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- Derick Rethans 0:18
Hi, I’m Derick, and this is PHP internals news, a weekly podcast dedicated to demystifying the development of the PHP language. This is Episode 61. Today I’m talking with Nikita Popov about a rather small RFC that he’s proposing called stable sorting. Hello Nikita, how are you this morning?
- Nikita 0:36
Hey, Derick, I’m great. How are you?
- Derick Rethans 0:38
Not too bad myself. Let’s jump straight in here. The title of the RFC is stable sorting, what does that mean, what is stable sorting, or what is sorting stability?
- Nikita 0:48
Sorting stability refers to the behaviour of the sort when it comes to equal elements. And equal share means that we sort comparison function. For example, the one you pass to usort says the elements are equal, but there is still some way to distinguish them. For example, if you’re sorting some objects, to take the example from the RFC, we have an array with users, and users have an age, and we use usort to only sort the users by age. Then according to the comparison callback all users with the same age are equal. But of course, the user also has other fields on which we can distinguish it. And the question is now in what order will equal elements appear. If we have a stable sort, then they will appear in the order they were originally in. So it’s something not going to change.
- Derick Rethans 1:41
And that is not what PHP sorting mechanism currently does?
- Nikita 1:44
Right. PHP currently uses an unstable sort, which means that the order is simply unspecified. It will be deterministic. I mean if you take the same input array and sort it, then every time we will get the same result. But there is no well specified order or relative order of elements. There’s just some order. The reason why we have this behaviour is that well there are, I would say, two, the only two sorting algorithms. There is merge sort. Which is a guaranteed n log n sort that the stable, but has the disadvantage that that requires additional memory to perform the merge step. The other side there is a quicksort, which is an average case n log n sorting algorithm and is unstable, but does not require any additional memory. And in practice, everyone uses one of these algorithms, usually with a couple of extensions on sort of merge sort. Nowadays we use timsort, but which is still based on the same underlying principle, and for quicksort, we have sort which is better than quicksort, which tries to avoid some of the bad worst case performance which quicksort can have. PHP currently uses us a quicksort, which means that our sorting results are unstable.
- Derick Rethans 3:07
Okay, and this RFC suggesting to change that. How would you do that? How would you modify quicksort to make it stable?
- Nikita 3:15
Two ways. One is to just change the sorting algorithm. So as I mentioned, the really popular stable sorting is timsort, which is used by Python by Java and probably lots of other languages at this point. And the other possibility is to stick with an unstable source. So to stick with quicksort, but to artificially enforce that the comparison function does not have, does not report equal elements that a
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