Bazel Blog

Dynamic scheduling for faster builds

The recently-released Bazel 0.21 brings an experimental new feature that can make your builds faster by making use of remote and local resources transparently. Prior to this release, this was already doable to some extent by using manual strategy definitions, but this new feature takes all manual decisions out of the picture.

Let's dive in!


Bazel's execution phase runs a bunch of actions in order to complete your build. The way these actions run is defined by strategies. Each action has a mnemonic that identifies its class (for example, CppLink or Genrule), and each mnemonic is connected to one strategy. The strategy is responsible for scheduling and running the action's commands. The main strategies are:

  • standalone for unsandboxed execution,
  • sandboxed for sandboxed execution on the local machine,
  • worker for execution on a persistent worker on the local machine, and
  • remote for execution on a remote service like RBE.

Action mnemonics are statically mapped to strategies via command-line flags. When Bazel encounters an action, it consults such mappings to determine which strategy to use for the action, and runs the action that way. This results in bimodal execution: when remote execution is enabled, Bazel uses the remote strategy for all actions and, when it is disabled (the default), Bazel uses the sandboxed strategy.

The problem with remote execution

In the case of a fully remote build, sending all actions through the remote strategy can be inefficient. Each remote action comes with a cost: there is the overhead of the RPCs to contact with the remote service and there is also the more significant overhead of uploading inputs and downloading outputs (even if we may be able to optimize the latter). As a result, blindly running all actions remotely can be (and often is) detrimental to performance.

You'd think that this is not a big deal though---if remote execution offers sufficient parallelism, the fact that each action has higher latency is compensated by the fact that we have a much higher throughput than what you'd ever get with pure local execution. And you'd think right---for most builds this is the case.

But this model breaks down at least in two cases:

  1. When the cost of remote execution is non-trivial. For example, imagine if a link action that takes about 30 seconds on the local machine requires up to 10 minutes on a remote machine (and, yes, we have painfully observed this within Google due to the way we handle specific cases of this action). Considering that linking is almost-certainly in the critical path… you can guess what happens to incremental builds.

  2. When the compiler is so fast that it's cheaper to run the action locally than remotely, and said actions are in the critical path. Examples include the Go compiler or the Java persistent workers.

The introduced delays in incremental builds kill the edit/build/test cycle, so some users affected by this problem have understandably objected to using remote execution.

Other users had papered over this problem by configuring certain mnemonics to run locally but this approach doesn't scale: unless you have time to dedicate to engineering productivity (and not everyone has this privilege), it will be difficult to set things up and maintain them over time to keep builds fast.

The bright future

Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem. Enter the new dynamic scheduler in Bazel 0.21, and its new dynamic strategy.

When the dynamic scheduler is enabled in combination with remote execution, Bazel sends all actions to the remote execution service… but also runs a subset of those actions locally as permitted by the limits expressed via --local_cpu_resources and --local_ram_resources. Bazel then monitors which of the two instances of the same action completes fastest, takes its result, and cancels the other one.

This approach yields the best of both worlds: for clean builds where we expect Bazel to have to build all actions (regardless of remote cache hits or not), Bazel can take advantage of the massive throughput of remote execution. But for incremental builds that are bottlenecked on individual actions, running those actions locally avoids all overheads of remote execution.

Neat! How can I use this feature?

There are a couple of prerequisites to use the dynamic spawn scheduler feature:

  • You’ve set up remote execution (via something like RBE).
  • The remote executors and the machine on which you run Bazel use the same operating system and machine architecture. (Tools compiled for the host also need to be executable on the remote executors.)

If your setup satisfies the above, all you have to do is specify --experimental_spawn_scheduler on your next build. Just make sure to pass this new flag after all others.

WARNING: As the flag name implies, this feature is experimental. More importantly, be aware that the local and remote environments should match, or otherwise mixing action execution between them could lead to correctness issues. Consider running Bazel within a container that matches your remote environment.

Let's look at some numbers

We have measured the behavior of the dynamic scheduler on a large iOS app on three Macs with different local performance characteristics, and also a large Android app on a Linux workstation. The specific details of the builds and the machines is not relevant.

We have evaluated primarily mobile apps because their critical path contains some actions that are especially costly to run remotely due to the large number of inputs and outputs they have, or the combined sizes of these. These measurements are not indicative of the average performance you'd get from using any of these remote execution systems as we have purposely picked some known problematic cases.

The iOS builds were run against the Google-internal remote execution system. The Android builds were run against RBE.

Here are the results for clean build times:

App type Machine Local only Remote only Dynamic
Android HP Z440, 12-core 53s 20s ↓ 21s ↓
iOS iMac Pro 2018, 18-core 2390s 1287s ↓ 245s ↓↓
iOS Mac Pro 2013, 6-core 2449s 1290s ↓ 303s ↓↓
iOS MacBook Pro 2015, 4-core 2999s 1299s ↓ 648s ↓↓

And here are the results for incremental build times after modifying a single leaf source file. For iOS, these builds account for compilation of a single file and linking, bundling and signing for the whole app. For Android, these builds account for Java compilation, dexing, resource processing and APK packing:

App type Machine Local only Remote only Dynamic
Android (Java change) HP Z440, 12-core 9s 60s ↑ 10s ≈
Android (Manifest change) HP Z440, 12-core 3s 29s ↑ 4s ≈
iOS iMac Pro 2018, 18-core 34s 414s ↑ 32s ≈
iOS Mac Pro 2013, 6-core 39s 414s ↑ 36s ≈
iOS MacBook Pro 2015, 4-core 39s 450s ↑ 36s ≈

As you can see, the remote-only configuration gave us better results than the local-only configuration for clean builds, but the remote-only configuration became unacceptably slow for incremental builds. As expected, though, dynamic execution won heads-down in all cases: clean builds were many times faster than they are with local or remote execution alone, and incremental builds were essentially the same.

Caveats and future work

There still are some problems to be resolved, of course, and is why this feature is still experimental.

The major one is that using this feature can lead to correctness issues unless you can guarantee that the local build environment matches the remote one (if you cannot do this, avoid using this feature).

Minor issues include the fact that local workers do not support cancellations (#614); high build timing variance depending on how the actions are scheduled; an artificial delay before running actions locally (#7327); and making sure remote caches are populated even when we cancel actions (#7328).


As a historical note, @philwo originally implemented the dynamic spawn scheduler as a Google-internal module. The reason was simplicity because the code needed to directly interact with the Forge module. @jin later worked on generalizing the code to support both Forge and RBE and is who brought you this feature in Bazel 0.21. I, @jmmv, am only the messenger and a performance tester.

Please give this a try and let us know how it goes!

EDIT (2019-02-05): This post was updated to make it clear that most measurements were made against Google's internal remote execution system, that any numbers are not representative of average builds using RBE, and that the dynamic spawn scheduler is an experimental feature at this point.