Solved in bash 5.0


For background (and understanding (and trying to avoid the downvotes this question seems to attract)) I'll explain the path which got me to this issue (well, the best I can recall two months later).

Assume you are doing some shell tests for a list of Unicode characters:

printf "$(printf '\\U%x ' {33..200})"

and there being some more than 1 million Unicode characters, testing 20.000 of them doesn't seem to be that much.
Also assume that you set the characters as the positional arguments:

set -- $(printf "$(printf '\\U%x ' {33..20000})")

with the intention of passing the characters to each function to process them in different ways. So the functions should have the form test1 "$@" or similar. Now I realize how bad idea this is in bash.

Now, assume that there is the need to time ( an n=1000 ) each solution to find out which is better, under such conditions you will end with an structure similar to:

#!/bin/bash --
TIMEFORMAT='real: %R'  # '%R %U %S'

set -- $(printf "$(printf '\\U%x ' {33..20000})")

test1(){ echo "$1"; } >/dev/null
test2(){ echo "$#"; } >/dev/null
test3(){ :; }

main1(){ time for i in $(seq $n); do test1 "$@"; done
         time for i in $(seq $n); do test2 "$@"; done
         time for i in $(seq $n); do test3 "$@"; done

main1 "$@"

The functions test# are made very very simple just to be presented here.
The originals were progressively trimmed down to find where was the huge delay.

The script above works, you can run it and waste some seconds doing very little.

In the process of simplifying to find exactly where the delay was (and reducing each test function to almost nothing is the extreme after many trials) I decided to remove the passing of arguments to each test function to find out how much the time improved, only a factor of 6, not much.

To try yourself, remove all the "$@" in function main1 (or make a copy) and test again (or both main1 and the copy main2 (with main2 "$@")) to compare. This is the basic structure down below in the original post (OP).

But I wondered: why is the shell taking that long to "do nothing"?. Yes, only "a couple of seconds", but still, why?.

This made me test in other shells to discover that only bash had this issue.
Try ksh ./script (the same script as above).

This lead to this description: calling a function (test#) without any argument gets delayed by the arguments in the parent (main#). This is the description that follows and was the original post (OP) below.

Original post.

Calling a function (in Bash 4.4.12(1)-release) to do nothing f1(){ :; } is a thousand times slower than : but only if there are arguments defined in the parent calling function, Why?


f1   () { :; }

f2   () {
   echo "                     args = $#";
   printf '1 function no   args yes '; time for ((i=1;i<$n;i++)); do  :   ; done 
   printf '2 function yes  args yes '; time for ((i=1;i<$n;i++)); do  f1  ; done
   set --
   printf '3 function yes  args no  '; time for ((i=1;i<$n;i++)); do  f1  ; done

main1() { set -- $(seq $m)
          f2  ""
          f2 "$@"

n=1000; m=20000; main1

Results of test1:

                     args = 1
1 function no   args yes real:  0.013
2 function yes  args yes real:  0.024
3 function yes  args no  real:  0.020

                     args = 20000
1 function no   args yes real:  0.010
2 function yes  args yes real: 20.326
3 function yes  args no  real:  0.019

There are no arguments nor input or output used in function f1, the delay of a factor of a thousand (1000) is unexpected.1

Extending the tests to several shells, the results are consistent, most shells have no trouble nor suffer of delays (the same n and m are used):

          for sh in dash mksh ksh zsh bash b50sh
          echo "$sh" >&2
#         \time -f '\t%E' seq "$m" >/dev/null
#         \time -f '\t%E' "$sh" -c 'set -- $(seq '"$m"'); for i do :; done'
          \time -f '\t%E' "$sh" -c 'f(){ :;}; while [ "$((i+=1))" -lt '"$n"' ]; do : ; done;' $(seq $m)
          \time -f '\t%E' "$sh" -c 'f(){ :;}; while [ "$((i+=1))" -lt '"$n"' ]; do f ; done;' $(seq $m)



b55sh             # --without-bash-malloc
b56sh             # RELSTATUS=release
b50sh             # Debug enabled (RELSTATUS=alpha)
        xxxxxxx    More than a day ......

Uncomment the other two tests to confirm that neither seq or processing the argument list is the source for the delay.

1 It is known that passing results by arguments will increase the execution time. Thanks @slm


1 Answer 1


Copied from: Why the delay in the loop? at your request:

You can shorten the test case to:

time bash -c 'f(){ :;};for i do f; done' {0..10000}

It's calling a function while $@ is large that seems to trigger it.

My guess would be that the time is spent saving $@ onto a stack and restoring it afterwards. Possibly bash does it very inefficiently by duplicating all the values or something like that. The time seems to be in o(n²).

You get the same kind of time in other shells for:

time zsh -c 'f(){ :;};for i do f "$@"; done' {0..10000}

That is where you do pass the list of arguments to the functions, and this time the shell needs to copy the values (bash ends up being 5 times as slow for that one).

(I initially thought it was worse in bash 5 (currently in alpha), but that was down to malloc debugging being enabled in development versions as noted by @egmont; also check how your distribution builds bash if you want to compare your own build with the system's one. For instance, Ubuntu uses --without-bash-malloc)

  • How is debugging removed ?
    – user232326
    Aug 12, 2018 at 8:44
  • @isaac, I did it by changing RELSTATUS=alpha to RELSTATUS=release in the configure script. Aug 12, 2018 at 8:45
  • Added test results for both --without-bash-malloc and RELSTATUS=release to the question results. That still show a problem with the call to f.
    – user232326
    Aug 12, 2018 at 9:12
  • @Isaac, yes, I just said I used to be wrong to say that it was worse in bash5. It's not worse, it's just as bad. Aug 12, 2018 at 9:35
  • No, it is not as bad. Bash5 solves the problem with calling : and improves a little on calling f. Look at test2 timings in the question.
    – user232326
    Aug 12, 2018 at 21:38

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