API design and performance

When you design a new API you have to take a lot of decisions. These decisions are based on a number of design principles. Joshua Bloch has summarized some of them in his presentation “How to Design a Good API and Why it Matters”. The main principles he mentions are:

  • Easy to learn
  • Easy to use
  • Hard to misuse
  • Easy to read and maintain code that uses it
  • Sufficiently powerful to satisfy requirements
  • Easy to extend
  • Appropriate to audience

As we see from the list above, Joshua Bloch puts his emphasis on readability and usage. A point that is completely missing from this listing is performance. But can performance impact your design decisions at all?

To answer this question let’s try to design a simple use case in form of an API and measure its performance. Then we can have a look at the results and decide whether performance considerations have an impact on the API or not. As an example we take the classic use case of loading a list of customers from some service/storage. What we also want to consider is the fact that not all users are allowed to perform this operation. Hence we will have to implement some kind of permission check. To implement this check and to return this information back to the caller, we have multiple ways to do so. The first try would look like this one:

	List<Customer> loadCustomersWithException() throws PermissionDeniedException

Here we model an explicit exception for the case the caller has not the right to retrieve the list of customers. The method returns a list of Customer objects while we assume that the user can be retrieved from some container or ThreadLocal implementation and has not to be passed to each method.
The method signature above is easy to use and hard to misuse. Code that uses this method is also easy to read:

	try {
		List<Customer> customerList = api.loadCustomersWithException();
	} catch (PermissionDeniedException e) {

The reader immediately sees that a list of Customers is loaded and that we perform some follow-up action only in case we don’t get a PermissionDeniedException. But in terms of performance exceptions do cost some CPU time as the JVM has to stop the normal code execution and walk up the stack to find the position where the execution has to be continued. This is also extremely hard if we consider the architecture of modern processors with their eager execution of code sequences in pipelines. So would it be better in terms of performance to introduce another way of informing the caller about the missing permission?

The first idea would be to create another method in order to check the permission before calling the method that eventually throws an exception. The caller code would then look like this:

	if(api.hasPermissionToLoadCustomers()) {
		List<Customer> customerList = api.loadCustomers();

The code is still readable, but we have introduced another method call that also costs runtime. But now we are sure that the exception won’t be thrown; hence we can omit the try/catch block. This code now violates the principle “Easy to use”, as we now have to invoke two methods for one use case instead of one. You have to pay attention not to forget the additional call for each retrieval operation. With regard to the whole project, your code will be cluttered with hundreds of permission checks.

Another idea to overcome the exception is to provide an empty list to the API call and let the implementation fill it. The return value can then be a boolean value indicating if the user has had the permission to execute the operation or if the list is empty because no customers have been found. As this sounds like C or C++ programming where the caller manages the memory of the structures that the callees uses, this approach costs the construction of an empty list even if you don’t have a permission to retrieve the list at all:

	List<Customer> customerList = new ArrayList<Customer>();
	boolean hasPermission = api.loadCustomersWithListAsParameter(customerList);
	if(hasPermission) {

One last approach to solve the problem to return two pieces of information to the caller would be the introduction of a new class that holds next to the returned list of Customers also a boolean flag indicating if the user has had the permission to perform this operation:

	CustomerList customerList = api.loadCustomersWithReturnClass();
	if(customerList.isUserHadPermission()) {

Again we have to create additional objects that cost memory and performance, and we also have to deal with an additional class that has nothing more to do than to serve as a simple data holder to provide the two pieces of information. Although this approach is again easy to use and creates readable code, it creates additional overhead in order to maintain the separate class and has some kind of awkward means to indicate that an empty list is empty because of the missing permission.

After having introduced these different approaches it is now time to measure their performance, one time for the case the caller has the permission and one time for the case the caller does not have the necessary permission. The results in the following table are shown for the first case with 1.000.000 repetitions:

Measurement Time[ms]
testLoadCustomersWithExceptionWithPermission 33
testLoadCustomersWithExceptionAndCheckWithPermission 34
testLoadCustomersWithReturnClassWithPermission 41
testLoadCustomersWithListAsParameterWithPermission 66

As we have expected before, the two approaches that introduce an additional class respectively pass an empty list cost more performance than the approaches that use an exception. Even the approach that uses a dedicated method call to check for the permission is not much slower than the one without it.
The following table now shows the results for the case where the caller does not have the permission to retrieve the list:

Measurement Time[ms]
testLoadCustomersWithExceptionNoPermission 1187
testLoadCustomersWithExceptionAndCheckNoPermission 5
testLoadCustomersWithReturnClassNoPermission 4
testLoadCustomersWithListAsParameterNoPermission 5

Not surprisingly the approach where a dedicated exception is thrown is much slower than the other approaches. The magnitude of this impact is much higher than one would expect before. But from the table above we already know the solution for this case: Just introduce another method that can be used to check for the permission ahead, in case you expect a lot of permission denied use cases. The huge difference in runtime between the with and without permission use cases can be explained by the fact that I have returned an ArrayList with one Customer object in case the caller was in possession of the permission; hence the loadCustomer() calls where a bit more expensive than in case the user did not possess this permission.

Conclusion: When performance is a critical factor, you also have to consider it when designing a new API. As we have seen from the measurements above, this may lead to solutions that violate common principles of API design like “easy to use” and “hard to misuse”.


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