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How Xdebug made HHVM look super awesome

Two weeks ago I tweeted about HHVM beeing a lot faster then standard PHP on a certain set of Travis CI builds. No matter how awesome that tweet looked, the timings it showed are influenced and accurate. Let me tell you why.

What happened

In my effort to get a full year of daily contributions on Github I was going over my repo's nitpicking something simple to do that day. Found that the .travis.yml of HotSpots could use some white space between sections. Used Github's fancy webbased editor since it was a quick fix. Committed and decided to check out the test results:

Travis CI WyriHaximus/HotSpots build #45

The difference between vanilla PHP and HHVM is huge. Looking at the tests them self it's 8 seconds on HHVM versus 2 minutes on vanilla. How awesome that result may look it's not realistic. So lets find out what happened.

How is is set up

First off I've setup the github the repo with a commit hook to travis and it includes an .travis.yml file with the testing configuration for Travis. It includes the following PHP versions to test against:

  - 5.3
  - 5.4
  - 5.5
  - 5.6
  - hhvm

The script directive is the following:

php vendor/bin/phpunit --coverage-text --coverage-clover ./build/logs/clover.xml

And the after script, will be important later on, is this:

php vendor/bin/coveralls

Getting the hint

Two days after the tweet I get this response to it.

Hinting there is something wrong. Checking build #45.5 line #97 and no surprise it's there.

What was causing it

With that hint I started looking around and realized it must have been because the clover.xml test coverage file was missing. Then it starting to make sense, HHVM doesn't support Xdebug so there is no code coverage collected, just test results. Knowing that Xdebug slows things down tremendously when doing code coverage, it could explain the difference. Normally it's barely noticeable but due to the huge amount of asserts (going over the resulting image pixel by pixel) it stands out. To be sure, and find out the real performance gap, a simple VM using vagrant was set up with HHVM and vanilla PHP install.

The Accurate results

The end result isn't as spectacular as my initial screenshot. But it does confirm my suspicion that Xdebug slowed the tests down on Travis. Both are run with repeat on 100 to get a decent timing difference. But it does show HHVM still as a clear winner.


php vendor/bin/phpunit --repeat 100

Resulted in:

PHP Results


hhvm vendor/bin/phpunit --repeat 100

Resulted in:

HHVM Results


My initial tweet was sent out because I was surprised by the huge timing discrepancy. The community responded in was great way. And I hope no one has the wrong impression about HHVM vs. PHP performance due to that tweet. HHVM is still the clear winner, completing the tests a good 10% faster. This oopsie has been a valuable lesson for me to always properly check my facts. Would like to thank Claude for pointing me in the right direction.

Categories: HotSpots - HipHop VM - Xdebug - Travis CI - Testing