Performance Evaluation of Linked Lists

It’s common for even the best programmers to make simple mistakes. To guard against this, the Android codebase at PSPDFKit uses Error Prone, a tool released by Google, to augment the compiler’s type analysis and catch mistakes before they either cost us time or end up as bugs in production.

Today we’ll delve into the performance evaluation of LinkedLists, a controversial topic among many experienced developers, and we’ll try to understand why using LinkedLists triggers a warning in the Error Prone report.

I’ll begin by quoting part of the explanation provided from Error Prone:

LinkedList almost never out-performs ArrayList or ArrayDeque. If you are using LinkedList as a list, prefer ArrayList. If you are using LinkedList as a stack or queue/deque, prefer ArrayDeque.

Migration gotcha: LinkedList permits null elements; ArrayDeque rejects them. The documentation for Deque strongly discourages users from inserting null, even into implementations that permit it. So, if you are using a LinkedList for this purpose, you should likely stop, and you will need to stop in order to migrate to ArrayDeque.”

The statement above makes it loud and clear that LinkedList should be replaced by ArrayList or ArrayDeque and that null elements should be avoided. But at the same time, it creates more questions than answers: It provides neither tangible data nor a deep explanation for understanding why LinkedLists almost never outperform ArrayLists or ArrayDeques. It also does not explain the rare edge cases where using LinkedLists might be more convenient. This is a great example of how writing good benchmark tests can shed some light on the matter and provide some actual numbers about the performance of our implementation.

Let the Benchmarks Begin

Even if it’s the best way to collect some real data about the performance of your code, benchmarking in Java is a delicate process that requires some finesse: The JVM’s JIT can easily invalidate benchmark results, and one of the most common examples is that of dead code elimination. A full discussion of these issues is provided in this article from Oracle. An easy solution for writing benchmarks correctly is to use JMH, the Java (Micro)benchmark Harness. It tries very hard to prevent the JIT from invalidating your benchmark, and it’s also quite rigorous in measuring and collecting data.

Another issue comes up with System.nanoTime(): While it reports its results in units of nanoseconds, it’s not necessarily precise enough to measure things with a granularity of nanoseconds. The reasons are quite complex, but for a full explanation of the issues with nanoTime(), see Nanotrusting the Nanotime, an article by the Oracle performance guru Aleksey Shipilëv, who is also the author of JMH. The upshot is that you can’t use nanoTime() to measure an operation that runs very quickly. An easy test to verify this can be done by measuring very quick operations: A normal JVM benchmark will report results of around 36-38 ns, whereas the JMH-reported results will be around 3 ns.

The last issue is with the ArrayList itself: If not specified, the initial length is 10. When the limit is reached, there is a 50 percent growth policy, the cost of which will affect the results.

Set Up the Project

An interesting starting point can be found in the GitHub article Ken Fogel’s collections benchmarks rewritten in JMH. To correctly set up the project and learn more about JMH, check out this introduction to JMH. JMH is Maven-based, but luckily, a good Samaritan decided to implement a Gradle plugin.

JMH Options

The suggested options to run the benchmark tests are -wi 5 -i 5 -f 1. In order to translate the options into Gradle options, just type the following:

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jmh {
    //Options
}
Warmup Iterations
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-wi <int>                   Number of warmup iterations to do. Warmup iterations
                            are not counted toward the benchmark score.

Suggested 5 default 20 Gradle option: warmupIterations = 5

Measurement Iterations
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-i <int>                    Number of measurement iterations to do. Measurement
                            iterations are counted toward the benchmark score.

Suggested 5 default 20 Gradle option: iterations = 5

Forks
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5
-f <int>                    How many times to fork a single benchmark. Use `0` to
                            disable forking altogether. Warning: Disabling
                            forking may have a detrimental impact on benchmark
                            and infrastructure reliability, so you might want
                            to use a different warmup mode instead.

Suggested 1 default 10 Gradle options: fork = 1

Run Project

To run the project, type ./gradlew jhm.

The actual results are as follows:

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Benchmark                        (SIZE)  Mode  Cnt      Score     Error  Units
SequenceTests.AD_accessFirst      10000  avgt    5      2.761 ±   0.162  ns/op
SequenceTests.AD_accessLast       10000  avgt    5      3.324 ±   0.033  ns/op
SequenceTests.AD_editFirst        10000  avgt    5      4.556 ±   0.037  ns/op
SequenceTests.AD_editLast         10000  avgt    5      5.422 ±   0.062  ns/op
SequenceTests.AL_accessFirst      10000  avgt    5      2.626 ±   0.029  ns/op
SequenceTests.AL_accessLast       10000  avgt    5      2.802 ±   0.028  ns/op
SequenceTests.AL_accessMiddle     10000  avgt    5      2.808 ±   0.027  ns/op
SequenceTests.AL_editFirst        10000  avgt    5    929.768 ±   7.320  ns/op
SequenceTests.AL_editLast         10000  avgt    5     13.974 ±   0.125  ns/op
SequenceTests.AL_editMiddle       10000  avgt    5    429.727 ±   3.960  ns/op
SequenceTests.LL_accessFirst      10000  avgt    5      2.558 ±   0.013  ns/op
SequenceTests.LL_accessLast       10000  avgt    5      2.887 ±   0.021  ns/op
SequenceTests.LL_accessMiddle     10000  avgt    5   6267.620 ±  85.089  ns/op
SequenceTests.LL_editFirst        10000  avgt    5      7.545 ±   0.113  ns/op
SequenceTests.LL_editLast         10000  avgt    5     11.725 ±   0.068  ns/op
SequenceTests.LL_editMiddleIndx   10000  avgt    5  13235.446 ± 210.193  ns/op
SequenceTests.LL_editMiddleIter   10000  avgt    5   6544.322 ± 491.544  ns/op

Here is a better visual of the report.

The result is that accessing the middle of an ArrayList is faster than accessing the middle of a LinkedList to an order of 2,000, and editing an element in the middle is faster on an ArrayList to an order of 15.

Sorting

LinkedList implements the List interface, so it can be sorted using Collection.sort(). This method uses an efficient strategy to handle this sorting scenario. It first copies the contents of LinkedList to an array, and then it sorts the array and copies it back. So it’s as efficient as sorting an ArrayList; what’s more taxing is the final addition to the original data structure. We can dive in to the source code to better comprehend the algorithm used.

The source code of ArrayList#sort(Comparator<? super E>) is:

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public void sort(Comparator<? super E> c) {
    final int expectedModCount = modCount;
    Arrays.sort((E[]) elementData, 0, size, c);
    if (modCount != expectedModCount) {
        throw new ConcurrentModificationException();
    }
    modCount++;
}

The main operation here is Arrays.sort((E[]) elementData, 0, size, c), which sorts all the ElementData according to the comparator c.

The source code of LinkedList#sort(Comparator<? super E>) instead contains one more step:

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default void sort(Comparator<? super E> c) {
    Object[] a = this.toArray();
    Arrays.sort(a, (Comparator) c);
    ListIterator<E> i = this.listIterator();
    for (Object e : a) {        // <-- Iterate all the elements and copy them back to their original data structure.
        i.next();
        i.set((E) e);
    }
}

After sorting the elements, they are copied back into the original data structure. So if we end up comparing the time of the actual sort, we’re going to have an exact match because we’d run the same method on the same data structure: Arrays#sort(T[], Comparator<? super T>):

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Benchmark                      (initialSize)  Mode  Cnt      Score      Error  Units
SortTests.AL_sortingNewArray             10  avgt    5     88.072 ±     1.725  ns/op
SortTests.LL_sortingNewArray             10  avgt    5     97.546 ±     2.254  ns/op

SortTests.AL_sortingNewArray            100  avgt    5   1898.153 ±   148.661  ns/op
SortTests.LL_sortingNewArray            100  avgt    5   1905.910 ±    50.959  ns/op

SortTests.AL_sortingNewArray           1000  avgt    5  75611.107 ± 23686.507  ns/op
SortTests.LL_sortingNewArray           1000  avgt    5  67038.743 ±  1312.114  ns/op

The small delta that introduces the slight difference of around 8 ns is due to how ArrayList and LinkedList implement the method toArray(), but we can conclude that the amount of time used is almost the same.

ArrayList Initial Size

To avoid performance degradation, the initial size of the ArrayList plays an important role. Here is a benchmark about ArrayList creation with different initial sizes:

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Benchmark                      (initialSize)  Mode  Cnt      Score      Error  Units
ArrayListCreation.AL_creation             10  avgt    5     15.058 ±    1.150  ns/op
ArrayListCreation.AL_creation            100  avgt    5     43.116 ±    1.408  ns/op
ArrayListCreation.AL_creation            500  avgt    5    175.632 ±    5.606  ns/op
ArrayListCreation.AL_creation           1000  avgt    5    251.985 ±   10.710  ns/op
ArrayListCreation.AL_creation          10000  avgt    5   1789.884 ±  244.084  ns/op
ArrayListCreation.AL_creation         100000  avgt    5  19106.937 ± 2898.476  ns/op

OrderedSet Comparison

Now let’s introduce two implementations of the data type OrderedSet.

The first extends ArrayList:

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/**
 * This is a modification of a `{@link ArrayList}`, which removes existing copies of an item in the data structure
 * before adding it.
 */
public class OrderedSet<E> extends ArrayList<E> implements Cloneable, Serializable {
    public OrderedSet(@IntRange(from = 0) int initialCapacity) {
        super(initialCapacity);
    }

    public OrderedSet() {
        super();
    }

    @Override
    public boolean add(E object) {
        super.remove(object);
        return super.add(object);
    }
}

And the second extends LinkedList:

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/**
 * This is a modification of a `{@link LinkedList}`, which removes existing copies of an item in the data structure
 * before adding it.
 */
public class OrderedSet<E> extends LinkedList<E> implements Cloneable, Serializable {
    public OrderedSet() {
        super();
    }

    @Override
    public boolean add(E object) {
        super.remove(object);
        return super.add(object);
    }
}

Adding these data types to our JMH project produces the following benchmark with two different OrderedSet implementations:

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Benchmark                                     (SIZE)  Mode  Cnt   Score   Error  Units
OrderedSetTests.OrderedSetArrayListAddLast       500  avgt    5   6.567 ± 0.103  ns/op
OrderedSetTests.OrderedSetArrayListEditLast      500  avgt    5  12.158 ± 1.272  ns/op
OrderedSetTests.OrderedSetLinkedListAddLast      500  avgt    5   9.994 ± 0.408  ns/op
OrderedSetTests.OrderedSetLinkedListEditLast     500  avgt    5  21.118 ± 2.380  ns/op

Conclusion

LinkedList<E> allows for constant-time insertions or removals, but only using iterators. In other words, you can walk the list forward or backward, but finding a position in the list takes time proportional to the size of the list. The Java documentation says that “operations that index into the list will traverse the list from the beginning or the end, whichever is closer,” so the methods are O(n), with n/4 steps on average, though O(1) for index = 0

OrderedSet extending ArrayList with a finely tuned value as the initial size proved to be faster for adding and editing elements.

The benchmark project with all the tests presented above is available on GitHub in the PSPDFKit-labs section.

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