Parallel Collections

Concurrent Tries


Most concurrent data structures do not guarantee consistent traversal if the data structure is modified during traversal. This is, in fact, the case with most mutable collections, too. Concurrent tries are special in the sense that they allow you to modify the trie being traversed itself. The modifications are only visible in the subsequent traversal. This holds both for sequential concurrent tries and their parallel counterparts. The only difference between the two is that the former traverses its elements sequentially, whereas the latter does so in parallel.

This is a nice property that allows you to write some algorithms more easily. Typically, these are algorithms that process a dataset of elements iteratively, in which different elements need a different number of iterations to be processed.

The following example computes the square roots of a set of numbers. Each iteration iteratively updates the square root value. Numbers whose square roots converged are removed from the map.

case class Entry(num: Double) {
  var sqrt = num

val length = 50000

// prepare the list
val entries = (1 until length) map { num => Entry(num.toDouble) }
val results = ParTrieMap()
for (e <- entries) results += ((e.num, e))

// compute square roots
while (results.nonEmpty) {
  for ((num, e) <- results) {
    val nsqrt = 0.5 * (e.sqrt + e.num / e.sqrt)
    if (math.abs(nsqrt - e.sqrt) < 0.01) {
    } else e.sqrt = nsqrt

Note that in the above Babylonian method square root computation ([3]) some numbers may converge much faster than the others. For this reason, we want to remove them from results so that only those elements that need to be worked on are traversed.

Another example is the breadth-first search algorithm, which iteratively expands the nodefront until either it finds some path to the target or there are no more nodes to expand. We define a node on a 2D map as a tuple of Ints. We define the map as a 2D array of booleans which denote is the respective slot occupied or not. We then declare 2 concurrent trie maps– open which contains all the nodes which have to be expanded (the nodefront), and closed which contains all the nodes which have already been expanded. We want to start the search from the corners of the map and find a path to the center of the map– we initialize the open map with appropriate nodes. Then we iteratively expand all the nodes in the open map in parallel until there are no more nodes to expand. Each time a node is expanded, it is removed from the open map and placed in the closed map. Once done, we output the path from the target to the initial node.

val length = 1000

// define the Node type
type Node = (Int, Int);
type Parent = (Int, Int);

// operations on the Node type
def up(n: Node) = (n._1, n._2 - 1);
def down(n: Node) = (n._1, n._2 + 1);
def left(n: Node) = (n._1 - 1, n._2);
def right(n: Node) = (n._1 + 1, n._2);

// create a map and a target
val target = (length / 2, length / 2);
val map = Array.tabulate(length, length)((x, y) => (x % 3) != 0 || (y % 3) != 0 || (x, y) == target)
def onMap(n: Node) = n._1 >= 0 && n._1 < length && n._2 >= 0 && n._2 < length

// open list - the nodefront
// closed list - nodes already processed
val open = ParTrieMap[Node, Parent]()
val closed = ParTrieMap[Node, Parent]()

// add a couple of starting positions
open((0, 0)) = null
open((length - 1, length - 1)) = null
open((0, length - 1)) = null
open((length - 1, 0)) = null

// greedy bfs path search
while (open.nonEmpty && !open.contains(target)) {
  for ((node, parent) <- open) {
    def expand(next: Node) {
      if (onMap(next) && map(next._1)(next._2) && !closed.contains(next) && !open.contains(next)) {
        open(next) = node
    closed(node) = parent

// print path
var pathnode = open(target)
while (closed.contains(pathnode)) {
  print(pathnode + "->")
  pathnode = closed(pathnode)

There is a Game of Life example on GitHub which uses Ctries to selectively simulate only those parts of the Game of Life automaton which are currently active [4]. It also includes a Swing-based visualization of the Game of Life simulation, in which you can observe how tweaking the parameters affects performance.

The concurrent tries also support a linearizable, lock-free, constant time snapshot operation. This operation creates a new concurrent trie with all the elements at a specific point in time, thus in effect capturing the state of the trie at a specific point. The snapshot operation merely creates a new root for the concurrent trie. Subsequent updates lazily rebuild the part of the concurrent trie relevant to the update and leave the rest of the concurrent trie intact. First of all, this means that the snapshot operation by itself is not expensive since it does not copy the elements. Second, since the copy-on-write optimization copies only parts of the concurrent trie, subsequent modifications scale horizontally. The readOnlySnapshot method is slightly more efficient than the snapshot method, but returns a read-only map which cannot be modified. Concurrent tries also support a linearizable, constant-time clear operation based on the snapshot mechanism. To learn more about how concurrent tries and snapshots work, see [1] and [2].

The iterators for concurrent tries are based on snapshots. Before the iterator object gets created, a snapshot of the concurrent trie is taken, so the iterator only traverses the elements in the trie at the time at which the snapshot was created. Naturally, the iterators use the read-only snapshot.

The size operation is also based on the snapshot. A straightforward implementation, the size call would just create an iterator (i.e. a snapshot) and traverse the elements to count them. Every call to size would thus require time linear in the number of elements. However, concurrent tries have been optimized to cache sizes of their different parts, thus reducing the complexity of the size method to amortized logarithmic time. In effect, this means that after calling size once, subsequent calls to size will require a minimum amount of work, typically recomputing the size only for those branches of the trie which have been modified since the last size call. Additionally, size computation for parallel concurrent tries is performed in parallel.


  1. Cache-Aware Lock-Free Concurrent Hash Tries
  2. Concurrent Tries with Efficient Non-Blocking Snapshots
  3. Methods of computing square roots
  4. Game of Life simulation

Contributors to this page: