Avoiding Stack Overflow

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Stack Overflow Exceptions

If you create long and elaborate macros or use a lot of text in a macro, you will probably run into a Stack Overflow Exception. Note that because one macro can call others, it can be difficult to determine which macro in particular is the root cause of the problem.

Computers have improved dramatically since MapTool was first released, so in version 1.5.8 the default stack size was doubled from 4M to 8M to help alleviate stack overflow issues for the average user.

Overview of the Problem

At first only two things come to mind (don't miss more advice at the bottom of this page):

  1. Clean up your HTML as much as possible (e.g. remove all comments).
  2. Raise the stack size. (Start high and work your way down) This is actually bad advice; why is explained below.

Description of Why the Error Occurs

The error happens because of the way the macro parsing works. It uses a Regular Expression parser that starts by looking for the largest possible string that matches the regex, then backtracking to a shorter string (using recursion) if the first one ends up not working. This ends up requiring a huge amount of stack space in certain pathological strings when combined with the particular regexes being used by MapTool. Regular expressions require stack space based on the amount of text entered and how that text might match the regex. That's the whole point of backtracking -- the regex might match up to a certain point, so it saves its state on the stack and then checks the next piece.

The errors are more likely when the text contains a lot of braces, brackets, and/or single/double quotes. But none of those are REQUIREMENTS for having a stack overflow occur.

(A forum search on user "Azhrei" and the word "backtrack" or "backtracking" will probably find the threads that explain this in greater detail.)

How to Determine an Appropriate Stack Size

MapTool creates and destroys many threads on the fly and all the time. So the best advice would be, Set your stack as low as possible.

The stack size allocated to a particular thread is part of the overall address space available to Java. So the larger you make the heap limit, the more of the address space that can be consumed by heap and thus will be unavailable for stack space. And the same thing works in reverse: the more stack space you allocate per-thread, the less heap space there will be. This is normally only a problem for the 32-bit Java since the maximum heap size is roughly 1.5GB (depends on the platform; Unix systems will be slightly larger than Windows). You'll know you've hit this problem when you get an exception that says that a new Thread couldn't be created and the description will say "Native code". (In other words, it's the C language code that implements the Java Runtime Environment that is having the problem.)

In the 64-bit world, the amount of address space available to the Java Runtime Environment is tremendous (on most hardware it's about 2^40 or roughly 1TB; some hardware will support up to 256TB). That means the stack size and heap space could be set very large. This will still have an effect on the machine's performance, since using more virtual memory than the machine has in physical memory will require paging. And paging is I/O intensive and thus will slow down the entire machine.

How to Change the Amount of Stack Space

On all systems there is a command line parameter to the Java interpreter that tells it how much stack space to allocate for each thread and how much heap space to allocate overall. The question becomes, "How do I tell my Java installation how much to use?" And that depends on how you start MapTool.

See Stack Size#Configuring memory allocation for MapTool for details.

Ways to Avoid Running Out of Stack Space

Here's a list of things you can do to help avoid stack overflow errors. They are in the order of Most Likely to Least Likely in terms of the level of benefit.

  1. Break up your macros into smaller parts (especially where you have brackets or single/double quotes, but not just in these cases). This helps because there is less backtracking possible when the macros themselves are shorter.
  2. If you have long static strings store them in a token property instead of the macro body. This helps because the content of properties are not subject to the parser line normal macro text is. Lib tokens work well for this. A table might work as well if your data is read-only.
  3. Use strformat() to create your HTML, preferably with the format string stored in a token property. (See above.)
  4. If you get stack issues it's better to reorganize your code than bump up the stack size. As explained above, increasing the stack size is a bandage on the problem, and as you can see it's not a very good bandage either!
  5. Because of the way the regex is structured, you might be able to get more HTML text into a macro by using this construct: [r: "html text here"] This causes a different path to be taken in the MapTool source code, so different regexes are used. No guarantees on this, of course, but if you're desperate and don't want to spend the time to reorganize your macros it might help.
  6. If you get a stack overflow while creating a dynamic form, move the HTML part of the form into a new macro (e.g. you could create a user-defined function named htmlBuilder(arguments) and pass it any variable arguments). Then when you need the form, assign the HTML code first to a variable (such as tmpCache) and then run the form using the variable:
 [h: tmpCache = htmlBuilder(arguments)]
 [h: dialog("Dialog Test"): {[r:tmpCache]}]

This issue has come up many times in the forum. This text was stitched together from this latest thread about it.