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PCREPERFORM(3)                                                  PCREPERFORM(3)

       PCRE - Perl-compatible regular expressions


       Two aspects of performance are discussed below: memory usage and processing time. The way you express your pat-
       tern as a regular expression can affect both of them.


       Patterns are compiled by PCRE into a reasonably efficient byte code, so that most simple patterns  do  not  use
       much memory. However, there is one case where the memory usage of a compiled pattern can be unexpectedly large.
       If a parenthesized subpattern has a quantifier with a minimum greater than 1  and/or  a  limited  maximum,  the
       whole subpattern is repeated in the compiled code. For example, the pattern


       is compiled as if it were


       (Technical  aside:  It is done this way so that backtrack points within each of the repetitions can be indepen-
       dently maintained.)

       For regular expressions whose quantifiers use only small numbers, this is not usually a  problem.  However,  if
       the  numbers  are large, and particularly if such repetitions are nested, the memory usage can become an embar-
       rassment. For example, the very simple pattern


       uses 51K bytes when compiled. When PCRE is compiled with its default internal pointer size of  two  bytes,  the
       size  limit on a compiled pattern is 64K, and this is reached with the above pattern if the outer repetition is
       increased from 3 to 4. PCRE can be compiled to use larger internal pointers and  thus  handle  larger  compiled
       patterns, but it is better to try to rewrite your pattern to use less memory if you can.

       One way of reducing the memory usage for such patterns is to make use of PCRE's "subroutine" facility. Re-writ-
       ing the above pattern as


       reduces the memory requirements to 18K, and indeed  it  remains  under  20K  even  with  the  outer  repetition
       increased  to  100. However, this pattern is not exactly equivalent, because the "subroutine" calls are treated
       as atomic groups into which there can be no backtracking if there is a subsequent matching failure.  Therefore,
       PCRE  cannot  do  this  kind of rewriting automatically.  Furthermore, there is a noticeable loss of speed when
       executing the modified pattern. Nevertheless, if the atomic grouping is not a problem and the loss of speed  is
       acceptable, this kind of rewriting will allow you to process patterns that PCRE cannot otherwise handle.


       When  pcre_exec()  is used for matching, certain kinds of pattern can cause it to use large amounts of the pro-
       cess stack. In some environments the default process stack is quite small, and if it runs  out  the  result  is
       often SIGSEGV.  This issue is probably the most frequently raised problem with PCRE. Rewriting your pattern can
       often help. The pcrestack documentation discusses this issue in detail.


       Certain items in regular expression patterns are processed more efficiently than others. It is  more  efficient
       to  use a character class like [aeiou] than a set of single-character alternatives such as (a|e|i|o|u). In gen-
       eral, the simplest construction that provides the required behaviour is usually  the  most  efficient.  Jeffrey
       Friedl's  book  contains  a lot of useful general discussion about optimizing regular expressions for efficient
       performance. This document contains a few observations about PCRE.

       Using Unicode character properties (the \p, \P, and \X escapes) is slow, because PCRE has to scan  a  structure
       that  contains  data  for over fifteen thousand characters whenever it needs a character's property. If you can
       find an alternative pattern that does not use character properties, it will probably be faster.

       By default, the escape sequences \b, \d, \s, and \w, and the POSIX character classes such as [:alpha:]  do  not
       use  Unicode  properties,  partly for backwards compatibility, and partly for performance reasons. However, you
       can set PCRE_UCP if you want Unicode character properties to be used. This can double  the  matching  time  for
       items such as \d, when matched with pcre_exec(); the performance loss is less with pcre_dfa_exec(), and in both
       cases there is not much difference for \b.

       When a pattern begins with .* not in parentheses, or in parentheses that are not the subject  of  a  backrefer-
       ence, and the PCRE_DOTALL option is set, the pattern is implicitly anchored by PCRE, since it can match only at
       the start of a subject string. However, if PCRE_DOTALL is not set, PCRE cannot make this optimization,  because
       the . metacharacter does not then match a newline, and if the subject string contains newlines, the pattern may
       match from the character immediately following one of them instead of from the very  start.  For  example,  the


       matches  the  subject "first\nand second" (where \n stands for a newline character), with the match starting at
       the seventh character. In order to do this, PCRE has to retry the match starting after  every  newline  in  the

       If  you  are  using  such  a pattern with subject strings that do not contain newlines, the best performance is
       obtained by setting PCRE_DOTALL, or starting the pattern with ^.* or ^.*? to indicate explicit anchoring.  That
       saves PCRE from having to scan along the subject looking for a newline to restart at.

       Beware  of patterns that contain nested indefinite repeats. These can take a long time to run when applied to a
       string that does not match. Consider the pattern fragment


       This can match "aaaa" in 16 different ways, and this number increases very rapidly as the string  gets  longer.
       (The  *  repeat  can match 0, 1, 2, 3, or 4 times, and for each of those cases other than 0 or 4, the + repeats
       can match different numbers of times.) When the remainder of the pattern is such that the entire match is going
       to  fail, PCRE has in principle to try every possible variation, and this can take an extremely long time, even
       for relatively short strings.

       An optimization catches some of the more simple cases such as


       where a literal character follows. Before embarking on the standard matching procedure, PCRE checks that  there
       is  a "b" later in the subject string, and if there is not, it fails the match immediately. However, when there
       is no following literal this optimization cannot be used. You can see the difference by comparing the behaviour


       with the pattern above. The former gives a failure almost instantly when applied to a whole line of "a" charac-
       ters, whereas the latter takes an appreciable time with strings longer than about 20 characters.

       In many cases, the solution to this kind of performance issue is to use an atomic group or a possessive quanti-


       Philip Hazel
       University Computing Service
       Cambridge CB2 3QH, England.


       Last updated: 16 May 2010
       Copyright (c) 1997-2010 University of Cambridge.