Let us start by reiterating an important point made in the introduction to this chapter:
We can consider algorithms to be procedural solutions to problems.
These solutions are not answers but specific instructions for getting answers. It is this emphasis on precisely defined constructive procedures that makes computer science distinct from other disciplines. In particular, this distinguishes it from the-oretical mathematics, whose practitioners are typically satisfied with just proving the existence of a solution to a problem and, possibly, investigating the solution’s properties.
We now list and briefly discuss a sequence of steps one typically goes through in designing and analyzing an algorithm (Figure 1.2).
Understanding the Problem
From a practical perspective, the first thing you need to do before designing an algorithm is to understand completely the problem given. Read the problem’s description carefully and ask questions if you have any doubts about the problem, do a few small examples by hand, think about special cases, and ask questions again if needed.
There are a few types of problems that arise in computing applications quite often. We review them in the next section. If the problem in question is one of them, you might be able to use a known algorithm for solving it. Of course, it helps to understand how such an algorithm works and to know its strengths and weaknesses, especially if you have to choose among several available algorithms. But often you will not find a readily available algorithm and will have to design your own. The sequence of steps outlined in this section should help you in this exciting but not always easy task.
An input to an algorithm specifies an instance of the problem the algorithm solves. It is very important to specify exactly the set of instances the algorithm needs to handle. (As an example, recall the variations in the set of instances for the three greatest common divisor algorithms discussed in the previous section.) If you fail to do this, your algorithm may work correctly for a majority of inputs but crash on some “boundary” value. Remember that a correct algorithm is not one that works most of the time, but one that works correctly for all legitimate inputs.
Do not skimp on this first step of the algorithmic problem-solving process; otherwise, you will run the risk of unnecessary rework.
Ascertaining the Capabilities of the Computational Device
Once you completely understand a problem, you need to ascertain the capabilities of the computational device the algorithm is intended for. The vast majority of
algorithms in use today are still destined to be programmed for a computer closely resembling the von Neumann machine—a computer architecture outlined by the prominent Hungarian-American mathematician John von Neumann (1903– 1957), in collaboration with A. Burks and H. Goldstine, in 1946. The essence of this architecture is captured by the so-called random-access machine (RAM). Its central assumption is that instructions are executed one after another, one operation at a time. Accordingly, algorithms designed to be executed on such machines are called sequential algorithms.
The central assumption of the RAM model does not hold for some newer computers that can execute operations concurrently, i.e., in parallel. Algorithms that take advantage of this capability are called parallel algorithms. Still, studying the classic techniques for design and analysis of algorithms under the RAM model remains the cornerstone of algorithmics for the foreseeable future.
Should you worry about the speed and amount of memory of a computer at your disposal? If you are designing an algorithm as a scientific exercise, the answer is a qualified no. As you will see in Section 2.1, most computer scientists prefer to study algorithms in terms independent of specification parameters for a particular computer. If you are designing an algorithm as a practical tool, the answer may depend on a problem you need to solve. Even the “slow” computers of today are almost unimaginably fast. Consequently, in many situations you need not worry about a computer being too slow for the task. There are important problems, however, that are very complex by their nature, or have to process huge volumes of data, or deal with applications where the time is critical. In such situations, it is imperative to be aware of the speed and memory available on a particular computer system.