Hashing - The Greatest Idea In Programming
Written by Mike James   
Thursday, 03 September 2020
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Hashing - The Greatest Idea In Programming


Now that we have a concrete example to look at you might begin to see what the practical problems referred to earlier are. In particular where does our hashing function suggest that we store the phone number for JAMESON?

Yes you're absolutely right in exactly the same place that we store the phone number for JAMES. Clearly how you design the hashing function is all important. Indeed it isn't difficult to show that no matter how much effort you put into a hashing function collisions such as the one typified by JAMES and JAMESON will happen.

A good hashing function will tend to scatter the data values over the storage table as much as possible - hence another name for the technique is scatter storage - but collisions will still occur.

There are two main approaches to dealing with collisions - chaining and open addressing.

Chaining is simply an adaptation of the overflow method described earlier. If you compute the hash function and find the location already occupied then the second item to get there is stored in an overflow table and a pointer to it is stored along with the item in the main table. If more collisions occur the extra data items are stored in the overflow table and pointers are set to form a chain of items that all have the same hash value.

Now when you look for, or store, an item you may have to perform a linear search of a chained list but as long there aren't too many collisions this shouldn't take much time. The real problem with chaining is the extra storage needed to implement the pointers.

This brings us to the alternative - open addressing. The simplest form of open addressing is the interestingly named `linear probe'. If you go to store an item in the table and find that the location indicated by the hash function is already occupied then search down the table for the first free location and store the item there. This results in data items with the same hash value being stored close to each other in the table.

When you are looking for a name using this scheme you now compute the hash function and inspect sequential locations in the table until you either find what you are looking for or the first blank entry. The table is regarded as circular, i.e. the next location after the last is the first.

Obviously if the table is getting near full then hashing with a linear probe gets to look very like a simple linear search of an unsorted table! In practice linear probing works very well as long as the table is less than 75% full.

An alternative to linear probing is double hashing. In linear probing the locations searched are given by hash(name)+n where n is 0,1,2,3.. The problem with linear probing is that the initial hashing function `scatters' the data into the table but after that the linear stepping through the table groups the data together. It more like `blobbing' the data into the table rather than scattering it!

A better method would be to use two hash functions - one for the initial location in the table and the second to scatter the collisions a little. That is, use hash(name)+hash2(name) where n is 0,1,2,3.. and hash2 is a second hashing function. With a careful choice of the second hash function you can make savings in the time taken to find a data item.

At this point I could start into a description of what makes a good second hash function, but I have to admit that unless memory is in very short supply it is usually simpler to make the table bigger using a linear probe than use double hashing. The point is that the efficiency of hashing is most affected by how full the table is and as long as the table is only around 50% used then there isn't much to be gained by using the more complicated double hashing.

What Makes A Good Hash Function

Most good hashing functions work by computing the remainder after dividing by the table size N.

This always gives a value between 0 and N-1 so it suitable but if N is a prime number then it is also excellent at scattering the data round the table. Of course, if you have a text value that you want to hash you first have to convert it into a suitable numeric value and a simple scheme like the one in the example will not do.

You need to produce a different numeric value for every possible text value and adding together the ASCII codes of the first two letters clearly doesn't work. A better method is to weight each of the ASCII codes by the position of the letter by multiplying by 1 for the first character, 10 for the second, 100 for the third and so on.. before adding them up to give a single value.

In general building a really good hash function is difficult and in most cases you need to find one that has good properties and has been well tested. 

This brings us to the question of what makes a good hash function?

In general the set of things that you want to apply a hash function to is big, very big, but the set of results that you want to get back from the hash function is much smaller. That is, in hash(x)=y the range of x is usually large and the range of y is much smaller. For example, you might have x in the set of all possible 10-character words and y in the range 0 to 1023. The idea is that not all of the very large number of 10-character words will actually occur - usually less than the 1024 storage locations you might have set aside. You want the hash function to map the input words onto the 1024 possible values as evenly as possible - this minimizes the probability of a collision.

So a good hash function maps its input to its output in a way that is as unpredictable as possible i.e. in simple terms it is a repeatable random looking function.

Digest Hashing

The original purpose of computing a hash was to find a way to store and retrieve data, but hashes have many other uses. A hash serves as a label as well as an address for an item of data.

For example, suppose I send you a file of important data and I also tell you that


is 1234 where 1234 is standing in for a very large number in practice. Now suppose you received the file and stored it as data'. Then if you compute the same hash function:


and discover that it is 2342 you know that the data has been changed after it was sent.  

So a hash can be used to detect changes in the data. Now consider for a moment what you can conclude if the hash of the data had worked out to 1234? 

You can only conclude that there is a high probability that nothing has changed in the data. The reason is that the hash value acts as a digest of the data and more than one set of data will give you the same digest - i.e. there will be collisions. So getting the same digest simply means that the data is OK apart from any changes that might give you the same digest value. The key issue here is what is the probability that changing the data is going to result in the same digest value and the answer is usually that it is very small. 

In other words, you are very likely to detect any change to the data. 

This is the reason you often see an MD5 hash value quoted for downloads. MD5 is a cryptographic, i.e. very high quality, hash function which is used to compute a digest which you can use to check for errors. 

Interestingly MD5 is not a good cryptographic hash function. There are ways of finding collisions fairly quickly and this could be used to make changes that leave the digest unchanged.

With a little modification, the idea of a digest hash can be made secure so that both the data and the digest can be securely sent to someone, who can in turn use the digest to verify the data and who the data was sent by. This is the basis of a digital signature. 

Last Updated ( Thursday, 03 September 2020 )