or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Perl's Builtin
List Operators
I come from a CS background. I've had algorithmic
efficiency beat into me till it was coming out of my
ears. After so many classes on datastructures and algorithm
analysis I've become wary of builtin, higherlevel
operators like Perl's push, pop, shift
and unshift list manipulation functions. Oh I've used them
plenty, but there has always been this nagging little voice in the back
of my head saying What if unshift takes longer to
run with a larger list? and does it take longer to find the size of
a bigger list?.
Questions like these led me on a spiritual quest through
the bowels of Perl's source code.... The details of my journey follow.
Now before I dig too deep, I want to introduce the
uninitiated to bigO notation.
BigO notation if a method of describing the
efficiency of an algorithm as it relates in a very general way
to the quantity of data the algorithm is operating on.
Urri Guttman and Larry Rossler's article A
Fresh Look at Efficient Perl Sorting (in addition to being a
great article in its own rite) has a fantastic overview of bigO notation
much better than what I have cobbled together here.
Some common bigO
analyses are as follows (in order from best
to worst performancewise).
 O(1)  algorithm takes a constant amount of time to run no matter
what the dataset size. A good example of this is a hash table lookup.
 O(log(n))  algorithm performance is proportional to the logarithm
of the dataset size. A binary search is O(log(n)).
 O(n)  algorithm runtime scales linearly with dataset size. If it
took 10 seconds with 200 elements, it will take 20 seconds with 400 elements.
Scanning a list for an element with a particular value is O(n).
 O(n*log(n))  the best sorting algorithms (quicksort, mergesort) take this
long to run.
 O(n^2)  algorithm performance is proportional to the dataset size squared.
Basic sorting algorithms (selection sort, insertion sort, bubble sort) take this long
to run.
 O(2^n)  only the slowest algorithms take this long to run. Traveling salesman problem, etc.
A straightforward list implementation that every introductory CS
student learns uses an array and an offset to the last inuse array
element to represent a list. This implementation works well for push, pop,
determining number of array elements, insertion, fetching, etc.
However, performance of shift and unshift with this implementation is
horrible: O(n)! This is because there is no room at the beginning of
the array and all the elements have to be shifted by one to insert/remove
an element from the front of the list.
There are many other ways to implement lists
(some better, some worse, others with different
performance tradeoffs), but without knowing
which implementation Perl used (or at least seeing some notes in perlfunc or
some other piece of perl documentation about the
performance of these list manipulation functions) I was having
trouble sleeping at night.
Thanks to some sourcecode browsing and the Perl Internals
chapter of Advanced Perl Programming I am now happy and content to use
all of Perl's builtin list operators without any loss of sleep.
Perl implements lists with an array and
first/last element offsets. The array is allocated larger than
needed with the offsets originally pointing in the
middle of the array so there is room to
grow in both directions (unshifts and pushes/inserts) before a
reallocation of the underlying array is necessary.
The consequence of this implementation is
that all of perl's primitive list operators
(insertion, fetching, determining array size, push, pop, shift, unshift,
etc.) perform in O(1) time.
There are some worstcase scenarios of push, unshift and insertion
where performance is O(n). These occur when the array upon which the list is
implemented has to be reallocated because the operation would access the array
beyond its preallocated size. This reallocation overhead
is a common factor in all list implementations that handle all
the primitive operators in O(1) time.
One consequence of perl's list implementation is that queues implemented using perl
lists end up "creeping forward" through the preallocated array space leading to
reallocations even though the queue itself may never contain many elements.
In comparison, a stack implemented with a perl list will
only require reallocations as the list grows larger.
However, perl is smartly coded because the use of lists
as queues was anticipated. Consequently, these queuetype reallocations
have a negligible impact on performance. In benchmarked tests, queue access
of a list (using repeated push/shift operations) is nearly as fast as stack
access to a list (using repeated push/pop operations).
The preallocated array is balanced
toward the 0 end of the array (meaning there is more free space at the far
end of the list than there is before the list's 0 element).
This is done
purposely to make pushes more efficient than unshifts (since perl programmers
use push much more than they use unshift).
As a consequence, a given number of unshifts will result
in more reallocations than the same number of pushes.
My benchmarking of a frontloaded queue
(implemented using unshift and pop) shows it to be nearly %20 slower than
a backloaded queue (implemented using push and shift); I assume for this very reason.
RE: Shift, Pop, Unshift and Push with Impunity!
by Shendal (Hermit) on Jun 13, 2000 at 19:31 UTC

Fantastic post. It's information like this that keeps me coming back to Perl Monks.
I'm fascinated at the internal aspects to Perl. I'd be interested in seeing a (somewhat) regular post from the experts in this area (merlyn?) to give some insight on different perl internals. Perhaps some insight into not only what it is, but why. We could even set up a question submission (a la, "ask slashdot") and send the highervoted questions to the saints.
What do the rest of you think?
 [reply] 

Same here! I share more of a curiosity than an interest per say, since I can't code a word in C, but I'd love to see these kinds of posts coming back. Not only is the above informative, but well written, and (I can only suppose) correct. In some ways, it reminds me of the discussions on Pi, perfect circles, gravity, Zen, et al, I have with friends over a beer on Sunday afternoons. The obvious catch, is that this is something that will be of use to me on a daytoday basis.
Kickass!
#!/home/bbq/bin/perl
# Trust no1!
 [reply] 
RE: Shift, Pop, Unshift and Push with Impunity!
by Ovid (Cardinal) on Jun 13, 2000 at 21:10 UTC

I also loved this article and voted ++ for it. What really makes it outstanding (for me) is that it is clear, concise, and not so hideously technical that I can't understand it.
I would like to know a lot more about the internals of Perl, but some of the articles that I have read have assumed such a high level of knowledge on part of the reader that I just put the article down and pretend to pick lint off my sleeve or something (and some have erroneously assumed a high level of knowledge on the part of the author).
lhoward: I love your posts, keep 'em coming.  [reply] 
Re: Shift, Pop, Unshift and Push with Impunity!
by demerphq (Chancellor) on Sep 04, 2002 at 20:43 UTC

Hi. I thought this was a great node, and have recommended its reading and repeated its contents in a number of situations.
One of them was in correspondence with Dominus where he suggested quite strongly that some of what it said is incorrect (specifically the last paragraph). As my C skills arent sufficient to determine the facts on my own im a little curious as to where things stand right now.
Is the information in this node correct? If not, is this due to an implementation change?
I would really like to know the current status of the validity of the information in this node.
I'm somewhat doubtful as to how long this node would have lasted if it was totally incorrect without someone saying so, but on the other hand Dominus has a reputation for knowing his stuff so im in a bit of a quandry as to what to think.
Please advise!
Yves / DeMerphq

Software Engineering is Programming when you can't.  E. W. Dijkstra (RIP)
 [reply] 

Speeding up unshift may explain what is going on.
Through Perl 5.6.1, unshift left the array aligned on the left. So if you build up an array with unshift's it is forced to realign it on every single unshift. If you build an array with repeated unshifts this makes the cost of each linear, for quadratic total time. What tilly's patch does is realign it indented to the length of the current array. So you only realign after you unshift the length of the array elements. In the simple case of adding one element at a time, this boils down to realigning at powers of 2, for a constant amortized cost.
The code could be more efficient, but there don't seem to be order of magnitude algorithmic improvements left.
 [reply] 
RE: Shift, Pop, Unshift and Push with Impunity!
by Anonymous Monk on Jun 15, 2000 at 22:47 UTC

About hash table lookup. In theory, if you have infinite ammount of memory, you can approach O(1) time. As I understand all really implemented hash algorithms with finite memory will take, strictly speaking, O(n) time.
There is an example of unsuccessful order of data that will make Perl's implementation of hashes to take O(n) for searching.
In practice you'll hardly will be much worse than O(1).  [reply] 

Says nobody in particular:
There is an example of unsuccessful
order of data that will make Perl's implementation of hashes to take O(n) for searching.
When Hashes Go Wrong
 [reply] 

The following is a slight modification of your program.
It (ab)uses the fact that Perl only checks whether to split
buckets when you use a new bucket. It does not make any
assumptions about Perl's hashing algorithm. It is
therefore able to generate the special keys much more
quickly than yours does.
my $HOW_MANY = shift  100_000;
my ($s, $e1, $e2);
$s = time;
for ($i=0; $i<$HOW_MANY; $i++) {
$q{$i}=1;
}
$e1 = time  $s;
print qq{
Normally, it takes me about $e1 second(s) to put $HOW_MANY items into
+a
hash. Now I'm going to construct $HOW_MANY special keys and see
how long it takes to put those into a hash instead.
};
undef %q;
print "Generating $HOW_MANY keys\n";
my @keys;
my $i = 0;
while (@keys < $HOW_MANY) {
$i++;
my %hash = (0 => 0, $i => 0);
if (%hash =~ /1/) {
# Goes in the same bucket as 0
push @keys, $i;
}
}
print "Putting the $HOW_MANY special keys into the hash.\n";
$i = 0;
$lasttime = $s = time;
foreach $key (@keys) {
$h{$key} = 1;
$i++;
if (time()  $lasttime > 5) {
my $h = %h + 0;
print "I have put $i keys into the hash, using $h bucket(s)\n" ;
$lasttime = time;
}
}
$e2 = time  $s;
print qq{
The $HOW_MANY special keys took $e2 seconds to put into the hash,
instead of $e1 seconds.
};
Update: (Much later.) Perl changed when it splits buckets so this program no longer runs slowly. Furthermore Perl's hashing algorithm is now random, so Dominus' program no longer runs slowly. Shucks.  [reply] [d/l] 
Re: Shift, Pop, Unshift and Push with Impunity!
by Elliott (Pilgrim) on Oct 17, 2001 at 23:55 UTC

O(2^n)  only the slowest algorithms take this long to run. Traveling salesman problem, etc.
I could be wrong, but isn't the Travelling Salesman problem O(n!)  i.e. much worse than O(2^n) for n>3.
Travelling Salesman is an NPcomplete problem, i.e. it cannot be solved in a measure of time which is a polynomial function of the number of data points.
 [reply] 

David
Eppstein claims that it is possible to solve
the TSP in O(n*2^n) time, which would simultaneously
be worse than O(2^n) and yet much better than O(n!).
In any event, these are clearly the sorts of algorithms
we want to avoid. I'm going to go off on a qualifying
tangent and come back to explain why algorithms worse
than about O(n^2) are bad news, even for those of us
who will happily implement an O(n) algorithm without
worrying about whether it's possible to do it in O(1).
I'm not generally terribly concerned about algorithm
efficiency most of the time, for several reasons.
Perhaps most important, I'm more concerned with
maintainability; I'd usually rather have a function
that runs in half a second and is clear, versus
one that runs in 3 picoseconds and frightens people
who look at the source. Since Perl provides
builtin functions for sort, push, pop, shift, and
unshift, I would never think about coding my own
replacements for them. That would be inane, a
huge waste of time. It would be inane and a huge
waste of time *even* if I could slightly improve
on the efficiency (which, of course, I can't),
unless I were writing the replacement in C to be
included into Perl (which, if you know anything
about my relationship with C, is not going to
happen).
The CPU meter on my Gnome panel right now shows a big
blank area, with little dots along the bottom edge
denoting small amounts of CPU activity. I keep the
CPU meter there not because I normally need it, but
because if a process happens to run away I want to
know. The astute will note that this implies I
might not even *notice* a runaway process using all
my CPU time without seeing it on the meter. This is
because I'm sitting here using a 1.something GHz
Celeron system to do mostly the same sorts of things
(web browsing, word processing, text editing, ...)
that were possible to do on a 486. The apps I use
today have a lot more features, so they're bigger,
so they consume a lot more RAM  but not a lot more
CPU time. (Somewhat more, yes; not enough more to
keep up with the preposterously high clock speeds
on the market today.) Consequently, in terms of
uservisible delays and perceived performance, with
the normal sizes of datasets that I use on a regular
basis, an O(n) algorithm that can run entirely
out of RAM is quite possibly faster than an O(1)
algorithm that has to read something from disk
(assuming the something isn't cached). Certainly,
for any normalsized dataset (by which I mean,
some amount of data a normal person is likely to
have on a desktop system), O(n) is instant, and
even O(n^2) is unlikely to cause a userperceptible
delay in most cases. Yes, some applications have
to be designed to deal with larger amounts of data;
if RDBMS lookups were O(n^2), that would be a
problem in serverspace. I've also run into quite
perceptible delays when handling my email, since
I get quite a lot of email, and so I suppose that
an algorithmic improvement there would be fairly
worthwhile for me. These are just examples. My
point was, though, that for many situations an
O(n^2) algorithm may not be noticed by the user;
it's probably not optimal, but it may pass as
"good enough" in some situations.
A point comes, though, when you have to draw a line
and say, "this algorithm is too slow". I personally
draw that line after O(n^2). Anything slower than
that, I call too slow.
Take a dataset size of 200, for example,
a nice mediumsized dataset. (Maybe it's the number
of files in a directory, or something.) O(n^2)
comes to 40000 somethings; if we say that's tenths
of milliseconds (in reality, it would be less than
that on modern hardware, but go with me here), the
operation completes in 4 seconds, which for something
that doesn't happen very often (especially, something
that only happens when the user deliberately orders
it, such as starting an app) is reasonable. Now,
let's say we did the same thing in O(2^n) time.
It would take aeons. Lots of aeons. I'd say
millenia, but that would be underestimating it.
You can see the problem. Even if we get faster
hardware so that the 4second operation completes
in 4 nanoseconds, the O(2^n) algorithm is still
taking multiple lifetimes. O(n!) is even worse.
So that's why even people who don't generally care
about efficiency still have to think about algorithm
efficiency just enough to avoid the really *bad*
algorithms. With O(n^2), the size of the data set
could blow up to 1000 (quite a lot of somethings,
for a desktop user), and we'd still be running
in under two minutes (on the same scale that takes
4 seconds for n=200). Two minutes may be a minute
and fifty seconds too long, but the operation will
complete. Start messing around with O(2^n) or O(n!)
algorithms and you could be waiting until you die.
Note that I'm not saying O(n^2) is "fast enough" for
all purposes. (When n can blow up to hundreds of
thousands, it gets to be a very significant
nuisance (though it will still complete within your
lifetime, and quite possibly within your computer's
lifetime even, and if you sic a goodsized cluster
on it you can brute force it in days).)
What I am saying is that O(n^2) is "fast enough" for
situations where brute force will do,
but some algorithms are too slow even for that.
$;=sub{$/};@;=map{my($a,$b)=($_,$;);$;=sub{$a.$b>()}}
split//,".rekcah lreP rehtona tsuJ";$\=$ ;>();print$/
 [reply] [d/l] 
RE: Shift, Pop, Unshift and Push with Impunity! (School)
by Bourgeois_Rage (Beadle) on Jun 13, 2000 at 23:32 UTC

I learned about all those sorting algorithms in school. It's good to see that people continue to think about them after school. Truthfully the only time I've used these sorts is in school.
On a side note I'd just like to say that I like using Perl's Stack methods much more than C++, which I learned them in. This relevant because it's one of those things you learn in school and then never see too often in the real world.
Rage  [reply] 
RE: Shift, Pop, Unshift and Push with Impunity!
by brick (Sexton) on Jun 14, 2000 at 05:42 UTC

I'd just had a conversation on email with a friend over this
very topicusing built in functions vs. rewriting the wheel,
and it's comforting to know that the ones in perl aren't too
greedy!
I agree, too...this sort of thing keeps me coming back here
every day.
brick.  [reply] 
RE: Shift, Pop, Unshift and Push with Impunity!
by Eugene (Scribe) on Jun 13, 2000 at 21:04 UTC

I am curious now, what is the order of a sort function
and what algorithm does it use?  [reply] [d/l] 

Perl's sort function sits on top of C's native qsort
function which is an implementation of quicksort. O(n*log(n))!
 [reply] 

 [reply] 

Does that mean that presorted lists
are sorted slowly,
or is it being randomized before the actual sort?
 [reply] 


You're the man now, dog
by OfficeLinebacker (Chaplain) on Jan 11, 2007 at 02:47 UTC

Wow! Great node. ++! I must admit I was quite verklempt when I got 404'd when trying to follow the original link to the Guttman paper. Thanks for the update, aufflick.
BTW, lhoward, you should write for wikipedia. I have looked at material about sorting algorithms and I have not seen a more concise explanation anywhere (wikipedia or elsewhere).
I like computer programming because it's like Legos for the mind.
 [reply] 

Sorry for this frivolous post but I felt compelled to upvote OfficeLinebacker for the Yiddish contribution to PerlMonks.
 [reply] 
Re: Shift, Pop, Unshift and Push with Impunity!
by aufflick (Deacon) on Nov 07, 2005 at 04:18 UTC

 [reply] 
Re: Shift, Pop, Unshift and Push with Impunity!
by Piercer (Beadle) on Mar 11, 2003 at 16:51 UTC

This should probably be called Dr Lhoward or How I learned to stop worrying and love the stack!  [reply] 

