3.2.3. Lambda Lifting

Lambda Lifting [6] is a classic rewriting technique that avoids excess closure allocations and removes free variables from a function. It avoids closure allocation by moving local functions out of an enclosing function to the top-level. It then removes free variables by adding parameters to the lifted function that captures the free variables. This chapter describes the lambda lifting transformation, how GHC implements the transformation, and provides guidance for when to implement the transformation manually. A Working Example

Consider the following program [1]:

f :: Int -> Int -> Int
f a 0 = a
f a n = f (g (n `mod` 2)) (n - 1)
    g 0 = a
    g n = 1 + g (n - 1)

The function f defines one local function, g, which appears as a free variable in f. Similarly, the variable a is a free variable in g. A lambda lifted g, will convert all free variables in g to parameters. Thus g_lifted turns into:

g_lifted a 0 = a
g_lifted a n = 1 + g_lifted a (n - 1)

Now a is an input, which means that g_lifted can be floated out of f to the top level producing the final program:

g_lifted :: Int -> Int -> Int
g_lifted a 0 = a
g_lifted a n = 1 + g_lifted a (n - 1)

f :: Int -> Int -> Int
f a 0 = a
f a n = f (g_lifted a (n `mod` 2)) (n - 1)

Before the lambda lifting transformation f had to allocate a closure for g in order to allow g to reference a. After the lambda lifting on g this is no longer the case; g_lifted is a top level function so f can simply reference it; no closures needed!

This new program could be much faster than the original, it depends on the usage patterns the programs will experience. To understand the distribution of patterns inspect the function’s behavior with respect to its inputs. The original program allocates one expensive closure for g per call of f. So When n is large, there will be few calls of f relative to g, in fact for each call of f we should expect exactly n `mod` 2 calls of g. In this scenario, the original program is faster because it allocates some closures in the outer loop (f, the outer loop, allocates a closure for g, the inner loop, which includes a reference to a) and in turn saves allocations in the inner loop (g) because a can simply be referenced in g. Since the inner loop is called much more than the outer loop this pattern saves allocations.

In contrast, the lifted version must allocate an additional argument for a for each call of g_lifted. So when n is large and we have many more calls to g_lifted relative to f the extra argument required to pass a adds up to more allocations than the original version would make.

However the situation reverses when there are many calls to f a n with a small n. In this scenario, the closure allocation that the original makes in the outer loop do not pay off, because the inner loop is relatively short lived since n is small. For the same reason, the lambda lifted version is now fruitful: because n is small the extra parameter that g_lifted must allocate stays cheap. Thus the lifted version is faster by avoiding the closure allocation in the now frequently called outer loop.

Now f is an obviously contrived example, so one may ask how frequently the many-calls with low n scenario will occur in practice. The simplest example is very familiar:

-- | map with no lambda lifting
map f = go
    go []     = []
    go (x:xs) = f x : go xs

vs. the lifted version:

-- | map lambda lifted
map f []     = []
map f (x:xs) = f x : map f xs

The first form is beneficial when there are a few calls on long lists via the same reasoning as above; only now we have the list determines the number of calls instead of n and f is free rather than a . Similarly, the second form is beneficial when there many calls of map on short lists.


The fundamental tradeoff is decreased heap allocation for an increase in function parameters at each call site. This means that whether lambda lifting is a performance win or not depends on the usage pattern of the function as we have demonstrated. See When to Manually Apply Lambda Lifting for guidance on recognizing when your program may benefit. In general, closure allocation is more expensive than pushing an extra parameter onto the stack. How Lambda Lifting Works in GHC

GHC does have a lambda lifting pass in STG, however lambda lifting is not the default method GHC uses for handling local functions and free variables. Instead, GHC uses an alternative strategy called Closure Conversion, which creates more uniformity at the cost of extra heap allocation.

Automated lambda lifting in GHC is called late lambda lifting because it occurs in the compiler pipeline in STG, right before code generation. GHC lambda lifts at STG instead of Core because lambda lifting interferes with other optimizations.

Lambda lifting in GHC is also Selective. GHC uses a cost model that calculates hypothetical heap allocations a function will induce. GHC lists heuristics for when not to lambda lift in Note [When to lift] , we repeat the basic ideas here. See Graf and Jones [7], and the lambda lifting wiki entry for more details.

GHC does not lambda lift:

  1. A top-level binding. By definition these cannot be lifted.

  2. Thunk and Data Constructors. Lifting either of these would destroy sharing.

  3. Join Point because there is no lifting possible in a join point. Similarly, abstracting over join points destroys the join point by turning it into an argument to a lifted function.

  4. Any local known function. This would turn a known function call into an unknown function call, which is slower. The flag -fstg-lift-lams-known disables this restriction and enables lifting of known functions.

  5. Any function whose lifted form would have a higher arity than the available number of registers for the function’s calling convention. See flags -fstg-lift-(non)rec-args(-any)

  6. Any function whose lifted form will result in closure grawth. Closure growth occurs when formerly free variables, that are now additional arguments, did not previously occur in the closure, thereby increasing allocations. This is especially bad for any multi-shot lambda, which will allocate many times. Observing the Effect of Lambda Lifting

You may directly observe the effect of late lambda lifting by comparing Core to STG when late lambda lifting is enabled. You can also disable or enable late lambda lifting with the flags -f-stg-lift-lams and -fno-stg-lift-lams. In general, lambda lifting performs the following syntactic changes:

  1. It eliminates a let binding.

  2. It creates a new top-level binding.

  3. It replaces all occurrences of the lifted function in the let’s body with a partial application. For example, all occurrences of f are replaced with $lf b in the let’s body.

  4. All non-top-level variables (i.e., free variables) in the let’s body become occurrences of parameters. When to Manually Lambda Lift

GHC does a good job finding beneficial instances of lambda lifting. However, you might want to manually lambda lift to save compile time, or to increase the performance of your program without relying on GHC’s optimizer.

When deciding when to manually lambda lift, consider the following:

  1. What is the expected usage pattern of the functions.

  2. How many more parameters would be passed to these functions.

Let’s take these in order: (1) lambda lifting trades heap (the let bindings that it removes), for stack (the increased function parameters). Thus whether or not it is a performance win depends on the usage patterns of the enclosing function and to-be lifted function. As demonstrated in the motivating example, performance can degrade when extra parameter in combination with the usage pattern of the function results in more total allocation during the lifetime of the program. Performance may also degrade if the existing closures grow as a result of the lambda lift. Both kinds of extra allocation slow the program down and increases pressure on the garbage collector. So it is important to learn to read the program from the perspective of memory. Consider this example from Graf and Jones [7]:

-- unlifted.

-- f's increases heap because it must have a closure that includes the 'x'
-- and 'y' free variables

-- 'g' increases heap because of the let and must have 'f' and 'x' in its
-- closure (not assuming other optimizations such as constant propagation)

-- 'h' increases heap because 'f' is free in 'h'

let f a b = a + x + b + y
    g d   = let h e = f e e
            in h x
in g 1 + g 2 + g 3

Let’s say we lift f, now we have:

-- lifted f

f_lifted x y a b = a + x + b + y

let g d   = let h e = f_lifted x y e e
            in h x
in g 1 + g 2 + g 3

f_lifted is now a top level function, thus any closure that contained f before the lift will save one slot of memory. With f_lifted we additionally save two slots of memory because x and y are now parameters. Thus f_lifted does not need to allocate a closure with Closure Conversion. g’s allocations do not change since f_lifted can be directly referenced just as before and because x is still free in g. So g’s closure will contain x and f_lifted will be inlined, same as f in the unlifted version. h’s allocations grow by one slot since y is now also free in h, just as x was. So it would seem that in total lambda lifting f saves one slot of memory because two slots were lost in f and one was gained in h. However, g is a multi-shot lambda, which means h will be allocated for each call of g, whereas f and g are only allocated once. Therefore, the lift is a net loss.

This example illustrates how tricky good lifts can be. To estimate allocations counting the let expressions, the number of free variables, and the number of times the outer function and inner functions are expected to be called.


Recall, due to closure conversion GHC allocates one slot of memory for each free variable. Local functions are allocated once per call of the enclosing function. Top level functions are always only allocated once.

(2) The next determining factor is counting the number of new parameters that is passed to the lifted function. Should this number become greater than the number of available argument registers on the target platform then you’ll incur slow downs in the STG machine. These slowdowns result from more work the STG machine will need to do; it will need to generate code that pops arguments from the stack instead of just applying the function to arguments that are already loaded into registers. In a hot loop this extra manipulation can have a large impact.

In general the heuristic is: if there are few calls to the outer loop and many calls to the inner loop, then do not lambda lift. However, if there are many calls to the outer loop and few calls made in the inner loop, then lambda lifting will be beneficial. Summary

  1. Lambda lifting is a classic optimization technique for compiling local functions and removing free variables.

  2. Lambda lifting trades heap for stack. To determine if a manual lambda lift would be beneficial determine the use pattern of the enclosing and local functions, determine if closures would grow in the lifted version, and ensure that the extra parameters in the lifted version would not exceed the number of argument registers on the platform the program targets.

  3. GHC automatically performs lambda lifting, but does so only selectively. This transformation is late in the compilation pipeline at STG and right before code generation. GHC’s lambda lifting transformation can be toggled via the -f-stg-lift-lams and -fno-stg-lift-lams flags.

  4. To tell if your program has undergone lifting you can compare the Core with the STG. Or, you may compare STG with and without lifting explicitly enabled.