Make deletions in arrays blazingly fast

Delete items in arrays faster than in linked lists

Make deletions in arrays blazingly fast

If we want to delete an item from an array at a random position without changing the order of items in the array, the time complexity of such operation would be linear, O(N) for traversal + additional O(N) for shifting all the items after the deleted position backward.

A simple solution to avoid the shifts would be to mark the items as deleted(tomb_stone) instead of actually removing them. This operation is as simple as replacing the item with another item of the same type, the one you would not expect to be present in your scenario. For example, if you are holding order_ids as type int, you wouldn't use 0 as id so choose 0 as the tomb_stone. With this single optimization, we made deletion in arrays orders of magnitudes faster than linked lists deletion even though both have the same time complexity ( traversal O(N) + deletion O(1) ). This is because arrays store items compactly and contiguously which means lots of cache hits hence blazingly fast.

With the above approach, there is one issue, memory fragmentation. If we keep deleted items forever, memory consumed by those unused items is wasted; the compactness of the data structure is reduced which in turn increases cache misses, impacting performance over time.

Here is how we solve the above issue problem by applying the mark and sweep algorithm which is used by several garbage collectors. I will provide a basic implementation of that below.

# setup
item_stream = list(range(1,10_001)) # possibly new items will be added to the stream.
tomb_stone = 0 # any value that is not expected in the dynamic array.
tomb_stone_count = 0
sweep_run_size = len(item_stream)//2 # ideally choose same order of magnitude as item_stream

# mimicing the receiving of the item to be processed
def request_item_generator(n):
    num = 1  # Start with the first odd number
    while num <= n:  # Generate n odd numbers
        yield num
        num += 2

item_generator = request_item_generator(len(item_stream))
while tomb_stone_count < sweep_run_size:
    item = next(item_generator)
# -------------------------------------------------------------
# mark
    item_index = item_stream.index(item)
    item_stream[item_index] = tomb_stone
    tomb_stone_count += 1
    # do some processing

# sweep
# possibly parallel to main thread to minimize latency.
if tomb_stone_count >= sweep_run_size:
    new_item_stream = [item for item in item_stream if item != tomb_stone]
    # pause appending of items to the dynamic array, add them into a temp buffer.
    item_stream = new_item_stream

There are two phases in the algorithm,
Mark phase: we have already discussed this above.
Sweep phase: The implementation goes like this, when half of the existing items are marked as deleted, we will copy all the non-marked items into a new array and discard the tomb_stones. If you think about it, this is exactly the inverse of how dynamic arrays grow efficiently by making append operation O(1) amortized. Here we are shrinking the array while achieving the deletion time complexity of O(1) amortized, all while maintaining all the benefits of mark phase optimization with only a little penalty.

Optimization for Sweep Phase: You can remove deleted items and shift the remaining items in-place instead of requesting a new memory block in the heap for the new array via a sys-call, further improving the performance.
Tuning Sweep Threshold: The sweep threshold (when to compact the array) can be tuned as a percentage of the array size, allowing for experimentation to find the best-performing configuration.

This is how we get significant speedup on the deletion of items in dynamic arrays/ arrays over linked lists.