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In computing, a persistent data structure is a data structure which always preserves the previous version of itself when it is modified; such data structures are effectively immutable, as their operations do not (visibly) update the structure in-place, but instead always yield a new updated structure. A persistent data structure is not a data structure committed to persistent storage, such as a disk; this is a different and unrelated sense of the word "persistent."

A data structure is partially persistent if all versions can be accessed but only the newest version can be modified. The data structure is fully persistent if every version can be both accessed and modified. If there is also a meld or merge operation that can create a new version from two previous versions, the data structure is called confluently persistent. Structures that are not persistent are called ephemeral.

These types of data structures are particularly common in logical and functional programming, and in a purely functional program all data is immutable, so all data structures are automatically fully persistent. Persistent data structures can also be created using in-place updating of data and these may, in general, use less time or storage space than their purely functional counterparts.

While persistence can be achieved by simple copying, this is inefficient in time and space, because most operations make only small changes to a data structure. A better method is to exploit the similarity between the new and old versions to share structure between them, such as using the same subtree in a number of tree structures. However, because it rapidly becomes infeasible to determine how many previous versions share which parts of the structure, and because it is often desirable to discard old versions, this necessitates an environment with garbage collection.

Perhaps the simplest persistent data structure is the singly-linked list or cons-based list, a simple list of objects formed by each carrying a reference to the next in the list. This is persistent because we can take a tail of the list, meaning the last k items for some k, and add new nodes on to the front of it. The tail will not be duplicated, instead becoming shared between both the old list and the new list. So long as the contents of the tail are immutable, this sharing will be invisible to the program.

Many common reference-based data structures, such as red-black trees, and queues, can easily be adapted to create a persistent version.

See also




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