MATLAB: Recording of Variables to & ldquo; -v7.3 & rdquo; (HDF5) .mat-files seems to be faster when you use the & ldquo; -append & rdquo; flag. How to come?


NOTE: This question deals with an issue observed back in 2011 with an old MATLAB version (R2009a). As per the update below from July 2016, the issue/bug in MATLAB seems to no longer exist (tested with R2016a; scroll down to end of question to see update).

I am using MATLAB R2009b and I need to write a larger script that converts the contents of a larger set of .zip files to v7.3 mat files (with an underlying HDF5-datamodel). Reading is OK. The issue is with saving. And there is actually no problem. My files saves nicely using the save command.

My question is more in the sense: Why am I observing the following surprising (for me) behavior in MATLAB?

let's look at my issue in general. In this current test-scenario I will be generating one output: A -v7.3 mat-file. This .mat-file will contain 40 blocks as individual variables. Each variable will be named "block_NNN" from 1 to 40 and will contain a struct with fields frames and blockNo. Field frames contains a 480x240x65 sequence of uint8 imagedata (here just random data generated using randi). Field blockNo contains the block number.

Remark: In the real script (that I have yet to finish) I will be doing the above at total of 370 times, converting a total of 108GB of raw data. Which is why I am concerned with the following.

Anyway, first I define some general variables:

% some sizes for dummy data and loops:
num_blockCount = 40;
num_blockLength = 65;
num_frameHeight = 480;
num_frameWidth = 240;

I then generate some dummy code that has shape and size identical to the actual raw data:

% generate empty struct:
stu_data2disk = struct();

% loop over blocks:
for num_k = 1:num_blockCount

   % generate block-name:
   temp_str_blockName = sprintf('block_%03u', num_k);

   % generate temp struct for current block:
   temp_stu_value = struct();
   temp_stu_value.frames = randi( ...
      [0 255], ...
      [num_frameHeight num_frameWidth num_blockLength], ...
      'uint8' ...
   temp_stu_value.blockNo = num_k;

   % using dynamic field names:
   stu_data2disk.(sprintf('block_%03u', num_k)) = temp_stu_value;


I now have all my random test-data in a struct stu_data2disk. Now I would like to save the data using one of two possible methods.

Let's try the simple one first:

% save data (simple):
disp('Save data the simple way:')
save converted.mat -struct stu_data2disk -v7.3;

The file is written without problems (286MB). The output is:

Save data the simple way:
Elapsed time is 14.004449 seconds.

OK - then I remembered that I would like to follow the save-procedure over the 40 blocks. Thus instead of the above I loop over the blocks and append them in sequence:

% save to file, using append:
disp('Save data using -append:')
for num_k = 1:num_blockCount

   % generate block-name:
   temp_str_blockName = sprintf('block_%03u', num_k);

   temp_str_appendToggle = '';
   if (num_k > 1)
      temp_str_appendToggle = '-append';

   % generate save command:
   temp_str_saveCommand = [ ...
      'save ', ...
      'converted_append.mat ', ...
      '-struct stu_data2disk ', temp_str_blockName, ' '...
      temp_str_appendToggle, ' ', ...
      '-v7.3', ...
      ';' ...

   % evaluate save command:


And again the file saves nicely (286MB). The output is:

Save data using -append:
Elapsed time is 0.956968 seconds.

Interestingly the append-method is much faster? My question is why?

Output from dir converted*.mat:

09-02-2011  20:38       300,236,392 converted.mat
09-02-2011  20:37       300,264,316 converted_append.mat
               2 File(s)    600,500,708 bytes

The files are not identical in size. And a test with fc in windows 7 revealed ... well many binary differences. Perhaps the data was shifted a bit - thus this tells us nothing.

Does someone have an idea what is going on here? Is the appended file using a much more optimized data-structure perhaps? Or maybe windows has cached the file and makes access to it much faster?

I made the effort of test-reading from the two files as well. Without presenting the numbers here the appended version was a little bit faster (could mean something in the long run though).

[EDIT]: I just tried using no format flag (defaults to -v7 on my system) and there is not much difference anymore:

Save data the simple way (-v7):
Elapsed time is 13.092084 seconds.
Save data using -append (-v7):
Elapsed time is 14.345314 seconds.

[EDIT]: I corrected the above mistake. Previously I mentioned that the stats were for -v6 but I was mistaken. I had just removed the format flag and assumed the default was -v6 but actually it is -v7.

I have created new test stats for all formats on my system using Andrew's fine framework (all formats are for the same random test data, now read from file):

15:15:51.422: Testing speed, format=-v6, R2009b on PCWIN, arch=x86, os=Microsoft Windows 7 Professional  6.1.7600 N/A Build 7600
15:16:00.829: Save the simple way:            0.358 sec
15:16:01.188: Save using multiple append:     7.432 sec
15:16:08.614: Save using one big append:      1.161 sec

15:16:24.659: Testing speed, format=-v7, R2009b on PCWIN, arch=x86, os=Microsoft Windows 7 Professional  6.1.7600 N/A Build 7600
15:16:33.442: Save the simple way:           12.884 sec
15:16:46.329: Save using multiple append:    14.442 sec
15:17:00.775: Save using one big append:     13.390 sec

15:17:31.579: Testing speed, format=-v7.3, R2009b on PCWIN, arch=x86, os=Microsoft Windows 7 Professional  6.1.7600 N/A Build 7600
15:17:40.690: Save the simple way:           13.751 sec
15:17:54.434: Save using multiple append:     3.970 sec
15:17:58.412: Save using one big append:      6.138 sec

And the sizes of the files:

10-02-2011  15:16       299,528,768 converted_format-v6.mat
10-02-2011  15:16       299,528,768 converted_append_format-v6.mat
10-02-2011  15:16       299,528,832 converted_append_batch_format-v6.mat
10-02-2011  15:16       299,894,027 converted_format-v7.mat
10-02-2011  15:17       299,894,027 converted_append_format-v7.mat
10-02-2011  15:17       299,894,075 converted_append_batch_format-v7.mat
10-02-2011  15:17       300,236,392 converted_format-v7.3.mat
10-02-2011  15:17       300,264,316 converted_append_format-v7.3.mat
10-02-2011  15:18       300,101,800 converted_append_batch_format-v7.3.mat
               9 File(s)  2,698,871,005 bytes

Thus -v6 seems to be the fastest for writing. Also not any large differences in files sizes. HDF5 does have some basic inflate-method built-in as far as I know.

Hmm, probably some optimization in the underlying HDF5-write functions?

Currently I still think that some underlying fundamental HDF5-write function is optimized for adding datasets to an HDF5-file (which is what happens when adding new variables to a -7.3 file). I believe I have read somewhere that HDF5 should optimized in this very way... though cannot be sure.

Other details to note:

The behavior is very systemic as we see in Andrew's answer below. It also seems to be quite important as to whether or not you run these things in a local scope of a function or in the "global" of an m-script. My first results were from an m-script where files were written to the current directory. I can still only reproduce the 1-second write for -7.3 in the m-script. The function-calls add some overhead apparently.

Update July 2016:

I found this again and thought I might test it with the newest MATLAB available to me at the moment. With MATLAB R2016a on Windows 7 x64 the problem seems to have been fixed:

14:04:06.277: Testing speed, imax=255, R2016a on PCWIN64, arch=AMD64, 16 GB, os=Microsoft Windows 7 Enterprise  Version 6.1 (Build 7601: Service Pack 1)
14:04:10.600: basic -v7.3:                    7.599 sec      5.261 GB used
14:04:18.229: basic -v7.3:                    7.894 sec      5.383 GB used
14:04:26.154: basic -v7.3:                    7.909 sec      5.457 GB used
14:04:34.096: basic -v7.3:                    7.919 sec      5.498 GB used
14:04:42.048: basic -v7.3:                    7.886 sec      5.516 GB used     286 MB file   7.841 sec mean
14:04:50.581: multiappend -v7.3:              7.928 sec      5.819 GB used
14:04:58.544: multiappend -v7.3:              7.905 sec      5.834 GB used
14:05:06.485: multiappend -v7.3:              8.013 sec      5.844 GB used
14:05:14.542: multiappend -v7.3:              8.591 sec      5.860 GB used
14:05:23.168: multiappend -v7.3:              8.059 sec      5.868 GB used     286 MB file   8.099 sec mean
14:05:31.913: bigappend -v7.3:                7.727 sec      5.837 GB used
14:05:39.676: bigappend -v7.3:                7.740 sec      5.879 GB used
14:05:47.453: bigappend -v7.3:                7.645 sec      5.884 GB used
14:05:55.133: bigappend -v7.3:                7.656 sec      5.877 GB used
14:06:02.824: bigappend -v7.3:                7.963 sec      5.871 GB used     286 MB file   7.746 sec mean

This was tested with Andrew Janke's reproMatfileAppendSpeedup function in the accepted answer below (5 passes with format 7.3). Now, -append is equally slow, or slower, to a single save - as it should be. Perhaps it was a problem with an early build of the HDF5 driver used in R2009a.

Holy cow. I can reproduce. Tried the single-append variation too; it's even speedier. Looks like "-append" just magically makes HDF5-based save() 30x faster. I don't have an explanation but I wanted to share what I found.

I wrapped up your test code in a function, refactoring it to make the save logic agnostic about the test data structure so you can run it on other data sets, and added some more diagnostic output.

Don't see the big speedup everywhere. It's huge on my 64-bit XP box and a 32-bit Server 2003 box, big on my 64-bit Windows 7 box, nonexistent on a 32-bit XP box. (Though multiple appends are a huge loss on Server 2003.) R2010b is slower in many cases. Maybe HDF5 appends or save's use of it just rock on newer Windows builds. (XP x64 is actually the Server 2003 kernel.) Or maybe it's just a machine config difference. There's a fast RAID on the XP x64 machine, and the 32-bit XP has less RAM than the rest. What OS and architecture are you running? Can you try this repro too?

19:36:40.289: Testing speed, format=-v7.3, R2009b on PCWIN64, arch=AMD64, os=Microsoft(R) Windows(R) XP Professional x64 Edition 5.2.3790 Service Pack 2 Build 3790
19:36:55.930: Save the simple way:           11.493 sec
19:37:07.415: Save using multiple append:     1.594 sec
19:37:09.009: Save using one big append:      0.424 sec

19:39:21.681: Testing speed, format=-v7.3, R2009b on PCWIN, arch=x86, os=Microsoft Windows XP Professional 5.1.2600 Service Pack 3 Build 2600
19:39:37.493: Save the simple way:           10.881 sec
19:39:48.368: Save using multiple append:    10.187 sec
19:39:58.556: Save using one big append:     11.956 sec

19:44:33.410: Testing speed, format=-v7.3, R2009b on PCWIN64, arch=AMD64, os=Microsoft Windows 7 Professional  6.1.7600 N/A Build 7600
19:44:50.789: Save the simple way:           14.354 sec
19:45:05.156: Save using multiple append:     6.321 sec
19:45:11.474: Save using one big append:      2.143 sec

20:03:37.907: Testing speed, format=-v7.3, R2009b on PCWIN, arch=x86, os=Microsoft(R) Windows(R) Server 2003, Enterprise Edition 5.2.3790 Service Pack 2 Build 3790
20:03:58.532: Save the simple way:           19.730 sec
20:04:18.252: Save using multiple append:    77.897 sec
20:05:36.160: Save using one big append:      0.630 sec

This looks huge. If it holds up on other data sets, I might use this trick in a lot of places myself. It may be something to bring up with MathWorks, too. Could they use the fast append technique in normal saves or other OS versions, too?

Here's the self-contained repro function.

function out = reproMatfileAppendSpeedup(nPasses, tests, imax, formats)
%REPROMATFILEAPPENDSPEEDUP Show how -append makes v7.3 saves much faster
% Examples:
% reproMatfileAppendSpeedup()
% reproMatfileAppendSpeedup(2, [], 0, {'7.3','7','6'}); % low-entropy test

if nargin < 1 || isempty(nPasses);  nPasses = 1;  end
if nargin < 2 || isempty(tests);    tests = {'basic','multiappend','bigappend'}; end
if nargin < 3 || isempty(imax);     imax = 255; end
if nargin < 4 || isempty(formats);  formats = '7.3'; end % -v7 and -v6 do not show the speedup
tests = cellstr(tests);
formats = cellstr(formats);

fprintf('%s: Testing speed, imax=%d, R%s on %s\n',...
    timestamp, imax, version('-release'), systemDescription());

tempDir = setupTempDir();
testData = generateTestData(imax);

testMap = struct('basic','saveSimple', 'multiappend','saveMultiAppend', 'bigappend','saveBigAppend');

for iFormat = 1:numel(formats)
    format = formats{iFormat};
    formatFlag = ['-v' format];
    %fprintf('%s: Format %s\n', timestamp, formatFlag);
    for iTest = 1:numel(tests)
        testName = tests{iTest};
        saveFcn = testMap.(testName);
        te = NaN(1, nPasses);
        for iPass = 1:nPasses
            fprintf('%s: %-30s', timestamp, [testName ' ' formatFlag ':']);
            t0 = tic;
            matFile = fullfile(tempDir, sprintf('converted-%s-%s-%d.mat', testName, format, i));
            feval(saveFcn, matFile, testData, formatFlag);
            te(iPass) = toc(t0);
            if iPass == nPasses
                fprintf('%7.3f sec      %5.3f GB used   %5.0f MB file   %5.3f sec mean\n',...
                    te(iPass), physicalMemoryUsed/(2^30), getfield(dir(matFile),'bytes')/(2^20), mean(te));
                fprintf('%7.3f sec      %5.3f GB used\n', te(iPass), physicalMemoryUsed/(2^30));
        % Verify data to make sure we are sane
        gotBack = load(matFile);
        gotBack = rmfield(gotBack, intersect({'dummy'}, fieldnames(gotBack)));
        if ~isequal(gotBack, testData)
            fprintf('ERROR: Loaded data differs from original for %s %s\n', formatFlag, testName);

% Clean up
rmdir(tempDir, 's');

function saveSimple(file, data, formatFlag)
save(file, '-struct', 'data', formatFlag);

function out = physicalMemoryUsed()
if ~ispc
    out = NaN;
    return; % memory() only works on Windows
[u,s] = memory();
out = s.PhysicalMemory.Total - s.PhysicalMemory.Available;

function saveBigAppend(file, data, formatFlag)
dummy = 0;
save(file, 'dummy', formatFlag);
fieldNames = fieldnames(data);
save(file, '-struct', 'data', fieldNames{:}, '-append', formatFlag);

function saveMultiAppend(file, data, formatFlag)
fieldNames = fieldnames(data);
for i = 1:numel(fieldNames)
    if (i > 1); appendFlag = '-append'; else; appendFlag = ''; end
    save(file, '-struct', 'data', fieldNames{i}, appendFlag, formatFlag);

function testData = generateTestData(imax)
nBlocks = 40;
blockSize = [65 480 240];
for i = 1:nBlocks
    testData.(sprintf('block_%03u', i)) = struct('blockNo',i,...
        'frames', randi([0 imax], blockSize, 'uint8'));

function out = timestamp()
%TIMESTAMP Showing timestamps to make sure it is not a tic/toc problem
out = datestr(now, 'HH:MM:SS.FFF');

function out = systemDescription()
if ispc
    platform = [system_dependent('getos'),' ',system_dependent('getwinsys')];
elseif ismac
    [fail, input] = unix('sw_vers');
    if ~fail
        platform = strrep(input, 'ProductName:', '');
        platform = strrep(platform, sprintf('\t'), '');
        platform = strrep(platform, sprintf('\n'), ' ');
        platform = strrep(platform, 'ProductVersion:', ' Version: ');
        platform = strrep(platform, 'BuildVersion:', 'Build: ');
        platform = system_dependent('getos');
    platform = system_dependent('getos');
arch = getenv('PROCESSOR_ARCHITEW6432');
if isempty(arch)
    arch = getenv('PROCESSOR_ARCHITECTURE');
    [~,sysMem] = memory();
    sysMem.PhysicalMemory.Total = NaN;
out = sprintf('%s, arch=%s, %.0f GB, os=%s',...
    computer, arch, sysMem.PhysicalMemory.Total/(2^30), platform);

function out = setupTempDir()
out = fullfile(tempdir, sprintf('%s - %s', mfilename, datestr(now, 'yyyymmdd-HHMMSS-FFF')));

EDIT: I modified the repro function, adding multiple iterations and parameterizing it for save styles, file formats, and imax for the randi generator.

I think filesystem caching is a big factor to the fast -append behavior. When I do a bunch of runs in a row with reproMatfileAppendSpeedup(20) and watch System Information in Process Explorer, most of them are under a second, and physical memory usage quickly ramps up by a couple GB. Then every dozen passes, the write stalls and takes 20 or 30 seconds, and physical RAM usage slowly ramps down to about where it started. I think this means that Windows is caching a lot of writes in RAM, and something about -append makes it more willing to do so. But the amortized time including those stalls is still a lot faster than the basic save, for me.

By the way, after doing multiple passes for a couple hours, I'm having a hard time reproducing the original timings.