Sysimages

What is a sysimage

A sysimage is a file which, in a loose sense, contains a Julia session serialized to a file. A "Julia session" includes things like loaded packages, global variables, inferred and compiled code, etc. By starting Julia with a sysimage, the stored Julia session is deserialized and loaded. The idea behind the sysimage is that this deserialization is faster than having to reload packages and recompile code from scratch.

Julia ships with a sysimage that is used by default when Julia is started. That sysimage contains the Julia compiler itself, the standard libraries and also compiled code that has been put there to reduce the time required to do common operations, like working in the REPL.

Sometimes it is desirable to create a custom sysimage with custom precompiled code. This is the case if one has some dependencies that take a significant time to load or where the compilation time for the first call is uncomfortably long. This section of the documentation is intended to document how to use PackageCompiler to create such sysimages.

Drawbacks to custom sysimages

It should be clearly stated that there are some drawbacks to using a custom sysimage, thereby sidestepping the standard Julia package precompilation system. The biggest drawback is that packages that are compiled into a sysimage (including their dependencies!) are "locked" to the version they where at when the sysimage was created. This means that no matter what package version you have installed in your current project, the one in the sysimage will take precedence. This can lead to bugs where you start with a project that needs a specific version of a package, but you have another one compiled into the sysimage.

Putting packages in the sysimage is therefore only recommended if the load time of those packages is a significant problem and when these packages are not frequently updated. In addition, compiling "workflow packages" like Revise.jl and OhMyREPL.jl and using that as a default sysimage might make sense.

Creating a sysimage using PackageCompiler

PackageCompiler provides the function create_sysimage to create a sysimage. It takes as the first argument a package or a list of packages that should be embedded in the resulting sysimage. By default, the given packages are loaded from the active project but a specific project can be specified by giving a path with the project keyword. The location of the resulting sysimage is given by the sysimage_path keyword. After the sysimage is created, giving the command flag -Jpath/to/sysimage will start Julia with the given sysimage.

Below is an example of a new sysimage, from a separate project, being created with the package Example.jl in it. Using Base.loaded_modules it can be seen that the package is loaded without having to explicitly import it.

~
❯mkdir NewSysImageEnv

~
❯ cd NewSysImageEnv

~/NewSysImageEnv 29s
❯ julia -q

julia> using PackageCompiler
[ Info: Precompiling PackageCompiler [dffaa6cc-da53-48e5-b007-4292dfcc27f1]

(v1.3) pkg> activate .
Activating new environment at `~/NewSysImageEnv/Project.toml`

(NewSysImageEnv) pkg> add Example
  Updating registry at `~/.julia/registries/General`
  Updating git-repo `https://github.com/JuliaRegistries/General.git`
 Resolving package versions...
  Updating `~/NewSysImageEnv/Project.toml`
  [7876af07] + Example v0.5.3
  Updating `~/NewSysImageEnv/Manifest.toml`
  [7876af07] + Example v0.5.3

julia> create_sysimage(:Example; sysimage_path="ExampleSysimage.so")
[ Info: PackageCompiler: creating system image object file, this might take a while...

julia> exit()

~/NewSysImageEnv
❯ ls
ExampleSysimage.so  Manifest.toml  Project.toml

~/NewSysImageEnv
❯ julia -q -JExampleSysimage.so

julia> Base.loaded_modules
Dict{Base.PkgId,Module} with 34 entries:
...
  Example [7876af07-990d-54b4-ab0e-23690620f79a]          => Example
...

Alternatively, instead of giving a path to where the new sysimage should appear, one can choose to replace the default sysimage. This is done by omitting the sysimage_path keyword and instead adding replace_default=true, for example:

create_sysimage([:Debugger, :OhMyREPL]; replace_default=true)

If this is the first time create_sysimage is called with replace_default, a backup of the default sysimage is created. The default sysimage can then be restored with restore_default_sysimage().

Note that sysimages are created "incrementally" in the sense that they add to the sysimage of the process running PackageCompiler. If the default sysimage has been replaced, the next create_sysimage call will create a new sysimage based on the replaced sysimage. It is possible to create a sysimage non-incrementally by passing the incremental=false keyword. This will create a new system image from scratch. However, it will lose the special precompilation that the Julia bundled sysimage provides which is what make the REPL and package manager not require compilation after a Julia restart.. It is therefore unlikely that incremental=false is of much use unless in special cases for sysimage creation (for apps it is a different story though).

Compilation of functions

The step where we included Example.jl in the sysimage meant that loading Example is now pretty much instant (the package is already loaded when Julia starts). However, functions inside Example.jl still need to be compiled when executed for the first time. One way we can see this is by using the --trace-compile=stderr flag which outputs a "precompile statement" every time Julia compiles a function. Running the hello function inside Example.jl we can see that it needs to be compiled (it shows the function Example.hello was compiled for the input type String.

~/NewSysImageEnv
❯ julia -JExampleSysimage.so --trace-compile=stderr -e 'import Example; Example.hello("friend")'
precompile(Tuple{typeof(Example.hello), String})

To remedy this, we can give a "precompile script" to create_sysimage which causes functions executed in that script to be baked into the sysimage. As an example, the script below simply calls the hello function in Example:

~/NewSysImageEnv
❯ cat precompile_example.jl
using Example
Example.hello("friend")

We now create a new system image called ExampleSysimagePrecompile.so, where the precompile_execution_file keyword argument has been given, pointing to the file just shown above:

~/NewSysImageEnv
❯ julia-q

julia> using PackageCompiler

(v1.3) pkg> activate .
Activating environment at `~/NewSysImageEnv/Project.toml`

julia> PackageCompiler.create_sysimage(:Example; sysimage_path="ExampleSysimagePrecompile.so",
                                         precompile_execution_file="precompile_example.jl")
[ Info: PackageCompiler: creating system image object file, this might take a while...

julia> exit()

Using the just created system image, we can see that the hello function no longer needs to get compiled:

~/NewSysImageEnv
❯ julia -JExampleSysimagePrecompile.so --trace-compile=stderr -e 'import Example; Example.hello("friend")'

~/NewSysImageEnv
❯

Using a manually generated list of precompile statements

Starting Julia with --trace-compile=file.jl will emit precompilation statements to file.jl for the duration of the started Julia process. This can be useful in cases where it is difficult to give a script that executes the code (like with interactive use). A file with a list of such precompile statements can be used when creating a sysimage by passing the keyword argument precompile_statements_file. See the OhMyREPL.jl example in the docs for more details on how to use --trace-compile with PackageCompiler.

It is also possible to use SnoopCompile.jl to create files with precompilation statements.

Using a package's test suite to generate precompile statements

It is also possible to use a package's test suite to generate a list of precompile statements by including the content:

import Example
include(joinpath(pkgdir(Example), "test", "runtests.jl"))

in the precompile file. Note that you need to have any test dependencies installed in your current project.