Package Quick Start Guide

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Note for developers

We plan to make a major update in Bioc 3.13, this includes performance improvement and more general C++ level API design. The update should only have minor effect on users, but if you plan to develop a package based upon SharedObject, it is recommended to use the package in Bioc 3.13 for the old version will not be supported in the next release.


SharedObject is designed for sharing data across many R workers. It allows multiple workers to read and write the same R object located in the same memory location. This feature is useful in parallel computing when a large R object needs to be read by all R workers. It has the potential to reduce the memory consumption and the overhead of data transmission.

Quick example

To share an R object, all you need to do is to call the share function with the object you want to share. In this example, we will create a cluster with 2 workers and share an n-by-n matrix A, we use the function share to create a shared object shared_A and call the function clusterExport to export it:

## Create the cluster
cl <- makeCluster(2)
## Create data
n <- 3
A <- matrix(1:(n^2), n, n)
## Create a shared object
shared_A <- share(A)
## Export the shared object
## Check the exported object
clusterEvalQ(cl, shared_A)


As the code shows above, the procedure of exporting a shared object to the other R workers is the same as the procedure of exporting a regular R object. Notably, there is no visible difference between the matrix A and the shared matrix shared_A. There is no need to change the existing code to work with the shared object. We can verify this through

## Check the data
## Check the class
## Check if they are identical
identical(A, shared_A)

Users can treat the shared object shared_A as a regular matrix and do operations on it as usual. If one needs to distinguish the shared object, the function is.shared can be used to check whether an object is shared.

## Check if an object is shared

There are several properties associated with the shared object, one can check them via

## This function has been renamed to `sharedObjectProperties` 
## in Bioc 3.13
## get a summary report

## get the individual properties

The properties can be changed via setCopyOnWrite, setSharedSubset and setSharedCopy. Please see Global options and Advanced topics sections to see the meaning of the properties and how to use them in a proper way.

Supported data types and structures

For the basic R type, the function supports raw, logical, integer, double and complex. character is not supported as it closely relates to R cache(character has been supported in Bioc 3.13).

For the container, the function supports list, pairlist and environment. Sharing a container is equivalent to sharing all elements in the container, the container itself will not be shared. Therefore, adding or replacing an element in a shared container in one worker will not implicitly change the shared container in the other workers. Since a data frame is fundamentally a list object, sharing a data frame will follow the same principle.

For the more complicated data structure like S3 and S4 class. They are available out-of-box. Therefore, there is no need to customize the share function to support an S3/S4 class. However, if the S3/S4 class has a special design(e.g. on-disk data), the function share is an S4 generic and developers are free to define their own share method.

When an object is not sharable, no error will be given and the same object will be returned. The argument mustWork = TRUE can be used if you want to make sure the return value is a shared object.

## the element `A` is sharable and `B` is not
x <- list(A = 1:3, B = as.symbol("x"))

## No error will be given, 
## but the element `B` is not shared
shared_x <- share(x)

## Use the `mustWork` argument
## An error will be given for the non-sharable object `B`
  shared_x <- share(x, mustWork = TRUE)

As we mentioned before, the package provides is.shared function to identify a shared object. By default, is.shared function returns a single logical value indicating whether the object is a shared object or contains any shared objects. If the object is a container(e.g. list), you can explore the details using the depth parameter.

## A single logical is returned
## Check each element in x
is.shared(shared_x, depth = 1)

Global options

There are some options that can control the creation and the behavior of a shared object, you can view them via

## This function has been renamed to `sharedObjectPkgOptions` 
## in Bioc 3.13

As we have seen previously, the option mustWork suppress the error message when the function share encounter a non-sharable object and force the function to return the same object. The option sharedSubset controls whether the subset of a shared object is still a shared object. We will talk about the options copyOnWrite and sharedCopy in the advanced section, but for most users it is safe to ignore these two options. The global setting can be modified via setSharedObjectOptions

## These functions have been renamed to `sharedObjectPkgOptions` 
## in Bioc 3.13
## change the default setting
setSharedObjectOptions(mustWork = TRUE)
## Check if the change is made
## Resume to default
setSharedObjectOptions(mustWork = FALSE)

Note that all the options can be temporary overwritten by providing the named parameter to the function share. For example, you can also turn mustwork on via share(x, mustWork = TRUE).

Advanced topics


Since all workers are using shared objects located in the same memory location, a change made on a shared object in one worker can affect the value of the object in the other workers. To prevent users from changing the values of a shared object without awareness, a shared object will duplicate itself if a change of its value is made. For example

x1 <- share(1:4)
x2 <- x1

## x2 became a regular R object after the change
x2[1] <- 10L

## x1 is not changed

The change made on x2 results in a memory duplication. The vector x1 is intact. This default behavior can be overwritten by passing an argument copyOnWrite to the function share

x1 <- share(1:4, copyOnWrite=FALSE)
x2 <- x1

## x2 will not be duplicated when a change is made
x2[1] <- 0L

## x1 has been changed

A change in the matrix x2 cause a change in x1. This feature could be potentially useful to return the result from each R worker without additional memory allocation. A shared object can be pre-allocated to collect the final result from workers. However, due to the limitation of R, it is possible to change the value of a shared object unexpectedly. For example

x <- share(1:4, copyOnWrite = FALSE)

The above example shows a surprising result when the copy-on-write feature is off. Simply calling an unary function can change the values of a shared object. Therefore, users must use the feature with caution. The copy-on-write feature of an object can be set via the setCopyOnwrite function or the copyOnWrite parameter in the share function.

## Create x1 with copy-on-write off
x1 <- share(1:4, copyOnWrite=FALSE)
x2 <- x1
## change the value of x2
x2[1] <- 0L
## Both x1 and x2 are affected

## Enable copy-on-write
## x2 is now independent with x1
setCopyOnWrite(x2, TRUE)
x2[2] <- 0L
## only x2 is affected

This flexibility provide us a way to do safe operations during the computation and return the results without memory duplication.


If a high-precision value is assigned to a low-precision shared object(E.g. assigning a numeric value to an integer shared object), an implicit type conversion will be triggered for correctly storing the change. The resulting object would be a regular R object, not a shared object. Therefore, the change will not be broadcasted even if the copy-on-write feature is off. Users should be cautious with the data type that a shared object is using.

shared copy

The options sharedCopy determines if the duplication of a shared object is still a shared object. For example

x1 <- share(1:4)
x2 <- x1
## x2 is not shared after the duplication
x2[1] <- 0L

x1 <- share(1:4, sharedCopy = TRUE)
x2 <- x1
## x2 is still shared(but different from x1) 
## after the duplication
x2[1] <- 0L

For performance consideration, the default settings are sharedCopy=FALSE, but you can turn it on and off at any time via setSharedCopy. Please note that sharedCopy is only available when copyOnWrite = TRUE.

listing the shared object

For listing the shared objects the package created, it can be done via


Getting a list of shared object should have a rare use case, but the function can be useful if you have a memory leaking problem. The shared object can be manually released by freeSharedMemory(ID).

Developing package based upon SharedObject

The package offers three levels of APIs to help the package developers to build their own shared object.

user API

The simplest and recommended way to make your own shared object is to define an S4 function share in your own package, where you can rely on the existing share functions to quickly add the support for an S4 class which is not provided by SharedObject. We recommend to use this method to build your package for the developers do not have to bother with the memory management. The package will automatically free the shared object after use.

R memory management APIs

It is a common request to have a low level control to the shared memory. To achieve that, the package exports some low-level R APIs for the developers who want to have a fine control of their shared objects. These functions are allocateSharedMemory, allocateNamedSharedMemory, mapSharedMemory, unmapSharedMemory, freeSharedMemory, hasSharedMemory and getSharedMemorySize. Note that developers are responsible for freeing the shared memory after use. Please see the function documentation for more information

C++ memory management APIs

For the most sophisticated package developers, it might be more comfortable to use the C++ APIs rather than the R APIs. All the R functions in SharedObject are based upon its C++ APIs. Here is the instruction on show how to use the SharedObject C++ APIs in your package.

Step 1

For using the C++ APIS, you must add SharedObject to the LinkingTo field of the DESCRIPTION file, e.g.,

LinkingTo: SharedObject

Step 2

In C++ files, including the header of the shared object #include "SharedObject/sharedMemory.h".

Step 3

To compile and link your package successfully against the SharedObject C++ library, you must include a src/Makevars file.

SHARED_OBJECT_LIBS = $(shell echo 'SharedObject:::pkgconfig("PKG_LIBS")'|\
"${R_HOME}/bin/R" --vanilla --slave)
SHARED_OBJECT_CPPFLAGS = $(shell echo 'SharedObject:::pkgconfig("PKG_CPPFLAGS")'|\
"${R_HOME}/bin/R" --vanilla --slave)


Note that $(shell ...) is GNU make syntax so you should add GNU make to the SystemRequirements field of the DESCRIPTION file of your package, e.g.,

SystemRequirements: GNU make

You can find the documentation of the C++ functions in the header file.

Session Information


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SharedObject documentation built on Nov. 8, 2020, 8:17 p.m.