Lazy Evaluation


Consider the following program that finds the second prime number between 1000 and 10000:

((1000 to 10000) filter isPrime)(1)

This is much shorter than the recursive alternative:

def secondPrime(from: Int, to: Int) = nthPrime(from, to, 2)
def nthPrime(from: Int, to: Int, n: Int): Int =
  if (from >= to) throw new Error("no prime")
  else if (isPrime(from))
    if (n == 1) from else nthPrime(from + 1, to, n - 1)
  else nthPrime(from + 1, to, n)

But from a standpoint of performance, the first version is pretty bad; it constructs all prime numbers between 1000 and 10000 in a list, but only ever looks at the first two elements of that list.

Reducing the upper bound would speed things up, but risks that we miss the second prime number all together.

Delayed Evaluation

However, we can make the short-code efficient by using a trick:

  • Avoid computing the tail of a sequence until it is needed for the evaluation result (which might be never)

This idea is implemented in a new class, the Stream.

Streams are similar to lists, but their tail is evaluated only on demand.

Defining Streams

Streams are defined from a constant Stream.empty and a constructor Stream.cons.

For instance,

val xs = Stream.cons(1, Stream.cons(2, Stream.empty))

Stream Ranges

Let's try to write a function that returns a Stream representing a range of numbers between lo and hi:

def streamRange(lo: Int, hi: Int): Stream[Int] =
  if (lo >= hi) Stream.empty
  else Stream.cons(lo, streamRange(lo + 1, hi))

Compare to the same function that produces a list:

def listRange(lo: Int, hi: Int): List[Int] =
  if (lo >= hi) Nil
  else lo :: listRange(lo + 1, hi)

The functions have almost identical structure yet they evaluate quite differently.

  • listRange(start, end) will produce a list with end - start elements and return it.
  • streamRange(start, end) returns a single object of type Stream with start as head element.
    • The other elements are only computed when they are needed, where “needed” means that someone calls tail on the stream.

Methods on Streams

Stream supports almost all methods of List.

For instance, to find the second prime number between 1000 and 10000:

(streamRange(1000, 10000) filter isPrime)(1)

The one major exception is ::.

x :: xs always produces a list, never a stream.

There is however an alternative operator #:: which produces a stream.

x #:: xs == Stream.cons(x, xs)

#:: can be used in expressions as well as patterns.

Implementation of Streams

The implementation of streams is quite close to the one of lists.

Here's the trait Stream:

trait Stream[+T] extends Seq[T] {
  def isEmpty: Boolean
  def head: T
  def tail: Stream[T]

As for lists, all other methods can be defined in terms of these three.

Concrete implementations of streams are defined in the Stream companion object. Here's a first draft:

object Stream {
  def cons[T](hd: T, tl: => Stream[T]) = new Stream[T] {
    def isEmpty = false
    def head = hd
    def tail = tl
    override def toString = "Stream(" + hd + ", ?)"
  val empty = new Stream[Nothing] {
    def isEmpty = true
    def head = throw new NoSuchElementException("empty.head")
    def tail = throw new NoSuchElementException("empty.tail")
    override def toString = "Stream()"

The only important difference between the implementations of List and Stream concern tl, the second parameter of Stream.cons.

For streams, this is a by-name parameter: the type of tl starts with =>. In such a case, this parameter is evaluated by following the rules of the call-by-name model.

That's why the second argument to Stream.cons is not evaluated at the point of call.

Instead, it will be evaluated each time someone calls tail on a Stream object.

The other stream methods are implemented analogously to their list counterparts.

For instance, here's filter:

class Stream[+T] {
  def filter(p: T => Boolean): Stream[T] =
    if (isEmpty) this
    else if (p(head)) cons(head, tail.filter(p))
    else tail.filter(p)


Consider the following modification of streamRange. When you write streamRange(1, 10).take(3).toList what is the value of rec?

var rec = 0
def streamRange(lo: Int, hi: Int): Stream[Int] = {
  rec = rec + 1
  if (lo >= hi) Stream.empty
  else Stream.cons(lo, streamRange(lo + 1, hi))
streamRange(1, 10).take(3).toList
rec shouldBe res0

Lazy Evaluation

The proposed Stream implementation suffers from a serious potential performance problem: If tail is called several times, the corresponding stream will be recomputed each time.

This problem can be avoided by storing the result of the first evaluation of tail and re-using the stored result instead of recomputing tail.

This optimization is sound, since in a purely functional language an expression produces the same result each time it is evaluated.

We call this scheme lazy evaluation (as opposed to by-name evaluation in the case where everything is recomputed, and strict evaluation for normal parameters and val definitions.)

Lazy Evaluation in Scala

Haskell is a functional programming language that uses lazy evaluation by default.

Scala uses strict evaluation by default, but allows lazy evaluation of value definitions with the lazy val form:

lazy val x = expr

Lazy Vals and Streams

Using a lazy value for tail, Stream.cons can be implemented more efficiently:

def cons[T](hd: T, tl: => Stream[T]) = new Stream[T] {
  def head = hd
  lazy val tail = tl


val builder = new StringBuilder

val x = { builder += 'x'; 1 }
lazy val y = { builder += 'y'; 2 }
def z = { builder += 'z'; 3 }

z + y + x + z + y + x

builder.result() shouldBe res0