# Chapter 16 Optimizing {shiny} Code

## 16.1 Optimizing R code

In its core, {shiny} runs R code on the server side. To be efficient, the R code computing your values and returning results also has to be optimized.

Optimizing R code is a very broad topic, and it would be possible to write a full book about it. In fact, a lot of books and blog posts already cover this topic. Instead of re-writing these books, we will try to point to some crucial resources you can refer to if you want to get started optimizing your R code.

• Efficient R programming (Gillespie and Lovelace 2017), has a series of methods you can quickly put into practice for more efficient R code.

• Advanced R (Wickham 2019b) has a chapter about optimizing R code (number 24). In the rest of this chapter, we will be focusing on how to optimize {shiny} specifically.

## 16.2 Caching elements

### 16.2.1 What is caching?

Caching is the process of storing resources-intensive results so that when they are needed again, your program can reuse the result another time without having to redo the computation again. This is particularly useful for computation that will always return the same result, and should never be used if you expect the result could vary from one function call to the other.

How does it work? Let’s make a brief parallel with the human brain, and imagine that you know that you will need to use a phone number many times during the day, and for the purpose of this thought experiment, you are completely unable to remember it.61 What are you going to do? There are two solutions here: either you look in the phone book or in your phone contact list every time you need it, which takes a couple of seconds every time, or you use a post-it that you put on your computer screen with the number on it, so that you have direct access to it when you need it. It takes a couple of seconds the first time you look for the number, but it is almost instantaneous the next times you need it.

This is what caching does: it stores the result of an expensive computation, so that the next time you need the very same information again, you can read the result instead of redoing the full computation. The downside is that you only have limited space on your screen: when your screen is covered by sticky notes, you cannot store any more notes.62

In the context of an interactive application built with {shiny}, it makes sense to cache data structures: users tend to repeat what they do, or go back and forth between parameters. For example, if you have a graph which is taking 2 seconds to render (which is quite common in {shiny}, notably when relying on {ggplot2} (Wickham, Chang, et al. 2021)), you do not want these 2 seconds to be repeated over and over again when users switch from one parameter to another. In that case, it does make sense to cache the result: if you call ploting_function(input$selection) twice with the same value for input$selection, and you are sure that this plot will be the same every time, you can cache it. In other words, instead of recomputing the graph on each input$selection change, you can cache the plot the first time it is generated, and then the application will read the cache instead of re-doing the computation. Same goes for queries to a database: if a query is done with the same parameters, and you know that they will return the same result, there is no need to ask the database again and again—ask the cache to retrieve the data. Keep in mind that this caching mechanism is only to be used when the data don’t change. For example, if you are calling a database which is updated on a regular basis, you might not want to cache the results of a function. In that specific case, you will want the query to be performed every time the function is called, so that you get fresh data. ### 16.2.2 Native caching in R At least two packages in R implement caching of functions (also called memoization): {R.cache} (Bengtsson 2019), and {memoise} (Wickham, Hester, et al. 2020). They both more or less work the same way: you will call a memoization function on another function, and cache is created for this function output, based on the arguments value. Then every time you call this function again with the same parameters, the cache is returned instead of computing the function another time. For example, if computing your data once takes 5 seconds with the parameter n = 50, the next time you will be calling this function with n = 50, instead of recomputing, R will go and fetch the value stored in cache. Here is a simple example with {memoise}: library(memoise) library(tictoc) # We define a function that sleeps for a given number of seconds, # then return the time sleep_and_return_time <- function(seconds = 1){ Sys.sleep(seconds) return(Sys.time()) } # "Memoising" this function msleep_and_return_time <- memoise(sleep_and_return_time) # We use the {tictoc} package to count the time to run the code tic() # This will sleeep for 2 seconds and return the time msleep_and_return_time(2) [1] "2021-07-19 06:32:27 UTC" # The code should have taken around 2 seconds to run toc() 2.006 sec elapsed # We launch a new recording tic() # This memoised function will return immediately, # without sleeping msleep_and_return_time(2) [1] "2021-07-19 06:32:27 UTC" toc() 0.047 sec elapsed Let’s try with another example that might look more like what we can find in a {shiny} app: connecting to a database, using the {DBI} (R Special Interest Group on Databases (R-SIG-DB), Wickham, and Müller 2019) and {RSQLite} (Müller et al. 2020) packages: # We create an in-memory database using SQLite con <- DBI::dbConnect( RSQLite::SQLite(), dbname = ":memory:" ) # Writing a large dataset to the db DBI::dbWriteTable( con, "diams", # This table will have 539400 rows dplyr::bind_rows( purrr::rerun(10, ggplot2::diamonds) ) ) # We memoise the dbGetQuery, # so that every time this function is called with # the same parameters, # the SQL query is not actually run, # but the results are fetched from the cache m_get_query <- memoise(DBI::dbGetQuery) # We call a function the first time, # with the connection object and an SQL query tic() res_a <- m_get_query( con, "SELECT * FROM diams WHERE cut = 'Ideal'" ) toc() 1.251 sec elapsed # We call this function a second time, # with the same parameters tic() res_b <- m_get_query( con, "SELECT * FROM diams WHERE cut = 'Ideal'" ) toc() 0.005 sec elapsed # Let's check that the two are equal setequal(res_a, res_b) [1] TRUE # We now try with a new SQL code (cut = 'Good') tic() res_c <- m_get_query( con, "SELECT * FROM diams WHERE cut = 'Good'" ) toc() 0.384 sec elapsed # The function has effectively returned a different result setequal(res_a, res_c) [1] FALSE Note that you can change where the cache is stored by {memoise}. Here, we will save it in a random directory (do not do this in production). random_dir <- fs::path( paste( sample( letters, 10 ), collapse = "" ) ) random_dir xawcubtjzp # We create a directory in the current working directory fs::dir_create(random_dir) # We use this directory as the cache_filesystem for {memoise} local_cache_folder <- cache_filesystem(random_dir) # The memoised function will use this directory for cache m_get_query <- memoise( DBI::dbGetQuery, cache = local_cache_folder ) # Run the function twice res_a <- m_get_query( con, "SELECT * FROM diams WHERE cut = 'Ideal'" ) res_b <- m_get_query( con, "SELECT * FROM diams WHERE cut = 'Good'" ) res_c <- m_get_query( con, "SELECT * FROM diams WHERE cut = 'Good'" ) # The random directory now contains two objects, # one for each memoized call fs::dir_tree(random_dir) xawcubtjzp ├── 3764a0a4950cb30b └── c295e060ea7d77c1 As you can see, we now have two cache objects inside the directory we have specified as a cache_filesystem. ### 16.2.3 Caching in {shiny} We can apply what we have just seen with {memoise}, for example, to render a table: library(memoise) # We create an in-memory database using SQLite con <- DBI::dbConnect( RSQLite::SQLite(), dbname = ":memory:" ) # Writing a large dataset to the db DBI::dbWriteTable( con, "diams", # This table will have 539400 rows dplyr::bind_rows( purrr::rerun(10, ggplot2::diamonds) ) ) fct_sql <- function(cut, con){ # NEVER EVER SPRINTF AN SQL CODE LIKE THAT # IT'S SENSITIVE TO SQL INJECTIONS, WE'RE # DOING IT FOR THE EXAMPLE cli::cat_rule("Calling the SQL db") results <- DBI::dbGetQuery( con, sprintf( "SELECT * FROM diams WHERE cut = '%s'", cut ) ) head(results) } # Using a local cache cache_dir <- cache_filesystem("cache") memoised_fct_sql <- memoise(fct_sql, cache = cache_dir) Then, it can be used in an app: library(shiny) ui <- function(){ tagList( # The user can select one of the cut from ggplot2::diamonds, # {shiny} will then query the SQL database to retrieve the # first rows of the result selectInput("cut", "cut", unique(ggplot2::diamonds$cut)),
tableOutput("tbl")
)
}

server <- function(
input,
output,
session
){

# Rendering the table of the SQL call
output$tbl <- renderTable({ # Using a memoised function allows to prevent from # calling the SQL database every time the user inputs # a change memoised_fct_sql(input$cut, con)
})

}

shinyApp(ui, server)

You will see that the first time you run this piece of code, it will take a couple of seconds to render the table for a new input$cut value. But if you re-select this input a second time, the output will show instantaneously. Since version 1.6.0, {shiny} (Chang et al. 2020) has two caching functions: renderCachedPlot() and bindCache() (note that renderCachedPlot() is in {shiny} since version 1.2.0). renderCachedPlot() behaves more or less like the renderPlot() function, except that it is tailored for caching. The extra arguments you will find are cacheKeyExpr and sizePolicy: the former is the list of inputs and values that allow you to cache the plot—every time these values and inputs are the same, they produce the same graph, so {shiny} will be fetching inside the cache instead of computing the value another time. sizePolicy is a function that returns a width and a height, which are used to round the plot dimension in pixels, so that not every pixel combination is generated in the cache. The good news is that converting existing renderPlot() functions to renderCachedPlot() is pretty straightforward in most cases: take your current renderPlot(), and add the cache keys.63 Here is an example: library(shiny) ui <- function(){ tagList( # We select a data.frame to plot selectInput( "tbl", "Table", c("iris", "mtcars", "airquality") ), # This plotOutput will be cached plotOutput("plot") ) } server <- function( input, output, session ){ # The cache mechanism is made available by renderCachedPlot output$plot <- renderCachedPlot({
# Plotting the selected data.frame
plot( get(input$tbl) ) }, cacheKeyExpr = { # List here all the reactive expression that will # be used as cache key when running the app, # you will see that the first time you plot one # graph, it takes a couple of seconds, # but the second time, it's almost # instantaneous input$tbl
})

}

shinyApp(ui, server)

If you try this app, the first rendering of the three plots will take a little bit of time, but every subsequent rendering of the plot is almost instantaneous.

bindCache(), a new function from version 1.6.0, offers a more general approach, as it can cache any reactive expression.

library(shiny)
ui <- function(){
tagList(
# Select a number of row to sample from mtcars
sliderInput(
"nrows",
"Number of rows",
1,
nrow(mtcars),
10
),
tableOutput("tbl")
)
}

server <- function(
input,
output,
session
){

# The random sample will always be the same
# Whenever input$nrows is the same output$tbl <- renderTable({
dplyr::sample_n(mtcars, input$nrows) }) %>% bindCache({ input$nrows
})
}

shinyApp(ui, server)

Caching is a nice way to make your app faster, even more if you expect your output to be stable over time: if the plot created by a series of inputs stays the same throughout your app lifecycle, it is worth thinking about implementing on-disk caching. With {memoise}, you can also use remote caching, in the form of Amazon S3 storage or with Google Cloud Storage. See also the {bank} package for database caching of {shiny} expressions.

If your application needs “fresh” data every time it is used, for example because data in the SQL database are updated every hour, cache will not be of much help here. On the contrary, the same function inputs will render different output depending on when they are called.

One other thing to remember is that, just like our computer screen from our phone number example from before, you do not have unlimited space when it comes to cache storage: storing a large amount of cache will take space on your disk.

For example, from our stored cache from before:

dir_i <- fs::dir_info("cache")[, "size", drop  = FALSE]
head(dir_i)
  size
1  954
2  440
3  406
4  939
5  407
6  922

Managing cache at a system level is a very vast, fascinating topic that we cannot cover here, but note that the most commonly accepted rule for deleting cache is called LRU, for Least Recently Used. The underlying principle of this approach is that users tend to need what they have needed recently: hence the more a piece of data has been used recently, the more likely it is that it will be needed soon. And this can be retrieved with:

dir_at <- fs::dir_info("cache")[, "access_time", drop  = FALSE]
head(dir_at)
          access_time
1 2021-07-19 06:23:16
2 2021-07-19 06:23:16
3 2021-07-19 06:23:16
4 2021-07-19 06:23:16
5 2021-07-19 06:23:16
6 2021-07-19 06:23:16

Hence, when using cache, it might be interesting to periodically remove the oldest used cache, so that you can regain some space on the server running the application.

## 16.3 Asynchronous in {shiny}

One of the drawbacks of {shiny} is that as it is running on top of R, it is single threaded, meaning that each computation is run in sequence, one after the other. Well, at least natively, as methods have emerged to run pieces of code in parallel.

### 16.3.1 How to

To launch code blocks in parallel, we will use a combination of two packages, {future} (Bengtsson 2020) and {promises} (Cheng 2020), and a reactiveValue(). {future} is an R package whose main purpose is to allow users to send code to be run elsewhere, i.e. in another session, thread, or even on another machine. {promises}, on the other hand, is a package providing structure for handling asynchronous programming in R.64

#### A. Asynchronous for cross-sessions availability

The first type of asynchronous programming in {shiny} allows non-blocking programming in a cross-session context. In other words, it is a programming method which is useful in the context of running one {shiny} session that is accessed by multiple users. Natively, in {shiny}, if user1 launches a 15-seconds computation, then user2 has to wait for this computation to finish before launching their own 15-seconds computation, and user3 has to wait the 15 seconds of user1 plus the 15 seconds for user, etc.

With {future} and {promises}, each long computation is sent to be run somewhere else, so when user1 launches their 15-seconds computation, they are not blocking the R process for user2 and user3.

How does it work?65 {promises} comes with two operators which will be useful in our case, %...>% and %...!%: the first being “what happens when the future() is solved?” (i.e. when the computation from the future() is completed), and the second is “what happens if the future() fails?” (i.e. what to do when the future() returns an error).

Here is an example of using this skeleton:

library(future)
library(promises)
# We're opening several R session (future specific)
plan(multisession)
# We send our code to be run in another session
future({
Sys.sleep(3)
return(rnorm(5))
}) %...>% (
# When the code is returned, we print the result
function(result){
print(result)
}
) %...!% (
# If ever the code from the future() returns an error,
# we throw an error to the console
function(error){
stop(error)
}
)

If you run this in your console, you will see that you have access to the R console directly after launching the code. And a couple of seconds later (a little bit more than 3), the result of the rnorm(5) will be printed to the console.

Note that you can also write a one-line function with . as a parameter, instead of building the full anonymous function (we will use this notation in the rest of the chapter):

library(future)
library(promises)
plan(multisession)
# Same code as before, using the anonymous notation
future({
Sys.sleep(15)
return(rnorm(5))
}) %...>%
print(.) %...!%
stop(.)

Let’s port this to {shiny}:

library(shiny)
library(future)
library(promises)
plan(multisession)
ui <- function(){
tagList(
# This will receive the output of the future
verbatimTextOutput("rnorm")
)
}

server <- function(
input,
output,
session
){
output$rnorm <- renderPrint({ # Sending the rnorm to be run in another session future({ Sys.sleep(3) return(rnorm(5)) }) %...>% print(.) %...!% stop(.) }) } shinyApp(ui, server) If you have run this, it does not seem like a revolution: but trust us, the Sys.sleep() is not blocking as it allows other users to launch the same computation at the same moment. #### B. Inner-session asynchronicity In the previous section, we implemented cross-session asynchronicity, meaning that the code is non-blocking, but when two or more users access the same app: the code is still blocking at an inner-session level. In other words, the code in the renderPrint() will still block the rest of the app for a single user. Let’s have a look at this code: library(shiny) ui <- function(){ tagList( # This will receive the output of the future verbatimTextOutput("rnorm"), # This plot will only be drawn when the future # is resolved plotOutput("plot") ) } server <- function( input, output, session ){ output$rnorm <- renderPrint({
# Sending the rnorm to be run in another session
# At this point, {shiny} is waiting for the future
# to be solved before doing anything else
future({
Sys.sleep(3)
return(rnorm(5))
}) %...>%
print(.) %...!%
stop(.)
})

# This plot will only be drawn once the future is resolved
output$plot <- renderPlot({ plot(iris) }) } shinyApp(ui, server) Here, you would expect the plot to be available before the rnorm(), but it is not: {promises} is still blocking at an inner-session level, so elements are still rendered sequentially. To bypass that, we will need to use a reactiveValue() structure. library(shiny) library(promises) library(future) plan(multisession) ui <- function(){ tagList( # This will receive the output of the future verbatimTextOutput("rnorm"), # This plot will be drawn before the future is resolved plotOutput("plot") ) } server <- function( input, output, session ) { # Initiating a reactiveValues that will receive the # results from the future rv <- reactiveValues( output = NULL ) future({ Sys.sleep(5) rnorm(5) }) %...>% # When the future is resolved, we assign the # output to rv$output
(function(result){
rv$output <- result }) %...!% # If ever the future outputs an error, we switch # back to NULL for rv$output, and throw a warning
# with the error
(function(error){
rv$output <- NULL warning(error) }) # output$rnorm will be printed whenever rv$output # is available (i.e. after around 5 seconds) output$rnorm <- renderPrint({
req(rv$output) }) # output$plot will be drawn immediately
output$plot <- renderPlot({ plot(iris) }) } shinyApp(ui, server) Let’s detail this code step-by-step: • rv <- reactiveValues creates a reactiveValue() that will contain NULL, and which will serve the content of renderPrint() when the future() is resolved. It is initiated as NULL so that the renderPrint() is silent at launch. • %...>% rv$output <- result %...!% is the {promises} structure we have seen before.

• %...!% (function(error){ rv$output <- NULL ; warning(e) }) is what happens when the future({}) fails: we are setting the rv$res value back to NULL so that the renderPrint() does not fail and prints an error in case of failure.

#### C. Potential pitfalls of asynchronous {shiny}

There is one thing to be aware of if you plan on using this async methodology: you are not in a sequential context anymore. Hence, the first future({}) you will send is not necessarily the first you will get back. For example, if you send SQL requests to be run asynchronously and each call takes between 1 and 10 seconds to return, there is a chance that the first request to return will be the last one you sent. To handle that, we can adopt two different strategies, depending on what we need:

• We need only the last expression sent. In other words, if we send three expressions to be evaluated somewhere, we only need to get back the last one. To handle that, the best way is to have an id that is also sent to the future, and when the future comes back, we check that this id is the one we are expecting. If it is, we update the reactiveValues(). If it is not, we ignore it.
library(shiny)
library(promises)
library(future)
plan(multisession)

ui <- function(){
tagList(
# This button trigger a future, we can click several times
# on it when the app is running
actionButton("go", "go"),
# This will receive the output of the future
verbatimTextOutput("rnorm"),
# This plot will be drawn before the future is resolved
plotOutput("plot")
)
}

server <- function(
input,
output,
session
) {

# In our reactiveValues, we also keep track
# of the latest sent id
rv <- reactiveValues(
res = NULL,
last_id = 0
)

observeEvent( input$go , { # When the user clicks on the button, the last_id # is incremented of one rv$last_id <- rv$last_id + 1 last_id <- rv$last_id

# We send the code to be run in the future. One out of
# two calls will sleep for 3 seconds
future({
if (last_id %% 2 == 0){
Sys.sleep(3)
}
# We return from the future the id of the current
# code block
list(
id = last_id,
res = rnorm(5)
)
}) %...>%
(function(result){
# Printing to the console which future
# we are coming from
cli::cat_rule(
sprintf("Back from %s", result$id) ) # Change the value of rv$res only if
# the current id is the same as the last_id
if (result$id == rv$last_id){
rv$res <- result$res
}
}) %...!%
(function(error){
warning(error)
})
# Note that every render() function should return
#  something: here it will only work if the
#  renderPrint() returns a value, even if
# invisible. We use cat_rule to simulate that.
cli::cat_rule(
sprintf("%s sent", rv$last_id) ) }) # output$rnorm will be printed whenever rv$output # is available, i.e. returned from the future # and the last one sent. output$rnorm <- renderPrint({
req(rv$res) }) # output$plot will be drawn immediately
output$plot <- renderPlot({ plot(iris) }) } shinyApp(ui, server) • We need to treat the outputs in the order they are received. In that case, instead of waiting for the very last input, you will need to build a structure that will receive the output, check if this output is the “next in line”, store it if it is not, or return it if it is, and see if there is another output in the queue. This type of implementation is a little bit more complex, so we will not detail a full implementation in this chapter, but here is a small example of using {liteq} (Csárdi 2020b). library(promises) library(future) plan(multisession) library(liteq) # We create a small db in a tempfile() temp_queue <- tempfile() queue <- ensure_queue("jobs", db = temp_queue) for (i in 1:5){ future({ # Faking a random computation time Sys.sleep( sample(1:5, 1) ) return( list( id = i, res = rnorm(5) ) ) }) %...>% # Whenever we receive an output, we add it to # the queue database (function(results){ publish( queue, title = as.character(results$i),
message = paste(
results\$res,
collapse = ","
)
)
}) %...!%
# If ever we have an error, we return it as a warning
warning(.)
}
Sys.sleep(10)
# List the messages. As you can see, the entries in title
# are not in numerical order because they didn't came back
# in the same order as they were sent
list_messages(queue)
  id title status
5  5     5  READY

For an example of an application built using {promise} and {future}, feel free to browse engineering-shiny.org/shinyfuture/: there you will find an example of blocking and non-blocking processes.

### References

Bengtsson, Henrik. 2019. R.cache: Fast and Light-Weight Caching (Memoization) of Objects and Results to Speed up Computations. https://github.com/HenrikBengtsson/R.cache.

Bengtsson, Henrik. 2020. Future: Unified Parallel and Distributed Processing in R for Everyone. https://github.com/HenrikBengtsson/future.

Chang, Winston, Joe Cheng, JJ Allaire, Yihui Xie, and Jonathan McPherson. 2020. Shiny: Web Application Framework for R. http://shiny.rstudio.com.

Cheng, Joe. 2020. Promises: Abstractions for Promise-Based Asynchronous Programming.

Csárdi, Gábor. 2020b. Liteq: Lightweight Portable Message Queue Using Sqlite. https://github.com/r-lib/liteq#readme.

Gillespie, Colin, and Robin Lovelace. 2017. Efficient R Programming. O’Reilly Media, Inc, USA.

Müller, Kirill, Hadley Wickham, David A. James, and Seth Falcon. 2020. RSQLite: SQLite Interface for R.

R Special Interest Group on Databases (R-SIG-DB), Hadley Wickham, and Kirill Müller. 2019. DBI: R Database Interface.

3. If you are familiar with promises in JavaScript, {promises} is an implementation of this structure into R.↩︎