Updated 2016-01-14 08:20:47 by pooryorick


In some languages, e.g. Java, you can "intern" a string, which gives you one unique "interned instance" of the string with that value.

Here's a proc to do it in Tcl:
proc intern s {
       if { ! [info exists ::INTERN($s)] } { set ::INTERN($s) $s }
       set ::INTERN($s)

I used Tcl a dozen years before needing this, but today i wrote a program that used many of the same long strings (file pathnames) in some Tcl lists.

There's two different reasons you might want to intern a string:

  • To make string comparisons as fast as pointer comparisons
  • To save memory, when strings with the same value are used many times

Most often you intern strings for the first reason, but in Tcl that can't work: there are no separate "value" and "address" comparisons. Today I interned for the second reason.

MS remarks that Tcl has a shared pool of literal strings. Any code within proc bodies reuses literals from the shared pool. In a sense, all literal strings are already "interned", and this mechanism is mainly useful for strings that are generated at runtime.

Lars H: remarks that all direct copies of a string are shared automatically (it's the same Tcl_Obj). For example, in the result of
proc lineindex {filename} {
    set res {}
    set F [open $filename r]
    while {![eof $F]} {
        lappend res [list $filename [tell $F]]
        gets $F ; # Skip ahead one line
    close $F
    return $res

there is one list element for every line of the file, but all of them share the Tcl_Obj for the $filename.

NEM has interned strings for the first reason (fast comparisons). In Tcl, I'd do that like this:
proc intern str {
    if {![info exists ::INTERN($str)]} {
        set ::INTERN($str) [incr ::INTERN_COUNTER]
    return $::INTERN($str)

That returns a unique integer for each string and you can then do integer tests for equality. Interned strings are used often for programming language interpreters to represent symbols/ atoms/variables names to optimise for equality checks and hash-table lookups.

JBR: A quick look at tclExecute.c shows that the byte code interpreter in fact contains the trivial optimization of string compare for comparing an instance to itself.
 "tclExecute.c" line 2457 of 6089:
if (valuePtr == value2Ptr) {
        In the pure equality case, set lengths too for
        the checks below (or we could goto beyond it).
     iResult = s1len = s2len = 0;
 } else if ((valuePtr->typePtr == &tclByteArrayType)

Interning a string using method 1 above optimized string compare and memory usage.

AK: I have done Tcl-level interning of strings as a form of compression. Pathnames again, several thousand times the same ones. Think versions of the same file in a version control system, for example.

Hm ... The abstract operation behind this is "moving the replicated parts of the data into a separate place". For relational databases this is normalization, creating a second table storing the replicated data using unique strings, and referencing them in the original table through a small key.

See Also  edit

Constant String Hack
Another page about the same thing.