Please, choose the right format to send me that text. Thanks.
April 13th 2010

I just received an e-mail with a very interesting text (recipies for pintxos), and it prompted some experiment. The issue is that the text was inside of a DOC file (of course!), which rises some questions and concerns on my side. The size of the file was 471 kB.

I thought that one could make the document more portable by exporting it to PDF (using OpenOffice.org). Doing so, the resulting file has a size of 364 kB (1.29 times smaller than the original DOC).

Furthermore, text formatting could be waived, by using a plain text format. A copy/paste of the contents of the DOC into a TXT file yielded a 186 kB file (2.53x smaller).

Once in the mood, we can go one step further, and compress the TXT file: with gzip we get a 51 kb file (9.24x), and with xz a 42 kB one (11.2x)

So far, so good. No surprise. The surprise came when, just for fun, I exported the DOC to ODT. I obtained a document equivalent to the original one, but with a 75 kB size! (6.28x smaller than the DOC).

So, for summarizing:

DOC

Pros

  • Editable.
  • Allows for text formatting.

Cons

  • Proprietary. In principle only MS Office can open it. OpenOffice.org can, but because of reverse engineering.
  • If opened with OpenOffice.org, or just a different version of MS Office, the reader can not be sure of seeing the same formatting the writer intended.
  • Size. 6 times bigger than ODT. Even bigger than PDF.
  • MS invented and owns it. You need more reasons?

PDF

Pros

  • Portability. You can open it in any OS (Windows, Linux, Mac, BSD...), on account of there being so many free PDF readers.
  • Smaller than the DOC.
  • Allows for text formatting, and the format the reader sees will be exactly the one the writer intended.

Cons

  • Not editable (I really don't see the point in editing PDFs. For me the PDF is a product of an underlying format (e.g. LaTeX), as what you see on your browser is the product of some HTML/PHP, or an exe is the product of some source code. But I digress.)
  • Could be smaller

TXT

Pros

  • Portability. You can't get much more portable than a plain text file. You can edit it anywhere, with your favorite text editor.
  • Size. You can't get much smaller than a plain text file (as it contains the mere text content), and you can compress it further with ease.

Cons

  • Formatting. If you need text formatting, or including pictures or content other than text, then plain text is not for you.

ODT

Pros

  • Portability. It can be edited with OpenOffice.org (and probably others), which is free software, and has versions for Windows, Linux, and Mac.
  • Editability. Every bit as editable as DOC.
  • Size. 6 times smaller files than DOC.
  • It's a free standard, not some proprietary rubbish.

Cons

  • None I can think of.

So please, if you send me some text, first consider if plain text will suffice. If not, and no edition is intended on my side, PDF is fine. If edition is important (or size, because it's smaller than PDF), the ODT is the way to go.

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ChopZip: a parallel implementation of arbitrary compression algorithms
December 20th 2009

Remember plzma.py? I made a wrapper script for running LZMA in parallel. The script could be readily generalized to use any compression algorithm, following the principle of breaking the file in parts (one per CPU), compressing the parts, then tarring them together. In other words, chop the file, zip the parts. Hence the name of the program that evolved from plzma.py: ChopZip.

Introduction

Currently ChopZip supports lzma, xz, gzip and lzip. Of them, lzip deserves a brief comment. It was brought to my attention by the a reader of this blog. It is based on the LZMA algorithm, as are lzma and xz. Apparently unlike them, multiple files compressed with lzip can be concatenated to form a single valid lzip-compressed file. Uncompressing the latter generates a concatenation of the formers.

To illustrate the point, check the following shell action:

% echo hello > head
% echo bye > tail
% lzip head
% lzip tail
% cat head.lz tail.lz > all.lz
% lzip -d all.lz
% cat all
hello
bye

However, I just discovered that all gzip, bzip2 and xz do that already! It seems that lzma is advertised as capable of doing it, but it doesn't work for me. Sometimes it will uncompress the concatenated file to the original file just fine, others it will decompress it to just the first chunk of the set, yet other times it will complain that the "data is corrupt" and refuse to uncompress. For that reason, chopzip will accept two working modes: simple concatenation (gzip, lzip, xz) and tarring (lzma). The relevant mode will be used transparently for the user.

Also, if you use Ubuntu, this bug will apply to you, making it impossible to have xz-utils, lzma and lzip installed at the same time.

The really nice thing about concatenability is that it allows for trivial parallelization of the compression, while maintaining compatibility with the serial compression tool, which can still uncompress the product of a parallel compression. Unfortunatelly, for non-concatenatable compression formats, the output of chopzip will be a tar file of the compressed chunks, making it imposible to uncompress with the original compressor alone (first an untar would be needed, then uncompressing, then concatenation of chunks. Or just use chopzip to decompress).

The rationale behind plzma/chopzip is simple: multi-core computers are commonplace nowadays, but still the most common compression programs do not take advantage of this fact. At least the ones that I know and use don't. There are at least two initiatives that tackle the issue, but I still think ChopZip has a niche to exploit. The most consolidated one is pbzip2 (which I mention in my plzma post). pbzip2 is great, if you want to use bzip2. It scales really nicely (almost linearly), and pbzipped files are valid bzip2 files. The main drawback is that it uses bzip2 as compression method. bzip2 has always been the "extreme" bother of gzip: compresses more, but it's so slow that you would only resort to it if compression size is vital. LZMA-based programs (lzma, xz, lzip) are both faster, and even compress more, so for me bzip2 is out of the equation.

A second contender in parallel compression is pxz. As its name suggests, it compresses in using xz. Drawbacks? it's not in the official repositories yet, and I couldn't manage to compile it, even if it comprises a single C file, and a Makefile. It also lacks ability to use different encoders (which is not necessarily bad), and it's a compiled program, versus chopzip, which is a much more portable script.

Scalability benchmark

Anyway, let's get into chopzip. I have run a simple test with a moderately large file (a 374MB tar file of the whole /usr/bin dir). A table follows with the speedup results for running chopzip on that file, using various numbers of chunks (and consequently, threads). The tests were conducted in a 4GB RAM Intel Core 2 Quad Q8200 computer. Speedups are calculated as how many times faster did #chunks perform with respect to just 1 chunk. It is noteworthy that in every case running chopzip with a single chunk is virtually identical in performance to running the orginal compressor directly. Also decompression times (not show) were identical, irrespective of number of chunks. ChopZip version vas r18.

#chunks xz gzip lzma lzip
1 1.000 1.000 1.000 1.000
2 1.862 1.771 1.907 1.906
4 3.265 1.910 3.262 3.430
8 3.321 1.680 3.247 3.373
16 3.248 1.764 3.312 3.451

Note how increasing the number of chunks beyond the amount of actual cores (4 in this case) can have a small benefit. This happens because N equal chunks of a file will not be compressed with equal speed, so the more chunks, the smaller overall effect of the slowest-compressing chunks.

Conclusion

ChopZip speeds up quite noticeably the compression of arbitrary files, and with arbitrary compressors. In the case of concatenatable compressors (see above), the resulting compressed file is an ordinary compressed file, apt to be decompressed with the regular compressor (xz, lzip, gzip), as well as with ChopZip. This makes ChopZip a valid alternative to them, with the parallelization advantage.

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plzma.py: a wrapper for parallel implementation of LZMA compression
July 23rd 2009

Update: this script has been superseded by ChopZip

Introduction

I discovered the LZMA compression algorithm some time ago, and have been thrilled by its capacity since. It has higher compression ratios than even bzip2, with a faster decompression time. However, although decompressing is fast, compressing is not: LZMA is even slower than bzip2. On the other hand, gzip remains blazing fast in comparison, while providing a decent level of compression.

More recently I have discovered the interesting pbzip2, which is a parallel implementation of bzip2. With the increasing popularity of multi-core processors (I have a quad-core at home myself), parallelizing the compression tools is a very good idea. pbzip2 performs really well, producing bzip2-compatible files with near-linear scaling with the number of CPUs.

LZMA being such a high performance compressor, I wondered if its speed could be boosted by using it in parallel. Although the Wikipedia article states that the algorithm can be parallelized, I found no such implementation in Ubuntu 9.04, where the utility provided by the lzma package is exclusively serial. Not finding one, I set myself to produce it.

About plzma.py

Any compression can be parallelized as follows:

  1. Split the original file into as many pieces as CPU cores available
  2. Compress (simultaneously) all the pieces
  3. Create a single file by joining all the compressed pieces, and call the result "the compressed file"

In a Linux environment, these three tasks can be carried out easily by split, lzma itself, and tar, respectively. I just made a Python script to automate these tasks, called it plzma.py, and put it in my web site for anyone to download (it's GPLed). Please notice that plzma.py has been superseded by chopzip, starting with revision 12, whereas latest plzma is revision 6.

I must remark that, while pbzip2 generates bzip2-compatible compressed files, that is not the case with plzma. The products of plzma compression must be decompressed with plzma as well. The actual format of a plzma file is just a TAR file containing as many LZMA-compressed chunks as CPUs used for compression. These chunks, once decompressed individually, can be concatenated (with the cat command) to form the original file.

Benchmarks

What review of compression tools lacks benchmarks? No matter how inaccurate or silly, none of them do. And neither does mine :^)

I used three (single) files as reference:

  • molekel.tar - a 108 MB tar file of the (GPL) Molekel 5.0 source code
  • usr.bin.tar - 309 MB tar file of the contens of my /usr/bin/ dir
  • hackable.tar - a 782 MB tar file of the hackable:1 Debian-based distro for the Neo FreeRunner

The second case is intended as an example of binary file compression, whereas the other two are more of a "real-life" example. I didn't test text-only files... I might in the future, but don't expect the conclusions to change much. The testbed was my Frink desktop PC (Intel Q8200 quad-core).

The options for each tool were:

  • gzip/bzip/pbzip2: compression level 6
  • lzma/plzma: compression level 3
  • pbzip2/plzma: 4 CPUs

Compressed size

The most important feature of a compressor is the size of the resulting file. After all, we used it in first place to save space. No matter how fast an algorithm is, if the resulting file is bigger than the original file I wouldn't use it. Would you?

The graph below shows the compressed size ratio for compression of the three test files with each of the five tools considered. The compressed size ratio is defined as the compressed size divided by the original size for each file.

This test doesn't surprise much: gzip is the least effective and LZMA the most one. The point to make here is that the parallel implementations perform as well or badly as their serial counterparts.

If you are unimpressed by the supposedly higher performance of bzip2 and LZMA over gzip, when in the picture all final sizes do not look very different, recall that gzip compressed molekel.tar ~ 3 times (to a 0.329 ratio), whereas LZMA compressed it ~ 4.3 times (to a 0.233 ratio). You could stuff 13 LZMAed files where only 9 gzipped ones fit (and just 3 uncompressed ones).

Compression time

However important the compressed size is, compression time is also an important subject. Actually, that's the very issue I try to address parallelizing LZMA: to make it faster while keeping its high compression ratio.

The graph below shows the normalized times for compression of the three test files with each of the five tools considered. The normalized time is taken as the total time divided by the time it took gzip to finish (an arbitrary scale with t(gzip)=1.0).

Roughly speaking, we could say that in my setting pbzip2 makes bzip2 as fast as gzip, and plzma makes LZMA as fast as serial bzip2.

The speedups for bzip2/pbzip2 and LZMA/plzma are given in the following table:

File pbzip2 plzma
molekel.tar 4.00 2.72
usr.bin.tar 3.61 3.38
hackable.tar 3.80 3.04

The performance of plzma is nowere near pbzip2, but I'd call it acceptable (wouldn't I?, I'm the author!). There are two reasons I can think of to explain lower-than-linear scalability. The first one is the overhead imposed when cutting the file into pieces then assembling them back. The second one, maybe more important, is the disk performance. Maybe each core can compress each file independently, but the disk I/O for reading the chunks and writing them back compressed is done simultaneously on the same disk, which the four processes share.

Update: I think that a good deal of under-linearity comes from the fact that files of equal size will not be compressed in an equal time. Each chunk compression will take a slightly different time to complete, because some will be easier than others to compress. The program waits for the last compression to finish, so it's as slow as the slowest one. It is also true that pieces of 1/N size might take more than 1/N time to complete, so the more chunks, the slower the compression in total (the opposite could also be true, though).

Decompression times

Usually we pay less attention to it, because it is much faster (and because we often compress things never to open them again, in which case we had better deleted them in first place... but I digress).

The following graph shows the decompression data equivalent to the compression times graph above.

The most noteworthy point is that pbzip2 decompresses pbzip2-compressed files faster than bzip2 does with bzip2-compressed files. That is, both compression and decompression benefit from the parallelization. However, for plzma that is not the case: decompression is slower than with the serial LZMA. This is due to two effects: first, the decompression part is still not parallelized in my script (it will soon be). This would lead to decompression speeds near to the serial LZMA. However, it is slower due to the second effect: the overhead caused by splitting and then joining.

Another result worth noting is that, although LZMA is much slower than even bzip2 to compress, the decompression is actually faster. This is not random. LZMA was designed with fast uncompression time in mind, so that it could be used in, e.g. software distribution, where a single person compresses the original data (however painstakingly), then the users can download the result (the smaller, the faster), and uncompress it to use it.

Conclusions

While there is room for improvement, plzma seems like a viable option to speed up general compression tasks where a high compression ratio (LZMA level) is desired.

I would like to stress the point that plzma files are not uncompressable with just LZMA. If you don't use plzma to decompress, you can follow the these steps:

% tar -xf file.plz
% lzma -d file.0[1-4].lz
% cat file.0[1-4] > file
% rm file.0[1-4] file.plz
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