Zsh Compinit ... RTFM

Slow start times in Zsh are probably a sign of poor configuration

This week I dealt with a problem that had been bugging me. I noticed that the time a took to start a new Zsh terminal session went from essentially instant to around 4 seconds1. I take some pride in running a lightweight system, so the thought of having to wait a few seconds for my terminal emulator to display a prompt feels like a personal affront. My system wasn’t just behaving badly, it was challenging me by way of insult.

Accepting the challenge laid before me, I took to my favorite search engine to see what tools were available to help me understand what was suddenly performing so poorly. Oh, okay. This post says that Zsh includes a script profiler. All I need to do is turn it on in my .zshrc file, like so:

    zmodload zsh/zprof

Maybe this challenge won’t be so challenging after all. So I restart my shell and run the zprof command, and I see this::

    num  calls                time                       self            name
     1)    1         203.91   203.91   45.30%    203.91   203.91   45.30%  compdump
     2)  744         109.84     0.15   24.40%    109.84     0.15   24.40%  compdef
     3)    1         448.41   448.41   99.62%    108.01   108.01   24.00%  compinit
     4)    2          26.75    13.38    5.94%     26.75    13.38    5.94%  compaudit
     5)    1           1.37     1.37    0.30%      1.37     1.37    0.30%  colors
     6)    2           0.12     0.06    0.03%      0.12     0.06    0.03%  set_title
     7)    1           0.15     0.15    0.03%      0.08     0.08    0.02%  preexec
     8)    1           0.07     0.07    0.02%      0.03     0.03    0.01%  precmd

Okay, so initializing the completion system (i.e., all of the items with names beginning with “comp”) is taking a combined 99.64% of the startup time. No need to do any fancy pareto analysis here. Something is getting borked initializing Zsh’s much-vaunted completion system.

So I DuckDuckWent2 and found some results that purported to fix the issue, except that they really only half fixed it for me (literally cutting my start time in half … an improvement for sure, but not good enough). All of the advice3 seemed to point in the same direction, which was basically:

    autoload -Uz compinit
    if [ $(date +'%j') != $(stat -f '%Sm' -t '%j' ~/.zcompdump) ]; then
      compinit -C

The effect of which is to only check .zcompdump when it’s more than 24 hours old, and otherwise to simply initialize the completion system without referring to it. But wait, why should this be necessary? The whole point of .zcompdump is to speed up compinit. If ignoring it becomes the fix for slow compinit, then why should I ever use it?

So I read the effing manual, and indeed my instincts were correct. To quote:

To speed up the running of compinit, it can be made to produce a dumped configuration that will be read in on future invocations. … The dumped file is .zcompdump …

But why is it not working the way the manual describes? And why do so many other people seem to see similar behavior to me? Let’s read a little further.

If the number of completion files changes, compinit will recognise this and produce a new dump file.

Aha! So by implication one needs to be careful how they go about initializing the completion system. If you do something stupid like, say, eval a completion script (effectively initializing the completion system) before you update your fpath4 and otherwise run compinit, then the number of completion files Zsh sees will differ by one between when you eval the completion script and when you later call compinit, meaning you’ll fully run compdump every time you source your .zshrc … twice.

Once I understood this, the fix was obvious. Take the completion script I was manually eval-ing, turn it into a function script, and add it to my fpath before running compinit so it gets picked up with the rest of the completion system initialization. Now the .zcompdump isn’t updated every time a spawn a new shell, and the initialization time dropped down to 60-90 ms for an improvement of over 90% in the worst case.

Sidebar: Oh My Zsh

Oh My Zsh seems by all accounts to be a very popular framework for managing your Zsh configuration, but while I don’t personally use it, my impression is that it gives you enough rope to hang yourself with in this respect. I could see how it would be easy were I to source a bunch of third-party helper scripts in my .zshrc that were written by a half-dozen different people for the completion system initialization to end up in a similar state. Just something to keep in mind if the themes, plugins, and other candy offered by Oh My Zsh is too much for you to pass up.

  1. Later measurement indicated the actual time was 1.0-1.5s, but either way it felt like forever. 

  2. https://octodon.social/@jordyd/100189663891719203 

  3. Probably the best written example I found was at https://carlosbecker.com/posts/speeding-up-zsh/, from which I pulled the above quote. 

  4. fpath is the Zsh function path, which is similar to your system path, but for sourcing function scripts rather than executables