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Profiling Django Applications: A Journey From 1300 to 2 queries

In this post, I'll discuss profiling Django applications through a case study in linkrdr's code. Through the use of profiling tools, I was able to reduce the number of database queries a view was using from 1300 to 2.

Introduction To Profiling

At some point in most Django projects, some part of the application becomes 'slow'. This doesn't have to be the case (more on that later), but it's often the result of changes made without performance in mind.

In the beginning, this is actually a good thing: focus on making it work first, then focus on making it fast. Of course, you don't want to code yourself into a corner by writing code that "works" but does so in a way that it will never be fast. Instead, you want to keep performance in the back of your mind while implementing a solution that makes sense.

Once you've proven your solution works through your automated tests (You are using automated tests, right?), the next step is to make sure its performance is acceptable. Note that I didn't say 'optimal'. Don't waste time making something faster than it needs to be. This should be common sense but, once the optimization bug bites, it's common for developers to go a bit off the deep end and keep trying to find optimizations long after it's necessary.

So you're solution works, but it's slower than what you've deemed acceptable. What's the first step? For far too many developers, it's

  1. Fire up my editor
  2. Take a look around
  3. Guess what I think is causing slowness
  4. Make a bunch of changes
  5. Hope it got faster

Wrong, wrong, wrong. If you take away one thing from the post, let this be it: developers are notoriously bad at predicting performance bottlenecks. People think, 'Well, I wrote it, so I should know what could be causing slowness.' Instead of relying on faulty intuition, we should be relying on data.

Profiling is the process by which we accumulate data on the performance of an application. This data can come in many forms, but usually is some variation on reporting two things: the number of times a function or line of code was executed and how much time it took to do so. For every modern language there exist some form of profiling tools. Use them.

A Case Study

linkrdr allows, among other things, a user to import their RSS/Atom/Twitter/Anything Else feeds and get an intelligently laid out view of the links contained in their feeds. The show_items view for linkrdr is responsible for retrieving the user's current feeds, gathering the links from those feeds' entries, and scoring, sorting, and aggregating the links for presentation.

When I first began work on the view, I did so with a unit test pre-written. I needed to get that test working, so I did so in the simplest way possible. Here's what the code looked like:

def show_items(request):
    feeds = Feed.objects.filter(users__id=request.user.id)
    seen_links = {}

    class LinkScore():
        def __init__(self, link, score):
        self.links = [link]
        self.score = score

    for feed in feeds:
        for entry in feed.entry_set.all():
            for link in entry.link_set.all():
                # determine score for link

    sorted_links = sorted(seen_links.values(), key=lambda v: v.score,

    return render_to_response('links/entries.html', {'links': sorted_links, }, context_instance=RequestContext(request))

Simple, right? If someone asked you to write pseudo-code to perform this task, I'm guessing it would look largely similar to this. Remember, that's a good thing in the beginning. We're focusing on correctness more than performance.

This code turned out to be 'all right' in the performance department. It eventually got on my nerves, though, because I knew it has a problem that experienced Django developers probably spotted right away. Even though I was %99.99 percent sure I knew what was slowing down this view, I approached optimizing this code the same way I approach any optimization task. I began with profiling.

Profiling in Django is a little all over the map. There isn't really a universally accepted solution, as you can tell by reading the Django wiki. I've been using django-extensions for a while now, and it has a very nice profiling feature: manage.py runprofileserver. It starts the Django webserver with the (now unmaintained but still useful) hotshot profiler and writes a .prof profiling results file on every request.

So I fired up the profile server and navigated to my view. A .prof file was added to my /tmp directory. To interpret it, I entered the Django shell and did the following:

import hotshot.stats

stats = hotshot.stats.load('/path/to/file.prof')
stats.sort_stats('time', 'calls') # sort the output based on time spent
in the function
stats.print_stats(20) # print the top 20 culprits

The result of this was as I expected:

In [6]: stats.print_stats(20)
557944 function calls (485997 primitive calls) in 3.959 seconds

Ordered by: internal time, call count
List reduced from 457 to 20 due to restriction <20>

ncalls  tottime  percall  cumtime  percall filename:lineno(function)
    1310    0.763    0.001    0.783    0.001 /home/illest/linkrdr/virtualenv/local/lib/python2.7/site-packages/django/db/backends/postgresql_psycopg2/base.py:42(execute)
68656/15272    0.485    0.000    1.099    0.000 /usr/lib/python2.7/copy.py:145(deepcopy)
    67792    0.173    0.000    0.173    0.000 /usr/lib/python2.7/copy.py:267(_keep_alive)
    1310    0.152    0.000    0.155    0.000 /home/illest/linkrdr/virtualenv/local/lib/python2.7/site-packages/django/db/backends/postgresql_psycopg2/base.py:116(_cursor)
    3818    0.136    0.000    1.294    0.000 /home/illest/linkrdr/virtualenv/local/lib/python2.7/site-packages/django/db/models/sql/query.py:223(clone)
10041/5020    0.109    0.000    0.544    0.000 /usr/lib/python2.7/copy.py:234(_deepcopy_tuple)
    2344    0.089    0.000    0.106    0.000 /home/illest/linkrdr/virtualenv/local/lib/python2.7/site-packages/django/db/models/base.py:275(__init__)
8838/7636    0.076    0.000    0.575    0.000 /home/illest/linkrdr/virtualenv/local/lib/python2.7/site-packages/django/utils/tree.py:55(__deepcopy__)
    10258    0.067    0.000    0.072    0.000 /home/illest/linkrdr/virtualenv/local/lib/python2.7/site-packages/django/utils/datastructures.py:110(__init__)
    1310    0.057    0.000    0.111    0.000 /home/illest/linkrdr/virtualenv/local/lib/python2.7/site-packages/django/db/models/sql/compiler.py:218(get_default_columns)
    3654    0.053    0.000    1.816    0.000 /home/illest/linkrdr/virtualenv/local/lib/python2.7/site-packages/django/db/models/query.py:214(iterator)
    3280    0.050    0.000    2.209    0.001 /home/illest/linkrdr/virtualenv/local/lib/python2.7/site-packages/django/db/models/fields/related.py:288(__get__)
21494/19090    0.046    0.000    0.356    0.000 /usr/lib/python2.7/copy.py:226(_deepcopy_list)
    5021    0.045    0.000    0.326    0.000 /usr/lib/python2.7/copy.py:306(_reconstruct)
    1310    0.044    0.000    0.420    0.000 /home/illest/linkrdr/virtualenv/local/lib/python2.7/site-packages/django/db/models/sql/compiler.py:47(as_sql)
    1310    0.040    0.000    0.069    0.000 /home/illest/linkrdr/virtualenv/local/lib/python2.7/site-packages/django/db/models/sql/query.py:99(__init__)
    2620    0.037    0.000    0.099    0.000 /home/illest/linkrdr/virtualenv/local/lib/python2.7/site-packages/django/db/models/sql/compiler.py:749(<lambda>)
    1310    0.037    0.000    0.846    0.001 /home/illest/linkrdr/virtualenv/local/lib/python2.7/site-packages/django/db/backends/util.py:31(execute)
    3818    0.037    0.000    1.345    0.000 /home/illest/linkrdr/virtualenv/local/lib/python2.7/site-packages/django/db/models/query.py:751(_clone)
    10258    0.037    0.000    0.037    0.000 /home/illest/linkrdr/virtualenv/local/lib/python2.7/site-packages/django/utils/datastructures.py:105(__new__)

As you can see, psycopg2 is calling execute 1310 times, which is causing all sorts of slowness. Execute, in case you didn't guess, is the function that executes an SQL query against the database. My view was making 1310 database queries for a user with 4 feeds.

Well, now we know what the cause of the slowness is. The question is: how do we fix it? I began by activating the django-debug-toolbar, which lets you view the number of SQL queries a page generates, among many other useful things. I confirmed that the number of queries reported was the same in the debug-toolbar and went about optimizing the code.

The first approach to optimization in Django should always be to modify the problematic function without changing anything else. Sometimes, you won't be able to optimize without making changes to your models or other parts of your application, but this kind of change shouldn't be your first inclination.

So I went back to my view and asked: is there a better way to get the same data I'm currently getting? It turns out there is: using select_related in my query. select_related populates your QuerySet with the records you requested plus related records based on ForeignKeys in your model. If I could change my query to use select related, I could drastically reduce the number of queries the view required.

There was an issue, though. My models were set up so that a Link belonged to an Entry, which belonged to a Feed, which had a set of Users associated. I had gone from the top down: a query filtering feeds that belonged to the current user. What I needed to do to realize the benefit of select_related was to get all of the objects I needed in one query. Since what I really needed was Link objects, I changed the query to:

links = Link.objects.select_related('entry', 'entry__feed', 'url', 'entry__url').filter(entry__feed__users__id=request.user.id)

This would give me all of the links that I was interested in, plus all of the related objects that I'd be using. I reran the view profiling and saw something unexpected: I was still performing over 600 queries. Using the debug-toolbar to determine the lines of code generating these queries quickly revealed my error. When using select_related, you must make sure to reuse the QuerySet in subsequent code. If you accidentally use a new QuerySet (even if the objects would have been in the original QuerySet) it will result in a new database query. This cascades down to any other objects using the new QuerySet, and now you've got the same issue again.

After making sure I reused the QuerySet throughout my view and the functions it called, I reran the view using the debug-toolbar. Finally I had the results I wanted: all of the data generated in just 2 queries (the other query was the User's Session query, which can't really be avoided). One thing you need to be aware of when using select_related is that the query can get so large as to be slower than the iterative approach. That's something I'll definitely need to keep an eye on in the future.

Cleaning Up

After re-running the tests to confirm my new code worked as expected and committing the code to git, I had one more task left: update my unit tests to reflect my new changes. While I didn't make any functional changes, I did make performance changes, and performance changes should be unit tested just like functionality changes.

Helpfully, Django's TestCase class has an assertion TestCase.assertNumQueries() that checks the number of queries performed during a test. I simply added this assertion the my view test and I was done. This prevents me from adding code in the future that increases the number of database queries without forcing myself to decide if that's acceptable.

Questions or comments on Profiling Django Applications? Let me know in the comments below. Also, follow me on Twitter to see all of my blog posts and updates.

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