Jef Claes

On software and life

22 Aug 2012

Is serialization really that expensive?

While wading through an exotic codebase, I stumbled upon a static class named Convert. This class contained somewhere around 2700 (non-generated) lines of code, where each method manually converted some object to a simple textual representation. These methods were then used to convert requests and reponses to and from a remote third party service before logging them to the database for auditing reasons.

public static class Convert
    public static string PaymentRequest(PaymentRequest req)
        var sb = new StringBuilder();

        sb.Append("Reference: " + req.Reference + " - ");
        sb.Append("NumberOfLicenses: " + req.NumberOfLicenses + " - ");
        sb.Append("PricePerLicense: " + req.PricePerLicense + " - ");
        sb.Append("CardNumber: " + req.CardNumber + " - ");
        sb.Append("Address: " + req.Address);

        return sb.ToString();

My first thoughts were something along of the lines of “What the.. this is insanely stupid code.” This must be a PITA to maintain and be extremely error-prone. Looking at the solution now, it looks simple enough to move that to some infrastructure and have the conversion done by something more generic. Serializing to JSON comes to mind; interpretable by man ánd machine.

Trying not to jump to conclusions, I looked for one of the remaining team members, and asked why they made that decision. “Well”, he said, “Those remote service calls are expensive as is; it’s a slow connection, we have to encrypt everything going over the wire, and we can’t make them asynchronously. We optimized where we could. Including logging.”
I asked if they found serialization to be so expensive that it could warrant all the monkey code. He said yes, but that he couldn’t vouch for the decision since they never measured.

Later that day, I took five minutes to see how the two really compare. I have this code snippet lying around if I quickly want to profile something.

static void Profile(string description, int iterations, Action func)
    // clean up

    // warm up 

    var watch = Stopwatch.StartNew();
    for (int i = 0; i < iterations; i++)    
    Console.WriteLine("Time Elapsed {0} ms", watch.ElapsedMilliseconds);

I picked an average sized object graph and ran the benchmark.

var req = new PaymentRequest()
    Reference = "ABC123",
    NumberOfLicenses = 3,
    PricePerLicense = 15.99,
    CardNumber = "123456",
    Address = "Sunset Boulevard"

Profile("Serializing a request.", 1, () =>       Newtonsoft.Json.JsonConvert.SerializeObject(req));
Profile("Doing it manually.", 1, () => Convert.PaymentRequest(req));

This yielded following results.

Serializing a request. Time Elapsed 0 ms
Doing it manually. Time Elapsed 0 ms


Turning up the number of iterations to 100 produces following results.

Serializing a request. Time Elapsed 9 ms
Doing it manually. Time Elapsed 1 ms

This time around, we see a huge relative difference; doing it manually is 9 times as fast. The absolute difference is still neglectable though.

As it turns out, for this specific scenario, with this specific serialization library, the overhead of serialization would be very tolerable. Other serialization libraries might produce less tolerable results though. It’s important to measure this stuff; I’m (re)learning almost daily that assuming is a mistake.

Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement. If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it. - H. James Harrington