Releasing memory in Python

The Solution to Releasing memory in Python is

I'm guessing the question you really care about here is:

Is there a way to force Python to release all the memory that was used (if you know you won't be using that much memory again)?

No, there is not. But there is an easy workaround: child processes.

If you need 500MB of temporary storage for 5 minutes, but after that you need to run for another 2 hours and won't touch that much memory ever again, spawn a child process to do the memory-intensive work. When the child process goes away, the memory gets released.

This isn't completely trivial and free, but it's pretty easy and cheap, which is usually good enough for the trade to be worthwhile.

First, the easiest way to create a child process is with concurrent.futures (or, for 3.1 and earlier, the futures backport on PyPI):

with concurrent.futures.ProcessPoolExecutor(max_workers=1) as executor:
    result = executor.submit(func, *args, **kwargs).result()

If you need a little more control, use the multiprocessing module.

The costs are:

  • Process startup is kind of slow on some platforms, notably Windows. We're talking milliseconds here, not minutes, and if you're spinning up one child to do 300 seconds' worth of work, you won't even notice it. But it's not free.
  • If the large amount of temporary memory you use really is large, doing this can cause your main program to get swapped out. Of course you're saving time in the long run, because that if that memory hung around forever it would have to lead to swapping at some point. But this can turn gradual slowness into very noticeable all-at-once (and early) delays in some use cases.
  • Sending large amounts of data between processes can be slow. Again, if you're talking about sending over 2K of arguments and getting back 64K of results, you won't even notice it, but if you're sending and receiving large amounts of data, you'll want to use some other mechanism (a file, mmapped or otherwise; the shared-memory APIs in multiprocessing; etc.).
  • Sending large amounts of data between processes means the data have to be pickleable (or, if you stick them in a file or shared memory, struct-able or ideally ctypes-able).

~ Answered on 2013-03-19 06:00:32

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