Blog Entry (22.01.2021): A Day in the Life of a State

As part of issue348, we looked at how states are used in an A* search with the LM-cut heuristic, when they created, accessed, copied etc. The code version we are looking at is code written for the issue but most of the story currently applies to the main code base as well.

Popping the State from the Open List

We start in EagerSearch::step where a StateID is popped from the open list. Here, a State is created by calling

State s = state_registry.lookup_state(id);

Inside StateRegistry::lookup_state, we look up the packed buffer and ask the task proxy to create a state for it

const PackedStateBin *buffer = state_data_pool[id.value];
return task_proxy.create_state(this, id, buffer);

The function TaskProxy::create_state calls the constructor of State that just stores all relevant information (task, registry, ID, buffer, and a state_packer to access the packed buffer). All of these are light-weight assignments, no unpacking or initialization of heavy objects is done. The unpacked data is initialized to an empty vector (variant 1) or a null pointer (variant 2). Variant 1 needs a dynamic allocation here because all state data is behind a shared pointer, while variant 2 that only uses a share pointer for the unpacked data does not (the shared pointer is initialized to nullptr). The code in the main branch returns a GlobalState here which behaves similar to variant 2 but doesn't have the null pointer to unpacked data.

Back in EagerSearch::step, we now have the created state and use it to get a search node:


This internally copies the state into the search node. As our states are light-weight, this only means that we have to copy some (shared) pointers. The exact number is different for variant 1 (1 pointer + 1 shared pointer) and variant 2 (4 pointers, 2 integers, 1 shared pointer).

Lazy Evaluators and Statistics

The search next creates an EvaluationContext that also internally stores a copy of the state. If a lazy evaluator (a heuristic where the value can change between the time a state is inserted in the open list and the time it is expanded) is used, this evaluation context is then used to check for dead ends. This will first access the heuristic_cache (a PerStateInformation) using the state. Access only requires the registry and the ID of the state and does not access the state's values. Through the check OpenList::is_dead_end this can also lead to an evaluation of the heuristic (see below). Note that this evaluates the state that is expanded, not the successors (that happens later). While this is only necessary with a lazy evaluator, the EvaluationContext for it is actually created in any case. This is because it is used in update_f_value_statistics to print lines such as

[t=0.0486119s, 46128 KB] f = 12, 23878 evaluated, 14354 expanded

This additional evaluation would not be necessary if we don't care about the statistics line and the part of the code is marked as a hack but because heuristic values are cached, the overhead is not terrible.

Applicable and Preferred Operators

Backtracking to EagerSearch::step, the search keeps popping states from the open list until a non-dead-end is found. For this, the search then gets the state from the search node (a copy in the main branch but a const reference in the issue to avoid reference-counting the shared pointers). This state is then used to ask for applicable operators. The successor generator classes access the state to compute applicable operators. So far, there is no explicit unpacking of the state here, so unless the state was unpacked by a lazy evaluator above, the successor generator works on the packed data. If the lazy evaluator did unpack the state, this is shared with the state in the search node because we used references instead of copying (with a copy, we would benefit from the copy in variant 1 but not in variant 2).

Next up are the pruning methods that are called with a const reference of the state. They are not used in the config we are looking at but they get the state as a const reference, so the same comment about sharing the unpacked data applies here (the values could be unpacked or packed depending on the lazy evaluator).

We now create another EvaluationContext for the state in the search to check for preferred operators. This will evaluate the heuristic again but this time the value hopefully comes from the heuristic cache within the heuristic (it cannot come from the cache in the evaluation context because the context is new). If the heuristic value is cached, the state does not have to be converted along the task transformation and we only need a lookup in a PerStateInformation.

Generating Successor States

Once this is done, the search loops over the applicable operators to generate the successors.

State succ_state = state_registry.get_successor_state(s, op);

The method StateRegistry::get_successor_state may unpack the data but it also uses the packed data. To avoid an unnecessary copy of the packed data we create the successor state directly in the place where it will eventually live

PackedStateBin *buffer = state_data_pool[state_data_pool.size() - 1];

We noticed that evaluating axioms and operator preconditions is faster on unpacked data and for tasks with axioms this makes it worth unpacking the state just to have the unpacked state available. So in tasks with axioms, we unpack, copy out the values as an int vector, evaluate effects and axioms, and then pack all values again. We can then return a state that already has unpacked data available by moving the unpacked data into the newly created state:

    if (task_properties::has_axioms(task_proxy)) {
        vector<int> new_values = predecessor.get_values();
        for (EffectProxy effect : op.get_effects()) {
            if (does_fire(effect, predecessor)) {
                FactPair effect_pair = effect.get_fact().get_pair();
                new_values[effect_pair.var] = effect_pair.value;
        for (size_t i = 0; i < new_values.size(); ++i) {
            state_packer.set(buffer, i, new_values[i]);
        StateID id = insert_id_or_pop_state();
        return task_proxy.create_state(this, id, buffer, move(new_values));

In tasks without axioms this is usually not worth the additional dynamic allocation and the overhead of copying the data in and out of the packed representation. In such tasks, the successor state is built directly on the packed representation. The resulting state does not have unpacked data available and will create this only when needed.

... else {
        for (EffectProxy effect : op.get_effects()) {
            if (does_fire(effect, predecessor)) {
                FactPair effect_pair = effect.get_fact().get_pair();
                state_packer.set(buffer, effect_pair.var, effect_pair.value);
        StateID id = insert_id_or_pop_state();
        return task_proxy.create_state(this, id, buffer);

Evaluating Successor States

Back in the search, we create another search node and evaluation context for the successor which again implies copies of the state. At this point we notify heuristics about the transition from the parent state to the successor but LM-cut doesn't use this information. The only heuristic that does (LM-count) uses the state only to access a per-state information.

We then insert the successor state in the open list. A* uses a tie-breaking open list, so inserting a state is done in TieBreakingOpenList<Entry>::do_insertion. This will ask the evaluation context to get the heuristic value (EvaluationContext::get_evaluator_value_or_infinity) which calls EvaluationContext::get_result.

Heuristic Evaluation

The first time EvaluationContext::get_result is called for each evaluation context, the value will not be cached and we have to ask the evaluator to compute it (Evaluator::compute_result). This uses the evaluation context to evaluate the heuristic. In A* with LM-cut, this goes through different evaluators (GEvaluator for the g value, CombiningEvaluator for g+h) but it eventually ends up in the base class implementation Heuristic::compute_result. This method will take the state from the evaluation context as a const reference. It will then check the evaluation cache inside the heuristic and (if the value is not found there) call LandmarkCutHeuristic::compute_heuristic.

The LM-cut heuristic then creates a local copy of the state and uses the task transformation on it:

State state = convert_ancestor_state(ancestor_state);

This will unpack the state, copy out its values as a vector<int>, then allow the task transformation to modify the vector and create a new state from the modified data. This new state is then not packed and only contains the unpacked data.

std::vector<int> state_values = ancestor_state.get_values();
task->convert_state_values(state_values, ancestor_task_proxy.task);
return create_state(std::move(state_values));

The state is a local variable in LandmarkCutHeuristic::compute_heuristic but it is passed by value to LandmarkCutLandmarks::compute_landmarks (this should be a const reference). After the heuristic computation, the local state (for the task of LM-cut) is destroyed but the state passed to LandmarkCutHeuristic::compute_heuristic (for the task of the search) remains unpacked, i.e., it has both packed and unpacked data available. Since Heuristic::compute_result uses a const reference instead of a copy, this is the state in the evaluation context.

FastDownward: ForDevelopers/Blog/A Day in the Life of a State (last edited 2021-02-01 14:30:27 by SilvanSievers)