More on how base R and `data.table` work: memory usage and address

This post is designed to help me understand how data.tables copy() function works, along with its modify-by-reference behavior (as compared to the modify-by-copy that Hadley references in Advanced R’s memory chapter).

First, we’ll use four packages:


The pryr package (pronounced Pry R) is a Hadley package that helps us see some of the internal behavior of R.

We’ll use the following data table for this post.

dt <- data.table(
  x = rnorm(100000),
  y = runif(100000)

It is roughly 1.6 MB and has an address of address(dt). We won’t be using this address later on because we’ll be making copies of this data table, but note that an object has a size and address.

## 1.6 MB
## "0x7f8986c3f600"

To better understand data.table’s behavior, let’s do four different ways of adding a variable to a data frame.

  1. Use the base R way of adding a variable.
  2. Use the mutate() function.
  3. Use copy() to make a deep copy of the data table and then modify by reference.
  4. Use the modify-by-reference inherent with := in data.table.
based   <- expression({dt_based$z <- rnorm(100000)})
mutated <- expression({dt_mutate <- mutate(dt_mutate, z = rnorm(100000))})
copied  <- expression({dt_copied <- copy(dt)[, z := rnorm(100000)]})
modify  <- expression({dt_modify[, z := rnorm(100000)]})

Because both based, mutated, and modify will change the original dt data table, let’s create a copy for each to use and see their corresponding addresses. Note that both change from the original dt object since it is fully copied now.

dt_based <- copy(dt)
dt_mutate <- copy(dt)
dt_modify <- copy(dt)
## [1] "0x7f898ad6ba00"
## [1] "0x7f898d11ca00"
## [1] "0x7f8986c06800"

Importantly, copy() does something very different than just assigning to another name. copy() creates a whole new object while assigning to another name just creates another name pointing to the same object (until one or the other is modified). For example, the following lines do different things. We can see this by looking at their addresses, where just_pointing_to_dt is the same location and the same object. The copied_object is an entirely different object with a different address. (Hadley covers this in depth in Advanced R.)

copied_object <- copy(dt)
just_pointing_to_dt <- dt
## [1] "0x7f8986c3f600"
## [1] "0x7f8986c0ac00"
## [1] "0x7f8986c3f600"

First, let’s look at the memory change, from before an expression is evaluated to after.

## 947 kB
## 1.18 MB
## 3.91 MB
## 834 kB

Not surprisingly, the := approach results in the smallest change. It is only slightly more memory than simply creating a variable with rnorm(100000). The mutate() way is slightly more than the base R, which was slightly surprising to me as I had figured they were, ultimately, doing the same thing.

object_size(z <- rnorm(100000))
## 800 kB

Did addresses change for any of these objects? Of course the copied one changes as we are explicitly making a deep copy of it. But the others? Yes, all changed except for the dt_modify, the one that modified-by-reference.

## [1] "0x7f898688ae00"
## [1] "0x7f898c50a3d8"
## [1] "0x7f898805f000"
## [1] "0x7f8986c06800"

That’s all for now.