When Does Sorting Matter

Roel M. Hogervorst


I was working on an implementation of SPRITE (Sample Parameter Reconstruction via Iterative TEchniques) and looking into possible speedups of the process.

In general I think there are 2 ways to speed up processes:

Sprite is a tool to recreate underlying data when you only have the summary statistics. The sprite process creates a vector of integers of the size as the real sample size and tweaks it by incrementing and or decrementing values in that vector.

One of the possible speedups would be to use sorting. To identify candidate values in the vector the process does a lot of vector operations which are quite fast, but that does mean that for every operation the process needs to check every value in the vector for a condition (is it bigger than x, is it the max, etc.).

Theoretically, if the vector was sorted, the process would be quicker (if this value is bigger, than all values after are also, etc.). But the sorting process takes time too. Is the time win for these operations enough for the extra cost of sorting the vector?

Of course! I hear you think. But most of the experiments in social and medical sciences, the primary target for this tool, are smaller than 1000 samples.

Let’s simulate:

library(tidyverse) # I want dplyr, ggplot2 and some string manipulation too
── Attaching packages ─────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────── tidyverse 1.3.0 ──
✓ ggplot2 3.3.0     ✓ purrr   0.3.3
✓ tibble  3.0.0     ✓ dplyr   0.8.5
✓ tidyr   1.0.2     ✓ stringr 1.4.0
✓ readr   1.3.1     ✓ forcats 0.5.0
── Conflicts ────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────── tidyverse_conflicts() ──
x dplyr::filter() masks stats::filter()
x dplyr::lag()    masks stats::lag()

Some functions:

# create unsorted integer representation. of length 10^ c(1, 2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9)
# 9 is already too much!
# more doesn't matter for this purpose.
create_int_vector_length_n <- function(n){
    scale_max = 31L  # using int here makes it go from 5someting to 4somthing.
    scale_min = 1L
    mean = 15
    pmax(pmin(as.integer(runif(n) * 2 * mean), scale_max), scale_min)
# additive cost of sorting
create_and_sort_n<- function(n){
    vec <- create_int_vector_length_n(n)
#### actions (it is really not more sophisticated than this)
# smaller than max
# smaller than value
# duplicate
# not equal to a value
execute_functions <- function(vec){
    endresult = !duplicated(vec) & !(vec %in% c(2,3)) & vec < 11

Then we can check the cost of sorting.

l1= create_int_vector_length_n(10^1)
l2= create_int_vector_length_n(10^2)
l3= create_int_vector_length_n(10^3)
l4= create_int_vector_length_n(10^4)
l5= create_int_vector_length_n(10^5)
l6= create_int_vector_length_n(10^6)

sorting_only <- microbenchmark(
    l1=sort(l1), l2=sort(l2),
    l3= sort(l3), l4 = sort(l4), l5 = sort(l5), l6= sort(l6)
ggplot2::autoplot(sorting_only) + ggtitle("Integer vector sorting")
Coordinate system already present. Adding new coordinate system, which will replace the existing one.

Yes this is measured in microseconds, sorting an integer vector of length 1000 takes at least 0.1 second.

How long does it take to create a vector?

creation <- microbenchmark(
    l1= create_int_vector_length_n(10^1), l2= create_int_vector_length_n(10^2),
    l3= create_int_vector_length_n(10^3), l4= create_int_vector_length_n(10^4),
    l5= create_int_vector_length_n(10^5), l6= create_int_vector_length_n(10^6)
ggplot2::autoplot(creation)+ggtitle("vector creation time")
Coordinate system already present. Adding new coordinate system, which will replace the existing one.

Creation takes about as much time for 1000 to 10.000 samples.

So are the functions faster on sorted data?

l1_sorted <- sort(l1)
l2_sorted <- sort(l2)
l3_sorted <- sort(l3)
l4_sorted <- sort(l4)
l5_sorted <- sort(l5)
l6_sorted <- sort(l6)
sort_vs_unsorted <- microbenchmark(
    l1_sort = execute_functions(l1_sorted),
    l2_sort = execute_functions(l2_sorted),
    l3= execute_functions(l3),
    l3_sort = execute_functions(l3_sorted),
    l4= execute_functions(l4),
    l4_sort = execute_functions(l4_sorted),
    l5= execute_functions(l5),
    l5_sort = execute_functions(l5_sorted),
    l6= execute_functions(l6),
    l6_sort = execute_functions(l6_sorted)
    labs(title="Sorting does not seem to help us")
Coordinate system already present. Adding new coordinate system, which will replace the existing one.

Let’s do a more fair comparison

sort_and_execute_functions<- function(vec){
    vec <- sort(vec)
    endresult <- execute_functions(vec)
comparison <- microbenchmark(
    l1 = execute_functions(l1),
    l1_s = sort_and_execute_functions(l1),
    l2 = execute_functions(l2),
    l2_s = sort_and_execute_functions(l2),
    l3 = execute_functions(l3),
    l3_s = sort_and_execute_functions(l3),
    l4 = execute_functions(l4),
    l4_s = sort_and_execute_functions(l4),
    l5 = execute_functions(l5),
    l5_s = sort_and_execute_functions(l5)
autoplot(comparison) + ggtitle("Sorting only slows down")
Coordinate system already present. Adding new coordinate system, which will replace the existing one.

There you have it. I decided not to sort.