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Python In-Memory Files: A Guide to Improved Performance

Table of Contents

Processing data efficiently is critical for many Python applications. Reading and writing files from disk can often become a major bottleneck, especially when working with large datasets.Python provides powerful in-memory file objects that allow developers to work with data in RAM rather than repeatedly accessing the disk. These tools offer tremendous speed improvements by reducing costly I/O operations.

In this comprehensive guide, you’ll learn:

  • The main in-memory file types available in Python
  • How to create and work with memory mapped files using mmap
  • Using StringIO and BytesIO for fast in-memory text and data
  • The MemoryFS class for file system interfaces without a real disk
  • Common use cases and examples leveraging in-memory files

By the end, you’ll understand how to boost performance using Python’s in-memory file capabilities. Let’s get started!

Introduction to In-Memory Files

In-memory file objects store data in memory (RAM) rather than reading/writing to a disk. This avoids the high latency of physical I/O operations.

Python implements several types of in-memory files:

  • Memory-mapped files – Map contents of a file into virtual memory
  • StringIO – In-memory file-like objects for text data
  • BytesIO – In-memory file-like objects for binary data
  • MemoryFS – In-memory filesystem abstraction

The key benefit of in-memory files is speed. Programs can access and modify data much faster when it’s held in memory versus being read from or written to disk.

For I/O bound applications like processing large datasets, in-memory techniques can provide huge performance gains. The improved throughput also enables new capabilities like real-time data analytics.

Let’s look at how to work with each of Python’s main in-memory file types.

Memory Mapping Files with mmap

The mmap module provides memory mapped file objects. Memory mapping uses the operating system’s virtual memory subsystem to efficiently map contents of a file into a process’s address space.

The OS handles managing the mapped pages in RAM and synchronizing them with the disk file as needed. The result is we can directly access the file contents in memory via normal Python code.

Creating Memory Mapped Objects

To memory map a file, we create an mmap object using the file descriptor and desired size:

import mmap

with open('data.bin', 'rb') as f:
    # Get the file descriptor
    fd = f.fileno() 

size = 4096 # 4 KiB

mapped_file = mmap.mmap(fd, size, access=mmap.ACCESS_READ)

We open the file to get its descriptor, then memory map size bytes from the descriptor with read-only access.

The mmap constructor takes several other options like offset to map a subset of the file and tagname to identify shared mappings.

Reading and Writing Memory Mapped Files

A mapped file object supports slice notation to read/write to regions:

# Read the first 4 bytes 

# Update bytes 10-15
mapped_file[10:15] = b'HELLO' 

We can also use methods like seek() and find() to navigate the mapping and flush() to persist changes back to disk.

Overall, the interface is very similar to standard Python file objects.

Use Cases and Performance

Memory mapping delivers the most value for these scenarios:

  • Random access – Efficiently read/update non-sequential sections of large files.
  • Shared memory – Multiple processes can memory map the same file to efficiently share data.
  • Performance – Avoid the overhead of file read/write system calls.

Benchmarks show mmap can provide over 100x speedup compared to disk files for workloads dominated by random I/O. The performance gains are especially large on rotational disks.

Memory mapping is ideal for applications like databases, data analysis pipelines, and scientific computing that need to process large datasets efficiently.

In-Memory Text and Data with StringIO and BytesIO

The StringIO and BytesIO modules provide in-memory file objects to work with text and binary data respectively.

These classes implement the full file interface using in-memory buffers rather than reading/writing to the file system.

Reading and Writing in-Memory Buffers

To create an in-memory file, we simply instantiate StringIO or BytesIO and can then call read, write, and seek methods just like a regular file:

from io import BytesIO

in_mem_file = BytesIO() 

in_mem_file.write(b'Hello ')  

# b'Hello World!'
# b'Hello World!'

We can also construct them from initial data like strings or bytes:

from io import StringIO

mem_file = StringIO('Initial value')
# 'Initial value'

Differences from File Objects

The main differences between StringIO/BytesIO and file objects:

  • In-memory – Data is stored in RAM, not written to disk
  • Mutability – Changes are written back to the underlying buffer
  • Lifetime – Data exists only while the object instance is alive

By default, changes are persisted in the in-memory buffer. For true file-like immutability, we can use writeable=False.

Use Cases

StringIO and BytesIO are commonly used:

  • As substitutes for disk-based files in tests or mocks
  • For performance when intermediary disk I/O is not needed
  • To represent file-oriented data structures like a CSV in memory
  • As buffers to parse streams or capture output

For example, we could use StringIO to hold a CSV string for fast, repeated parsing.

Overall, StringIO and BytesIO provide simple in-memory file representations to avoid unnecessary disk reads/writes.

In-Memory Filesystems with MemoryFS

The MemoryFS class from the pyfilesystem2 module provides an in-memory filesystem abstraction.

The memory filesystem implements the standard FS interface for a hierarchical file system but stores everything in memory rather than reading/writing to an actual disk.

Creating a Memory Filesystem

To create an in-memory filesystem, we import MemoryFS and instantiate it:

from fs.memoryfs import MemoryFS

mem_fs = MemoryFS()

We now have an in-memory filesystem in mem_fs that mimics a real on-disk filesystem.

We can create files, directories, copy files between paths, and perform other operations like a regular filesystem:

# Create a dir

# Write a file   
with'test.txt', 'w') as f:
    f.write('Hello World!')

# Copy the file
mem_fs.copy('test.txt', 'foo/test.txt')

Changes only exist in memory – nothing is written to the actual disk.

Use Cases

Using a MemoryFS is useful for:

  • Testing file systems and operations without permanent side effects
  • Caching recently accessed files in memory for performance
  • Temporary storage that doesn’t need to persist across runs
  • Read-only base filesystem with a temporary writable layer

For example, we could mount a read-only base FS of shared assets, then overlay a memory FS with user-specific writable data.

The in-memory nature makes it easy to restore back to a clean state by discarding the instance.

Leveraging In-Memory Files in Python

Now that we’ve covered the various in-memory file objects available in Python, let’s look at some common use cases and examples.

Here are some of the most impactful ways to leverage in-memory techniques:

Caching and Temporary Data

In-memory files excel at providing fast access to temporary or volatile data:

  • Cache recently accessed files in MemoryFS to speed up repeated reads
  • Use StringIO to hold a parsed CSV in memory for quick analysis
  • Store request session data in BytesIO rather than disk

By keeping frequently used data in memory, we avoid the latency of disk I/O.

Network Applications

For network programs dealing with sockets or streams, in-memory buffers allow us to efficiently manipulate data:

  • Use BytesIO to wrap a socket stream for a file-like interface
  • Parse HTTP request data with StringIO without writing to disk
  • Share data between processes with mmap of a temp file

This approach prevents unnecessary intermediary disk operations.

Testing and Mocking

In-memory files provide great means to isolate tests:

  • Swap out the real filesystem with a mocked MemoryFS instance
  • Wrap output streams with a StringIO buffer to capture results
  • Use mmap to share test fixtures between processes

By using in-memory files, we remove external dependencies and side effects.

Additional Examples

Other examples leveraging in-memory techniques:

  • Store cached web app session data in BytesIO for speed
  • Use MemoryFS as a fast temporary scratch space for processing jobs
  • Share large read-only data with workers via mmap instead of copies

The flexibility of Python’s in-memory files enables these and many other creative applications.


Python provides powerful in-memory file objects that can tremendously improve I/O performance by avoiding unnecessary disk reads and writes.

Key takeaways:

  • Memory mapping with mmap excels at fast random access to sections of large files
  • StringIO and BytesIO offer simple in-memory text and data buffers
  • MemoryFS mimics a real filesystem in memory for lightweight caching and temporary data

By reducing disk I/O, judicious use of techniques like memory mapping and in-memory buffers can speed up many Python programs.

In-memory files offer great tools on the path to faster, more efficient data processing in Python. Integrating in-memory techniques like the ones covered in this guide can dramatically improve the performance of I/O bound applications.

Nisha Kumari

Nisha Kumari

Nisha Kumari, a Founding Engineer at Bito, brings a comprehensive background in software engineering, specializing in Java/J2EE, PHP, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and web development. Her career highlights include significant roles at Accenture, where she led end-to-end project deliveries and application maintenance, and at PubMatic, where she honed her skills in online advertising and optimization. Nisha's expertise spans across SAP HANA development, project management, and technical specification, making her a versatile and skilled contributor to the tech industry.

Written by developers for developers

This article was handcrafted with by the Bito team.

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