Francisco Soto Ramblings about code, life and stuff.

Keeping an eye in efficiency
Jul 14, 2012

Big O Notation

The good

We live in a great era for computing, we have plenty of computing power, memory, storage, etc, is often quoted that an iPhone has more computing power than NASA had when they sent the Apollo 11 to the moon. Along with these advancements in hardware, we get a lot of advancements in software too, in the means of improved tools, powerful programming languages and libraries which allow us to create better software in a more rapid, easier fashion.

Things like garbage collection, large API’s and frameworks, like Java or .NET, Ruby On Rails, mind you, some of these aren’t really new, but they have been coming into the mainstream as computers become more powerful and their cost less prohibitive.

The larger the bricks we have to build, the less visibility we have into how these bricks work inside, and sometimes, they are so easy to use that we simply do not pay much attention to what it is that we are actually doing, we just glance a bit on the documentation and go on our happy, rushed way.

The bad

This of course, has its cost in terms of efficiency, sometimes in a noticeable way, sometimes is so seemingly innocuous, so deceptively tiny, that we simply don’t even know, or don’t notice, or don’t care about it, but these little things add up and instead of needing a machine with 4GB of memory, we need 8GB, or instead of being able to run decently on a low-end CPU, you need a high-end one instead, or you end up needing a database server with a few zillion-byte hard drives and gigabytes and gigabytes of memory.

We can of course rationalize this. It’s enterprise software!, we have a lot of users!, we have lots of data!, and so on and so on.

I am not stating of course that we shouldn’t use the tools we have at hand, but in order to make the most out of them we have to know them, we have to use them properly and in the right context, we have to know our data structures and we have to understand the basics of analysis of algorithms even if we program in Perl, Ruby or Java, so we do not run around creating n-squared algorithms all over the place like Shlemiel the painter.

To illustrate this point, I am going to share with you something that happened to me this week.


One of my recent tasks at INgrooves was writing an ETL process for product ingestion, these products come from an external database and we have to convert, validate and ingest into our own. This was implemented in application (C#) code that is usable either through a CLI driven by given keys or running as a background process in our in-house systems pulling work items from a queue.

This ETL has to be very fast, it has to process many products a day, either new or updated, and some of these products have lots of data (particularly classical albums). I and a few other guys in my team went to great lengths to achieve this goal.

One very key part of the ETL is that in the name of speed we load a whole product from the external database and convert into a memory representation to process as a whole, we do the same with the data in our side, after all, we have to know if this is an updated product or a new product, we do not want to save rows redundantly so we preload the whole product that exists currently in our side in order to compare and process.

In order to process rows side by side, I create a collection that holds both rows, one may be missing though, if the source row is missing that means I have an extra row so I have to delete it, if the destination row is missing then it means this is new data.

The operation I am describing is analogous to a SQL Full Outer Join, so I came with this method:

        public static IEnumerable<TResult> FullOuterJoin<TOuter, TInner, TKey, TResult>(
            this IEnumerable<TOuter> outer,
            IEnumerable<TInner> inner,
            Func<TOuter, TKey> outerKeySelector,
            Func<TInner, TKey> innerKeySelector,
            Func<TOuter, IEnumerable<TInner>, TResult> outerResultSelector,
            Func<TInner, IEnumerable<TOuter>, TResult> innerResultSelector,
            IEqualityComparer<TResult> resultEqualityComparer)
            where TInner : class
            where TOuter : class
            return outer.GroupJoin(

Although it looks a bit cryptic due to the generics, it is more or less straightforward, this is what it does:

  1. Do a group join of the first list with the second using a common key extracted from the items on each collection by outerKeySelector and innerKeySelector, calling outerResult selector with each item in the first list and matching items in the second list (or none).
  2. Do the same thing just reversed, thus giving you the items in the second list that have no match in the first.
  3. Do a set union of both results.

Pretty clear uh?

There are so many things wrong with it that I feel really ashamed and now I am punishing myself by making it public.


  • I am doing the same operation twice, the GroupJoin operation is not very expensive, it’s O(N) in time complexity, so I figured it wouldn’t be much of a problem, but it lead me to:
  • The set union operation is O(N * M) and kills any hope for performance.

Because I chose to do two groupings, if there’s a match for an item in the first list and the second list, that match will appear in both grouping operations and although we have two different selectors we have no idea what the code is, so repetitions are very likely and the way to get rid of them is by using the set union operation.

For most products this wasn’t much of a problem, until I tested with a product that has 130,536 rows. Yes, 130,536. To perform the Union operation when both lists were populated (a product update) it had to do 17,039,647,296 compares. I don’t care if the CPU is 10GHz, this would be very noticeable. (This particular product took 3 hours to update in my machine, and that’s without almost no DB writes because the ETL is optimized to write only when something actually changed).

And all this just because I said “meh” when thinking about the two groupings… I cannot blame the abstractions provided to me by the framework of course, I can only blame me and my stupidity for shooting myself in the foot with them.

So here’s the rematch :

Final version

        public static IEnumerable<TResult> FullOuterJoin<TOuter, TInner, TKey, TResult>(
            this IEnumerable<TOuter> outer,
            IEnumerable<TInner> inner,
            Func<TOuter, TKey> outerKeySelector,
            Func<TInner, TKey> innerKeySelector,
            Func<TOuter, TInner, TResult> resultSelector)
            where TInner : class
            where TOuter : class
            Dictionary<TKey, TOuter> ok = outer.ToLookup(outerKeySelector).ToDictionary(i => i.Key, i => i.FirstOrDefault());
            Dictionary<TKey, TInner> ik = inner.ToLookup(innerKeySelector).ToDictionary(i => i.Key, i => i.FirstOrDefault());

            HashSet<TResult> result = new HashSet<TResult>();

            foreach (var o in ok.Keys)
                var e = ok[o];
                var d = ik.ContainsKey(o) ? ik[o] : default(TInner);

                result.Add(resultSelector(e, d));

                if (ik.ContainsKey(o))

            foreach (var i in ik.Keys)
                var e = default(TOuter);
                var d = ik[i];

                result.Add(resultSelector(e, d));

            return result;

This other version is my redemption for the god awful code that I wrote originally.

What it does:

  1. Create lookup tables by the keys provided for both lists. This makes finding things in each collection very fast (I could bet that GroupJoin uses this approach too).
  2. Iterate over the first lookup table, using the key to find a matching element in the second collection or default if none, calling the resultSelector with both items and inserting them into a HashSet. Then removing the match (if any) from the second lookup table.
  3. Iterate over the leftovers on the second table (if any) and calling resultSelector with them and default() as the item from the first list.
  4. Return the result which now contains the matches between both list and items without match.

Now, doing things by hand, we can reduce time complexity to O(N)! (There are several O(N) loops here, but time complexity stays linear). The core are two loops which in the worst case (two list without no matches in common) will be O(N + M) + lookup tables creation. So for the large product before, the time it takes is reduced massively, as I said, it took 3 hours before this change, after it, it takes 7:30 minutes. (Not instantaneous, but hey, is an improvement!).


  • Always, always, run a profiler.
  • Do invest some time learning about algorithms and data structures, this knowledge will pay off. Something as innocent looking as List<T>.Contains() is O(N) because it has to traverse all the list to know if the given item is actually in the collection. Stuck a call to it inside a loop and you got yourself a O(N * M) algorithm.
  • Be wary of the dark magic in the API calls you make, try to understand what they are doing.

Go up.

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