Optimizing Model Checking¶
You’ve written your model, and you run it. Three days later, it’s still running. How do you make it faster?
Optimizing models is more an art than a science. It’s a skill you have to develop over time, and every model is optimized differently. This is just a collection of basic heuristics that I find broadly useful.
Before you begin¶
Some things you should check before you start optimizating:
1. Make sure your model is bounded
Maybe the problem isn’t “your spec is too big” but instead “your spec will never terminate”.
2. Check your runtime parameters
By default, the toolbox uses 25% of your computer RAM and one worker thread per CPU core. If you instead run TLA+ from the command line, it will default to using 25% RAM and exactly one worker. So make sure you pass in a workers
flag!
3. Check your hardware
Model checking is both CPU and memoryintensive. At times, it’s even singlecore intensive, as the liveness checking algorithm for TLC is singlethreaded. Sometimes getting a bigger machine is the best thing you can do.
Overview¶
The Spec¶
To discuss optimizations, we’ll use the following:
 MODULE optimization 
EXTENDS Integers, Sequences, TLC
CONSTANTS MaxNum, Workers
(*algorithm alg
variables
i = 1;
to_process = [w \in Workers > {}];
process writer = "writer"
begin
Write:
while i <= MaxNum do
with w \in Workers do
to_process[w] := @ \union {i};
i := i + 1;
end with;
end while;
end process;
process worker \in Workers
variable total = 0;
local = 0;
begin
Read:
with x \in to_process[self] do
local := x;
to_process[self] := @ \ {local};
end with;
Update:
total := total + local;
goto Read;
end process;
end algorithm; *)
====
Run with MaxNum = 7
, Workers = {w1, w2, w3}
, and no deadlock checking. You should get 28,351,303 (28M) states. I’ll be showing optimizations oneatatime as changes to this base model, and undo them before showing the next optimization.
Tip
The spec can take up to 28 seconds to run on my computer. To test optimizations out faster, I’ll use a trick to iterate more quickly. TLCGet lets us query the current depth of the model checking with TLCGet("level")
. I’ll add the constraint TLCGet("level") < 12
to my spec.
EXTENDS Integers, Sequences, TLC
CONSTANTS MaxNum, Workers
+Constraint == TLCGet("level") < 11
(*algorithm alg
variables
This reduces the state space by 97% percent, making it easier for me to try out different optimizations. When I’m done I’ll remove the constraint and see how much my optimizations help with the whole spec.
The Basics¶
Generally, model checking time depends on two things:
The time it takes to generate each state.
The number of states it needs to generate.
In my experience, (2) dominates and deserves the most attention. Sometimes I’ll be able to optimize generation time by 510%. Quite often I’ll work with a model and find an improvement that reduces the state space by a factor of 10.
Estimating the state space¶
Before we start optimizing, it’s a good idea to get a handle on where the “complexity” is. Most of these estimates will be inaccurate, but they’ll give us an idea on where to start.
First, let’s start with the writer
. There are \(3^7 = 2187\) possible ways to assign 7 numbers to one of three workers. Adding one more worker would octuple the number of possible assignments, while adding one more number would only triple it. So right now, the number of workers is having more impact on the state space than MaxNum
. On the other hand, if we had seven workers and MaxNum = 3
, incrementing MaxNum
would do more than adding an eighth worker.
As a quick test, try making both constants smaller. Reducing MaxInt
by 1 reduces the statespace to only 3.2M states, while removing a worker drops the state space to 1.3M.
Set Sizes¶
As we’ll see later, writer
is essentially an inefficient means of picking a function from the function set [1..MaxNum > Worker]
. When estimating state spaces, it’s useful to know some how big some collection types get. In the below table, S = Cardinality(S)
.
Set 
Num Elements 

S 
\(S\) 
SUBSET S 
\(2^{S}\) 

\(S*T\) 

\(S*T\) 

\(B^{A}\) 

\(S^n\) 
These stack; if you have something like [A \X B > SUBSET C]
in your spec that’s probably the source of your woes.
Concurrency¶
There are 3^6
ways to assign six numbers to three workers and 3^7
ways to assign seven, a factor of… 3 difference. So why does MaxNum=7
increase the statespace ninefold?
Because concurrency is against us, too! Imagine we’ve assigned the first six numbers and none of the workers have run yet. There are nine possible things that can happen:
13: The writer assigns
7
tow1
,w2
, orw3
45:
w1
calls read on either of its two numbers69: either
w2
orw3
calls read on its two numbers.
Then if w1
runs, there are eight possible next steps from that: the writer and the other workers can do their original actions, or w1
can do Update
. Concurrency gets messy very very quickly.
In any case, we can see that the concurrency in the system is contributing about as much as the constants are, so we’ll need to reduce both to improve the state space.
Model changes¶
Use smaller constants¶
As we’ve already seen, using fewer workers and a lower MaxNum
can each shrink the state space tenfold. This is usually the first recourse. Most bugs appear with small state spaces anyway, so there’s not much benefit to using enormous constant inputs. If you do need to model check very large constants, use a separate model config with small constants for fast iterations, and only check the larger model when the small one is passing.
For this particular spec, reducing constants is enough to make the model checking tolerable. But that’s not always true, so the other techniques are still important.
Use symmetry sets¶
As a very rough rule of thumb, if you take an nelement set of model values and make it a Symmetry sets, you’ll decrease the state space by a factor of about \(n!\). In this case, making Workers
a symmetry set reduces the state space to 4.7M states, a reduction of about 6.
Note that if you’re using the cli, you’ll have to define the symmetry relaton in the model, like this:
CONSTANTS MaxNum, Workers
Constraint == TLCGet("level") < 11
+Symmetry == Permutations(Workers)
(*algorithm alg
variables
Then put SYMMETRY Symmetry
in your config file.
Separate safety and liveness¶
This isn’t an issue with this spec, but you should always have separate models for checking safety properties (invariants and action properties) and liveness (everything else). Liveness checking is a lot slower than safety and it prevents symmetry set optimizations. Use smaller constants for your liveness checking.
Reducing concurrency¶
Remove “loader” processes¶
The writer is what I call a “loader” process: all it does is manually set up to_process
. While it can interleave with the workers, the interleaving doesn’t change the spec behavior. So we can replace the entire worker by figuring out all the possible end values of to_process
and making it start as one of those values.
The writer assigns each number to exactly one worker, so by the end to_process
will map each worker to disjoint subsets of numbers. We can decompose that into two logical statements:
For each number, there’s a worker it belongs to, and
It doesn’t belong to any other worker.
(*algorithm alg
variables
 i = 1;
 to_process = [w \in Workers > {}];
+ to_process \in {
+ tp \in [Workers > SUBSET (1..MaxNum)]:
+ \A x \in 1..MaxNum:
+ \E w \in Workers:
+ /\ x \in tp[w]
+ /\ \A w2 \in Workers \ {w}:
+ x \notin tp[w2]
+ }
process writer = "writer"
begin
 Write:
 while i <= MaxNum do
 with w \in Workers do
 to_process[w] := @ \union {i};
 i := i + 1;
 end with;
 end while;
end process;
+
process worker \in Workers
variable total = 0;
This change leads to a 3x reduction in states. That said, it also makes initializing states take a lot longer than it should. We’ll cover why later.
Do more in each action¶
Currently each worker takes two actions to process one number: one to pull a number from to_process
and one to add it to total
. This creates a place where another worker (or writer
) can interrupt.
Here’s a trick to estimate how much overhead this adds: let’s assume each worker has exactly one number in its to_process
, so each of the three workers does exactly two steps in sequence. While each worker has to do the two steps in order, the workers are independent of each other. Then there will be
\[\frac{\left(2+2+2\right)!}{2! \cdot 2!\cdot 2!} = 90\]
possible behaviors, and \(6 \cdot 90 = 540\) new states.
If we fuse the two labels into one, like this:
begin
Read:
with x \in to_process[self] do
 local := x;
 to_process[self] := @ \ {local};
+ total := total + x;
+ to_process[self] := @ \ {x};
end with;
 Update:
 total := total + local;
 goto Read;
+ goto Read;
end process;
end algorithm; *)
Then we reduce the state space to just 2.4 million states!
Fusing actions isn’t something you should do blindly. Remember, the point of writing a model in the first place is to find concurrencybased system flaws! You have to consciously think about the grain of atomicity of your spec: how much you let be atomic and how much you let be interruptable. Choosing too coarse a grain might hide legitimate errors, while choosing too fine a grain might make model checking take too long.
Reduce Unintentional Nondeterminism¶
The Read
, the worker is allowed to pull any number in its pool for processing. This makes the model robust against ordering: it works no matter which order we process items. But often we don’t care about any order, we care about a specific order! Maybe we process things in the order they were received, or we process the lowest items first, or something like that. So the spec is more nondeterministic than we actually need it to be.
In this case, the algorithm is commutative and it doesn’t matter which order we use. So I’ll pick a completely arbitrary order via CHOOSE
:
local = 0;
begin
Read:
 with x \in to_process[self] do
+ await to_process[self] # {};
+ with x = CHOOSE x \in to_process[self]: TRUE do
local := x;
to_process[self] := @ \ {local};
end with;
Warning
This is one of the rare cases where I’m comfortable with a CHOOSE x \in set: TRUE
. Otherwise it’s deterministic, which a lot of people don’t expect!
This reduces the state space to just 2.1 million states, our biggest reduction yet! This surprised me, but makes sense in retrospect. If the writer assigns every item to a single worker, it can pull the items out in \(7! = 5040\) different orders.
Use Bags instead of Sequences¶
What if the writer could send the same number twice? Then using a set for to_process
would be a bug, since it’d remove the duplicate element. The easiest fix would be to replace it with a sequence:
to_process = [w \in Workers > <<>>]
The problem with using a sequence is that it doesn’t just add redundancy, it adds ordering. <<a, b, a>>
is a different sequence than <<a, a, b>>
, leading to different states!
If you want redundancy without ordering, use a bag instead:
to_process = [w \in Workers > EmptyBag]
Then the bag [a > 2, b > 1]
is unique.
Use Views¶
This is an advanced technique and should only be used with caution. To set it up, let’s say we add an auxiliary variable to track the last process run:
Constraint == TLCGet("level") < 11
Symmetry == Permutations(Workers)

(*algorithm alg
variables
i = 1;
to_process = [w \in Workers > {}];
+ aux_last_run = "none";
process writer = "writer"
begin
@@ 18,6 +18,7 @@
to_process[w] := @ \union {i};
i := i + 1;
end with;
+ aux_last_run := "writer";
end while;
end process;
@@ 30,8 +31,10 @@
local := x;
to_process[self] := @ \ {local};
end with;
+ aux_last_run := self;
Update:
total := total + local;
+ aux_last_run := self;
goto Read;
end process;
This balloons the state space to 80M states! Behaviors that used to lead to the same state now lead to different states. But the difference is only in an auxiliary variable and shouldn’t affect the behavior of our spec.
To determine if two states are distinct, TLC compares their values for <<i, pc, to_process, aux_last_run>>
. If we want, we can tell TLC instead compare them with <<i, pc, to_process>>
and ignore aux_last_run
entirely. This called setting a view. First we add an operator corresponding to our view:
i = 1;
to_process = [w \in Workers > {}];
aux_last_run = "none";
+
+define
+ view == <<i, to_process, pc, total>>
+end define;
process writer = "writer"
begin
Then we tell TLC to use view
as our view. In the Toolbox that’s under TLC Options > Checking ode > View
. In the cli add VIEW view
to the config.
Adding the new view reduces our state space to just one million states… less than the amount in our basic spec. I forgot that each writer has total
and local
variables, too, which needs to be part of our view. Since that’s local to the process we can’t reference it in a define
block and need to put the whole thing below our translation.
i = 1;
to_process = [w \in Workers > {}];
aux_last_run = "none";

define
 view == <<i, to_process, pc, total>>
end define;
process writer = "writer"
begin
@@ 43,4 +39,7 @@
end process;
end algorithm; *)
+\* under the translation
+view == <<i, to_process, pc, total, local>>
+
====
Views can nullify the statespace impact of adding an aux variable, but it’s also really easy to remove valid states, too, so be very careful when you use them.
Reduce Spec Detail¶
Finally, notice everything we’re not modeling. We’re not modeling how workers are discovered. We’re not modeling the connection protocol. We’re not modeling any kind of transient errors, or any detail about the payload besides a single number.
This is the most important heuristic about state space optimization: the more detailed your model, the more states you will have. I often see beginners model things like load \in [Server > 0..100]
. A more experienced modeller would instead write something like load \in [Server > 0..3]
. Or, if they could get away with it, overloaded \in [Server > BOOLEAN]
.
Get in the habit of modeling only what matters to your system, and you’ll have a better experience.
Tip
If you do need to model a detailed system, it’s often best to first write a simple, highlevel specification and then put the detailed system in a refinement.
Checking States Faster¶
It’s easier to reduce the state space than it is to get the model checker to crunch more states a second. Nonetheless, there’s a few things you can do to improve the latter.
Use the profiler¶
The TLA+ Toolbox comes with a profiler. You can find it under the “TLC options” page:
Here’s the profiler on one of our prior optimizations, where we replaced the writer with a function set:
On the left I have the number of invocations per expression and on the right the “cost” per expression, an abstract measure of how much it contributed to model checking time. The profiler can also show how many new and distinct states each action generated. Note that while we’re profiling a PlusCal spec, the metrics are only for the translated TLA+.
Notice something interesting about this? The two biggest costs are the Update(self)
action and the function set inside Init
. But Update
is invoked millions of times while the function set is invoked once. If we did something similar in an action, we’d expect it to significantly slow down our model checking.
So what specifically is wrong with it?
Construct, don’t Filter¶
Here’s how we computed to_process
:
to_process \in {
tp \in [Workers > SUBSET 1..MaxNum]:
\A x \in 1..MaxNum:
\E w \in Workers:
/\ x \in tp[w]
/\ \A w2 \in Workers \ {w}:
x \notin tp[w2]
}
Remember from our description earlier that a function set [A > B]
has \(B^{A}\) elements, and the power set SUBSET B
has 2^B
elements. Putting these together, [Workers > SUBSET 1..MaxNum]
has \((2^7)^3 = 2.1e6\) elements. We know from earlier that there’s only about 2000 valid configurations, so we’re throwing out 99.98% of the set anyway.
Instead of generating a big set and filtering it to a smaller set, it’s more efficient to try generating the small set directly. In this case, our system stores a map of workers to items, but it guarantees that each number is mapped to exactly one worker. Let’s get
to_process \in LET
i_to_worker == [1..MaxNum > Workers] \* Map of items to workers
IN
{ [w \in Workers > \* Each worker is mapped to
{x \in 1..MaxNum: \* the set of items which
itw[x] = w}]: \* itw maps to that worker
itw \in i_to_worker}
This doesn’t change the number of states generated but nonetheless makes the spec complete more quickly.
Don’t write doublyrecursive function definitions¶
Selfexplanatory.
Use Overrides¶
The TLC module defines SortSeq
and Permutations
as
Permutations(S) ==
{f \in [S > S] : \A w \in S : \E v \in S : f[v]=w}
SortSeq(s, Op(_, _)) ==
LET Perm == CHOOSE p \in Permutations(1 .. Len(s)) :
\* etc
So to sort a ten item list, you’d first generate a \(10^{10}\) element function set, then filter that down to \(10!\) items, then iterate over those 3odd million elements to find the sorted sequence. That’s insane, and so the model checker muchmorereasonably does an insertion sort at the Java level. If you know Java you can override any operator with a faster implementation. It’s not something I’ve ever done, but to my understanding you can see some examples of overridden implementations here.
Use Refactor Properties¶
See here. This is a good way to check if your optimizations aren’t changing the state space.
Misc¶
Reduce Memory Allocation¶
If you’re running a small model with a lot of RAM, the JVM can waste a lot of time preallocating memory you won’t use. It’s usually not a big deal but on very large machines with 500+gb I’ve seen this take several minutes for a 20second spec. In these specific cases, reducing the ram allocated can make a very big difference.
Ignore part of the state space¶
This is easier to do in raw TLA+ than it is in PlusCal. By adding additional constraints onto Init and Next, you can artificially constraint TLC to the part of the state space you’re most interested in. I recommend doing this as separate operators, like so:
Init ==
x \in 1..10
FastInit ==
/\ Init
/\ x = 3
Next ==
\/ IncX
\/ DecX
FastNext ==
/\ Next
/\ IncX => x' < 5
FastSpec == FastInit /\ [][FastNext]_vars
You can also do this with state and action constraints, but I prefer writing a new spec. Couldn’t tell you why.
Try Apalache¶
Apalache is an alternative model checker for TLA+. It doesn’t support the full language yet but I’ve heard that it’s faster on some kinds of specs. It also has a type system!
Fiddle with JVM Arguments¶
I have no idea how the JVM works and would welcome any suggestions how to tweak it to model check better.