CmSc 250 Fundamentals of Computing III

Sorting Algorithms: QuickSort

  1. Features
  2. Basic idea
  3. Algorithm
  4. Code
  5. Implementation notes
  6. Complexity of Quicksort
  7. Conclusions

Learning Goals
Exam-like questions

  1. Features

    • Similar to mergesort - divide-and-conquer recursive algorithm
    • One of the fastest sorting algorithms
    • Average running time O(NlogN)
    • Worst-case running time O(N2)

  2. Basic idea

    1. Pick one element in the array, which will be the pivot.
    2. Make one pass through the array, called a partition step, re-arranging the entries so that:
        • the pivot is in its proper place.
        • entries smaller than the pivot are to the left of the pivot.
        • entries larger than the pivot are to its right.
    3. Recursively apply quicksort to the part of the array that is to the left of the pivot,
      and to the right part of the array.

    Here we don't have the merge step, at the end all the elements are in the proper order.

  3. Algorithm

  4. STEP 1. Choosing the pivot

    Choosing the pivot is an essential step.
    Depending on the pivot the algorithm may run very fast, or in quadric time.:

      1. Some fixed element: e.g. the first, the last, the one in the middle
      2. This is a bad choice - the pivot may turn to be the smallest or the largest element,
        then one of the partitions will be empty.

      3. Randomly chosen (by random generator ) - still a bad choice.
      4. The median of the array (if the array has N numbers, the median is the [N/2] largest number. This is difficult to compute - increases the complexity.
      5. The median-of-three choice: take the first, the last and the middle element.
        Choose the median of these three elements.


    8, 3, 25, 6, 10, 17, 1, 2, 18, 5

    The first element is 8, the middle - 10, the last - 5.
    The median of [8, 10, 5] is 8

    STEP 2. Partitioning

    Partitioning is illustrated on the above example.

    1. The first action is to get the pivot out of the way - swap it with the last element

    5, 3, 25, 6, 10, 17, 1, 2, 18, 8

    2. We want larger elements to go to the right and smaller elements to go to the left.

    Two "fingers" are used to scan the elements from left to right and from right to left:

    [5, 3, 25, 6, 10, 17, 1, 2, 18, 8]
     ^                              ^
     i                              j
    • While i is to the left of j, we move i right, skipping all the elements
      less than the pivot. If an element is found greater then the pivot, i stops
    • While j is to the right of i, we move j left, skipping all the elements
      greater than the pivot. If an element is found less then the pivot, j stops
    • When both i and j have stopped, the elements are swapped.
    • When i and j have crossed, no swap is performed, scanning stops,
      and the element pointed to by i is swapped with the pivot .

    In the example the first swapping will be between 25 and 2, the second between 10 and 1.

    3. Restore the pivot.

    After restoring the pivot we obtain the following partitioning into three groups:

    [5, 3, 2, 6, 1] [ 8 ] [10, 25, 18, 17]

    STEP 3. Recursively quicksort the left and the right parts

  5. Code

  6. Here is the code, that implements the partitioning.
    left points to the first element in the array currently processed, right points to the last element.

    if( left + 10 <= right)
    	int i = left, j = right - 1;
    	for ( ; ; )
    	    while (a[++i] < pivot  ) {}   // move the left finger
    	    while (pivot  < a[--j] ) {}	  // move the right finger
    	    if (i < j) swap (a[i],a[j]);  // swap	
                else  break;		  // break if fingers have crossed
           swap (a[I], a[right-1);		  // restore the pivot
           quicksort ( a, left, i-1);	  // call quicksort for the left part
           quicksort (a, i+1, right);	  // call quicksort for the left part
    else  insertionsort (a, left, right);

    If the elements are less than 10, quicksort is not very efficient.
    Instead insertion sort is used at the last phase of sorting.

    Click here to see the above example worked out in details


  7. Implementation notes

  8. Compare the two versions:

    	while (a[++i] < pivot) {}
    	while (pivot < a[--j]) {}
    	if (i < j) swap (a[i], a[j]);
    	else break;
    	while (a[i] < pivot) {i++;}
    	while (pivot < a[j] ) {j--;}
    	if (i < j) swap (a[i], a[j]);
    	else break;

    If we have an array of equal elements, the second code will never increment i or decrement j,
    and will do infinite swaps. i and j will never cross.

  9. Complexity of Quicksort

  10. Worst-case: O(N2)

    This happens when the pivot is the smallest (or the largest) element.
    Then one of the partitions is empty, and we repeat recursively the procedure for N-1 elements.

    Best-case O(NlogN) The best case is when the pivot is the median of the array,
    and then the left and the right part will have same size.

    There are logN partitions, and to obtain each partitions we do N comparisons
    (and not more than N/2 swaps). Hence the complexity is O(NlogN)

    Average-case - O(NlogN)

  11. Conclusions

  12. Advantages:

    • One of the fastest algorithms on average.
    • Does not need additional memory (the sorting takes place in the array - this is called in-place processing). Compare with mergesort: mergesort needs additional memory for merging.

    Disadvantages: The worst-case complexity is O(N2)


    Commercial applications use Quicksort - generally it runs fast, no additional memory,
    this compensates for the rare occasions when it runs with O(N2)

    Never use in applications which require guaranteed response time:

    • Life-critical (medical monitoring, life support in aircraft and space craft)
    • Mission-critical (monitoring and control in industrial and research plants
      handling dangerous materials, control for aircraft, defense, etc)
    unless you assume the worst-case response time.

    Comparison with mergesort:

    • mergesort guarantees O(NlogN) time, however it requires additional memory with size N.
    • quicksort does not require additional memory, however the speed is not quaranteed
    • usually mergesort is not used for main memory sorting, only for external memory sorting.

    So far, our best sorting algorithm has O(nlog n) performance: can we do any better?

    In general, the answer is no.

Learning Goals

  • Be able to explain how quicksort works and what its complexity is (worst-case, best-case, average case).
  • Be able to compare quicksort with heapsort and mergesort.
  • Be able to explain the advantages and disadvantages of quicksort,
    and its applications.

Exam-like questions

  1. Briefly describe the basic idea of quicksort.
  2. What is the complexity of quicksort?
  3. Compare quicksort with mergesort.
  4. What are the advantages and disadvantages of quicksort?
  5. Which applications are not suitable for quicksort and why?

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Created by Lydia Sinapova