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Performance of Python Data Structures

Performance of Python Data Structures

Now that you have a general idea of Big-O notation and the differences between the different functions, our goal in this section is to tell you about the Big-O performance for the operations on Python lists and dictionaries. We will then show you some timing experiments that illustrate the costs and benefits of using certain operations on each data structure. It is important for you to understand the efficiency of these Python data structures because they are the building blocks we will use as we implement other data structures in the remainder of the book. In this section we are not going to explain why the performance is what it is. In later chapters you will see some possible implementations of both lists and dictionaries and how the performance depends on the implementation.


The designers of Python had many choices to make when they implemented the list data structure. Each of these choices could have an impact on how fast list operations perform. To help them make the right choices they looked at the ways that people would most commonly use the list data structure and they optimized their implementation of a list so that the most common operations were very fast. Of course they also tried to make the less common operations fast, but when a tradeoff had to be made the performance of a less common operation was often sacrificed in favor of the more common operation.
Two common operations are indexing and assigning to an index position. Both of these operations take the same amount of time no matter how large the list becomes. When an operation like this is independent of the size of the list they are O(1).
Another very common programming task is to grow a list. There are two ways to create a longer list. You can use the append method or the concatenation operator. The append method is O(1). However, the concatenation operator is O(k) where k is the size of the list that is being concatenated. This is important for you to know because it can help you make your own programs more efficient by choosing the right tool for the job.
Lets look at four different ways we might generate a list of n numbers starting with 0. First we’ll try a for loop and create the list by concatenation, then we’ll use append rather than concatenation. Next, we’ll try creating the list using list comprehension and finally, and perhaps the most obvious way, using the range function wrapped by a call to the list constructor. Listing 3 shows the code for making our list four different ways.
Listing 3
def test1():
    l = []
    for i in range(1000):
        l = l + [i]

def test2():
    l = []
    for i in range(1000):

def test3():
    l = [i for i in range(1000)]

def test4():
    l = list(range(1000))
To capture the time it takes for each of our functions to execute we will use Python’s timeit module. The timeit module is designed to allow Python developers to make cross-platform timing measurements by running functions in a consistent environment and using timing mechanisms that are as similar as possible across operating systems.
To use timeit you create a Timer object whose parameters are two Python statements. The first parameter is a Python statement that you want to time; the second parameter is a statement that will run once to set up the test. The timeit module will then time how long it takes to execute the statement some number of times. By default timeit will try to run the statement one million times. When its done it returns the time as a floating point value representing the total number of seconds. However, since it executes the statement a million times you can read the result as the number of microseconds to execute the test one time. You can also pass timeit a named parameter called number that allows you to specify how many times the test statement is executed. The following session shows how long it takes to run each of our test functions 1000 times.
t1 = Timer("test1()", "from __main__ import test1")
print("concat ",t1.timeit(number=1000), "milliseconds")
t2 = Timer("test2()", "from __main__ import test2")
print("append ",t2.timeit(number=1000), "milliseconds")
t3 = Timer("test3()", "from __main__ import test3")
print("comprehension ",t3.timeit(number=1000), "milliseconds")
t4 = Timer("test4()", "from __main__ import test4")
print("list range ",t4.timeit(number=1000), "milliseconds")

concat  6.54352807999 milliseconds
append  0.306292057037 milliseconds
comprehension  0.147661924362 milliseconds
list range  0.0655000209808 milliseconds
In the experiment above the statement that we are timing is the function call to test1()test2(), and so on. The setup statement may look very strange to you, so let’s consider it in more detail. You are probably very familiar with the fromimport statement, but this is usually used at the beginning of a Python program file. In this case the statement from __main__ import test1 imports the function test1 from the __main__namespace into the namespace that timeit sets up for the timing experiment. The timeit module does this because it wants to run the timing tests in an environment that is uncluttered by any stray variables you may have created, that may interfere with your function’s performance in some unforeseen way.
From the experiment above it is clear that the append operation at 0.30 milliseconds is much faster than concatenation at 6.54 milliseconds. In the above experiment we also show the times for two additional methods for creating a list; using the list constructor with a call to range and a list comprehension. It is interesting to note that the list comprehension is twice as fast as a for loop with an append operation.
One final observation about this little experiment is that all of the times that you see above include some overhead for actually calling the test function, but we can assume that the function call overhead is identical in all four cases so we still get a meaningful comparison of the operations. So it would not be accurate to say that the concatenation operation takes 6.54 milliseconds but rather the concatenation test function takes 6.54 milliseconds. As an exercise you could test the time it takes to call an empty function and subtract that from the numbers above.
Now that we have seen how performance can be measured concretely you can look at Table 2 to see the Big-O efficiency of all the basic list operations. After thinking carefully about Table 2, you may be wondering about the two different times for pop. When pop is called on the end of the list it takes O(1) but when pop is called on the first element in the list or anywhere in the middle it is O(n). The reason for this lies in how Python chooses to implement lists. When an item is taken from the front of the list, in Python’s implementation, all the other elements in the list are shifted one position closer to the beginning. This may seem silly to you now, but if you look at Table 2 you will see that this implementation also allows the index operation to be O(1). This is a tradeoff that the Python implementors thought was a good one.
Table 2: Big-O Efficiency of Python List Operators
OperationBig-O Efficiency
index []O(1)
index assignmentO(1)
del operatorO(n)
contains (in)O(n)
get slice [x:y]O(k)
del sliceO(n)
set sliceO(n+k)
sortO(n log n)
As a way of demonstrating this difference in performance let’s do another experiment using the timeit module. Our goal is to be able to verify the performance of the pop operation on a list of a known size when the program pops from the end of the list, and again when the program pops from the beginning of the list. We will also want to measure this time for lists of different sizes. What we would expect to see is that the time required to pop from the end of the list will stay constant even as the list grows in size, while the time to pop from the beginning of the list will continue to increase as the list grows.
Listing 10 shows one attempt to measure the difference between the two uses of pop. As you can see from this first example, popping from the end takes 0.0003 milliseconds, whereas popping from the beginning takes 4.82 milliseconds. For a list of two million elements this is a factor of 16,000.
There are a couple of things to notice about Listing 4. The first is the statement from __main__ import x. Although we did not define a function we do want to be able to use the list object x in our test. This approach allows us to time just the single pop statement and get the most accurate measure of the time for that single operation. Because the timer repeats 1000 times it is also important to point out that the list is decreasing in size by 1 each time through the loop. But since the initial list is two million elements in size we only reduce the overall size by 0.05%
Listing 4
popzero = timeit.Timer("x.pop(0)",
                       "from __main__ import x")
popend = timeit.Timer("x.pop()",
                      "from __main__ import x")

x = list(range(2000000))

x = list(range(2000000))
While our first test does show that pop(0) is indeed slower than pop(), it does not validate the claim that pop(0) is O(n) while pop() is O(1). To validate that claim we need to look at the performance of both calls over a range of list sizes. Listing 5 implements this test.
Listing 5
popzero = Timer("x.pop(0)",
                "from __main__ import x")
popend = Timer("x.pop()",
               "from __main__ import x")
print("pop(0)   pop()")
for i in range(1000000,100000001,1000000):
    x = list(range(i))
    pt = popend.timeit(number=1000)
    x = list(range(i))
    pz = popzero.timeit(number=1000)
    print("%15.5f, %15.5f" %(pz,pt))
Figure 3 shows the results of our experiment. You can see that as the list gets longer and longer the time it takes to pop(0) also increases while the time for pop stays very flat. This is exactly what we would expect to see for a O(n) and O(1) algorithm.
Some sources of error in our little experiment include the fact that there are other processes running on the computer as we measure that may slow down our code, so even though we try to minimize other things happening on the computer there is bound to be some variation in time. That is why the loop runs the test one thousand times in the first place to statistically gather enough information to make the measurement reliable.
Figure 3: Comparing the Performance of pop and pop(0)


The second major Python data structure is the dictionary. As you probably recall, dictionaries differ from lists in that you can access items in a dictionary by a key rather than a position. Later in this book you will see that there are many ways to implement a dictionary. The thing that is most important to notice right now is that the get item and set item operations on a dictionary are O(1). Another important dictionary operation is the contains operation. Checking to see whether a key is in the dictionary or not is also O(1). The efficiency of all dictionary operations is summarized inTable 3. One important side note on dictionary performance is that the efficiencies we provide in the table are for average performance. In some rare cases the contains, get item, and set item operations can degenerate into O(n) performance but we will get into that in a later chapter when we talk about the different ways that a dictionary could be implemented.
Table 3: Big-O Efficiency of Python Dictionary Operations
operationBig-O Efficiency
get itemO(1)
set itemO(1)
delete itemO(1)
contains (in)O(1)
For our last performance experiment we will compare the performance of the contains operation between lists and dictionaries. In the process we will confirm that the contains operator for lists is O(n) and the contains operator for dictionaries is O(1). The experiment we will use to compare the two is simple. We’ll make a list with a range of numbers in it. Then we will pick numbers at random and check to see if the numbers are in the list. If our performance tables are correct the bigger the list the longer it should take to determine if any one number is contained in the list.
We will repeat the same experiment for a dictionary that contains numbers as the keys. In this experiment we should see that determining whether or not a number is in the dictionary is not only much faster, but the time it takes to check should remain constant even as the dictionary grows larger.
Listing 6 implements this comparison. Notice that we are performing exactly the same operation, number in container. The difference is that on line 7 x is a list, and on line 9 x is a dictionary.
Listing 6
import timeit
import random

for i in range(10000,1000001,20000):
    t = timeit.Timer("random.randrange(%d) in x"%i,
                     "from __main__ import random,x")
    x = list(range(i))
    lst_time = t.timeit(number=1000)
    x = {j:None for j in range(i)}
    d_time = t.timeit(number=1000)
    print("%d,%10.3f,%10.3f" % (i, lst_time, d_time))
Figure 4 summarizes the results of running Listing 6. You can see that the dictionary is consistently faster. For the smallest list size of 10,000 elements a dictionary is 89.4 times faster than a list. For the largest list size of 990,000 elements the dictionary is 11,603 times faster! You can also see that the time it takes for the contains operator on the list grows linearly with the size of the list. This verifies the assertion that the contains operator on a list is O(n). It can also be seen that the time for the contains operator on a dictionary is constant even as the dictionary size grows. In fact for a dictionary size of 10,000 the contains operation took 0.004 milliseconds and for the dictionary size of 990,000 it also took 0.004 milliseconds.
Figure 4: Comparing the in Operator for Python Lists and Dictionaries
Since Python is an evolving language, there are always changes going on behind the scenes. The latest information on the performance of Python data structures can be found on the Python website. As of this writing the Python wiki has a nice time complexity page that can be found at the Time Complexity Wiki.
Self Check
Q-4: Which of the above list operations is not O(1)?

Q-5: Which of the above dictionary operations is O(1)?


  • Algorithm analysis is an implementation-independent way of measuring an algorithm.
  • Big-O notation allows algorithms to be classified by their dominant process with respect to the size of the problem.

Key Terms

average caseBig-O notationbrute force
checking offexponentiallinear
log linearlogarithmicorder of magnitude
quadratictime complexityworst case

Discussion Questions

  1. Give the Big-O performance of the following code fragment:
    for i in range(n):
       for j in range(n):
          k = 2 + 2
  2. Give the Big-O performance of the following code fragment:
    for i in range(n):
         k = 2 + 2
  3. Give the Big-O performance of the following code fragment:
    i = n
    while i > 0:
       k = 2 + 2
       i = i // 2
  4. Give the Big-O performance of the following code fragment:
    for i in range(n):
       for j in range(n):
          for k in range(n):
             k = 2 + 2
  5. Give the Big-O performance of the following code fragment:
    i = n
    while i > 0:
       k = 2 + 2
       i = i // 2
  6. Give the Big-O performance of the following code fragment:
    for i in range(n):
       k = 2 + 2
    for j in range(n):
       k = 2 + 2
    for k in range(n):
       k = 2 + 2

Programming Exercises

  1. Devise an experiment to verify that the list index operator is O(1)
  2. Devise an experiment to verify that get item and set item are O(1) for dictionaries.
  3. Devise an experiment that compares the performance of the del operator on lists and dictionaries.
  4. Given a list of numbers in random order write a linear time algorithm to find the kth smallest number in the list. Explain why your algorithm is linear.
  5. Can you improve the algorithm from the previous problem to be O(nlog(n))?

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