This is an interesting time for coverage.py: I’m trying to make use of new facilities in Python to drastically reduce the execution-time overhead, but it’s raising tricky questions about how coverage should work.

The current situation is a bit involved. I’ll try to explain, but this will get long, with a few sections. Come talk in Discord about anything here, or anything about coverage at all.

# How coverage works today

Much of this is discussed in How coverage.py works, but I’ll give a quick overview here to set the stage for the rest of this post.

## Trace function

Coverage knows what code is executed because it registers a trace function which gets called for each line of Python execution. This is the source of the overhead: calling a function is expensive. Worse, for statement coverage, we only need one bit of information for each line: was it ever executed? But the trace function will be invoked for every execution of the line, taking time but giving us no new information.

## Arcs

The other thing to know about how coverage works today is arcs. Coverage measures branch coverage by tracking the previous line that was executed, then the trace function can record an arc: the previous line number and the current line number as a pair. Taken all together, these arcs show how execution has moved through the code.

Most arcs are uninteresting. Consider this simple program:

`1print("Hello")2print("world")3print("bye")`

This will result in arcs (1, 2) and (2, 3). Those tell us that lines 1, 2, and 3 were all executed, but nothing more interesting. Lots of arcs are this kind of straight-line information.

But when there are choices in the execution path, arcs tell us about branches taken:

`1a = 12if a == 1:3    print("a is one!")4else:5    print("a isn't one!")6print("Done")`

Now we’ll collect these arcs during execution: (1, 2), (2, 3), (3, 6). When coverage.py analyzes the code, it will determine that there were two possible arcs that didn’t happen: (2, 5) and (5, 6).

The set of all possible arcs is used to determine where the branches are. A branch is a line that has more than one possible arc leaving it. In this case, the possible arcs include (2, 3) and (2, 5), so line 2 is a branch, and only one of the possible arcs happened, so line 2 is marked as a partial branch.

# SlipCover

SlipCover is a completely different implementation of a coverage measurement tool, focused on minimal execution overhead. They’ve accomplished this in a few clever ways, primarily by instrumenting the code to directly announce what is happening rather than using a trace function. Synthetic bytecode or source lines are inserted into your code to record data during execution without using a trace function.

SlipCover’s author (Juan Altmayer Pizzorno) and I have been talking for years about how SlipCover and coverage.py each work, with the ultimate goal to incorporate SlipCover-like techniques into coverage.py. SlipCover is an academic project, so was never meant to be widely used and maintained long-term.

One of the ways that SlipCover reduces overhead is to remove instrumentation once it has served its purpose. After a line has been marked as executed, there is no need to keep that line’s inserted bytecode. The extra tracking code can be removed to avoid its execution overhead.

Instrumenting and un-instrumenting code is complex. With Python 3.12, we might be able to get the best aspects of instrumented code without having to jump through complicated hoops.

# Python 3.12: sys.monitoring

Python 3.12 introduced a new way for Python to track execution. The sys.monitoring feature lets you register for events when lines are executed. This is similar to a classic trace function, but the crucial difference is you can disable the event line-by-line. Once a line has reported its execution to coverage.py, that line’s event can be disabled, and the line will run at full speed in the future without the overhead of reporting to coverage. Other lines in the same file will still report their events, and they can each be disabled once they have fired once. This gives us low overhead because lines mostly run at full speed.

Coverage.py has supported line coverage in 3.12 since 7.4.0 with only 5% overhead or so.

Unfortunately, branch coverage is a different story. sys.monitoring has branch events, but they are disabled based only on the “from” line, not on the “from/to” pair. In our example above, line 2 could branch to 3 or to 5. When sys.monitoring tells us line 2 branched to 3, we have to keep the event enabled until we get an event announcing line 2 branching to line 5. This means we continue to suffer event overhead during execution of the 2-to-3 branch, plus we have to do our own bookkeeping to recognize when both branch destinations have been seen before we can disable the event.

As a result, branch coverage doesn’t get the same advantages from sys.monitoring as statement coverage.

I’ve been talking to the core Python devs about changing how sys.monitoring works for branches. But even if we come to a workable design, because of Python’s yearly release cycle it wouldn’t be available until 3.14 in October 2025 at the earliest.

# Using lines for branches

In SlipCover, Juan came up with an interesting approach to use sys.monitoring line events for measuring branch coverage. SlipCover already had a few ways of instrumenting code, rewriting the code during import to add statements that report execution data. The new idea was to add lines at the destinations of branches. The lines don’t have to do anything. If sys.monitoring reports that the line was executed, then it must mean that the branch to that line happened.

As an example, our code from above would be rewritten to look something like this:

`a = 1if a == 1:                  # line 2    NO-OP                   # line A, marked as 2->3    print("a is one!")      # line 3else:    NO-OP                   # line B, marked as 2->5    print("a isn't one!")   # line 5print("Done")`

If sys.monitoring reports that line A was executed, we can record a branch from 2 to 3 and disable the event for line A. This reduces the overhead and still lets us later get an event for line B when line 2 branches to line 5.

This seems to give us the best of all the approaches: events can be disabled for each choice from a branch independently, and the inserted lines can be as minimal as possible.

# Problems

There are a few problems with adapting this clever approach to coverage.py.

## Moving away from arcs

This technique changes the data we collect during execution. We no longer get a (1, 2) arc, for example. Overall, that’s fine because that arc isn’t involved in computing branches anyway. But arcs are used as intermediate data throughout coverage.py, including its extensive test suite. How can we move to arc-less measurement on 3.12+ without refactoring many tests and while still supporting Pythons older than 3.12?

I’ve gotten a start on adapting some test helpers to avoid having to change the tests, so this might not be a big blocker.

## Is every multi-arc a branch?

Another problem is how coverage.py determines branches. As I mentioned above, coverage.py statically analyzes code to determine all possible arcs. Any line that could arc to more than one next line is considered a branch. This works great for classic branches like if statements. But what about this code?

`1def func(x):2    try:3        if x == 10:4            print("early return")5            return6    finally:7        print("finally")8    print("finished")`

If you look at line 7, there are two places it could go next. If x is 10, line 7 will return from the function because of the return on line 5. If x is not 10, then line 7 will be followed by line 8. Coverage.py’s static analysis understands these possibilities and includes both (7, return) and (7, 8) in the possible arcs, so it considers line 7 a branch. But is it? The conditional here is really on line 3, which is already considered a branch.

I mention this as a problem here because the clever NO-OP rewriting scheme depends on being able to insert a line at a destination that clearly indicates where the branch started from. In this finally clause, where would we put the NO-OP line for the return? The rewriting scheme breaks down if the same destination can be reached from different starting points.

But maybe those cases are exactly the ones that shouldn’t be considered branches in the first place?

# Where are we?

I’ve been hacking on this in a branch in the coveragepy repo. It’s a complete mess with print-debugging throughout just to see where this idea could lead.

For measuring performance, we have a cobbled-together benchmark tool in the benchmark directory of the repo. I could use help making it more repeatable and useful if you are interested.

I’m looking for thoughts about how to resolve some of these issues, and how to push forward on a faster coverage.py. There’s now a #coverage-py channel in the Python Discord where I’d welcome feedback or ideas about any of this, or anything to do with coverage.py.

I’m not sure if this is going to be of any use to you, but in the .net ecosystem, OpenCover and then my successor AltCover address the multiple “come from” issue for branches by combining what are in effect branch-local NO-OPs with unconditional jumps, thus in the `func(x)` example above

``````3        if x == 10:
``````

effectively becomes

``````3        if x == 10:
NO-OP // record 3 -> 4
goto 4
else:
NO-OP // record 3 -> 8
goto 8
``````

so nothing has a `goto` addressing any of the injected code.

This also makes explicit that line 7 is not a branch, as only unconditional jumps exit the `try` clause, and the linear `finally` is just in the way.

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