Collections – best practices in .NET.

There are two types of collections – Associative and Non-Associative.

The Associative Collection Classes

Associative collections store a value in the collection by providing a key that is used to add/remove/lookup the item. Hence, the container associates the value with the key. These collections are most useful when you need to lookup/manipulate a collection using a key value. For example, if you wanted to look up an order in a collection of orders by an order id, you might have an associative collection where they key is the order id and the value is the order.

The Dictionary<TKey,TVale> is probably the most used associative container class. The Dictionary<TKey,TValue> is the fastest class for associative lookups/inserts/deletes because it uses a hash table under the covers. Because the keys are hashed, the key type should correctly implement GetHashCode() and Equals() appropriately or you should provide an external IEqualityComparer to the dictionary on construction. The insert/delete/lookup time of items in the dictionary is amortized constant time – O(1) – which means no matter how big the dictionary gets, the time it takes to find something remains relatively constant. This is highly desirable for high-speed lookups. The only downside is that the dictionary, by nature of using a hash table, is unordered, so you cannot easily traverse the items in a Dictionary in order.

The SortedDictionary<TKey,TValue> is similar to the Dictionary<TKey,TValue> in usage but very different in implementation. The SortedDictionary<TKey,TValye> uses a binary tree under the covers to maintain the items in order by the key. As a consequence of sorting, the type used for the key must correctly implement IComparable<TKey> so that the keys can be correctly sorted. The sorted dictionary trades a little bit of lookup time for the ability to maintain the items in order, thus insert/delete/lookup times in a sorted dictionary are logarithmic – O(log n). Generally speaking, with logarithmic time, you can double the size of the collection and it only has to perform one extra comparison to find the item. Use the SortedDictionary<TKey,TValue> when you want fast lookups but also want to be able to maintain the collection in order by the key.

The SortedList<TKey,TValue> is the other sorted associative container class in the generic containers. Once again SortedList<TKey,TValue>, like SortedDictionary<TKey,TValue>, uses a key to sort key-value pairs. UnlikeSortedDictionary, however, items in a SortedList are stored as sorted array of items. This means that insertions and deletions are linear – O(n) – because deleting or adding an item may involve shifting all items up or down in the list. Lookup time, however is O(log n) because the SortedList can use a binary search to find any item in the list by its key. So why would you ever want to do this? Well, the answer is that if you are going to load the SortedListup-front, the insertions will be slower, but because array indexing is faster than following object links, lookups are marginally faster than a SortedDictionary. Once again I’d use this in situations where you want fast lookups and want to maintain the collection in order by the key, and where insertions and deletions are rare.

The Non-Associative Containers

The List<T> is a basic contiguous storage container. Some people may call this a vector or dynamic array. Essentially it is an array of items that grow once its current capacity is exceeded. Because the items are stored contiguously as an array, you can access items in the List<T> by index very quickly. However inserting and removing in the beginning or middle of the List<T> are very costly because you must shift all the items up or down as you delete or insert respectively. However, adding and removing at the end of a List<T> is an amortized constant operation – O(1). Typically List<T> is the standard go-to collection when you don’t have any other constraints, and typically we favor a List<T> even over arrays unless we are sure the size will remain absolutely fixed.

The LinkedList<T> is a basic implementation of a doubly-linked list. This means that you can add or remove items in the middle of a linked list very quickly (because there’s no items to move up or down in contiguous memory), but you also lose the ability to index items by position quickly. Most of the time we tend to favor List<T> over LinkedList<T> unless you are doing a lot of adding and removing from the collection, in which case a LinkedList<T> may make more sense.

The HashSet<T> is an unordered collection of unique items. This means that the collection cannot have duplicates and no order is maintained. Logically, this is very similar to having a Dictionary<TKey,TValue> where the TKeyand TValue both refer to the same object. This collection is very useful for maintaining a collection of items you wish to check membership against. For example, if you receive an order for a given vendor code, you may want to check to make sure the vendor code belongs to the set of vendor codes you handle. In these cases a HashSet<T> is useful for super-quick lookups where order is not important. Once again, like in Dictionary, the type T should have a valid implementation of GetHashCode() and Equals(), or you should provide an appropriate IEqualityComparer<T> to the HashSet<T> on construction.

The SortedSet<T> is to HashSet<T> what the SortedDictionary<TKey,TValue> is to Dictionary<TKey,TValue>. That is, the SortedSet<T> is a binary tree where the key and value are the same object. This once again means that adding/removing/lookups are logarithmic – O(log n) – but you gain the ability to iterate over the items in order. For this collection to be effective, type T must implement IComparable<T> or you need to supply an external IComparer<T>.

Finally, the Stack<T> and Queue<T> are two very specific collections that allow you to handle a sequential collection of objects in very specific ways. The Stack<T> is a last-in-first-out (LIFO) container where items are added and removed from the top of the stack. Typically this is useful in situations where you want to stack actions and then be able to undo those actions in reverse order as needed. The Queue<T> on the other hand is a first-in-first-out container which adds items at the end of the queue and removes items from the front. This is useful for situations where you need to process items in the order in which they came, such as a print spooler or waiting lines.


  • - When you want additions, removals, and lookups to be very quick, and when you are not concerned about the order of the items in the collections, your first inclination should be to use a System.Collections.Generic.Dictionary<TKey, TValue>
  • - What .NET collection provides the fastest search? – System.Collections.Generic.HashSet. But it’s for unique elements only.
  • - Using the new LinkedList<T> collection can potentially help you improve performance in scenarios where you need to maintain order yet still achieve fast inserts.



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