Exercise 2 - Clinging Onto Memory


Unlike some low level languages like C, Python will manage our memory for us and will free up memory that’s no longer needed. Python’s automatic memory management makes our lives easier, but sometimes, it may not work the way you would expect it to…

Working Through an Example

Let’s go through an example where memory management in Python doesn’t work how a person coming from other programming languages might expect.


Take a look at the example in holding_onto_memory.py: how many MB of memory will it use at peak? Take a guess, and then confirm by running memray and generating a flamegraph.

Expectations vs Reality

Let’s presume that we can’t mutate the original data, the best we can do is peak memory of 200MB: for a brief moment in time both the original 100MB of data and the modified copy of the data will need to be present. In practice, however, the actual peak usage will be 400MB as demonstrated by the flamegraph:


Examining our flame graph further, we can see that we peak at 400MB of allocated memory in add_scalar due to four 100MB allocations that are all alive simultaneously:

  1. The return value from subtract_scalar, held by the data variable in process_data

  2. The return value from raise_to_power, held by the data_pow variable in process_data

  3. The return value from duplicate_data, held by the data argument in add_scalar

  4. The return value from add_scalar, which is created and populated before the function returns and the data argument goes out of scope


Experiment with the code in holding_onto_memory.py and try to get the peak memory usage down to 200MB. Test your solutions by running the unit test in tests/test_exercise_2.py and examine them with the help of memray reports.


Toggle to see the sample solutions

After examining the flame graph, we can see that the problem is caused by local variables which are no longer needed, but continue to use memory until process_data() has finished running. Therefore, we need to refactor the method in a way that does not use unnecessary variables to store data that will not be read afterwards. There are two main approaches we can use to solve our issue here:

  1. Avoiding local variables in process_data() all together and instead returning the result of nested function calls:

    def process_data():
        # no extra reference to the original array
        return add_scalar(
  2. Reassigning one variable: we can create a single variable, and re-use it multiple times to store the new value of the manipulated array. This way, we will only hold one array in memory at a time, instead of holding on to older versions of the mutated array unnecessarily:

    def process_data():
        # reusing the local variable instead of allocating more space
        # this approach is called 'hidden mutability'
        data = load_xMb_of_data(SIZE_OF_DATA_IN_MB)
        data = subtract_scalar(data, SUBTRACT_AMOUNT)
        data = raise_to_power(data, POWER_AMOUNT)
        data = duplicate_data(data)
        data = add_scalar(data, ADD_AMOUNT)
        return data

Full code solution here.


Typically, holding onto data in memory a little longer than needed is not a big issue. However, when we are working with large objects, we should be particularly careful. Over-allocating unnecessary memory can lead to running out of memory on the machine (especially for Linux VMs which are typically smaller than physical machines).

Memray can be a helpful tool when trying to debug where we are over-allocating memory unnecessarily.

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