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Engineering LibreTexts

7.6: Problems with hash tables

  • Page ID
    47921
  • Although hash table lookups use constant time on average, the time spent can be significant. Evaluating a good hash function can be a slow operation. In particular, if simple array indexing can be used instead, this is usually faster.

    Hash tables in general exhibit poor locality of reference—that is, the data to be accessed is distributed seemingly at random in memory. Because hash tables cause access patterns that jump around, this can trigger microprocessor cache misses that cause long delays. Compact data structures such as arrays, searched with linear search, may be faster if the table is relatively small and keys are cheap to compare, such as with simple integer keys. According to Moore's Law, cache sizes are growing exponentially and so what is considered "small" may be increasing. The optimal performance point varies from system to system; for example, a trial on Parrot shows that its hash tables outperform linear search in all but the most trivial cases (one to three entries).

    More significantly, hash tables are more difficult and error-prone to write and use. Hash tables require the design of an effective hash function for each key type, which in many situations is more difficult and time-consuming to design and debug than the mere comparison function required for a self-balancing binary search tree. In open-addressed hash tables it's even easier to create a poor hash function.

    Additionally, in some applications, a black hat with knowledge of the hash function may be able to supply information to a hash which creates worst-case behavior by causing excessive collisions, resulting in very poor performance (i.e., a denial of service attack). In critical applications, either universal hashing can be used or a data structure with better worst-case guarantees may be preferable. For details, see Crosby and Wallach's Denial of Service via Algorithmic Complexity Attacks.

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