Searching and Hashing

It is important to understand what search is and when it is appropriate. This page explains sequential and binary search, and their implementation. There is also the matter of hashing as a storage and search technique. In so doing, we introduce the unordered map and how to implement a map abstract data type using hashing. Read Sections 6.1-6.5. You may also find Sections 6.6-6.11 useful for practice.

5. Hashing

5.2. Collision Resolution

We now return to the problem of collisions. When two items hash to the same slot, we must have a systematic method for placing the second item in the hash table. This process is called collision resolution. As we stated earlier, if the hash function is perfect, collisions will never occur. However, since this is often not possible, collision resolution becomes a very important part of hashing.

One method for resolving collisions looks into the hash table and tries to find another open slot to hold the item that caused the collision. A simple way to do this is to start at the original hash value position and then move in a sequential manner through the slots until we encounter the first slot that is empty. Note that we may need to go back to the first slot (circularly) to cover the entire hash table. This collision resolution process is referred to as open addressing in that it tries to find the next open slot or address in the hash table. By systematically visiting each slot one at a time, we are performing an open addressing technique called linear probing.

Figure 8 shows an extended set of integer items under the simple remainder method hash function (54,26,93,17,77,31,44,55,20). Table 4 above shows the hash values for the original items. Figure 5 shows the original contents. When we attempt to place 44 into slot 0, a collision occurs. Under linear probing, we look sequentially, slot by slot, until we find an open position. In this case, we find slot 1.

Again, 55 should go in slot 0 but must be placed in slot 2 since it is the next open position. The final value of 20 hashes to slot 9. Since slot 9 is full, we begin to do linear probing. We visit slots 10, 0, 1, and 2, and finally find an empty slot at position 3.


Figure 8: Collision Resolution with Linear Probing

Once we have built a hash table using open addressing and linear probing, it is essential that we utilize the same methods to search for items. Assume we want to look up the item 93. When we compute the hash value, we get 5. Looking in slot 5 reveals 93, and we can return True. What if we are looking for 20? Now the hash value is 9, and slot 9 is currently holding 31. We cannot simply return False since we know that there could have been collisions. We are now forced to do a sequential search, starting at position 10, looking until either we find the item 20 or we find an empty slot.

A disadvantage to linear probing is the tendency for clustering; items become clustered in the table. This means that if many collisions occur at the same hash value, a number of surrounding slots will be filled by the linear probing resolution. This will have an impact on other items that are being inserted, as we saw when we tried to add the item 20 above. A cluster of values hashing to 0 had to be skipped to finally find an open position. This cluster is shown in Figure 9.


Figure 9: A Cluster of Items for Slot 0

One way to deal with clustering is to extend the linear probing technique so that instead of looking sequentially for the next open slot, we skip slots, thereby more evenly distributing the items that have caused collisions. This will potentially reduce the clustering that occurs. Figure 10 shows the items when collision resolution is done with a "plus 3" probe. This means that once a collision occurs, we will look at every third slot until we find one that is empty.


Figure 10: Collision Resolution Using "Plus 3"

The general name for this process of looking for another slot after a collision is rehashing. With simple linear probing, the rehash function is

where . The "plus 3" rehash can be defined as . In general,

. It is important to note that the size of the "skip" must be such that all the slots in the table will eventually be visited. Otherwise, part of the table will be unused. To ensure this, it is often suggested that the table size be a prime number. This is the reason we have been using 11 in our examples.

A variation of the linear probing idea is called quadratic probing. Instead of using a constant "skip" value, we use a rehash function that increments the hash value by 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, and so on. This means that if the first hash value is h, the successive values are

, , , , and so on. In other words, quadratic probing uses a skip consisting of successive perfect squares. Figure 11 shows our example values after they are placed using this technique.


Figure 11: Collision Resolution with Quadratic Probing

An alternative method for handling the collision problem is to allow each slot to hold a reference to a collection (or chain) of items. Chaining allows many items to exist at the same location in the hash table. When collisions happen, the item is still placed in the proper slot of the hash table. As more and more items hash to the same location, the difficulty of searching for the item in the collection increases. Figure 12 shows the items as they are added to a hash table that uses chaining to resolve collisions.


Figure 12: Collision Resolution with Chaining

When we want to search for an item, we use the hash function to generate the slot where it should reside. Since each slot holds a collection, we use a searching technique to decide whether the item is present. The advantage is that on the average there are likely to be many fewer items in each slot, so the search is perhaps more efficient. We will look at the analysis for hashing at the end of this section.