Implementation DetailsΒΆ

The sorted container types are implemented based on a single observation: bisect.insort is fast, really fast. This is somewhat counter-intuitive since most schools teach that shifting elements in an array is slow. But modern processors do this really well. A lot of time has been spent optimizing memcopy/memmove-like operations both in hardware and software.

But using only one list and bisect.insort would produce sluggish behavior for lengths exceeding one thousand. So the implementation of SortedList uses a list of lists to store values. In this way, inserting or deleting is most often performed on a short list. Only rarely does a new list need to be added or deleted.

SortedList maintains three internal variables: _lists, _maxes, and _index. The first is simply the list of lists. Each element is a list containing items. The second contains the maximum value in each of the lists. This is used for fast binary-search. The last contains a cumulative sum of the lengths of the lists. With that we can index efficiently.

Lists are kept balanced using the _load factor. If an internal list’s length exceeds double the load then it is split in two. Likewise at half the load it is combined with its neighbor. By default this factor is 100 which seems to work well for lengths up to about ten million. Lengths above that are recommended a load factor that is the cube root of the average length. So for a list of a billion elements, a load factor of one thousand should be efficient. Experimentation is also recommended.

Finding an element is a two step process. First the _maxes list is bisected which yields the index of a short sorted list. Then that list is bisected for the index of the element.

Indexing uses the _index list which operates as a cache of the cumulative sum of the lengths of the lists. Indexing requires bisecting the _index list and then indexing the appropriate sub-list. Adding or removing elements invalidates the cache so efficient maintenance is required.

Compared to tree-based implementations, using lists of lists has a few advantages based on memory usage.

1. Most insertion/deletion doesn’t require allocating or freeing memory. This can be a big win as it takes a lot of strain off the garbage collector and memory system.

2. Pointers to elements are packed densely. A traditional tree-based implementation would require two pointers (left/right) to child nodes. Arrays have no such overhead. This benefits the hardware’s memory architecture and better leverages caching.

3. The memory overhead per item is effectively a pointer to the item. Binary tree implementations must add at least two more pointers per item.

4. Iteration is extremely fast as indexing sequential elements is a strength of modern processors.

Tree-based designs have better big-O notation but that ignores the realities of today’s software and hardware.

Each sorted container has a function named _check for verifying consistency.

SortedContainers provides sorted container types, written in pure-Python and fast as C-extensions.

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