2015-10-07 – crit-bit tries without allocation

Crit-bit tries have fixed-size branch nodes and a constant overhead per leaf, which means they can be used as an embedded lookup structure. Embedded lookup structures do not need any extra memory allocation; it is enough to allocate the objects that are to be indexed by the lookup structure.

An embedded lookup structure is a data structure in which the internal pointers used to search for an object (such as branch nodes) are embedded within the objects you are searching through. Each object can be a member of at most one of any particular kind of lookup structure, though an object can simultaneously be a member of several different kinds of lookup structure.

The BSD <sys/queue.h> macros are embedded linked lists. They are used frequently in the kernel, for instance in the network stack to chain mbuf packet buffers together. Each mbuf can be a member of a list and a tailq. There is also a <sys/tree.h> which is used by OpenSSH's privilege separation memory manager. Embedded red-black trees also appear in jemalloc.

embedded crit-bit branch node structure

DJB's crit-bit branch nodes require three words: bit index, left child, and right child; embedded crit-bit branches are the same with an additional parent pointer.

    struct branch {
        uint index;
        void *twig[2];
        void **parent;

The "twig" child pointers are tagged to indicate whether they point to a branch node or a leaf. The parent pointer normally points to the relevant child pointer inside the parent node; it can also point at the trie's root pointer, which means there has to be exactly one root pointer in a fixed place.

(An aside about how I have been counting overhead: DJB does not include the leaf string pointer as part of the overhead of his crit-bit tries, and I have followed his lead by not counting the leaf key and value pointers in my crit-bit and qp tries. So by this logic, although an embedded branch adds four words to an object, it only counts as three words of overhead. Perhaps it would be more honest to count the total size of the data structure.)

using embedded crit-bit tries

For most purposes, embedded crit-bit tries work the same as external crit-bit tries.

When searching for an object, there is a final check that the search key matches the leaf. This check needs to know where to find the search key inside the leaf object - it should not assume the key is at the start.

When inserting a new object, you need to add a branch node to the trie. For external crit-bit tries this new branch is allocated; for embedded crit-bit tries you use the branch embedded in the new leaf object.

deleting objects from embedded crit-bit tries

This is where the fun happens. There are four objects of interest:

The plan is that after unlinking the parent branch from the trie, you rescue the victim branch from the doomed leaf object by moving it into the place vacated by the parent branch. You use the parent pointer in the victim branch to update the twig (or root) pointer to follow the move.

Note that you need to beware of the case where the parent branch happens to be embedded in the doomed leaf object.

exercise for the reader

Are the parent pointers necessary?

Is the movement of branches constrained enough that we will always encounter a leaf's embedded branch in the course of searching for that leaf? If so, we can eliminate the parent pointers and save a word of overhead.


I have not implemented this idea, but following Simon Tatham's encouragement I have written this description in the hope that it inspires someone else.

⇐ 2015-10-04 ⇐ qp tries: smaller and faster than crit-bit tries ⇐ ⇒ prefetching tries ⇒ 2015-10-11 ⇒