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Felipe Vogel
Felipe Vogel

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Dot syntax and dig! for Ruby hashes, benchmarked

Table of Contents

Recently I heard about this convenient feature of Elixir maps:

To access atom keys, one may also use the map.key notation. Note that map.key will raise a KeyError if the map doesn't contain the key :key, compared to map[:key], that would return nil.

Nice! This is something I've been wishing for in Ruby. In a current project I have a configuration hash that is passed around and used in a variety of objects. The hash is quite large and several levels deep, so my code abounds with chains of Hash#fetch such as config.fetch(:item).fetch(:template).fetch(:variants). Which, as you can imagine, makes some lines very long and not particularly readable πŸ˜’

Two notes on why I've been doing it this way:

  • The reason I use fetch instead of config[:item][:template][:variants] or config.dig(:item, :template, :variants) is that the KeyError raised by fetch, in case of a missing key, is more helpful than the default nil value from brackets or dig. In fact, that nil could cause a major debugging headache if it results in an error somewhere else far from where the nil originated.
  • If you're wondering why I'm using a raw hash instead of a custom Config class with syntactic sugar such as config[:item, :template, :variants]: that could be a great idea in some projects! But in this project, some objects use only a part of the config and I don't want to pass the entire config into those objects. Also, some objects perform hash operations using parts of the config. So if I'm creating separate Config objects just to wrap inner hashes from the main Config, and if I'm converting these Config objects into a hash at various points, then it seems I should simply use a hash to begin with. In this project it's simpler to deal with hashes all the time, so that I don't have to ask myself, "Let's see, is this a Config object here, or has it turned into a hash?"

So, if we stick with a raw hash, can we hack our way to a more concise alternative to those repeated fetches, but with the same safety net of a KeyError? Of course! This is Ruby, after all, where anything is possible. But whether it's advisable… that's the real question. In this post, we'll look at two possible syntaxes along with their performance and usability implications:

  • Dot syntax: config.item.template.variants
  • Dig with errors: config.dig!(:item, :template, :variants)

Originally I set out to find a performant approach to dot syntax, but by the end I had changed my mind, for reasons that I'll explain.


First, here are benchmarks on standard syntax (mostly). For the benchmark code, see the end of this post.

  1. Bracket notation: hash[:a][:b]
  2. Dig: hash.dig(:a, :b)
  3. Chained fetch: hash.fetch(:a).fetch(:b)
  4. A shorter fetch alias: hash > :a > :b. Because why not.
                           user     system      total        real
1. brackets           :  0.003332   0.000000   0.003332 (  0.003332)
2. dig                :  0.002877   0.000823   0.003700 (  0.003704)
3. fetch              :  0.005040   0.000000   0.005040 (  0.005044)
4. fetch alias        :  0.005012   0.000000   0.005012 (  0.005012)
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  • These are all very performant. But remember, brackets and dig return nil where I want a KeyError, and chained fetch is what I'm trying to get away from.
  • In some runs, dig (#2) was faster than brackets (#1), but more often brackets win by a hair.
  • Chained fetch (#3) is consistently slower than brackets here in the benchmarks, but my project's test suite does not run any faster when I replace all calls to fetch with brackets. It's a good reminder that benchmarks don't always reflect real-life performance.
  • Even though the fetch alias (#4) is just as fast as fetch itself in the benchmarks, my project's test suite took 20% longer to run when I replaced all calls to fetch with an alias. 20% slower is not much, especially since all of my tests run in well under one second. But there's also the fact that while config > … > … looks really cool, it is a bit cryptic (likely to confuse my future forgetful self), and I have to surround it with parentheses every time I want to call a method on the return value. Still, I was curious about the performance hit and that's why I included the fetch alias here.

Dot syntax

Here are a few approaches to dot notation for hashes or hash-like structures, benchmarked. Keep in mind that I measured only access (reading) performance, not initialization or writing.

  1. Faux dot notation by flattening a hash and giving it composite keys, as in config[:"item.template.variants"]. I copied this approach from here, with the main difference that I use symbols as keys because they're more performant than strings. Note that :"string" is similar to "string".to_sym but faster because a string is not created every time. Also, this approach uses brackets, but only because that hash's bracket accessor (Hash#[]) is overridden to use fetch.
  2. An OpenStruct, which is sometimes suggested in these sorts of conversations.
  3. Augmenting a single hash with methods corresponding to its keys.
  4. ActiveSupport::OrderedOptions.
  5. hash_dot gem. Also, my benchmark code is based on the benchmarks in hash_dot's README.
  6. Hashie gem.
                           user     system      total        real
1. flat composite keys:  0.003461   0.000000   0.003461 (  0.003461)
2. OpenStruct         :  0.009731   0.000000   0.009731 (  0.009772)
3. per-hash dot access:  0.015300   0.000000   0.015300 (  0.015304)
4. AS::OrderedOptions :  0.070637   0.000000   0.070637 (  0.070640)
5. hash_dot           :  0.163008   0.000000   0.163008 (  0.163076)
6. hashie             :  0.163450   0.000000   0.163450 (  0.163451)
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  • Some approaches to dot notation involve more annoying setup than others, and/or significant limitations. For example, the flattened hash with composite keys (#1) is super fast, but it's far from the vanilla nested hash that I began with. This makes certain hash operations more complicated, such as iterating over hash keys. For my purposes it's not worth the headache.
  • The OpenStruct is faster than I thought it would be. But its fatal flaws, for my purposes, are that it's not a hash and therefore lacks a lot of functionality, and also it doesn't raise an error for a nonexistent attribute (like the KeyError from fetch) but instead returns nil.
  • Per-hash dot access (#3) is the fastest true dot notation for a hash. (Note that it only works for a hash that doesn't get any new keys once it's set up, which is just fine for my config hash.) However, when applied in my project, it still made my tests run for 70% longer. Again, that's not as bad as it sounds for my sub-1-second test suite.
  • But then something unexpected happened as soon as I replaced my project's calls to fetch with dot notation. My code looked more messy even though it was now more concise. The reason, I think, is that there was no longer a slew of (syntax-highlighted) symbols at the points where I access the config hash, and so it was a bit harder to see at a glance where config values were being used. Instead of brightly-colored symbols evenly spaced by fetch, my eyes now saw only a mush of method calls until my brain processed the words and told me whether that's a place where the config hash is accessed. Hmm. Now I was wondering if there was a way to keep the symbols involved, but in a more concise way than chaining fetch πŸ€”

Dig with errors

Hash#dig looks nice: hash.dig(:item, :template, :variants). But again, the problem is that it defaults to nil for nonexistent keys. What if we could make a similar method that raises a KeyError instead?

This has actually been proposed as an addition to Ruby several times (1, 2, 3) with various names including dig!, deep_fetch, and dig_fetch. But the method seems unlikely to be added in the near future. So… let's do it ourselves!

Here are a few different implementations, with benchmarks. There are also a couple of gems for it, dig_bang and deep_fetch, but I didn't include them here because dig_bang uses reduce (#4 below) and deep_fetch uses recursion, which performs the same.

  1. Regular dig on a hash that has had its defaults set such that it raises an error for nonexistent keys.
  2. Hash#case_dig!, which raises a KeyError for nonexistent keys. It's called case_dig! because it's implemented with a simple case statement.
  3. Hash#while_dig!, similar but implemented with a while loop.
  4. Hash#reduce_dig!. This is the "most Ruby" implementation.
                           user     system      total        real
1. dig, error defaults:  0.003750   0.000000   0.003750 (  0.003750)
2. case_dig!          :  0.007850   0.000000   0.007850 (  0.007856)
3. while_dig!         :  0.014849   0.000000   0.014849 (  0.014852)
4. reduce_dig!        :  0.027889   0.000056   0.027945 (  0.027950)
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  • The most vanilla approach is to use regular dig on a hash that's been given KeyError-raising defaults. This is a bad idea in a way that's hard to explain in a bullet point. See Appendix A if you want to know.
  • reduce_dig! (#4) is the most idiomatic and flexible implementation, so it's probably what you should use.
  • while_dig! (#3) is for you if you want to sell your soul trade idiomatic Ruby for a bit of extra speed.
  • case_dig! (#2) throws aesthetics and flexibility completely out the window because it's implemented with a case statement, and it can only dig as deep as the case statement is tall. But in my project I don't foresee ever needing to dig more than four levels into a hash, so for me it's perfect 🌟 Best of all, my tests don't run any slower now than they used to. But please don't copy me. That case statement is truly ugly.

Moral of the story

In the middle of all this, I seriously considered giving up and just going back to fetch, because it's the most performant and any other syntax risks making my code more cryptic to my future self. When I see config.fetch(:item) I know I'm dealing with a hash, unlike when I see config.item. I'm sure even config.dig!(:item, :template) will give my future self pause. For me this cost is outweighed by the better readability that I get in return, but it's surprising that this (and not performance) is what made the decision a difficult one.

Which leads into the other surprising takeaway: in this case it wasn't hard to custom-build a very performant solution for my project. So maybe I should try a DIY mindset more often, rather than immediately reaching for a gem (or ten).

In the end, maybe the real cost of my solution was in the absurd amount of time that I spent on all this benchmarking, hairsplitting, yak shaving, and bikeshedding. Enough! But I hope you've enjoyed my little adventure as much as I'm enjoying seeing it finished.

Appendix A: regular dig on a hash with error-raising defaults

So why is this a bad idea? It comes with no performance penalty because it's just regular dig on a regular hash. What could go wrong?

The problem is that I have to modify my config hash in the beginning to give it defaults that raise a KeyError. Recall that I also had to modify the hash when I tried per-hash dot access (#3 in the benchmarks on dot syntax above). But this time I'm less comfortable with the modification, because this one can "slip out" in less noticeable ways.

For example, if at some point in my code the config hash is operated on in a way that creates a derived hash (e.g. by calling map on it and using the result), that derived hash would be a fresh new hash without the KeyError defaults.

That new hash might get passed around, with me thinking it's the original that has the special defaults. I might use dig on the hash, and dig would work as in any hash (without my trusty KeyError) without me ever knowing that anything was missing πŸ’€

So this approach is too fragile for my liking. Plus, my future self might wonder "Why did I use dig and not fetch?" until future self re-discovers my hack.

Appendix B: the benchmark code

require 'benchmark'
require 'ostruct'
require 'active_support/ordered_options'
require 'hash_dot'
require 'hashie'
require 'active_support/core_ext/object/blank'

#### SETUP


# regular hash
vanilla = { address: { category: { desc: "Urban" } } }

# fetch alias
class Hash
  alias_method :>, :fetch


# a flattened hash with composite keys
# from
def to_namespace_hash(object, prefix = nil)
  if object.is_a? Hash do |key, value|
      if prefix
        to_namespace_hash value, "#{prefix}.#{key}".to_sym
        to_namespace_hash value, "#{key}".to_sym
    { prefix => object }

flat = { address: { category: { desc: "Urban" } } }
flat = to_namespace_hash(flat)

def flat.[](key)
rescue KeyError => e
  possible_keys = { |x| x if x.match /.*?#{key}.*?/i }.delete_if(&:blank?).join("\n")
  raise KeyError, "Key '#{key}' not found. Did you mean one of:\n#{possible_keys}"


# OpenStruct
ostruct =
      desc: "Urban"

# per-hash dot access
def allow_dot_access(vanilla_hash)
  vanilla_hash.each do |key, value|
    vanilla_hash.define_singleton_method(key) { fetch(key) }
    if value.is_a?(Hash) then allow_dot_access(value); end

# ActiveSupport::OrderedOptions
asoo =
asoo.address =
asoo.address.category =
asoo.address.category.desc = "Urban"

# hash_dot gem
hash_dot = vanilla.to_dot

my_dot = allow_dot_access({ address: { category: { desc: "Urban" } } }).freeze


# with error defaults
def add_key_error_defaults(vanilla_hash)
  vanilla_hash.default_proc = -> (_hash, key) { raise KeyError, "key not found: :#{key}" }
  vanilla_hash.values.each do |value|
    if value.is_a? Hash

errorful = add_key_error_defaults({ address: { category: { desc: "Urban" } } })

# dig! implementations
class Hash
  # ewwwwwwwwwwwww
  def case_dig!(key1, key2 = nil, key3 = nil, key4 = nil)
    if key4
    elsif key3
    elsif key2

  def while_dig!(*keys)
    hash = self
    while key = keys.shift
      hash = hash.fetch(key)

  def reduce_dig!(*keys)
    keys.reduce(self) { |memo, key| memo.fetch(key) }


iterations = 50000 do |bm|
  puts "BASELINES:""1. brackets           :") do
    iterations.times do
  end"2. dig                :") do
    iterations.times do
  end"3. fetch              :") do
    iterations.times do
  end"4. fetch alias        :") do
    iterations.times do
      vanilla > :address > :category > :desc

  puts "DOT:""1. flat composite keys:") do
    iterations.times do
  end"2. OpenStruct         :") do
    iterations.times do
  end"3. per-hash dot access:") do
    iterations.times do
  end"4. AS::OrderedOptions :") do
    iterations.times do
  end"5. hash_dot           :") do
    iterations.times do

  class Hash
    include Hashie::Extensions::MethodAccess
  end"6. hashie             :") do
    iterations.times do

  puts "DIG!:""1. dig, error defaults:") do
    iterations.times do
      errorful.dig(:address, :category, :desc)
  end"2. case_dig!          :") do
    iterations.times do
      vanilla.case_dig!(:address, :category, :desc)
  end"3. while_dig!         :") do
    iterations.times do
      vanilla.while_dig!(:address, :category, :desc)
  end"4. reduce_dig!        :") do
    iterations.times do
      vanilla.reduce_dig!(:address, :category, :desc)
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