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Algorithms for Ruby developer: Binary search

kopylov_vlad profile image Vladislav Kopylov ・4 min read

Every software developer has heard about classic old-school algorithms. If you ask the question ”Do we really need to study algorithms nowadays?” the article is for you.

When we discuss algorithms, the binary search algorithms immediately comes to my mind. If you didn’t hear about it or want to refresh your knowledge, I suggest you to watch the video CS 50.

So, do we really need to know and remember how does the binary search work and how to implement it, if we have already had Array#find_index method in Ruby?

Experiment

Let’s write a little experiment just for fun. My plan is to implement the binary search algorithm in plain Ruby. There is our Main module and a custom function #b_index

# script.rb
module Main
  # @param array [Array<Object>]
  # @param value [Object]
  # @return [Integer] index of element or -1
  def self.b_index(array, value)
    low = 0
    high = array.size

    while low < high
      mid = ((low+high) / 2).floor
      midval = array[mid]
      if midval < value
        low = mid+1
      elsif midval > value
        high = mid
      else
        return mid
      end
    end
    -1
  end
end
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Let’s write some tests in order to check different cases.

# spec/test1_spec.rb
require 'rspec'
require_relative '../script'

RSpec.describe 'Script' do
  context 'array with integers' do
    it { expect(Main.b_index([], 1)).to eq(-1) }
    it { expect(Main.b_index([1,2,3,4], 1)).to eq(0) }
    it { expect(Main.b_index([1,2,3,4], 2)).to eq(1) }
    it { expect(Main.b_index([1,2,3,4], 3)).to eq(2) }
    it { expect(Main.b_index([1,2,3,4], 4)).to eq(3) }
  end

  context 'array with similar values' do
    it { expect(Main.b_index([2,2,2], 2)).to eq(1) }
    it { expect(Main.b_index([1,2,2,2,13], 2)).to eq(2) }
  end

  context 'array with string values' do
    it do
      expect(Main.b_index(['a', 'b', 'c'], 'z')).to eq(-1)
      expect(Main.b_index(['a', 'b', 'c'], 'a')).to eq(0)
      expect(Main.b_index(['a', 'b', 'c'], 'b')).to eq(1)
      expect(Main.b_index(['a', 'b', 'c'], 'c')).to eq(2)
      expect(Main.b_index(['a', 'b', 'c'], 'z')).to eq(-1)
    end
  end
end
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So, it works! All tests are passed. Let’s write another test case and compare our algorithm and Array#find_index

# spec/test2_spec.rb
require 'rspec'
require_relative '../script'

RSpec.describe 'Match with Array#find_index' do
  # it runs Array#find_index and match result with value
  def test_helper(array, value)
    answer = array.find_index(value)
    answer.nil? ? -1 : answer
  end

  (1..100).to_a.each do |i|
    context "array from 0 to #{i}" do
      arr = (0..i).to_a
      arr.each do |j|
        number = j
        it "can find #{number}" do
          expect(Main.b_index(arr, number)).to eq(test_helper(arr, number))
        end
      end
    end
  end
end
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So, it works without bugs! 🐞

Benchmark and result

The most interesting is to write a benchmark test between our function and Array#find_index method.

# race.rb
require_relative './script'
require 'benchmark'

# we will create an array with 50_000 numbers
i = 50_000
puts "test an array from 0 to #{i}"
arr = (0..i).to_a

Benchmark.bm do |x|
  # benchmark for `Array#find_index`
  x.report('standard find_index') do
    arr.each { |number| arr.find_index(number) }
  end

  # benchmark for our custom function
  x.report('my b_index') do
    arr.each { |number| Main.b_index(arr, number) }
  end
end
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Let’s run it and watch the result.

$ bundle exec ruby race.rb
test an array from 0 to 50000
       user     system      total        real
standard find_index  7.970743   0.003301   7.974044 (  7.976267)
my b_index  0.061279   0.000458   0.061737 (  0.062213)
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It’s fantastic that our algorithm is faster than Array#find_index method. The reason is Array#find_index uses linear search algorithm and it has the bit O notation O(n). The binary search has performance O(log n).

Not only numbers

Numbers and strings are boring. Can it match custom objects? Of course, yes!

# spec/test3_spec.rb
require 'rspec'
require_relative '../script'

# our custom Object
class MyObject
  include Comparable

  # @param number [Integer]
  def initialize(number)
    @number = number
  end

  attr_reader :number

  def <=>(object)
    if object.is_a?(self.class)
      number <=> object.number
    elsif object.is_a?(Integer)
      number <=> object
    else
      raise 'Can not compare the type'
    end
  end
end

# and tests
RSpec.describe 'Custom objects test' do
  # it runs Array#find_index and match result with value
  def test_helper(array, value)
    answer = array.find_index(value)
    answer.nil? ? -1 : answer
  end

  (1..100).to_a.each do |i|
    context "array from 0 to #{i}" do
      arr = (0..i).map { |i| MyObject.new(i + 1) }
      arr.each do |obj|
        number = obj.number
        it "can find MyObject with #{number}" do
          expect(Main.b_index(arr, number)).to eq(test_helper(arr, number))
        end
      end
    end
  end
end
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Great, it works! And you see that the binary search can improve performance in your application when you try to find data in a huge array.

Conclusion

Knowing algorithms isn’t a dummy check and it can be very useful especially for optimisation. I hope the article will help you to improve performance in your application. I wish the article inspired you and you will keep on studying algorithms ✨

Link to source code is here

Discussion (2)

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djuber profile image
Daniel Uber

One thing to bear in mind about the performance benchmark results, the (slower) Array#find_index method uses a linear search because the Array method cannot assume that the array is already sorted (the precondition for binary search to work). Just pointing this out since the required "sorted input" condition wasn't mentioned in your post. I'm sure it's covered in the linked video (he says "hopefully sorted" but then uses a telephone book which is definitely sorted), so worth pointing out.

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kopylov_vlad profile image
Vladislav Kopylov Author

Thanks for your comment 😀
Yes, the binary search algorithm can work properly only with sorted data. Array#find_index can perfectly work with sorted and unsorted data. But if you have huge array of data and the array is sorted, binary search will be highly effective.

So, my intention was to inspire people (and me) to keep on studying algorithms, maybe it's the reason why I didn't mention it 🙈

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