Multiprocessing.Pool() - Stuck in a Pickle


This post sheds light on a common pitfall of the Python multiprocessing module: spending too much time serializing and deserializing data before shuttling it to/from your child processes. I gave a talk on this blog post at the Boston Python User Group in August 2018

Generally speaking, concurrent programming is hard. Luckily for us, Python’s multiprocessing.Pool abstraction makes the parallelization of certain problems extremely approachable.

from multiprocessing import Pool

def sqrt(x):
    return x**.5

numbers = [i for i in range(1000000)]
with Pool() as pool:
    sqrt_ls =, numbers)

The basic idea is that given any iterable of type Iterable[T], and any function f(x: T) -> Any, we can parallelize the higher-order function map(f, iterable) with 1 line of code. The above iterates over 1 million integers, and in parallel, calculates the sqrt of each integer, utilizing all CPUs on our machine.

That said, this post is about getting into trouble, not about the simple case above.

A More Complex Case: IntToBitarrayConverter

Our toy class will do just what it says it does: convert ints to their binary representation of 0s and 1s. Specifically, our implementation will return a bitarray as a numpy.ndarray. Our class also stores a cache of int -> str, implemented as a simple dict, which quickly converts int keys to str values (bitstrings).

class IntToBitarrayConverter():
    def set_bitstring_cache(self, bitstring_cache: Dict):
        self.bitstring_cache = bitstring_cache

    def convert(self, integer: int) -> np.ndarray:
        bitstring = self.bitstring_cache[integer]
        # cache the step of bitstring = format(integer, 'b')
        return self._bitstring_to_ndarray(bitstring)

    def _bitstring_to_ndarray(bitstring) -> np.ndarray:
        arr = (np.fromstring(bitstring, 'u1') - 48)
        return arr

Note: that np.fromstring(bitstring, 'u1') - 48 parses the str as the 8-bit integer ASCII values of the ‘0’ and ‘1’ chars (48 and 49 respectively), and subtracts 48 to yield binary data.

We can convert 1000000 ints to their np.ndarray bitarray representations with the code below:

CACHE_SIZE = 1024 * 1024  # 40 MB
ITER_SIZE = 1000000  # 1 million

int_to_bitarr_converter = IntToBitarrayConverter()
    {key: format(key, 'b') for key in range(CACHE_SIZE)})
ndarray_bitarr_ls = list(
        (random.randint(0, CACHE_SIZE - 1)
         for _ in range(ITER_SIZE))))

Running the above on my 2017 Macbook Pro, I see a wall time of 4.94s. Five seconds is not an extraordinarily long span of time, but I am greedy, and I want to run this concurrently and speed things up. Fortunately, this is easy with our Pool abstraction:

from multiprocessing import Pool

CACHE_SIZE = 1024 * 1024  # 40 MB
ITER_SIZE = 1000000  # 1 million

int_to_bitarr_converter = IntToBitarrayConverter()
    {key: format(key, 'b') for key in range(CACHE_SIZE)})
with Pool() as pool:
    ndarray_bitarr_ls =
        (random.randint(0, CACHE_SIZE - 1)
         for _ in range(ITER_SIZE))))

Running the above on the same machine, this takes 32.5s. This a 600% slow-down! What is going on?

Stuck in a Pickle

Link to Boston Python User Group Lightning Talk Diagram

Under the hood, our call to does the following:

  1. Initializes 3 Queues:
    1. The taskqueue which holds tuple of tasks: (result_job, func, (x,), {}).
      1. We only care about (x,) above. This holds our function convert(), and a chunk of elements from our iterable.
    2. The inqueue, which holds serialized (pickled) tasks.
    3. The outque, which will holds serialized (pickled) return values of each task.
  2. Creates a pool of “worker” Processes, which are responsible for:
    1. Removing tasks from the inqueue, which are deserialized, and executing the task.
    2. Executing each task, and sending the results to the outqueue, where it is serialized and stored.
  3. Creates 3 Threads which manage the above 3 Queues:
    1. The _task_handler which populates the inqueue with pickled task objects, from the taskqueue
    2. The _worker_handler which “reuses” workers by re-creating them once their work is done.
    3. The _result_handler which “removes” elements off of the outqueue, which are deserialized, and returned to your parent process call to

Re-read the above again and note everywhere you read serialize, deserialize or pickle. Objects must be serialized to a str before being shuttled to each process, and then that process must deserialize that str to re-create the object. This needs to happen on the return journey of the data also. That’s 2 calls to pickle.dumps()* and **2 calls to pickle.loads() per task!

Note: Time spent serializing & deserializing is the overhead that we pay in exchange for multiprocessed concurrency. If this takes longer than the execution of the convert() function, we are wasting out time! Raymond Hettinger explains this well in his talk here, and I build on our toy example in this post to investigate further.

A Tricky Task

When all fails, drop in a debugger. Let’s find where _task_handler Thread appends a task onto the inqueue, and investigate the size and composition of this task. (github link)

def _handle_tasks(taskqueue, put, outqueue, pool, cache):
    thread = threading.current_thread()

    for taskseq, set_length in iter(taskqueue.get, None):
        task = None
            # iterating taskseq cannot fail
            for task in taskseq:
                if thread._state:
                    util.debug('task handler found thread._state != RUN')                        break
                    import ipdb; ipdb.set_trace()

Let’s print the 3rd element of our task, the single-element tuple mentioned above as (x,):

ipdb> args_tuple = task[3]
ipdb> elem = args_tuple[0]
ipdb> func = elem[0]
ipdb> func_args = elem[1]
ipdb> func
<bound method IntToBitarrayConverter.convert of <caches.IntToBitarrayConverter object at 0x1122d60f0>>
ipdb> func_args
(612, 640, 176, 806, 372, 895, 345, 15, 173, ... 449)

In the call to put(task) above, our func_args and func will be serialized. The serialization of func_args is trivial: these are ints.

However, on further inspection, our <bound method...of object...> should raise concern! This is an instance method, meaning it holds the entire IntToBitarrayConverter object:

ipdb> func.__self__
<caches.IntToBitarrayConverter object at 0x1122d60f0>

Further, there is a 40 MB dict on this object accessed via the bitstring_cache attribute:

ipdb> func.__self__.bitstring_cache
{0: '0', 1: '1', 2: '10', 3: '11', 4: '100', 5: '101'...1048576: '100000000000000000000'}
ipdb> import sys
ipdb> sys.getsizeof(func.__self__.bitstring_cache) / 1024 / 1024

This explains our 600% slowdown. We are pickling/unpickling a 40 MB dict 4 times per task!

Serial (Performance) Killers

Here is the actual profiled breakdown, produced with blood, sweat and several debug statements in a non-optimized local copy of the multiprocessing package.

Process dumps() calls dumps() time(s) avg loads() calls loads() time(s) avg
Parent 42 3m36s 5.14s 33 4.34s .13s
1 4 5.37s 1.34s 5 2.98s .59s
2 4 5.12s 1.28s 5 3.01s .60s
3 4 5.18s 1.29s 5 3.75s .75s
4 4 5.74s 1.43s 5 2.95s .59s
5 4 5.09s 1.27s 5 3.01s .60s
6 4 5.14s 1.28s 5 2.96s .59s
7 4 5.79s 1.44s 4 2.96s .74s
8 4 5.13s 1.28s 5 3.52s .70s

How exactly did this happen?

OOP: Object-oriented Programming Problems

An instance method is a method which is called on an object, and has the object available within the scope of the method. In C++ and Javascript, we access the bound object via the variable this. In Python, we use self.

Recall the method convert(...), on our toy class, found below:

def convert(self, integer: int) -> np.ndarray:
    bitstring = self.bitstring_cache[integer]
    return self._bitstring_to_ndarray(bitstring)

Once our object IntToBitarrayConverter is created, the object is bound to the method convert(...). This means when we pass our method to, we are implicitly passing a reference to the object as well.

Passing an instance method to is OK, so long as the instance is not large. That said, a rule-of-thumb is to use @staticmethods or regular unbound functions when using Pool, to explicitly avoid this scenario. Otherwise you are at the mercy of the size of data that consumers add to your object.

The big takeaway here is that we spend 3m 35s in the parent process continuously pickling our bitstring_cache so it can be sent to our children.

A Global Solution

The proposed solution of using unbound methods may not be appealing. Often times we need additional state to apply our mapped function f(x) across our iterable. Each worker process may need to do things like:

  1. Acquire a database connection to fetch or update data.
  2. Access an in-memory cache, like our dict cache example above.

Fortunately, the general concept of initializaing each Pool worker process so that it has access to an unpickable object like a database engine, or a large object like our bitstring_cache is supported, with limitations…

We continue our example here for a solution to our problem using global variables.

A Global Correct Solution

Unfortunately, global variables shatter encapsulation, and in my opinion, are not a satisfying solution. I’ve begun work on a Pull Request augmenting the current initializer kwarg used to initialize Pool workers, while maintaining encapsulation. Please check out my work so far, and leave feedback. New test coverage is in progress. I will update when complete once a PR has been opened. No existing tests/interfaces have been broken.