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7.2: Choosing a good hash function

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  • A good hash function is essential for good hash table performance. A poor choice of hash function is likely to lead to clustering behavior, in which the probability of keys mapping to the same hash bucket (i.e. a collision) is significantly greater than would be expected from a random function. A nonzero probability of collisions is inevitable in any hash implementation, but the number of operations to resolve collisions usually scales linearly with the number of keys mapping to the same bucket, so excess collisions will degrade performance significantly. In addition, some hash functions are computationally expensive, so the amount of time (and, in some cases, memory) taken to compute the hash may be burdensome.

    Choosing a good hash function is tricky. The literature is replete with poor choices, at least when measured by modern standards. For example, the very popular multiplicative hash advocated by Knuth in The Art of Computer Programming has particularly poor clustering behavior. However, since poor hashing merely degrades hash table performance for particular input key distributions, such problems go undetected far too often.

    The literature is also sparse on the criteria for choosing a hash function. Unlike most other fundamental algorithms and data structures, there is no universal consensus on what makes a "good" hash function. The remainder of this section is organized by three criteria: simplicity, speed, and strength, and will survey algorithms known to perform well by these criteria.

    Simplicity and speed are readily measured objectively (by number of lines of code and CPU benchmarks, for example), but strength is a more slippery concept. Obviously, a cryptographic hash function such as SHA-1 would satisfy the relatively lax strength requirements needed for hash tables, but their slowness and complexity makes them unappealing. In fact, even a cryptographic hash does not provide protection against an adversary who wishes to degrade hash table performance by choosing keys all hashing to the same bucket. For these specialized cases, a universal hash function should be used instead of any one static hash, no matter how sophisticated.

    In the absence of a standard measure for hash function strength, the current state of the art is to employ a battery of statistical tests to measure whether the hash function can be readily distinguished from a random function. Arguably the most important such test is to determine whether the hash function displays the avalanche effect, which essentially states that any single-bit change in the input key should affect on average half the bits in the output. Bret Mulvey advocates testing the strict avalanche condition in particular, which states that, for any single-bit change, each of the output bits should change with probability one-half, independent of the other bits in the key. Purely additive hash functions such as CRC fail this stronger condition miserably.

    Clearly, a strong hash function should have a uniform distribution of hash values. Bret Mulvey proposes the use of a chi-squared test for uniformity, based on power of two hash table sizes ranging from 21 to 216. This test is considerably more sensitive than many others proposed for measuring hash functions, and finds problems in many popular hash functions.

    Fortunately, there are good hash functions that satisfy all these criteria. The simplest class all consume one byte of the input key per iteration of the inner loop. Within this class, simplicity and speed are closely related, as fast algorithms simply don't have time to perform complex calculations. Of these, one that performs particularly well is the Jenkins One-at-a-time hash, adapted here from an article by Bob Jenkins, its creator.

      uint32 joaat_hash(uchar *key, size_t len)
        uint32 hash = 0;
        size_t i;
        for (i = 0; i < len; i++)
            hash += key[i];
            hash += (hash << 10);
            hash ^= (hash >> 6);
        hash += (hash << 3);
        hash ^= (hash >> 11);
        hash += (hash << 15);
        return hash;

    The avalanche behavior of this hash is shown below. The image was made using Bret Mulvey's AvalancheTest in his Hash.cs toolset. Each row corresponds to a single bit in the input, and each column to a bit in the output. A green square indicates good mixing behavior, a yellow square weak mixing behavior, and red would indicate no mixing. Only a few bits in the last byte are weakly mixed, a performance vastly better than a number of widely used hash functions.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Avalanche behavior of Jenkins One-at-a-time hash over 3-byte keys

    Many commonly used hash functions perform poorly when subjected to such rigorous avalanche testing. The widely favored FNV hash, for example, shows many bits with no mixing at all, especially for short keys. See the evaluation of FNV by Bret Mulvey for a more thorough analysis.

    If speed is more important than simplicity, then the class of hash functions which consume multibyte chunks per iteration may be of interest. One of the most sophisticated is "lookup3" by Bob Jenkins, which consumes input in 12 byte (96 bit) chunks. Note, though, that any speed improvement from the use of this hash is only likely to be useful for large keys, and that the increased complexity may also have speed consequences such as preventing an optimizing compiler from inlining the hash function. Bret Mulvey analyzed an earlier version, lookup2, and found it to have excellent avalanche behavior.

    One desirable property of a hash function is that conversion from the hash value (typically 32 bits) to an bucket index for a particular-size hash table can be done simply by masking, preserving only the lower k bits for a table of size 2k (an operation equivalent to computing the hash value modulo the table size). This property enables the technique of incremental doubling of the size of the hash table - each bucket in the old table maps to only two in the new table. Because of its use of XOR-folding, the FNV hash does not have this property. Some older hashes are even worse, requiring table sizes to be a prime number rather than a power of two, again computing the bucket index as the hash value modulo the table size. In general, such a requirement is a sign of a fundamentally weak function; using a prime table size is a poor substitute for using a stronger function.

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