Performance Impact of S3 and S4 Dispatch

The Setup

I have known for a while that S3 and S4 dispatch carries a performance penalty, but I have never run into a situation where it is a glaring problem. I am currently contemplating writing some functions that could potentially be called many times, so I decided to benchmark S3 and S4 dispatch. The quick answer is that the performance impact of method dispatch is unlikely to matter most of the time (for an example of an exception see the “When Does it Matter?” section).

The tests are structured to evaluate direct calls to the functions, as well as a couple of variations on dispatch. They were executed on a OSX 10.8 / 2.0GHz Dual Core i7 / 8GB RAM system as well as on Win7 / 2.8GHz Quad Core Xeon / 6GB RAM system (both with R3.0.2-Rstudio).

S3 Methods

myfun <- function(x, ...) UseMethod("myfun")
myfun.default <- function(x, ...) x
myfun.test1 <- function(x, ...) x                  # returns directly
myfun.test2 <- function(x, ...) NextMethod()       # dispatches again

# Objects to Dispatch

x <- "hello"
y <- structure("hello", class="test1")
z <- structure("hello", class="test2")

  myfun(x),               # default method
  myfun(y),               # "test1" method, no further dipatch
  myfun(z),               # "test2" method, re-dispatch to default
  myfun.default(x)        # bypass S3 dispatch
Unit: nanoseconds
             expr    min       lq   median       uq    max neval
         myfun(x)   2886   3535.5   3990.5   5194.0   7427   100
         myfun(y)   2298   2769.0   3095.5   3796.0   5499   100
         myfun(z)   5125   6034.0   6730.0   7744.5  38117   100
 myfun.default(x)    346    446.0    588.5    722.0   1317   100   # baseline

Clearly method dispatch carries a performance penalty relative to the baseline case. The simplest dispatch scenarios (first and second here) add on the order of 3μs to execution. While the extra amount of time is small on an absolute basis, it is a ~5x increase over baseline. Interestingly, the unclassed object (i.e. the one that ends up at myfun.default) is almost 25% slower to dispatch than the classed one1. Invoking NextMethod as myfun(z) results in another roughly 2x increase. This makes sense since we’re using S3 dispatch twice.

S4 Methods

setGeneric("myfun2", function(x, ...) standardGeneric("myfun2"))
setClass("testS41", representation(x="character"))
setClass("testS42", contains="testS41")

setMethod("myfun2", "testS42", function(x, ...) callNextMethod()) # redispatch 
setMethod("myfun2", "testS41", function(x, ...) x@x)              # direct return
myfun2S41 <- selectMethod("myfun2", "testS41")                    # manually retrieve method

w <- new("testS41", x="hello")
u <- new("testS42", x="hello")

  myfun2(w),             # "testS41" method, no additional dispatch 
  myfun2(u),             # with redispatch 
  myfun2S41(w)           # baseline
Unit: nanoseconds
             expr    min       lq   median       uq    max neval
        myfun2(w)  11751  13943.0  15127.5  16231.0  42846   100
        myfun2(u) 146687 150092.5 155058.5 162427.0 332575   100
     myfun2S41(w)    456    621.5    709.5    803.5   1580   100  # baseline

The simplest S4 dispatch creates a ~20x increase over baseline. Using callNextMethod you go up to a ~200x increase in execution time over base line. This is on a clean workspace with only the default packages and microbenchmark loaded.

Method look up in S4 is a lot more complex than in S3, so one would expect a performance penalty between S3 and S4. What is truly surprising is what happens with callNextMethod. The logic within callNextMethod is fairly complex and uses several calls to functions such as is that presumably do lookups on the S4 tables, so perhaps this should be expected2.

When Is This a Problem?

You are unlikely to notice S3 and S4 dispatch in most use cases, especially if you properly vectorize your functions. Even our slowest benchmark ran in about an eight of a millisecond. One type of situation that could cause problems is if your function is used as part of a split-apply-combine analysis. Consider this example that takes advantage of S4 dispatch to apply the correct method to each column of a data frame. We benchmark that approach to a more traditional if control flow based function:

# S4 dispatch approach

setGeneric("vecconcat", function(x) standardGeneric("vecconcat"))
setMethod("vecconcat", "numeric", function(x) sum(x))
setMethod("vecconcat", "character", function(x) paste0(x, collapse=":"))
setMethod("vecconcat", "factor", function(x) { x <- as.numeric(x); callNextMethod() })

# Traditional `if` approach

vecconcat2 <- function(x) {
  if(inherits(x, "factor")) x <- as.integer(x)
  if(inherits(x, "integer")) sum(x) else
  if(inherits(x, "character")) paste0(x, collapse=":")
# Some Data

df <- data.frame(, each=10), b=sample(1e5), c=sample(letters, 1e5, r=T), 
  d=factor(sample(letters, 1e5, r=T)), stringsAsFactors=F
# Benchmarks

microbenchmark(times=5, unit="s",
  aggregate(df[-1], df[1], vecconcat),
  aggregate(df[-1], df[1], vecconcat2)
Unit: seconds
                                 expr  min   lq median   uq  max neval
  aggregate(df[-1], df[1], vecconcat) 5.66 5.70   5.71 5.71 5.71     5
 aggregate(df[-1], df[1], vecconcat2) 2.91 2.98   3.01 3.02 3.04     5

So about 2x slower using S4 dispatch. It turns out that a fair chunk of the ~3 seconds of the traditional function run is taken up by aggregate itself. If we use the more efficient data.table, the difference is closer to 10x because now there is a lot less overhead from the aggregation function itself:

dt <- data.table(df)
mb1 <- microbenchmark(times=5, unit="s",
  dt[, lapply(.SD, vecconcat),], 
  dt[, lapply(.SD, vecconcat2),]
Unit: seconds
                                       expr  min    lq median    uq   max neval
  dt[, lapply(.SD, vecconcat), by =] 2.87 2.883  2.908 2.911 2.922     5
 dt[, lapply(.SD, vecconcat2), by =] 0.25 0.255  0.256 0.258 0.258     5

Some might argue that there is no benefit whatsoever to the S4 approach so the slowness is moot, but even in this example there are some disguised benefits. For example, the S4 code will work with both numeric and integer columns, whereas the “traditional” approach only works with integer. More importantly, there may be functions that have more legitimate internal use for S4 methods that would still carry the same performance overhead as this top level dispatch.


Most of the time you won’t have to worry about S3/S4 dispatch, but if you plan on developing with S3 or S4 make sure you carefully think through the use cases to ensure there won’t be any that will cause the extra overhead from method dispatch to add up to substantial extra time.

One big caveat is that we are using fairly simple S4 dispatch here. It is possible that with complex webs of S4 classes dispatch times could become an issue in more traditional use cases.

Brodie Gaslam Written by:

Brodie Gaslam is a hobbyist programmer based on the US East Coast.