Richard Harter's World
Comp. Sci.
August 2007

Unordered Radix Trees

0. Introduction
1. Statement of the task
2. Parameterized selection trees
   2.1 Discrimination functions
   2.2 Parameter selection functions
   2.3 Tree construction
   2.4 An example
3. Radix based trees
4. Ordered radix trees
5. Unordered radix trees
   5.1 An example
   5.2 A forest of trees
   5.3 Basic operations
      5.3.1 Searches
      5.3.2 Insertions
      5.3.3 Deletions
   5.4 Parameter selection functions
   5.5 Node structure
   5.6 Choice of radix
   5.7 Performance - best, worst, and average
   5.8 Implementation considerations
6. Comparison with other algorithms
7. Online implementations
This document contains a description of an apparently novel data structure for storing and retrieving key/value pairs that I call unordered radix trees. Radix trees treat keys as an integer in some radix. In traditional radix trees the 'digits' of the key are extracted sequentially to form a branching tree. In unordered radix trees the positions of the 'digits' used for branching are not sequential. In consequence the basic operations (search/insert/delete) are faster but information about ordering is lost.

A taxonomy of trees is presented. Radix trees are classified as a special case of a more general type of data structure that I call parameterized selection trees.

This document is the successor to a sequence of writings beginning with a casual remark in a usenet exchange, followed by several elaborations of the basic idea. It is my hope that the current document is a clearer presentation.

Unordered radix trees are important; in many applications where hash tables are used they are a superior alternative.

0. Introduction

One of the common tasks in computer programming is to look up a value for a key. For example, suppose we have a table with three columns, employee name, employee number, and employee title. Given an employee name we want to find the row containing that name. The employee name is the key; the address of the row is the value. Another example is a symbol table. Given an identifier (the key) we want to look up the data associated with that identifier (the value). Here is an example;
        Name            Number          Title
        Mary Jones      00017           Librarian
        Peter Smith     00231           Janitor
        Donald Duck     00119           Librarian
There are a wide variety of algorithms and data structures that are used for storing, searching, and modifying (key,value) data. They include linked lists, hash tables, binary search trees and tries.

This note introduces a class of data storage structures called unordered radix trees . Unordered radix trees are a subclass of a more general class of data storage structures called radix based trees, which in turn are a subclass of a still more general class of data storage structures called parameterized selection trees.

Parameterized selection trees are an alternative to comparison trees and to hash tables for efficient storage of and retrieval of (key,value) pairs. In many applications parameterized selection trees are computationally superior to the alternatives. We show that unordered radix trees are particularly efficient in this regard.

1. Statement of the task

The objective is to define a data structure to hold key/value pairs. The data structure must be dynamic; i.e., we must be able to add and delete pairs. We must also be able to search the structure for a pair containing a designated key.

At any one time all of the keys are distinct; i.e., for any key K there is at most one pair containing K. On the other hand values may be duplicated, i.e., there can be two pairs with different keys but the same value.

In our little table above, the key could be the employee name, and the value the index of the record containing the employee name. On the other hand, the employee title is not a valid key since there is more than one librarian.

The only kind of search that is required is to search for an exact match. That is, given a key, we only look for the unique pair containing that key - if it exists. What this means is that an order relationship need not be defined on the keys nor, if one is defined, that the data structure needs to preserve it.

2. Parameterized selection trees

The core idea in the parameterized selection tree concept is to replace expensive operations that require examining the entire key by cheaper operations that only require determining some specific attribute value of the key. Since we are only checking attribute values the tree does not have to contain the actual key/value pairs; all it needs to do is to contain the attribute values of the keys. Each node in a tree contains an attribute specification (the parameter) and a set of components, each component corresponding to a different value of the attribute. Each component either points to a datum (a key/value pair) or to a sub-node. (The actual content of an implementation of a particular algorithm may differ but the parameter and the components will be there in some form.) To construct a parameterized selection tree we need two simple functions, a discrimination function f, and a parameter selection function g.

2.1 Discrimination functions

Discrimination functions have two arguments, a parameter and a key. Let p be any attribute specification, k be any key, and let k1 and k2 be two distinct keys. Then to be a valid discrimination function f must satisfy:
  1. There is at least one p such that f(p,k1) .ne. f(p,k2)
  2. The number of possible values of f(p,k) is bounded.
  3. The cost of f is bounded; i.e, it is an O(1) function.
Requirement (1) says that we can always find a parameter value to use so that f discriminates between two given keys. Requirement (2) ensures that the cost of searching a node for a matching attribute value is bounded. It also implies that for any value of p f may distinguish between unequal elements but is not guaranteed to do so, and that it makes different distinctions for different values of p. Requirement (3) ensures that the cost of traversing the tree is proportional to the path length.

2.2 Parameter selection functions

Given two distinct keys k1 and k2 the parameter selection function g returns a parameter value p that discriminates between k1 and k2. That is, p satisfies
        f(p,k1) .ne. f(p,k2)
Unlike discrimination functions which is required to be O(1), the cost of the parameter selection function g can be data dependent. However for performance reasons it should be no worse than O(log(n)).

2.3 Tree construction

The following is pseudocode for searching a tree for a leaf node
    node := root  # start at the top of the tree
        attribute value := f(node parameter,key)
        is there is no component with that attribute value?
        then escape loop saying no leaf
        else is it a leaf node?
        then escape saying leaf
        else descend 
Searches and inserts both use the basic search pattern. Searches that terminate with "no leaf" fail. If there is a terminating leaf node there must be a verification check to ensure that the leaf key and the search key are in fact the same.

When inserts terminate with "no leaf" a new component is created in the node to contain the leaf. When inserts fail with "leaf" we call g(leaf key, insert key) to find a parameter value that discriminates between them. If there is none, the two keys are identical and the insert fails. If there is a discrimination the leaf node is replaced by a sub node containing two components.

Deletions also use the basic search loop to find a key matching the key to be deleted. When one is found the component is deleted; if there is only one component remaining the node is deleted and the component is moved up to the parent.

2.4 An example

The principal examples of parameterized selection trees are the radix based trees discussed below. A simple example is the animal game. Here is a transcript of a typical session (computer in upper case, human in lower case):




an aardvark

aardvarks eat ants
In this case the parameter is the property (has four legs, is green, eats ants, etc) with two components in each node. The parameter is the question and the attribute values are yes and no. Leaf nodes contain the name of an animal and sub nodes have the next question.

3. Radix based trees

The term, radix tree, seems to have preempted to refer to Patricia trees, e.g., the wikipedia entry for radix trees. The usage is by no means universal, e.g., the usage in the linux kernel. The preemption is unfortunate; "radix tree" is the natural term for the general class of trees that I shall call radix based trees.

In radix based trees the key is treated as a sequence of r-bits where an r-bit is an integer in some radix R. The radix usually is a small power of a power of 2, i.e, 2, 4, 16, and 256. R need not be fixed; in mixed radix trees the value of R varies with the index.

Radix based trees are parameterized selection trees, with the parameter p being the p'th position in the sequence. In the component set the attribute values are r-bits in the p'th position.

There are two general classes of radix based trees, ordered trees and unordered trees. In ordered trees the position indices increase monotonically as one descends down the tree; in unordered trees they can skip around. Ordered radix trees preserve the ordering of the keys; unordered radix trees do not.

The number of components in a node can vary from 1 to R. There are various ways to establish space for the components. A common method is to have an array with R slots that is indexed by the possible r-bit values.

In addition there are character sequences where the character encoding length is variable. Strictly speaking, variable encoding length character string trees are not radix based trees. However they can be managed using ordered radix tree methods - but not unordered radix tree methods.

4. Ordered radix trees

The basic ordered radix tree is the trie. In a trie each node has R slots where R is the radix. Each slot either has no data or a leaf/subnode flag and a pointer that either points to the value of a key/value pair or to a subnode. (There are many variations possible in the organization of the data.)

The critical factor in a trie is the method used to handle slots in the nodes. The simplest method (and the one usually associated with tries) is an array with R entries. The problem with using arrays is usually there will be empty slots. This has two aspects, the first being that we need a special mark for empty slots, and the second being that a large part of the structure will be empty slots, i.e., there will be a significant waste of space. This waste can be quite spectacular if R is large.

The alternative is some form of list (possibly a variable length array). The issue here is that when R is large the cost of searching for a slot increases linearly with the number of filled slots.

One way to reduce the amount of space used is to terminate the search when there are no more alternatives left, i.e., when there is only one possible suffix. Patricia trees extend this technique by coalescing nodes that only have one active slot. (Binary Patricia trees (R=2) have convenient implementation properties and many use the term Patricia tree to be a binary Patricia tree.)

Patricia trees have the property that internal nodes have at least two filled slots. This is particularly space efficient when R=2. The downside is that some method must be used to annotate the coalesced nodes. One way to characterize Patricia trees is to say that there are two kinds of nodes, one holding R slots and one holding a single slot.

An important feature of ordered radix trees is that all variants are isomorphic. That is, given a set S of key/value pairs and a radix R, there is a unique ordered radix tree. The reason for this is that at each node including the node content is well determined. In contrast comparison trees, e.g., binary search trees, are not uniquely determined by S.

5. Unordered radix trees

The key features of unordered radix trees (UR Trees) are (a) the position indices in the nodes are not ordered as we descend down the tree, (b) that every node has at least two components, and (c) the information in the tree about the keys is incomplete. Unlike ordered radix trees UR trees are not unique; the structure of an UR tree depends both upon the parameter selection function used and on the order in which the pairs are inserted.

5.1 An example

Here is a simple example taken from the wikipedia article on Patricia trees. We have the following seven keys that we will enter into a UR tree in order.
When we insert "romane" we produce a tree with a single node that looks like this:
        0: r
(The diagram shows the index followed by colon followed by each of r-bit values occurring in the node. Below each node is a key if the node is a leaf node or a vertical bar if the node has a sub node.)
When we insert "romanus" we create a sub-node for r-bit 'r' at 
index 0.  The two keys (the leaf key and the key being inserted) 
differ at index 5.  We create a sub-node to get 

        0: r
           5: e-------u
              romane  romanus
Note that the paths to "romane" and "romanus" do not inspect the r-bits at indices 1 through 4. Next we insert "romulus". The tree now looks like this: 0: r | 5: e-------u romane | 3: a-------u romanus romulus After inserting the remaining elements (assuming all keys have trailing blanks - see section 5.2) the tree looks this:
  5: ' '----e------o-------s------u
     ruber  romane rubicon rubens |
                                  3: a-------i----------u
                                     romanus rubicundus romulus
In the wikipedia article the depth of the comparable Patricia tree is four whereas the depth of the UR tree above is three. Furthermore the average path length in the UR tree is 2.4 whereas the average path length in the Patricia tree is 3.7. Shorter path lengths are typical for UR trees when data is entered in sorted order.

More importantly the number of r-bits in a key that are examined during a UR tree search or insert is O(log N) whereas the number examined in a OR tree search or insert is O(L) where N is the number of pairs and L is the average key length. Since the keys are unique L >= log2(N). That is, in principle UR trees are always more efficient than the corresponding OR trees for failed searches and inserts. However a successful search is always O(L) regardless of algorithm because we need to examine all r-bits of a key to verify success.

5.2 A forest of trees

One of the little difficulties that arises in the implementing radix trees is the handling of keys that are of different lengths. In unordered radix trees what can happen is that, in effect, we skip past the end of a key. For example, suppose that our key is the string "ruber", that the root node position is the first character of the string, and that the entry for "r" points to a sub-node. Suppose further that in the sub-node the node position is six, i.e., it is after the end of our key. How we handle this?

There are a number of methods that could be used. For example we could have a special tag value signifying "end of key" and treat each key as having an infinite number of "end of key" tags as a tail.

Perhaps the simplest method is to have a separate tree for each different key length; in other words to have a forest of trees. Since all keys in a given tree have the same length the problem of skipping past the end of a tree never arises. In consequence the search code can be simpler.

A further benefit of a forest of trees is that individual root nodes can be found with a table lookup in a table indexed by key length, making the entire tree broader and shallower.

5.3 Basic operations

The three basic operations are searches, insertions, and deletions.

5.3.1 Searches

The input to a search is a key; if the key is found the corresponding value is returned. The search operation uses the basic search loop (see 2.3) to find a leaf node potentially matching the key being sought. If no potential match is found we report failure. If one is found we compare the key and the potential match. If they match we report success and return the corresponding value. If no match is found we report failure.

5.3.2 Insertions

An insertion has two inputs - a key/value pair and a flag specifying what is to be done if the key already exists in the tree. The basic search loop is used first. If a node is found that does not have a component for the key a leaf component is created for the key/value pair and we return the value. If a leaf component is reached we check to see whether the leaf key and the key being inserted differ. If they do we create a subnode containing the leaf key and the insert key. If they don't the action taken depends on the input flag. If it says "replace" then the old value is discarded and is replaced by the new value; the new value is returned. If it doesn't say "replace" the old value is returned.

5.3.3 Deletions

A deletion has one input, the key of the key/value pair being deleted. (In some applications the value must be checked also.) The deletion operation either returns "succeeded" or "failed". Again we search the tree for the key. If it is not found we return "failed". If it is found it will be in a leaf component. It is a straightforward matter to delete the component.

If there is more than one remaining component nothing more need be done. When there is only one remaining there are two possible courses of action:

(A) Snip the single remaining component. If it is a leaf component move it up to its parent. If it is a subnode component let its parent point to the subnode.

(B) Leave the node as is. Whenever a singleton leaf component is deleted, delete all singletons above it up to the first non-singleton.

Course (a) is probably simpler and more efficient in most implementations; however course (b) will require fewer node deletions.

5.4 Parameter selection functions

For UR trees a parameter selection function takes two keys as input and returns either an index at which the two keys differ or a flag value (typically -1) indicating that they are the same.

There are many possible parameter selection functions that could be used; however there aren't many possibilities if we keep in mind that the code should be simple and fast. There are some obvious possibilities:

(a) Begin at the beginning of the keys and search forward until a difference is found. This is simple and fast. The disadvantage are that we are continually rescanning the beginning of the keys. Alternatively, begin at the end of the keys and search backwards. A backwards search can be advantageous if keys often share long prefixes.

(b) Start at the current position in the keys and search forward until a difference is found or until the end of key is found. If no difference is found start at the beginning of the key and search up to the current position until a difference is found. The disadvantage here is that the loop logic is more expensive. The advantage is that the search will tend to skip long matching subsequences.

5.5 Node structure

At a minimum a node contains (a) an index into an r-bit sequence, and (b) a set of component records. A component record contains

  1. An explicit or implicit r-bit value.
  2. A flag specifying whether it is a leaf component or a subnode component.
  3. A pointer/reference to leaf data or subnode link as needed.

The actual structure can vary considerably. The principal factor is the method used for storing the components, the main choices being r-bit indexed arrays and lists.

When the components are in an r-bit indexed array the r-bit value is implicit. On the other hand a flag is now needed to say whether an array slot has data or not. This flag can be implicit if the implementation language has a nil pointer. It is natural to put the leaf/subnode flag in a separate bit array.

When the components are in a list or variable length array it is more convenient to keep items 1-3 together in an explicit record. In general the node will also have to have information about the list or variable length array.

Storage use is less if item 3 can be dual nature, i.e. there can be a record variable that can either be a leaf reference or a subnode link as needed. For example in C one could use void pointers or unions.

Another alternative is to include a key/value descriptor in the record.

5.6 Choice of radix

In principle any radix could be used; in practice on binary machines with power of 2 word lengths the feasible radices are of the form 2^2^r, i.e., 2, 4, 16, and 256. Each choice has its own implications for performance and storage usage. As a general rule the larger the radix the broader and shallower the tree. Broad and shallow is computationally more efficient provided that components can be located efficiently. The catch is that the techniques that provide efficient location, e.g., array addressing and sentinel delimited searches, tend to be more space expensive.

For R=256 the better choice is to use dynamic arrays with sentinel delimited searches. For smaller values of R the better choice is to use r-bit indexed arrays. The best choice depends upon the data; however R=16 and R=4 are probably best.

5.7 Performance - best, worst, and average

In discussing performance there are two numbers to keep in mind, N, the number of entries, and L, the average length of a key. Since the keys are unique L is at least log(N); however it can be substantially greater.

Since a UR tree has at least two components at each node on average the tree depth D is O(log N). In the best case D is also O(log N); however in the worst case D is O(min(N,L)).

Here is a worst case set of keys: Each key is all ones except for a single 0. The key length, L, is much greater than N, and the locations of the zeroes are random. In this case the tree depth D is N.

There are four cases to consider - susccessful searches, unsuccessful searches, insertions, and deletions. All operations use the basic search loop.

A search will either find no leaf matching the key or will find a leaf that potentially matches the key. If there is no potential match the cost is the search. The costs for the search loop are O(1) best case and O(D) average and worst case.

It should be kept in mind the order function results are somewhat misleading; in applications the dominant factor is the constant in front.

Searching for a key:

If there is a potential match a verification pass must be made when searching for a key. The verification cost for a successful match is O(L); for a failed match it is O(1) best case and O(L) average and worst case. If there is no potential match there is no verification cost.

Inserting a key/value pair

If the search does not find a potentially matching leaf node one will be created at a cost of O(1). If one is found the difference function must be run to find a splitting point. If none is found the cost is O(L); if one is found the cost is O(1) average and best cases, and O(L) worst case.

Deleting a key/value pair

The cost of deleting a key/value pair is the same as that of searching for it. The additional cost of deletion is O(1).

5.8 Implementation considerations

A critical decision in designing an implementation is deciding where and how the key/value data should be stored and who is responsible for maintaining it. In the implementations I have done I assumed that the user is responsible for storing and maintaining the content of the pairs. The view is that the UR tree code and its trees are a separate facility from the data storage management. However the implementations (written in C) do keep description records consisting of (a) a pointer to the text of the key, (b) the key length, and (c) the value (if it is an integer and otherwise a pointer).

Storage allocation is a major issue in tree algorithms. Fast, cheap allocation of node space is a must; otherwise allocation costs dominate.

6. Comparison with other algorithms

The major alternatives are hash tables, comparison trees (binary search trees), and ordered radix trees. There are also various hybrids such as ternary trees.

All successful searches, regardless of the algorithm, have a verification cost that is O(L). That is, a search for a key must check that all bits of a candidate in the data structure actually does match the requested key in all bits. This implies that all search algorithms are at least O(L) when the search is successful.

Unsuccessful searches in radix based trees need not be O(L); however the average cost must be at least O(log N) and the worst case will be O(L). Insertion costs are the same as those of unsuccessful search, i.e., an insertion has the cost of an unsuccessful search followed by an O(1) cost to create a new entry.

That said, order function comparisons are not terribly informative about the relative merits of the major algorithms. The exception is comparison trees, e.g. binary search trees. They require O(log N) comparisons. However the cost of a comparison is O(L). Therefore searches in comparison tree algorithms are O(L*log N). In practice as well as in theory binary search trees are computationally inferior to hash tables and radix based trees.

Hash tables require O(L) operations to compute the hash value. Given the hash value (and favorable circumstances) the cost of searching is O(1). In consequence hash tables require O(L) operations for all operations. Hash tables have a bad worst case - O(N) independent of L.

Unordered radix trees have an O(log N) successful search cost, which is theoretically better than the successful search costs for hash tables. The catch is because hashes are done with byte or word operations there is increased efficiency because of the intrinsic parallelism of byte and word operations whereas with unordered radix trees the corresponding increase in efficiency depends upon k, the average number of components per node, which is typically lower than the intrinsic parallelism factor.

That said, timing studies indicate that unordered radix trees are superior to hash tables except when (a) all keys are quite short (less than 10), and (b) the number of pairs is large (more than 25000) and the key sizes are modest. If the key sizes are quite large (greater than 100) unordered radix trees are sharply superior.

Note: The timing studies were done assuming that the cost of hashing a key was the only significant cost in hash tables. The actual costs can be substantially greater, depending upon implementation.

7. Implementations available online

I have done two implementations that are available online. The initial implementation was called htree; there are three files (not zipped), a C source file, a C include file, and a readme.txt file. The URLs are:

The second implementation was called urtree; there are also three files, a C source file, and two C include files. The URLs are:
The htree implementation uses a radix of 256 and is fairly prolifigate in its use of storage. The urtree implementation uses a radix of 16 and is much more efficient in its use of storage. Both have similar timing considerations.

There is a previous article entitled A (possibly) fast, novel search technique that was a preliminary exploration of the unordered radix trees concept. It has been superceded by this article,

Copyright © 2007 by Richard Harter.
Permission is given to reprint in whole or in part
provided correct attribution is included.

This page was last updated September 20, 2007.
Richard Harter's World
Comp. Sci.
August 2007