Amortized Analysis of Hash Tables
"Amortization" is a financial term. One of its meanings is to pay off a debt over time. In algorithmic analysis, we use it to refer to paying off the cost of an expensive operation by inflating the cost of inexpensive operations. In effect, we pre-pay the cost of a later expensive operation by adding some additional cost to earlier cheap operations.
The amortized complexity or amortized running time of a sequence of operations that each have cost , is just the average cost of each operation:
Thus, even if one operation is especially expensive, we could average that out over a bunch of inexpensive operations.
Applying that idea to a hash table, suppose the table has 8 bindings and 8 buckets. Then 8 more inserts are made. The first 7 are (expected) constant-time, but the 8th insert is linear time: it increases the load factor to 2, causing a resize, thus causing rehashing of all 16 bindings into a new table. The total cost over that series of operations is therefore the cost of 8+16 inserts. For simplicity of calculation, we could grossly round that up to 16+16 = 32 inserts. So the average cost of each operation in the sequence is 32/8 = 4 inserts.
In other words, if we just pretended each insert cost four times its normal price, the final operation in the sequence would have been "pre-paid" by the extra price we paid for earlier inserts. And all of them would be constant-time, since four times a constant is still a constant.
Generalizing from the example above, let's suppose that the the number of buckets currently in a hash table is , and that the load factor is currently 1. Therefore, there are currently bindings in the table. Next:
A series of inserts occurs. There are now bindings in the table.
One more insert occurs. That brings the number of bindings up to , which is . But the number of buckets is , so the the load factor just reached 2. A resize is necessary.
The resize occurs. That doubles the number of buckets. All bindings have to be reinserted into the new table, which is of size . The load factor is back down to 1.
So in total we did inserts. which we could grossly round up to . Over a series of insert operations, that's an average cost of , which equals 4. So if we just pretend each insert costs four times its normal price, every operation in the sequence is amortized (and expected) constant time.
Doubling vs. Constant-size Increasing
Notice that it is crucial that the array size grows by doubling (or at least geometrically). A bad mistake would be to instead grow the array by a fixed increment—for example, 100 buckets at time. Then we'd be in real trouble as the number of bindings continued to grow:
- Start with 100 buckets and 100 bindings. The load factor is 1.
- Round 1. Insert 100 bindings. There are now 200 bindings and 100 buckets. The load factor is 2.
- Increase the number of buckets by 100 and rehash. That's 200 more insertions. The load factor is back down to 1.
- The average cost of each insert is so far just 3x the cost of an actual insert (100+200 insertions / 100 bindings inserted). So far so good.
- Round 2. Insert 200 more bindings. There are now 400 bindings and 200 buckets. The load factor is 2.
- Increase the number of buckets by 100 and rehash. That's 400 more insertions. There are now 400 bindings and 300 buckets. The load factor is 400/300 = 4/3, not 1.
- The average cost of each insert is now 100+200+200+400 / 300 = 3. That's still okay.
- Round 3. Insert 200 more bindings. There are now 600 bindings and 300 buckets. The load factor is 2.
- Increase the number of buckets by 100 and rehash. That's 600 more insertions. There are now 600 bindings and 400 buckets. The load factor is 3/2, not 1.
- The average cost of each insert is now 100+200+200+400+200+600 / 500 = 3.2. It's going up.
- Round 4. Insert 200 more bindings. There are now 800 bindings and 400 buckets. The load factor is 2.
- Increase the number of buckets by 100 and rehash. That's 800 more insertions. There are now 800 bindings and 500 buckets. The load factor is 8/5, not 1.
- The average cost of each insert is now 100+200+200+400+200+600+200+800 / 700 = 3.7. It's continuing to go up, not staying constant.
After rounds we have bindings and buckets.
We have called
insert to insert bindings, but all the rehashing has
caused us to do actual insertions.
That last term is the real problem. It's quadratic:
So over a series of calls to
insert, we do actual inserts.
That makes the amortized cost of
insert be , which is linear! Not
That's why it's so important to double the size of the array at each rehash. It's what gives us the amortized constant-time performance.