Here’s an exercise: given a nice piece of code sitting in a file, how do you take that code and make it generic, in the style of an STL algorithm?

For our example, let’s consider an algorithm that isn’t (yet) in the STL. First, the problem it solves. Imagine that you have a set (in the mathematical sense, not the container sense) of numbers; discontiguous, unordered, and notionally taken from the positive integers, e.g.:

What we want to find is the smallest number that isn’t included in the set. For the example given above, the answer is 3. If the set is sorted, the solution is apparent; `adjacent_find`

will find the first gap for us. So one solution would be:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 | // assuming our set is in an array or vector std::sort(a.begin(), a.end()); auto p = std::adjacent_find( a.begin(), a.end(), [] (int x, int y) { return y-x > 1; }); int unused = a.back() + 1; if (p != a.end()) unused = *p + 1; |

The asymptotic complexity of this solution is of course O(n.log(n)), since `adjacent_find`

is linear and the complexity of `sort`

dominates. Is there a better solution? It’s not obvious at first glance, but there is a linear time solution to this problem. The key is a divide and conquer strategy using that workhorse of algorithms, `partition`

.

**The smallest unused number**

Let’s start by assuming that the minimum unused value is zero. We’ll choose a pivot value, `m`

, which is the assumed midpoint of the sequence – it doesn’t actually have to be present in the sequence, but we’re going to simply assume that it’s the middle value. Partitioning the sequence about the pivot, we’ll get a situation like this:

where the first value equal to or greater than `m`

is at position `p`

(which is returned by the call to `partition`

). If the lower half of the sequence has no gaps, `m`

will be equal to `p`

, and we can recurse on the top half of the sequence, setting the new minimum unused value to `m`

.

We know that `m`

cannot be less than `p`

since there cannot be any repetitions in the set. Therefore, if `m`

is not equal to `p`

, it must be greater – meaning that there is at least one gap below p, and that we can recurse on the bottom half of the sequence (keeping the minimum unused value as-is).

The base case of the algorithm is when the sequence we need to partition is empty. At that point we will have found the minimum unused value. Here’s the algorithm in code, with a bit of setup:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 | void min_unused() { // initialize RNG std::array<int, std::mt19937::state_size> seed_data; std::random_device r; std::generate_n(seed_data.data(), seed_data.size(), std::ref(r)); std::seed_seq seq(std::begin(seed_data), std::end(seed_data)); std::mt19937 gen(seq); // fill an array with ints, shuffle, discard some int a[10]; std::iota(&a[0], &a[10], 0); std::shuffle(&a[0], &a[10], gen); int first_idx = 0; int last_idx = 7; // arbitrary truncation for (int i = first_idx; i < last_idx; ++i) std::cout << a[i] << '\n'; // the algorithm int unused = 0; while (first_idx != last_idx) { int m = unused + (last_idx - first_idx + 1)/2; auto p = std::partition(&a[first_idx], &a[last_idx], [&] (int i) { return i < m; }); if (p - &a[first_idx] == m - unused) { unused = m; first_idx = p - &a[0]; } else { last_idx = p - &a[0]; } } std::cout << "Min unused: " << unused << '\n'; } |

You can also see the algorithm on wandbox. I leave it to you to convince yourself that the algorithm works. The asymptotic complexity of the algorithm is linear; at each stage we are running `partition`

, which is O(n), and then recursing, but only on one half of the sequence. Thus, the complexity is:

**From concrete to generic: first steps**

So, now we have an algorithm that works… for C-style arrays, and in one place only. Naturally we want to make it as generic as we can; what, then, are the steps to transform it into a decent algorithm that can be used just as easily as those in the STL? Perhaps you’re already thinking that this is overly concrete – but hey, this is a pedagogical device. Bear with me.

First, we can pull the algorithm out into a function. You’ve already seen the setup code, so you should be able to imagine the calling code from here on. While we’re at it, let’s change the index-based arithmetic to pointers. We can pass the sequence in to the function as an argument; for now, we may as well say that the sequence is a `vector`

, because `vector`

is always the right default choice! Our updated function:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 | // version 1: a function that takes a vector int min_unused(std::vector<int>& v) { int* first = &v[0]; int* last = first + v.size(); int unused = 0; while (first != last) { int m = unused + (last - first + 1)/2; auto p = std::partition(first, last, [&] (int i) { return i < m; }); if (p - first == m - unused) { unused = m; first = p; } else { last = p; } } return unused; } |

This is already looking a little clearer. Using pointers removes some of the syntactic noise and allows us to see what’s going on better. But, as you may already have thought, once we have `vector`

s, the next logical step is to consider using iterators. Let’s make that change now so that we can run the algorithm on a subrange within any `vector`

.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 | // version 2: use iterators, like a real algorithm template <typename It> inline int min_unused(It first, It last) { int unused = 0; while (first != last) { int m = unused + (last - first + 1)/2; auto p = std::partition(first, last, [&] (int i) { return i < m; }); if (p - first == m - unused) { unused = m; first = p; } else { last = p; } } return unused; } |

Now instead of using the `vector`

directly, now we can pass in `begin()`

and `end()`

, or any other valid range-delimiting pair of iterators. Note also that because `min_unused`

is now a function template, we added `inline`

on line 3, meaning that we can put it in a header without causing link errors when it’s instantiated the same way in multiple translation units.

This is a good start, but we can make it more generic yet! At the moment it’s still only working on sequences of `int`

s, so let’s fix that.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 | // version 3: infer the value_type template <typename It> inline typename std::iterator_traits<It>::value_type min_unused(It first, It last) { using T = typename std::iterator_traits<It>::value_type; T unused{}; while (first != last) { T m = unused + (last - first + 1)/2; auto p = std::partition(first, last, [&] (const T& i) { return i < m; }); if (p - first == m - unused) { unused = m; first = p; } else { last = p; } } return unused; } |

Here we’re using `iterator_traits`

to discover the `value_type`

of the iterators passed in. This works with anything that satisfies the Iterator concept. Consequently we’ve also now removed the `int`

s that were scattered through the code and instead are using `T`

s. Note that we are value-initializing the `T`

on line 6, which will properly zero-initialize integral types.

Since we aren’t actually calculating the initial value of `unused`

, we need not assume it to be zero; we could let the caller pass it in, and default the argument for convenience. In order to do that, we’ll pull out `T`

into a defaulted template argument.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 | // version 4: let the user supply the initial minimum template <typename It, typename T = typename std::iterator_traits<It>::value_type> inline T min_unused(It first, It last, T init = T{}) { while (first != last) { T m = init + (last - first + 1)/2; auto p = std::partition(first, last, [&] (const T& i) { return i < m; }); if (p - first == m - init) { init = m; first = p; } else { last = p; } } return init; } |

A caller-provided minimum might be quite handy – it’s common for zero to be a reserved value, or to have a non-zero starting point for values.

**Iterators again**

At this point, `min_unused`

is starting to look more like a real STL algorithm, at least superficially, but it’s not quite there yet. Lines 7 and 10 are doing plain arithmetic, which assumes that the iterators passed in support that. A fundamental concept in the STL is the idea of iterator categories: concepts which define operations available on different kinds of iterators. Not all iterators support random access, and any time we are writing a generic algorithm, we had better use the appropriate functions to manipulate iterators rather than assuming valid operations:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 | // version 5: handle iterator arithmetic generically template <typename It, typename T = typename std::iterator_traits<It>::value_type> inline T min_unused(It first, It last, T init = T{}) { while (first != last) { T m = init + (std::distance(first, last)+1)/2; auto p = std::partition(first, last, [&] (const T& i) { return i < m; }); if (std::distance(first, p) == m - init) { init = m; first = p; } else { last = p; } } return init; } |

In the code above, the arithmetic on lines 7 and 10 has been replaced with calls to distance. This is a key change! Now we are no longer limited to random access iterators like those of `vector`

or just plain pointers. Our algorithm now works on all kinds of iterators, but which ones exactly? It behooves us to define exactly what we require of these iterators being used as our arguments. Until C++ has Concepts, we can’t enforce this, but we *can* document it, typically by calling the template argument something more descriptive than ‘`It`

‘. Looking at the references for `distance`

and `partition`

, we find that a forward iterator is required.

For many algorithms in the STL, there are more efficient versions available for stronger iterator categories. A good example is `partition`

itself: with just a forward iterator, it may do N swaps, but with a bidirectional iterator, it need only perform, at most, N/2 swaps. Wherever we want to use different algorithms for different iterator categories, overloading with tag dispatch is a common technique; the STL provides iterator tag types for use as arguments to these overloads.

But with `min_unused`

, we don’t have any differences in the top level algorithm that would give us greater efficiency based on iterator category. Both `distance`

and `partition`

do that work themselves.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 | // version 6: document the relaxed iterator category template <typename ForwardIt, typename T = typename std::iterator_traits<ForwardIt>::value_type> inline T min_unused(ForwardIt first, ForwardIt last, T init = T{}) { while (first != last) { T m = init + (std::distance(first, last)+1)/2; auto p = std::partition(first, last, [&] (const T& i) { return i < m; }); if (std::distance(first, p) == m - init) { init = m; first = p; } else { last = p; } } return init; } |

**Strength reduction**

Now is also a good time to perform some manual strength reduction on our code, making sure that each operation used is the weakest option to do the job. This doesn’t really apply to any operation instances in `min_unused`

, but in practical terms it typically means avoiding postfix increment and decrement. If the algorithm implements more than trivial mathematics it may also require quite a bit of decomposition to discover all potential efficiencies and opportunities to eliminate operations. For more examples, I recommend watching any and all of Alex Stepanov’s excellent series of video lectures.

We do have one operation in this algorithm that stands out: on line 7 there is a divide by 2. Twenty years ago, I might have converted this to a shift, but in my opinion the divide is clearer to read, and these days there is no competitive compiler in the world that won’t do this trivial strength reduction. According to my experiments with the Compiler Explorer, MSVC and GCC do it even without optimization.

**STL-ready?**

So there we have it. Our algorithm is looking pretty good now by my reckoning – appropriately generic and, overall, a good addition to my toolkit.

Remaining are just a couple of final considerations. The first is ranges: the Ranges TS will change the STL massively, providing for new algorithms and changes to existing ones. A specific consequence of ranges is that begin and end iterators need not be the same type any more; how that may affect this algorithm I leave as an exercise to the reader.

**Even more generic?**

The other consideration takes us further still down the path of making our algorithm as generic as possible. A useful technique for discovering the constraints on types is to print out the code in question and use markers to highlight variables that interact with each other in the same colour. This can reveal which variables interact as well as which ones are entirely disjoint in usage – a big help in determining how they should be made into template parameters. In general, examining how variables interact can be a fruitful exercise.

Thinking about how the variables are used in our case, we see (on line 7) that we need the ability to add the result of `distance`

to `T`

, and (on line 10) that the difference between `T`

s is comparable to the result of `distance`

. We are used to thinking about addition and subtraction on integers, where they are closed operations (i.e. adding two integers or subtracting two integers gives you another integer), but there is another possibility. And in fact, there is already a good example of it in the STL.

**Arithmetic the chrono way**

It is possible for the type produced by subtraction on `T`

s to be something other than `T`

. This is what happens with `chrono`

, with `time_point`

and `duration`

. Subtracting two `time_point`

s yields a `duration`

. It is meaningless – and, therefore, illegal – to add two `time_point`

s, but `duration`

s may be added both to themselves and to `time_point`

s.

In mathematical language, `chrono`

models a one-dimensional affine space. (Thanks to GaÅ¡per AÅ¾man for that particular insight!)

This is also the case with `min_unused`

: `T`

is our `time_point`

equivalent, and the result of `distance`

is our `duration`

equivalent, suggesting that we can pull out the difference type as a template parameter:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 | template <typename ForwardIt, typename T = typename std::iterator_traits<ForwardIt>::value_type, typename DiffT = typename std::iterator_traits<ForwardIt>::difference_type> inline T min_unused(ForwardIt first, ForwardIt last, T init = T{}) { while (first != last) { T m = init + DiffT{(std::distance(first, last)+1)/2}; auto p = std::partition(first, last, [&] (const T& i) { return i < m; }); if (DiffT{std::distance(first, p)} == m - init) { init = m; first = p; } else { last = p; } } return init; } |

The advantage here is that we can now use `min_unused`

to deal with any code that has different value and difference types, like `chrono`

:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 | // a vector of time_points, 1s apart constexpr auto VECTOR_SIZE = 10; std::vector<std::chrono::system_clock::time_point> v; auto start_time = std::chrono::system_clock::time_point{}; std::generate_n(std::back_inserter(v), VECTOR_SIZE, [&] () { auto t = start_time; start_time += 1s; return t; }); std::shuffle(v.begin(), v.end(), gen); v.resize(3*VECTOR_SIZE/4); for (auto i : v) std::cout << std::chrono::duration_cast<std::chrono::seconds>(i.time_since_epoch()).count() << '\n'; // we can now find the minimum time_point not present auto u = min_unused< decltype(v.begin()), decltype(start_time), std::chrono::seconds>( v.begin(), v.end()); cout << "Min unused: " << std::chrono::duration_cast<std::chrono::seconds>(u.time_since_epoch()).count() << '\n'; |

See this code on wandbox.

This concludes our exercise in developing a generic algorithm – at least, for now. Good luck with your own experiments!