Memoizing in Ruby

Memoization is the pattern of calculating a value once, and re-using that value each subsequent time it is needed. It’s common to encounter this in Ruby in the form @variable ||= calculation. It’s so common that it is often used even where it’s not expensive or re-used; it’s become a part of idiomatic Ruby. In my last post I made an off-hand reference to solving the problem of using memoization for falsy values, and it seems a topic worth talking about in and of itself.

What do you mean there’s a problem?

Consider that the following methods have the same behavior:

def foo_or_equal
  @foo ||= calculate_foo

def foo_verbose
  @foo || (@foo = calculate_foo)

def foo_multiline
  return @foo if @foo
  @foo = calculate_foo

When calculate_foo returns a truthy object - anything but nil or false - there’s no problem at all. Calling any one of those methods repeatedly will result in calculate_foo only being called once.

When calculate_foo returns a falsy object - nil or false - it stores that value. Every subsequent call will invoke calculate_foo another time and re-store the falsy value. If that calculation is expensive - makes a database call, communications with an external API, or is otherwise-slow - then this is precisely the behavior that memoization was intended to prevent (but didn’t).

The foolproof way to memoize

Now that we’ve identified the problem, how about a solution?

def foo_foolproof
  return @foo if defined?(@foo)
  @foo = calculate_foo

That’s all there is to it. Calling defined?(@foo) checks whether the expression @foo exists, though it is a bit special since it does not actually evaluate the expression. It looks like a method, but is actually a Ruby keyword. An alternative that uses a regular Ruby method is instance_variable_defined?(:@foo), but it’s a bit verbose. And that’s actually the drawback to this foolproof approach in general. While it works the intended way and memoizes falsy values, it’s longer, more-boilerplate, and less-readable.

How about a generalized approach?

Here’s a potential way to address this:

class Memoizer < Module
  def initialize(method)
    define_method(method) do
      ivar = "@#{method}"
      return instance_variable_get(ivar) if instance_variable_defined?(ivar)
      instance_variable_set(ivar, super())
  module Helper
    def memoize(method)

class Foo  
  extend Memoizer::Helper
  def foo
    calculate_foo # this may as well be in-lined rather than a separate method
  memoize :foo

It’s worth pointing out that this approach only handles memoizing methods with no arguments. This could be adapted in order to handle arguments - in fact you can find some links in this articles footnotes that go into that.

There are several RubyGems that do this - and of course ActiveSupport once had a memoizing module, but I pretty much agree with the conclusion of the Rails team there, which is to say - it’s better to just use Ruby in your own projects. It’s faster, it’s clearer, there’s no need for a dependency to do this. I’d even say this proposed helper is overkill. The point was to show that it’s simple, and it’s something you can do if it makes your code clearer or easier to work with.


† - this is not strictly true in a multi-threaded environment, but I’m choosing to avoid getting into that in this article.

This article is nothing new and has been written about before, but it’s a common-enough footgun that I didn’t mind writing up my version of this sentiment.