Sunday, January 19, 2020

Afraid of Recursion

Here's a trick I learned several years ago for transferring time-series data. In the case in question, I needed to transfer a bunch of timestamped records, but the server had a quirk to it. If you asked for too many records at once, it would simply return an error code and give up on your request. There was no way to know beforehand how many records might exist in any given time span, so you could get an error code on nearly any request, unless it was for a very short time span. On the other hand, many requests for long time spans would succeed because they had few records in them. Despite this quirk, the code was really simple:
List<record> xfer (Timestamp start, Timestamp end) {
    try {
        return tryFetchRecords(start, end);
    } catch (TooManyRecordsException e) {
        Timestamp mid = (start + end)/2;
        List<record> firstHalf = xfer (start, mid);
        List<record> secondHalf = xfer (mid, end);
        return firstHalf.addAll(secondHalf);
On any request, if the server returned the error code, we would simply bisect the time span, recursively ask for each half separately, and combine the two halves. Should the bisected time span still contain too many records, the time span would be bisected again. The recursion would continue until the time span was small enough that the server could honor the request and return some records. The recursion would then unwind, combining the returned records into larger and larger lists until we had all the records for our original time span. Since the time span would be cut in half on each recurrence, the depth of recursion would be proportional to the logarithm (base 2) of the total number of records, which would be a reasonably small number even with an enormous number of records.

It's certainly possible to avoid recursion and do this iteratively by some form of paging, but the code would be slightly more complex. The server is not very cooperative, so there is no easy way to determine an appropriate page size beforehand, and the server doesn't support a “paging token” to help keep track of progress. The recursive solution finds an appropriate transfer size by trial and error, and keeps track of progress more or less automatically. An iterative paging solution would have to do these things more explicitly and this would make the iterative code a bit more complex. And why add any complexity when it isn't really necessary?

I thought this solution was really cool when I first saw it. I've used this trick for transferring time series data many times. It makes the server very simple to write because the protocol requires so little of it. It simply has to refuse to answer requests that return too many results. The client code is just about the 10 lines above.

But when I first suggest this code to people I usually get “push back” (that is, until they see it work in action, then they usually get on board with it). People seem unsure about the use of recursion and want a more complex protocol where the client and server negotiate a page size or cooperatively pass a paging token back and forth on each request and response. Their eyes glaze over as soon as they see the recursive call. They want to avoid recursion just because it's recursive.

I've seen “aversion to recursion” happen in a lot of circumstances, not just this one. Recursion isn't the solution to everything. No tool solves all problems. But it is an important tool that often offers elegant solutions to many problems. Programmers shouldn't be afraid of using it when it is appropriate.


steck said...

> I've seen “aversion to recursion” happen in a lot of circumstances

It's a recurring problem.

Joe Marshall said...


Anonymous said...

That's a really neat trick!

John Cowan said...

Well. The result is logarithmic if the records are more or less evenly spaced over the interval. But if you ask for all 2019 records, and it so happens that there is nothing there but a million records timestamped 2019-12-31T23:59:00, then you will have to partition the set at least 19 times before getting anything at all.