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Implementation and Empirical Analysis

We design and develop algorithms by layering abstract operations that help us to understand the essential nature of the computational problems that we want to solve. In theoretical studies, this process, although valuable, can take us far afield from the real-world problems that we need to consider. Thus, in this tutorial, we keep our feet on the ground by expressing all the algorithms that we consider in an actual coding language: Java. This approach sometimes leaves us with a blurred distinction between an algorithm and its implementation, but that is small price to pay for the ability to work with and to learn from a concrete implementation.

Indeed, carefully constructed programs in an actual coding language provide an effective means of expressing our algorithms. In this tutorial, we consider a large number of important and efficient algorithms that we describe in implementations that are both concise and precise in Java. English-language descriptions or abstract high-level representations of algorithms are all too often vague or incomplete; actual implementations force us to discover economical representations to avoid being inundated in detail.

We express our algorithms in Java, but this tutorial is about algorithms, rather than about Java programming. Certainly, we consider Java implementations for many important tasks, and when there is a particularly convenient or efficient way to do a task in Java, we will take advantage of it. But the vast majority of the implementation decisions that we make are worth considering in any modern coding environment. Translating the programs in , and most of the other programs in this tutorial, to another modern coding language is a straightforward task. On occasion, we also note when some other language provides a particularly effective mechanism suited to the task at hand. Our goal is to use Java as a vehicle for expressing the algorithms that we consider, rather than to dwell on implementation issues specific to Java.

If an algorithm is to be implemented as part of a large system, we use abstract data types or a similar mechanism to make it possible to change algorithms or implementations after we determine what part of the system deserves the most attention. From the start, however, we need to have an understanding of each algorithm's performance characteristics, because design requirements of the system may have a major influence on algorithm performance. Such initial design decisions must be made with care, because it often does turn out, in the end, that the performance of the whole system depends on the performance of some basic algorithm, such as those discussed in this tutorial.

Implementations of the algorithms in this tutorial have been put to effective use in a wide variety of large programs, operating systems, and apps systems. Our intention is to describe the algorithms and to encourage a focus on their dynamic properties through experimentation with the implementations given. For some apps, the implementations may be quite useful exactly as given; for other apps, however, more work may be required. For example, using a more defensive coding style than the one that we use in this tutorial is justified when we are building real systems. Error conditions must be checked and reported, and programs must be implemented such that they can be changed easily, read and understood quickly by other programmers, interface well with other parts of the system, and be amenable to being moved to other environments.

Notwithstanding all these comments, we take the position when analyzing each algorithm that performance is of critical importance so that we focus our attention on the algorithm's essential performance characteristics. We assume that we are always interested in knowing about algorithms with substantially better performance, particularly if they are simpler.

To use an algorithm effectively, whether our goal is to solve a huge problem that could not otherwise be solved, or whether our goal is to provide an efficient implementation of a critical part of a system, we need to have an understanding of its performance characteristics. Developing such an understanding is the goal of algorithmic analysis.

One of the first steps that we take to understand the performance of algorithms is to do empirical analysis. Given two algorithms to solve the same problem, there is no mystery in the method: We run them both to see which one takes longer! This concept might seem too obvious to mention, but it is an all-too-common omission in the comparative study of algorithms. The fact that one algorithm is 10 times faster than another is unlikely to escape the notice of someone who waits 3 seconds for one to finish and 30 seconds for the other to finish, but it is easy to overlook as a small constant overhead factor in a mathematical analysis. When we monitor the performance of careful implementations on typical input, we get performance results that not only give us a direct indicator of efficiency but also provide us with the information that we need to compare algorithms and to validate any mathematical analyses that may apply (see, for example, Table 1.1). When empirical studies start to consume a significant amount of time, mathematical analysis is called for. Waiting an hour or a day for a program to finish is hardly a productive way to find out that it is slow, particularly when a straightforward analysis can give us the same information.

The first challenge that we face in empirical analysis is to develop a correct and complete implementation. For some complex algorithms, this challenge may present a significant obstacle. Accordingly, we typically want to have, through analysis or through experience with similar programs, some indication of how efficient a program might be before we invest too much effort in getting it to work.

The second challenge that we face in empirical analysis is to determine the nature of the input data and other factors that have direct influence on the experiments to be performed. Typically, we have three basic choices: use actual data, random data, or perverse data. Actual data enable us truly to measure the cost of the program in use; random data assure us that our experiments test the algorithm, not the data; and perverse data assure us that our programs can handle any input presented them. For example, when we test sorting algorithms, we run them on data such as the words in Moby Dick, on randomly generated integers, and on files of numbers that are all the same value. This problem of determining which input data to use to compare algorithms also arises when we analyze the algorithms.

It is easy to make mistakes when we compare implementations, particularly if differing machines, compilers, or systems are involved, or if huge programs with ill-specified inputs are being compared. The principal danger in comparing programs empirically is that one implementation may be coded more carefully than the other. The inventor of a proposed new algorithm is likely to pay careful attention to every aspect of its implementation and not to expend so much effort on the details of implementing a classical competing algorithm. To be confident of the accuracy of an empirical study comparing algorithms, we must be sure to give the same attention to each implementation.

One approach that we often use in this tutorial, as we saw in Chapter 1, is to derive algorithms by making relatively minor modifications to other algorithms for the same problem so that comparative studies really are valid. More generally, we strive to identify essential abstract operations and start by comparing algorithms on the basis of their use of such operations. For example, the comparative empirical results that we examined in Table 1.1 are likely to be robust across coding languages and environments, as they involve programs that are similar and that make use of the same set of basic operations. For a particular coding environment, we can easily relate these numbers to actual running times. Most often, we simply want to know which of two programs is likely to be faster, or to what extent a certain change will improve the time or space requirements of a certain program.

Perhaps the most common mistake made in selecting an algorithm is to ignore performance characteristics. Faster algorithms are often more complicated than brute-force solutions, and implementors are often willing to accept a slower algorithm to avoid having to deal with added complexity. As we saw with union–find algorithms, however, we can sometimes reap huge savings with just a few lines of code. Users of a surprising number of computer systems lose substantial time waiting for simple quadratic algorithms to finish solving a problem, even though N log N or linear algorithms are available that are only slightly more complicated and could therefore solve the problem in a fraction of the time. When we are dealing with huge problem sizes, we have no choice but to seek a better algorithm, as we shall see.

Perhaps the second most common mistake made in selecting an algorithm is to pay too much attention to performance characteristics. Improving the running time of a program by a factor of 10 is inconsequential if the program takes only a few microseconds. Even if a program takes a few minutes, it may not be worth the time and effort required to make it run 10 times faster, particularly if we expect to use the program only a few times. The total time required to implement and debug an improved algorithm might be substantially more than the time required simply to run a slightly slower one—we may as well let the computer do the work. Worse, we may spend a considerable amount of time and effort implementing ideas that should improve a program but actually do not do so.

We cannot run empirical tests for a program that is not yet written, but we can analyze properties of the program and estimate the potential effectiveness of a proposed improvement. Not all putative improvements actually result in performance gains, and we need to understand the extent of the savings realized at each step. Moreover, we can include parameters in our implementations and use analysis to help us set the parameters. Most important, by understanding the fundamental properties of our programs and the basic nature of the programs' resource usage, we have the potential to evaluate their effectiveness on computers not yet built and to compare them against new algorithms not yet designed. In , we outline our methodology for developing a basic understanding of algorithm performance.

Exercises

Translate the programs in to another coding language, and answer Exercise 1.22 for your implementations.

How long does it take to count to 1 billion (ignoring overflow)? Determine the amount of time it takes the program

int i, j, k, count = 0; for (i = 0; i < N; i++) for (j = 0; j < N; j++) for (k = 0; k < N; k++) count++; 


to complete in your coding environment, for N = 10, 100, and 1000. If your compiler has optimization features that are supposed to make programs more efficient, check whether or not they do so for this program.


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