## Archive for April, 2015

### How large vectors in R might be stored compactly

Vectors in R can currently have elements of two sizes — 8-byte double-precision floating-point elements for `numeric’ vectors, or 4-byte elements for `integer’ or `logical’ vectors. You can also have vectors whose elements are 1-byte `raw’ values, but these raw vectors don’t support negative numbers, or NA values, so they aren’t suitable for general use.

It seems that lots of actual data vectors could be stored more compactly than at present. Many integer vectors consist solely of elements that would fit in one or two bytes. Logical vectors could be stored using two bits per element (allowing TRUE, FALSE, and NA), which would use only one-sixteenth as much memory as at present. It’s likely that many operations would also be faster on such compact vectors, so there’s not even necessarily a time-space tradeoff.

For integer and logical types, the possible compact representations, and how to work with them, are fairly obvious. The challenge is how to start using such compact representations while retaining compatibility with existing R code, including functions written in C, Fortran, or whatever. Of course, one could use the S3 or S4 class facilities to define new classes for data stored compactly, with suitable redefinitions of standard operators such as `+’, but this would have substantial overhead, and would in any case not completely duplicate the behaviour of non-compact numeric, integer, or logical vectors. Below, I discuss how to implement compact representations in a way that is completely invisible to R programs. I hope to try this out in my pqR implementation of R sometime, though other improvements to pqR have higher priority at the moment.

How to compactly represent floating-point data (of R’s `numeric’ type) is not so obvious. If the use of a compact representation is to have no effect on the results, one cannot just use single-precision floating point. I describe a different approach in a new paper on Representing numeric data in 32 bits while preserving 64-bit precision (also on arxiv). I’ll present the idea of this paper next, before returning to the question of how one might put compact representations of any sort into an R interpreter, invisibly to R programs. (more…)