Hash Tables


A map binds keys to values. This abstraction is so useful that it goes by many other names, among them associative array, dictionary, and symbol table. We'll write maps abstractly (i.e, mathematically; not actually OCaml syntax) as { k1:v1,k2:v2,,kn:vnk_1 : v_1, k_2: v_2, \ldots, k_n : v_n }. Each k:vk : v is a binding of key kk to value vv. Here are a couple of examples:

  • A map binding a course number to something about it: {3110 : "Fun", 2110 : "OO"}.

  • A map binding a university name to the year it was chartered: {"Harvard" : 1636, "Princeton" : 1746, "Penn": 1740, "Cornell" : 1865}.

The order in which the bindings are abstractly written does not matter, so the first example might also be written {2110 : "OO", 3110 : "Fun"}. That's why we use set brackets—they suggest that the bindings are a set, with no ordering implied.

Here is an interface for maps:

module type Map = sig
  (* [('k, 'v) t] is the type of maps that bind keys of type
   * ['k] to values of type ['v]. *)
  type ('k, 'v) t

  (* [empty] is the empty map *)
  val empty : ('k,'v) t

  (* [insert k v m] is the same map as [m], but with an additional
   * binding from [k] to [v].  If [k] was already bound in [m],
   * that binding is replaced by the binding to [v] in the new map. *)
  val insert : 'k -> 'v -> ('k,'v) t -> ('k,'v) t

  (* [find k m] is [Some v] if [k] is bound to [v] in [m],
   * and [None] if not. *)
  val find : 'k -> ('k,'v) t -> 'v option

  (* [remove k m] is the same map as [m], but without any binding of [k].
   * If [k] was not bound in [m], then the map is unchanged. *)
  val remove : 'k -> ('k,'v) t -> ('k,'v) t

  (* [of_list lst] is a map containing the same bindings as
   * association list [lst]. *)
  val of_list : ('k*'v) list -> ('k,'v) t

  (* [bindings m] is an association list containing the same
   * bindings as [m]. *)
  val bindings : ('k,'v) t -> ('k*'v) list

Maps vs. dictionaries. We've seen data structures called both maps and dictionaries before in the course. We do not intend for there to be any intrinsic difference between those terms. Both are abstractions that bind keys to values.

Maps vs. sets. Maps and sets are very similar. Data structures that can implement a set can also implement a map, and vice-versa:

  • Given a map data structure, we can treat the keys as elements of a set, and simply ignore the values which the keys are bound to. This wastes a little space, because we never need the values.

  • Given a set data structure, we can store key-value pairs as the elements. Searching for elements (hence insertion and removal) might become more expensive, because the set abstraction is unlikely to support searching for keys by themselves.

Maps as association lists

The simplest implementation of a map in OCaml is as an association list. We've seen that implementation a number of times so far. So here it is, offered without any further explanation:

module ListMap : Map = struct
  (* AF: [[k1,v1; k2,v2; ...; kn,vn]] is the map {k1:v1, k2:v2, ..., kn:vn}.
   * If a key appears more than once in the list, then in the map it is
   * bound to the left-most occurrence in the list---e.g., [[k,v1;k,v2]]
   * is the map {k:v1}.
   * RI: none. *)
  type ('k,'v) t = ('k*'v) list
  let empty = []
  let of_list lst = lst
  let bindings m = m
  let insert k v m = (k,v)::m
  let find = List.assoc_opt
  let remove k lst = List.filter (fun (k',_) -> k <> k') lst

What is the efficiency of insert, find and remove?

  • insert is just a cons onto the front of the list, which is constant time—that is, O(1)O(1).

  • find potentially requires examining all elements of the list, which is linear time—that is, O(n)O(n), where nn is the number of bindings in the map.

  • remove is the same complexity as find, O(n)O(n).

Maps as arrays

Mutable maps are maps whose bindings may be mutated. The interface for a mutable map therefore differs from a non-mutable (aka persistent or functional) map. Insertion and removal operations now return unit, because they do not produce a new map but instead mutate an existing map.

An array can be used to represent a mutable map whose keys are integers. A binding from a key to a value is stored by using the key as an index into the array, and storing the binding at that index. For example, we could use an array to map Gates office numbers to their occupants:

459 Fan
460 Gries
461 Clarkson
462 Muhlberger
463 (does not exist)

Since arrays have a fixed size, the implementer now needs to know the client's desire for the capacity of the table (i.e., the number of bindings that can be stored in it) whenever an empty table is created. That leads us to the following very easy implementation:

module ArrayMap = struct
  (* AF: [|Some v0; Some v1; ...|]] represents {0:v0, 1:v1, ...}.
   * But if element [i] of [a] is None, then [i] is not bound in the map. *)
  type 'v t = 'v option array

  let create n = Array.make n None

  let insert k v a = a.(k) <- Some v

  let find k a = a.(k)

  let remove k a = a.(k) <- None


This kind of map is called a direct address table Its efficiency is great! Every operation is constant time. But that comes at the expense of forcing keys to be integers. Moreover, they need to be small integers (or at least integers from a small range), otherwise the arrays we use will need to be huge.

Hash tables

Let's compare the efficiency of the map implementations we have so far:

Data structureinsertfindremove
Association listsO(1)O(n)O(n)

Arrays offer constant time performance, but come with severe restrictions on keys. Trees and association lists don't place those restrictions on keys, but they also don't offer constant time performance. Is there a way to get the best of both worlds? Yes! Hash tables are the solution.

The key idea is that we assume the existence of a hash function hash : 'a -> int that can convert any key to a non-negative integer. Then we can use that function to index into an array, as we did with direct address tables. Of course, we want the hash function itself to run in constant time, otherwise the operations that use it would not be efficient.

One immediate problem with this idea is what to do if the output of the hash is not within the bounds of the array. It's easy to solve this: if a is the length of the array then computing (hash k) mod a will return an index that is within bounds.

Another problem is what to do if the hash function is not injective, meaning that it is not one-to-one. Then multiple keys could collide and need to be stored at the same index in the array. That's okay! We deliberately allow that. But it does mean we need a strategy for what to do when keys collide.

Collisions. There are two well-known strategies for dealing with collisions. One is to store multiple bindings at each array index. The array elements are called buckets. Typically, the bucket is implemented as a linked list. This strategy is known by many names, including chaining, closed addressing, and open hashing. To check whether an element is in the hash table, the key is first hashed to find the correct bucket to look in. Then, the linked list is scanned to see if the desired element is present. If the linked list is short, this scan is very quick. An element is added or removed by hashing it to find the correct bucket. Then, the bucket is checked to see if the element is there, and finally the element is added or removed appropriately from the bucket in the usual way for linked lists.

The other strategy is to store bindings at places other than their proper location according to the hash. When adding a new binding to the hash table would create a collision, the insert operation instead finds an empty location in the array to put the binding. This strategy is (confusingly) known as probing, open addressing, and closed hashing. A simple way to find an empty location is to search ahead through the array indices with a fixed stride (often 1), looking for an unused entry; this linear probing strategy tends to produce a lot of clustering of elements in the table, leading to bad performance. A better strategy is to use a second hash function to compute the probing interval; this strategy is called double hashing. Regardless of how probing is implemented, however, the time required to search for or add an element grows rapidly as the hash table fills up.

Chaining is usually to be preferred over probing: the performance of chaining degrades more gracefully. And chaining is usually faster than probing, even when the hash table is not nearly full.

Implementing a hash table

Here is a representation type for a hash table that uses chaining:

type ('k,'v) t = {
  hash : 'k -> int;
  mutable size : int;
  mutable buckets : ('k*'v) list array

The buckets array has elements that are association lists, which store the bindings. The hash function is used to determine which bucket a key goes into. The size is used to keep track of the number of bindings currently in the table, since that would be expensive to compute by iterating over buckets.

Here are the AF and RI:

(* AF:  If [buckets] is
 *   [|[(k11,v11); (k12,v12);...];
 *     [(k21,v21); (k22,v22);...]; ...|]
 * that represents the map
 *   {k11:v11, k12:v12, ...,
 *    k21:v21, k22:v22, ...,  ...}.
 * RI: No key appears more than once in array (so, no duplicate keys in
 *   association lists).  All keys are in the right buckets:  [k] appears
 *   in [buckets] at index [b] iff [hash(k)=b].  The number of bindings
 *   in [buckets] equals [size]. 

What is the efficiency of insert, find, and remove for this rep type? All require hashing the key (constant time), indexing into the appropriate bucket (constant time), and finding out whether the key is already in the association list (linear in the number of elements in that list). So the efficiency of the hash table depends on the number of elements in each bucket. That, in turn, is determined by how well the hash function distributes keys across all the buckets.

A terrible hash function, such as the constant function fun k -> 42, would put all keys into same bucket. Then every operation would be linear in the number of bindings in the map—that is, O(n)O(n). We definitely don't want that.

Instead, we want hash functions that distribute keys more or less randomly across the buckets. Then the expected length of every bucket will be about the same. If we could arrange that, on average, the bucket length were a constant LL, then insert, find, and remove would all in expectation run in time O(L)O(L).

Load factor and resizing

How could we arrange for buckets to have expected constant length? To answer that, let's think about the number of bindings and buckets in the table. Define the load factor of the table to be (# bindings) / (# buckets). So a table with 20 bindings and 10 buckets has a load factor of 2, and a table with 10 bindings and 20 buckets has a load factor of 0.5. The load factor is therefore the average number of bindings in a bucket. So if we could keep the load factor constant, we could keep LL constant, thereby keeping the performance to (expected) constant time.

Toward that end, note that the number of bindings is not under the control of the hash table implementer—but the number of buckets is. So by changing the number of buckets, the implementer can change the load factor. A common strategy is to keep the load factor from approximately 1/2 to 2. Then each bucket contains only a couple bindings, and expected constant-time performance is guaranteed.

There's no way for the implementer to know in advance, though, exactly how many buckets will be needed. So instead, the implementer will have to resize the bucket array whenever the load factor gets too high. Typically the newly allocated bucket will be of a size to restore the load factor to about 1.

Putting those two ideas together, if the load factor reaches 2, then there are twice as many bindings as buckets in the table. So by doubling the size of the array, we can restore the load factor to 1. Similarly, if the load factor reaches 1/2, then there are twice as many buckets as bindings, and halving the size of the array will restore the load factor to 1.

Resizing the bucket array to become larger is an essential technique for hash tables. Resizing it to become smaller, though, is not essential. As long as the load factor is bounded by a constant from above, we can achieve expected constant bucket length. So not all implementations will reduce the size of the array. Although doing so would recover some space, it might not be worth the effort. That's especially true if the size of the hash table is cyclic: although sometimes it becomes smaller, eventually it becomes bigger again.

Unfortunately, resizing would seem to ruin our expected constant-time performance though. Insertion of a binding might cause the load factor to go over 2, thus causing a resize. When the resize occurs, all the existing bindings must be rehashed and added to the new bucket array. Thus, insertion has become a worst-case linear time operation! The same is true for removal, if we resize the array to become smaller when the load factor is too low.

Hash functions

Hash tables are one of the most useful data structures ever invented. Unfortunately, they are also one of the most misused. Code built using hash tables often falls far short of achievable performance. There are two reasons for this:

  • Clients choose poor hash functions that do not act like random number generators, invalidating the simple uniform hashing assumption.

  • Hash table abstractions do not adequately specify what is required of the hash function, or make it difficult to provide a good hash function.

Clearly, a bad hash function can destroy our attempts at a constant running time. A lot of obvious hash function choices are bad. For example, if we're mapping names to phone numbers, then hashing each name to its length would be a very poor function, as would a hash function that used only the first name, or only the last name. We want our hash function to use all of the information in the key. This is a bit of an art. While hash tables are extremely effective when used well, all too often poor hash functions are used that sabotage performance.

Hash tables work well when the hash function looks random. If it is to look random, this means that any change to a key, even a small one, should change the bucket index in an apparently random way. If we imagine writing the bucket index as a binary number, a small change to the key should randomly flip the bits in the bucket index. This is called information diffusion. For example, a one-bit change to the key should cause every bit in the index to flip with 1/2 probability.

Client vs. implementer. As we've described it, the hash function is a single function that maps from the key type to a bucket index. In practice, the hash function is the composition of two functions, one provided by the client and one by the implementer. This is because the implementer doesn't understand the element type, the client doesn't know how many buckets there are, and the implementer probably doesn't trust the client to achieve diffusion.

The client function hash_c first converts the key into an integer hash code, and the implementation function hash_i converts the hash code into a bucket index. The actual hash function is the composition of these two functions. As a hash table designer, you need to figure out which of the client hash function and the implementation hash function is going to provide diffusion. If clients are sufficiently savvy, it makes sense to push the diffusion onto them, leaving the hash table implementation as simple and fast as possible. The easy way to accomplish this is to break the computation of the bucket index into three steps.

  1. Serialization: Transform the key into a stream of bytes that contains all of the information in the original key. Two equal keys must result in the same byte stream. Two byte streams should be equal only if the keys are actually equal. How to do this depends on the form of the key. If the key is a string, then the stream of bytes would simply be the characters of the string.

  2. Diffusion: Map the stream of bytes into a large integer x in a way that causes every change in the stream to affect the bits of x apparently randomly. There is a tradeoff in performance versus randomness (and security) here.

  3. Compute the hash bucket index as x mod m. This is particularly cheap if m is a power of two.

Unfortunately, hash table implementations are rarely forthcoming about what they assume of client hash functions. So it can be hard to know, as a client, how to get good performance from a table. The more information the implementation can provide to a client about how well distributed keys are in buckets, the better. OCaml's Hashtbl includes a function to get statistics about the bucket distribution, which can be helpful in diagnosing whether the hash function is providing adequate diffusion.

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