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Prefix Search, Part 3: More Fun With Tries

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In my last post, I demonstrated that crit-bit trees are really fast. This time, I want to talk a little bit about my specific implementation of these tries, and some interesting applications you can use them for.

I also want to acknowledge some of the prior art that I looked at before deciding to roll my own implementation. Professor Bernstein himself has written an implementation himself for his portable qhasm assembler. But since it’s part of a larger software product, I didn’t want to disentangle it. Adam Langley has an implementation on his github with some outstanding documentation that was very useful, but it only stores zero-terminated strings, not arbitrary data. While I didn’t read his code too closely to keep my own implementation challenging, I did steal the clever bit-mask trick from it.

More Things To Do With Tries

While they are really good at string lookup, what crit-bit trees are best at is finding strings with a common prefix. I implemented two separate functions for this:

const void * cb_find(critbit_tree * cb, const void * key, size_t keylen);
int cb_foreach(critbit_tree * cb, const void * key, size_t keylen,
    int (*match_cb)(const void *, const void *, size_t, void*), void *data);

The first function is straightforward, it looks for an exact match of the first keylen bytes of key in the given tree. The second function calls the match_cb callback on every match, which is a much easier pattern to implement than trying to return all matches. Where would you store them? Dynamic memory allocation is right out, of course. I compromised a bit by writing the b_find_prefix function, which takes a buffer supplied by the caller, but beare that paging through the results by calling it repeatedly is quadratic in complexity, so you shouldn’t do that. It’s really just a hack.

Use As A Fast Key-Value Store

One really nifty thing that I have been using this code for is as a fast key-value store. You could insert a couple of strings like “config_value=42” in the tree and look for the first match with the prefix “config_value=”. There are two wrapper macros in critbit.h to simplify this, and being able to store data other than zero-terminated strings means I am not limited to storing string values. Here’s some example code that shows their use:

int i = 42;
char buffer[20];
const char * key = "herpderp";
void * match;
size_t len;

len = cb_new_kv(key, strlen(key), &i, sizeof(int), buffer);
cb_insert(&cb, buffer, len);
if (cb_find_prefix(&cb, key, strlen(key)+1, &match, 1, 0)) {
    cb_get_kv(match, &i, sizeof(int));

What these macros essentially do is this:

  1. cb_new_kv creates a (key,0,value) string inside buffer.
  2. Once you insert it, you can search for it by prefix-search for the key plus its zero-terminator.
  3. Finally, use cb_get_kv to extract the value from the first match.


I approached this project with a test-first attitude, writing tests before writing the actual implementation, and fixing bugs until the tests passed. I wrote almost as many lines of tests for this as I wrote actual code, and it still wasn’t enough – one or two small issues slipped through. Lots of pointers and memory-pokery is always tricky, and I think this is one of those cases where it should be undisputed that unit tests are just incredibly useful.