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4.1: The Basic Structure

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    Conceptually, a skiplist is a sequence of singly-linked lists \(L_0,\ldots,L_h\). Each list \(L_r\) contains a subset of the items in \(L_{r-1}\). We start with the input list \(L_0\) that contains \(\mathtt{n}\) items and construct \(L_1\) from \(L_0\), \(L_2\) from \(L_1\), and so on. The items in \(L_r\) are obtained by tossing a coin for each element, \(\mathtt{x}\), in \(L_{r-1}\) and including \(\mathtt{x}\) in \(L_r\) if the coin turns up as heads. This process ends when we create a list \(L_r\) that is empty. An example of a skiplist is shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): A skiplist containing seven elements.

    For an element, \(\mathtt{x}\), in a skiplist, we call the height of \(\mathtt{x}\) the largest value \(r\) such that \(\mathtt{x}\) appears in \(L_r\). Thus, for example, elements that only appear in \(L_0\) have height 0. If we spend a few moments thinking about it, we notice that the height of \(\mathtt{x}\) corresponds to the following experiment: Toss a coin repeatedly until it comes up as tails. How many times did it come up as heads? The answer, not surprisingly, is that the expected height of a node is 1. (We expect to toss the coin twice before getting tails, but we don't count the last toss.) The height of a skiplist is the height of its tallest node.

    At the head of every list is a special node, called the sentinel, that acts as a dummy node for the list. The key property of skiplists is that there is a short path, called the search path, from the sentinel in \(L_h\) to every node in \(L_0\). Remembering how to construct a search path for a node, \(\mathtt{u}\), is easy (see Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)) : Start at the top left corner of your skiplist (the sentinel in \(L_h\)) and always go right unless that would overshoot \(\mathtt{u}\), in which case you should take a step down into the list below.

    More precisely, to construct the search path for the node \(\mathtt{u}\) in \(L_0\), we start at the sentinel, \(\mathtt{w}\), in \(L_h\). Next, we examine \(\texttt{}\). If \(\texttt{}\) contains an item that appears before \(\mathtt{u}\) in \(L_0\), then we set \(\mathtt{w}=\texttt{}\). Otherwise, we move down and continue the search at the occurrence of \(\mathtt{w}\) in the list \(L_{h-1}\). We continue this way until we reach the predecessor of \(\mathtt{u}\) in \(L_0\).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): The search path for the node containing \(4\) in a skiplist.

    The following result, which we will prove in Section 4.4, shows that the search path is quite short:

    Lemma \(\PageIndex{1}\).

    The expected length of the search path for any node, \(\mathtt{u}\), in \(L_0\) is at most \(2\log \mathtt{n} + O(1) = O(\log \mathtt{n})\).

    A space-efficient way to implement a skiplist is to define a Node, \(\mathtt{u}\), as consisting of a data value, \(\mathtt{x}\), and an array, \(\mathtt{next}\), of pointers, where \(\mathtt{[i]}\) points to \(\mathtt{u}\)'s successor in the list \(L_{\mathtt{i}}\). In this way, the data, \(\mathtt{x}\), in a node is referenced only once, even though \(\mathtt{x}\) may appear in several lists.

        class Node<T> {
            T x;
            Node<T>[] next;
            Node(T ix, int h) {
                x = ix;
                next = (Node<T>[])Array.newInstance(Node.class, h+1);
            int height() {
                return next.length - 1;

    The next two sections of this chapter discuss two different applications of skiplists. In each of these applications, \(L_0\) stores the main structure (a list of elements or a sorted set of elements). The primary difference between these structures is in how a search path is navigated; in particular, they differ in how they decide if a search path should go down into \(L_{r-1}\) or go right within \(L_r\).

    4.1: The Basic Structure is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Pat Morin.

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