While transcribing the talk I gave at the last ElixirConf.eu conference, one of my colleagues pointed out that I glossed over the details of one of the examples. This prompted me to do some digging and I want to share what I found.

The problem

The example in question is a module responsible to fetch a file from a remote source and write it at the specified path.

The implementation is very simplistic and lacks both error handling and retry logic.

  defmodule Perils.Examples.Store do
     def write(file_name, url) do
       with {:ok, data} <- get(url) do
         File.write!(file_name, data)

     defp get(url) do
       :httpc.request(:get, {String.to_charlist(url), []}, [], [])
       |> case do
         {:ok, result} ->
           {{_, 200, _}, _headers, body} = result
           {:ok, body}

         error ->

Looking at the code, we can see that it relies on :httpc, the http client that ships with Erlang/OTP.

Both in my talk and in the initial transcription draft, I pointed out that running this code with a 12MB file would result in a memory usage peak at around 350/375MB, but didn't really look into why.

A chart visualizing a 350MB memory spike

Such delta between the file size and peak memory usage is suspicious and worth investigating.

The investigation

I started by setting up an exprof test, so that I could profile resource usage associated with the problematic function.

  defmodule A do
    import ExProf.Macro

    def run(url) do
      profile do
        Perils.Examples.Store.write("magazine.pdf", url)

  url = "https://web-examples.pspdfkit.com/magazine/example.pdf" #12MB
  {records, _block_result} = A.run(url)
  total_percent = Enum.reduce(records, 0.0, &(&1.percent + &2))
  IO.inspect("total = #{total_percent}")

The result (with some lines omitted) shows that most of the time (51.74%) is spent converting the binary response body to a list inside the maybe_format_body/2 function:

  FUNCTION                                       CALLS        %    TIME  [uS / CALLS]
  --------                                       -----  -------    ----  [----------]
  erlang:iolist_to_binary/1                          1    20.46   49705  [  49705.00]
  erlang:binary_to_list/1                            1    27.54   66887  [  66887.00]
  httpc:maybe_format_body/2                          1    51.74  125664  [ 125664.00]

While this is not an indication of higher memory usage per se, it's a good lead: binary to list conversion can be memory intensive.

I then looked at the source for maybe_format_body/2, making sure to match on the OTP version I tested against (23.1.1).

  maybe_format_body(BinBody, Options) ->
      case proplists:get_value(body_format, Options, string) of
           string ->
           _ ->

As expected, the function uses binary_to_list/1 to transform the response binary body into a list. Luckily, this behaviour can be tweaked via the body_format option, which defaults to string (as in Erlang string, which maps to a character list in Elixir).

Searching for body_format in the Erlang docs for request/5 shows that indeed it's possible to tweak our problematic implementation to:

  :httpc.request(:get, {String.to_charlist(url), []}, [], body_format: :binary)

With this change, memory usage decreases dramatically, showing a delta only slightly larger than the file size.

A chart visualizing a 15MB memory spike


This whole investigation got me thinking, as the body_format option had been in the docs all along, yet I hadn't seen it. I can find three reasons:

  1. The overall logic in the example doesn't really care about the response body contents, as it just writes them to a file. Without seeing that response, there was no way for me to even notice its type.
  2. File.write/2 accepts binaries, strings and character lists - again I didn't have a reason to even wonder about the type used to represent that returned response body.
  3. Working primarily in Elixir, everything tends to be either a string or a binary. I just "forget" that character lists exist, which lead to the implicit assumption that this would be the default for :httpc.

In other words, I didn't know what to search in the docs. Profiling tools helped me understand the problem space and pointed me in the right direction.