Hints and tips on writing add-ins
Common performance/hanging issues
Jumpy performance, freezes, etc. are often caused by:
- Long running functions, consider using auto asynchronous functions if your function can be long running. This will particularly
mess with the insert function dialog (the dialog that comes up when you click the ‘fx’ button next to the edit box for cells.
This is because Excel calls the function being edited each time you edit an input field in the dialog so it can interactively
show the result. We intend to add functionality later to allow the function author to detect being called from the insert function
dialog, but asynchronous execution is probably a better long term solution anyway.
- Synchronous (normal) UDFs will also commonly freeze the UI, even if in multi-threaded mode.
- Slow functions used in cells with conditional formatting can cause Excel to lock up, so avoid conditional formatting for anything not very fast. This is because Excel continually re-evaluates the function during redraws and makes it essentially volatile. A good way to tell if this is your issue is to create a copy of your sheet and remove all conditional formatting and see if that helps.
- Logging level is too detailed. Logging should be set to WARN or ERROR in normal use. Check both the Java and C++ logging levels.
- Check the VM options, make sure Check JNI is switched OFF. This causes a 10-20x penalty in marshalling data.
Learn how to use array formulas
Some of the most useful functions returns structured data that should be spread over a grid of cells. Array formulas refers to
user-defined functions that return either one or two dimensional arrays (or
XLArray directly). To use array formulas you highlight
the area into which you want to write the results, click in the formula bar (or press F2), type your formula e.g.
=ExpandTabularResult(A1) and rather than pressing ENTER, press CTRL-SHIFT-ENTER. ENTER can be RETURN rather than the numpad ENTER
key. If you press ENTER by mistake or want to change a scalar formula into an array formula, you can just highlight the area again, hit
F2, which will edit the formula in the top left cell and hit CTRL-SHIFT-ENTER.
Increasing the area covered by an array formula
In this case, you simply highlight the new area (which must completely contain the existing area), hit F2 or click in the formula bar to edit the formula, and hit CTRL-SHIFT-ENTER.
Decreasing the area covered by an array forumla
This is more tricky. If you do the obvious thing and try and delete part of the area, or try select a reduced area and hit CTRL-SHIFT-ENTER you will encounter the annoying error: “You cannot change part of an array”. What you need to do is highlight the existing area and hit CTRL-ENTER. This converts the elements to normal formulas. You can then highlight the new area (which can be smaller) and hit CTRL-SHIFT-ENTER.
Alternatives to array formulas
Before using array formulas with abandon though, you should consider whether your users are familiar with them. Some users find using array formulas very annoying, or, more likely, are completely unfamiliar with them. You should either plan to survey or train users before moving forward.
An alternative is to creat some indexed accessor functions. With this you return an object handle rather than an array, and then
pass that into another function to pick out a particular element. An example is
JSONArray.Get implemented by the
method in com.mcleodmoores.xl4j.examples.rest.JsonFunctions.
|2||Using hardcoded index||Using computed index (easy to copy)|
|3||=JSONArray.Get($A$1, 1)||=JSONArray.Get($A$1, ROW() - ROW($A$2))|
|4||=JSONArray.Get($A$1, 2)||=JSONArray.Get($A$1, ROW() - ROW($A$2))|
|5||=JSONArray.Get($A$1, 3)||=JSONArray.Get($A$1, ROW() - ROW($A$2))|
=CreateJsonObject isn’t a real function, just a placeholder for something that would return a JSON object like
Also, in this case we’re using a 1-based index so the subtract row number (
ROW($A$2)) is the header rather than the first value, which
is what you’d use for zero-based indices. Obviously type of accessor function can be done in two or more dimensions as well.
A future intention is to implement functionality that allows you to write function results into the cells below the formula without either array formulas or accessor functions.
Minimise the use of volatile functions if any of your functions are doing intensive calculations or I/O
If you have a calculation chain (the chain of dependencies between cells) that contains a function marked ‘volatile’, the chain will
be constantly re-evaluated. If any of your functions are even slightly slow, the whole of Excel will slow to a crawl and quite
probably intermittantly lock up. Often the culprit is an
=NOW() function in a cell.
Be aware that Excel often recalculates very aggressively
Excel will often re-compute cells that logically really don’t need to be recalculated multiple times. Long running functions can therefore end up appearing to take longer than expected as they are actually run several times before appearing. One way to mitigate this issue is to cache results when a function is called with the same arguments, essentially memoization. This obviously requires the function is idempotent (that it has no hidden state that affects its results). For an example of this, using a rather crude hand-rolled cache, see the Quandl example.
Excel being multi-threaded now doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it does
You might this that because Excel does multi-threaded recalculation, it can calculate cells in the background without blocking. This is not true. Any of the calculation threads blocking can cause the UI to freeze up. For the best results, use asynchronous functions for any I/O or long running calculations.
XL4J uses two separate thread pools:
1) one for normal synchronous function calls that has a one to one mapping with Excel’s threads (in fact, this pool probably isn’t necessary, it’s a precaution to prevent binding Excel threads to the JVM and we might experiment with getting rid of it) 2) one for asynchronous operations that’s larger, but of a fixed upper size.
The reason for separate pools is that a single unified pool leads to the problem where you have a large number of blocked asynchronous functions using up the whole pool, leaving nothing for the synchronous requests and causing the UI to lock up.
Asynchronous functions get cancelled and recalculated often
Excel often calls the add-in with an asynchronous function call, only to trigger the calculation cancellation event shortly afterwards (which cancels all outstanding calculations). What currently happens in this case is:
1) The current asynchronous thread pool is flagged for shutdown, existing calls continue until finished but then will shut down and
any threads will terminate. We might one day put these threads in a java
interrupt() the group as this will
interrupt some operations (but not others). This isn’t implemented currently though.
2) A new asynchronous thread pool is created running the next wave of asynchronous calls.
This means your asynchronous thread-pool is not held hostage by cancelled functions. We effectively let them do their thing and shut them down. Using a fixed thread pool is important though as Excel can easily create hundreds of concurrent threads if the pool is unbounded, and will eventually exhaust the machine’s resources.
Bugs might be caused by highly concurrent requests to your back-end rather than any issue with the add-in
I’ve seen an Excel add-in get continually blamed for stability issues that were actually caused by bugs in underlying systems. They often only show up via Excel because that’s the only client that does lots of requests in parallel.
Observed unexpected behvaiours of Excel
Excel does some strange things sometimes. They almost certainly all have good reasons:
- All processing is blocked, including scheduled (timed) command execution, when a formula is being edited.
- Sometimes copy/paste fails, leaving toolsbars with smiley faces instead of the icons you expect.
- Pressing recalc or hitting F9 often does not force recalculation. A better approach is to hit F2 and then ENTER to re-enter the formula in a cell or hit CTRL-ALT-F9 (recalc all workbooks). Another thing that will force recalculation is adding or removing a row or column.