Enumerable.Select(
            Enumerable.Where(
                tempCollection,
                userTokenPair.Second.Body == searchToken
            ),
            userTokenPair => userTokenPair.First
        )
    );
}

If we continue extracting the calls to Enumerable, we will end up with something like this:

public User GetUserByToken(string searchToken)
{
    User result;

    List<Pair<User, Token>> tempCollection = Enumerable.Join(
        Users,
        Tokens,
        user => user.Id,
        token => token.UserId,
        (user, token) => new Pair<User, Token>(user, token)
    );

    List<Pair<User, Token>> matchingPairs = Enumerable.Where(
        tempCollection,
        userTokenPair.Second.Body == searchToken
    );

    List<User> transformedMatchingPairs = Enumerable.Select(
        matchingPairs,
        userTokenPair => userTokenPair.First
    );

    return Enumerable.SingleOrDefault(
        transformedMatchingPairs
    );
}

Now, Enumerable.Join is the only tricky instruction here. It makes that big temporary join table (talking SQL and relational databases). It can be written as follows:

public User GetUserByToken(string searchToken)
{
    User result;

    List<Pair<User, Token>> tempCollection = new List<>();

    foreach (User user in Users) {
        foreach (Token token in Tokens) {
            if (user.Id == token.UserId) {
                tempCollection.Add(new Pair<User, Token>(user, token));
            }
        }
    }

    List<Pair<User, Token>> matchingPairs = Enumerable.Where(
        tempCollection,
        userTokenPair.Second.Body == searchToken
    );

    List<User> transformedMatchingPairs = Enumerable.Select(
        matchingPairs,
        userTokenPair => userTokenPair.First
    );

    return Enumerable.SingleOrDefault(
        transformedMatchingPairs
    );
}

The Enumerable.Where call simply filters the collection:

public User GetUserByToken(string searchToken)
{
    User result;

    List<Pair<User, Token>> tempCollection = new List<>();

    foreach (User user in Users) {
        foreach (Token token in Tokens) {
            if (user.Id == token.UserId) {
                tempCollection.Add(new Pair<User, Token>(user, token));
            }
        }
    }

    List<Pair<User, Token>> matchingPairs = new List<>();

    foreach (Pair<User, Token> userTokenPair in tempCollection) {
        if (userTokenPair.Second.Body == searchToken) {
            matchingPairs.Add(userTokenPair);
        }
    }

    List<User> transformedMatchingPairs = Enumerable.Select(
        matchingPairs,
        userTokenPair => userTokenPair.First
    );

    return Enumerable.SingleOrDefault(
        transformedMatchingPairs
    );
}

The Enumerable.Select call maps the collection onto some other collection:

public User GetUserByToken(string searchToken)
{
    User result;

    List<Pair<User, Token>> tempCollection = new List<>();

    foreach (User user in Users) {
        foreach (Token token in Tokens) {
            if (user.Id == token.UserId) {
                tempCollection.Add(new Pair<User, Token>(user, token));
            }
        }
    }

    List<Pair<User, Token>> matchingPairs = new List<>();

    foreach (Pair<User, Token> userTokenPair in tempCollection) {
        if (userTokenPair.Second.Body == searchToken) {
            matchingPairs.Add(userTokenPair);
        }
    }

    List<User> transformedMatchingPairs = new List<>();

    foreach (Pair<User, Token> userTokenPair in matchingPairs) {
        transformedMatchingPairs.Add(userTokenPair.First);
    }

    return Enumerable.SingleOrDefault(
        transformedMatchingPairs
    );
}

And finally, Enumerable.SingleOrDefault returns the first element of the collection or the default value (null in this case):

public User GetUserByToken(string searchToken)
{
    User result;

    List<Pair<User, Token>> tempCollection = new List<>();

    foreach (User user in Users) {
        foreach (Token token in Tokens) {
            if (user.Id == token.UserId) {
                tempCollection.Add(new Pair<User, Token>(user, token));
            }
        }
    }

    List<Pair<User, Token>> matchingPairs = new List<>();

    foreach (Pair<User, Token> userTokenPair in tempCollection) {
        if (userTokenPair.Second.Body == searchToken) {
            matchingPairs.Add(userTokenPair);
        }
    }

    List<User> transformedMatchingPairs = new List<>();

    foreach (Pair<User, Token> userTokenPair in matchingPairs) {
        transformedMatchingPairs.Add(userTokenPair.First);
    }

    return (transformedMatchingPairs.Size > 0) ? transformedMatchingPairs.Get(0) : null;
}

If we remove the unnecessary (for us as the developers) transformations and intermediate collections, we will end up with the code, similar to the naive implementation of the same logic with two nested loops:

public User GetUserByToken(string searchedToken) {
    foreach (User user in Users) {
        foreach (Token token in Tokens) {
            if (token.UserId == user.Id && token.Body == searchedToken) {
                return user;
            }
        }
    }

    return null;
}

Except the naive implementation not generating a whole lot of code:

public User GetUserByToken(string searchedToken)
{
    List<User>.Enumerator enumerator = Users.GetEnumerator();
    try
    {
        while (enumerator.MoveNext())
        {
            User current = enumerator.Current;
            List<Token>.Enumerator enumerator2 = Tokens.GetEnumerator();
            try
            {
                while (enumerator2.MoveNext())
                {
                    Token current2 = enumerator2.Current;
                    if (current2.UserId == current.Id && current2.Body == searchedToken)
                    {
                        return current;
                    }
                }
            }
            finally
            {
                ((IDisposable)enumerator2).Dispose();
            }
        }
    }
    finally
    {
        ((IDisposable)enumerator).Dispose();
    }
    return null;
}

The real difference, however, is in the exact environment the code is running in:

---
Token<Weirdo>.UserId was accessed
User<1001>.Id was accessed
Token<Waldo>.UserId was accessed
User<1001>.Id was accessed
Token<Waldo>.Body was accessed

So in the good-case-scenario, naive implementation beats does fewer operations than the LINQ code.

The issue with both approaches is in the worst-case-scenario, which, as I have learned by heart, is the only possible scenario. They both are going to run in O(n^2) time at worst.

Let’s consider a small optimization, using indexes:

class Context {
    private Dictionary<string, User> UserByToken = new Dictionary<string, User>();

    private Dictionary<string, User> UserById = new Dictionary<string, User>();

    public void AddUser(User u) {
      Users.Add(u);

      UserById[u.Id] = u;
    }

    public void AddToken(Token t) {
      Tokens.Add(t);

      UserByToken[t.Body] = UserById[t.UserId];
    }

    public User GetUserByToken2(string token) {
        return UserByToken[token];
    }
}

// then the main method needs to be adjusted correspondingly:
public class MainClass {
    public static void Main(string[] args) {
        Context context = new Context();

        context.AddUser(new User("1001"));
        context.AddUser(new User("1002"));
        context.AddUser(new User("1006"));
        context.AddUser(new User("1008"));

        context.AddToken(new Token("1002", "Weirdo"));
        context.AddToken(new Token("1001", "Waldo"));
        context.AddToken(new Token("1008", "Quattro"));

        // at this point we want to start counting accesses from scratch
        Console.WriteLine("---");

        Console.WriteLine("User by token {0} = {1}", "Waldo", context.GetUserByToken("Waldo"));
    }
}

Essentially, whenever we add any user or tag, we put them in a dictionary (an index) in memory.

Okay, we sacrifice some memory, but do we earn anything from it?

The output of the program is very short:

User<1001>.Id was accessed
User<1002>.Id was accessed
User<1006>.Id was accessed
User<1008>.Id was accessed
Token<Weirdo>.Body was accessed
Token<Weirdo>.UserId was accessed
Token<Waldo>.Body was accessed
Token<Waldo>.UserId was accessed
Token<Quattro>.Body was accessed
Token<Quattro>.UserId was accessed
---
User by token Waldo = User

So essentially, no collection is iterated. The access to the required object is immediate.

One might argue that the examples here are very synthetic and do not showcase anything. But imagine a real product with millions or even billions of entities like those. Think an average Google-size organization using Jira. Now replace User with Issue and Token with Comment. I can assure you, the numbers would be 10-folded.

Contra: the code is written to be read (more often than not) and deleted (my favourite scenario). So even thought hashmaps might seem appealing, indexing on few more fields might make the code hard to maintain. This is especially crucial for long-lasting projects, where developers come and go as the time passes. So sometimes this might be a necessary evil.

But sometimes it is best to know the theory rather than the tool.