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How JavaScript Array Works Internally?

December 17, 2021

5 minutes read


All JavaScript engines have their own implementation of the functions and methods, but in this article, we'll consider the implementation of Google's V8 engine, which is one of the most famous JavaScript engines.

Objects in JavaScript

Objects in JavaScript are responsible for holding the mapping between key-value pairs. These keys could be any random string. Even if we pass a number as a key, JavaScript will first coerce it to string.

const foo = {
  12e2: 'bar',

console.log(foo[12e2]); // bar
console.log(foo['12e2']); // undefined
console.log(foo['1200']); // bar

Here, key 12e4 is first coerced to string and becomes 1200 then bar value is linked to it. The Same thing happens while accessing the value also. 12e2 will first be coerced to string, and then foo will look up for key 1200 and return bar value. But in the case of string literal 12e2, no coercion occurs as a result it was not able to find any value with such key and therefore returns undefined.

Arrays in JavaScript

Arrays are also a type of object in JavaScript but with only numeric keys. JavaScript engine can optimize these special objects with purely numeric keys Google's V8 javascript engine is entirely written in C++, but C++ arrays can only store a similar type of data.

Element Kind in JavaScript

There is no concept of int, float and double in JavaScript. JavaScript categorizes them as number type but the underneath implementation cares a lot about type of elements being stored in the array. The V8 engine tries its best to optimize the array. The operations that are performant for int data type can't be as much performed for string or double data type. To keep the track of stored elements in an array and apply specific optimizations, V8 assigns a element kind to each array. V8 uses these element kind just to internally distinguish between the different type of arrays

There are around 22 different element kind that V8 can assign to an array. Each of them comes with a different performance optimizations. In this article we will consider these main element kind and later will look at some of the performance mistakes that we can avoid when it comes to arrays in JavaScript.


Packed Elements

Packed elements means that there are no holes (which we'll see later) in the array. It is the most performant kind of array in V8. It is also the default kind when we initialize an empty array.

const foo = [1, 2, 3];
// Packed Element

Holey Elements

Holey elements mean that there are gaps in the array. It represents the sparse array. These types of array will not be as performant as the packed array.

const foo = [1, 2, 3];
foo[100] = 4;
// Holey Element

Packed/Holey SMI Elements

SMI means that the array is of type Smi which is a signed 32-bit integer.

const foo = [1, 2, 3]; // element kind: PACKED_SMI_ELEMENTS

const bar = [];
bar[100] = 4; // element kind: HOLEY_SMI_ELEMENTS

Packed/Holey Double Elements

Double means that there are one or more elements of type Double in the array.

const foo = [1, 2.5, 3]; // element kind: PACKED_DOUBLE_ELEMENTS

const bar = [];
bar[100] = 7.4; // element kind: HOLEY_DOUBLE_ELEMENTS

Packed/Holey Elements

The elements that are not of type Smi or Double are considered regular elements.

const foo = [1, 2.5, 3, 'bar']; // element kind: PACKED_ELEMENTS

const bar = [1, 2, 2.5];
bar[100] = 'foo'; // element kind: HOLEY_ELEMENTS

The element kind could also change dynamically as we add or remove elements from the array. Let's look at the below example for better understanding.

const foo = []; // element kind: PACKED_SMI_ELEMENTS

foo.push(1); // element kind: PACKED_SMI_ELEMENTS
foo[100] = 2; // element kind: HOLEY_SMI_ELEMENTS
foo.push(5.2); // element kind: PACKED_DOUBLE_ELEMENTS
foo.pop(); // element kind: PACKED_DOUBLE_ELEMENTS
foo.push('bar'); // element kind: HOLEY_ELEMENTS

At the starting PACKED_SMI_ELEMENTS is the default element kind. When we push 1 to the array it still remains PACKED_SMI_ELEMENTS. After adding holes in the array, it changes element kind to HOLEY_SMI_ELEMENTS. In the same way, pushing 5.2 makes the element kind move to the HOLEY_DOUBLE_ELEMENTS.

One thing to notice here is that once the element kind is downgraded to PACKED_DOUBLE_ELEMENTS it stays there. Even after removing the only double element 5.2 from the array, element kind is still PACKED_DOUBLE_ELEMENTS At the end, adding bar to the array makes the element kind move to HOLEY_ELEMENTS.

Here is the diagram of the element kind transitions for better understanding.

Element Kind transition in V8

JavaScript internally uses C++ vectors to store the packed arrays. It will grow dynamically. Once the holes are introduced, the underneath implementation will be upgraded to the hashmap. Once the underneath implementation is upgraded, it cannot be degraded even if you remove that element. So time and complexity can vary a lot by just your usage of the array.

General Performance Tips

Never access the array with out-of-bounds index

const foo = [1, 2, 3];

console.log(foo[100] ?? 'some placeholder'); // 'some placeholder'

The above example is such a common practice followed by many JS developers, here we are accessing 100 index of the array.However, the length of array is 3 so the index is out of bounds. In this case, the V8 engine has to perform the expensive prototype chain lookup. This will affect the performance of V8 engine as V8 will be cautious about this situation, and it will not remain as performant it was before accessing the out-of bound key.

Avoid giving the initial capacity to the array

const foo = new Array(3); // element kind: HOLEY_SMI_ELEMENTS

foo[0] = 1;
foo[1] = 2;
foo[2] = 3;

This will create a HOLEY_SMI_ELEMENTS array with the initial capacity of 3. However, we are only storing PACKED_SMI_ELEMENTS elements. Why should we lose the optimizations of PACKED_SMI_ELEMENTS?

const foo = []; // element kind: HOLEY_SMI_ELEMENTS

foo.push(3); // element kind: PACKED_SMI_ELEMENTS

Instead of giving the initial capacity to the array, we can just create an empty array and push the elements to it. This will ensure the element kind is the same


So this was a quick deep dive into how the V8 engine internally handles arrays. In the end, we also discuss some tips to make your array performant. If you like this article, please share it with your friends.

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