Queues and Stacks

This is part of the Algorithms with Auntie Aja series.

This is part of my series on algorithms and data structures called “Algorithms with Auntie Aja”. This series provides an introduction data structures and algorithms for folks who never learned it or have forgotten it.

Algorithms with Auntie Aja: Stacks and Queues

I wanted to start this series with basic maze solving using breadth first search. That was one of the first applications (and algorithms) I learned in my CS courses and it has a soft spot in my heart. I realized, though, that understanding breadth-first search requires understanding queues. Likewise understanding depth-first search requires stacks. So I’ll be starting this series with queues and stacks.

Stacks

A stack is one of the simplest data structures. It is just like a pile of playing cards or a stack of plates. When you add something to the pile you put it on top of all the things that are already there. When you take something away you remove it from the top of the stack. Computer Science uses specialized terms for things like this though. So instead of add we say push, and instead of remove we say pop. Another term you may hear with regards to stacks is LIFO which stands for Last In First Out. With a stack the last thing you added in the first thing that is removed.

Push

A square moves down to stack on top of a set of squares.

Pop

A square moves up from a stack of squares.

Implementing a stack

Here are some basic tests for what a stack should be able to do:

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class TestStack < Minitest::Test
  def test_push_pop
    stack = Stack.new

    stack.push 3

    assert_equal 3, stack.pop
  end

  def test_multi_push_pop
    stack = Stack.new

    stack.push 3
    stack.push 5

    assert_equal 5, stack.pop
    assert_equal 3, stack.pop
  end

  def test_empty
    stack = Stack.new
    assert stack.empty?

    stack.push 3
    refute stack.empty?

    stack.pop
    assert stack.empty?
  end
end

A super simple stack implementation uses Ruby’s dynamic arrays and the built in push and pop methods. You might be more familiar with push as >> or shovel (although they are slightly different).

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class Stack
  def initialize
    @data = []
  end

  def push a
    @data.push a
  end

  def pop
    @data.pop
  end

  def empty?
    @data.empty?
  end
end

If you don’t want to use the built in methods here is another implementation that keeps track of the index of the last item put on the stack.

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class Stack
  def initialize
    @data = []
    @head = -1
  end

  def push a
    @data << a
    @head += 1
  end

  def pop
    result = @data[@head]
    @data.delete_at(@head)
    @head -= 1
    result
  end

  def empty?
    @head == -1
  end
end

Queues

You probably have experience with physical queues at amusement parks, concerts, or sports arenas. In the US, we usually call them lines. A queue is an ordered collection (or group) where we add things to one end (called the tail) and we remove things from the other end (called the head). Adding things to a queue is called enqueueing. Removing items from a queue is called dequeueing. This is also called FIFO for first in, first out.

Enqueue

There is a row of squares, a new square is added to the right of the set.

Dequeue

There is a row of squares. The left most square moves away and disappears.

Implementing a queue

Here are the tests for a basic queue implementation.

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class TestQueue < Minitest::Test
  def setup
    @queue = Queue.new
  end

  def test_enqueue_one_item
    @queue.enqueue 3
    assert_equal 3, @queue.dequeue
  end

  def test_equeue_and_dequeue
    @queue.enqueue 3
    @queue.enqueue 5

    assert_equal 3, @queue.dequeue
    assert_equal 5, @queue.dequeue
  end

  def test_empty?
    assert @queue.empty?
  end
end

Like with stack the Array class has some built in methods that make implementing a queue easy. shift removes the first item in the array and returns it. This is dequeue. << can be used to add items to the end of the queue. Ruby arrays also have unshift which adds an item to the front of an array. This isn’t needed to implement a queue or a stack. Here’s the basic queue implementation.

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class Queue
  def initialize
    @data = []
  end

  def enqueue item
    @data << item
  end

  def dequeue
    @data.shift
  end

  def empty?
    @data.empty?
  end
end

And here’s a version that doesn’t use the built in methods. It is very similar to the stack implementation above.

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class Queue
  def initialize
    @data = []
    @tail = -1
  end

  def enqueue item
    @data << item
    @tail += 1
  end

  def dequeue
    result = @data[0]
    @data.delete_at(0)
    @tail -= 1
    result
  end

  def empty?
    @tail == -1
  end
end

Conclusion and Bonus

These two data structures are the heart of Breadth-First Search and Depth-First Search. In turn those algorithms can be used to solve mazes, build minesweeper, and solve a large number of path-finding problems. The next post will explain those algorithms and show how they use these data structures.

If you want to play around with data structures more, try implementing a stack or a queue using a linked list instead of an array. If you get stuck try drawing out your linked list on paper and walking through a simple test case. It is what I do and it usually helps.