GotW #72

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This is the original GotW problem and solution substantially as posted to Usenet. See the book Exceptional C++ Style (Addison-Wesley, 2004) for the most current solution to this GotW issue. The solutions in the book have been revised and expanded since their initial appearance in GotW. The book versions also incorporate corrections, new material, and conformance to the final ANSI/ISO C++ standard (1998) and its Technical Corrigendum (2003).

Data Formats and Efficiency 
Difficulty: 8 / 10

How good are you at choosing highly compact and memory-efficient data formats? How good are you at writing bit-twiddling code? This GotW gives you ample opportunity to exercise both skills, as we consider efficient representations of chess games and a BitBuffer to hold them.

Background: I assume you know the basics of chess.

Problem

JG Question

1. Which standard container uses the least memory to store the same number of objects of the same type T: deque, list, set, or vector? Explain.

Guru Questions

2. You are creating a worldwide chess server that stores all games ever played on it. Because the database can get very large, you want to represent each game using as few bytes as possible. For this problem, consider only the actual game moves and ignore extra information such as the players' names and comments.

For each of the following data sizes, demonstrate a format for representing a chess game that requires the indicated amount of data to store each half-move (a half-move is one move played by one side). For this question, assume 1 byte == 8 bits.

a) 128 bytes per half-move

b) 32 bytes per half-move

c) minimum 4 bytes and maximum 8 bytes per half-move

d) minimum 2 bytes and maximum 4 bytes per half-move

e) 12 bits per half-move

3. To implement solution 2(e), you decide to create the following class that manages a buffer of bits. Implement it portably, so that it will work correctly on all conforming C++ compilers regardless of platform.

class BitBuffer
{
public:
  // ... add other functions as needed ...

  // Append num bits starting with the first bit of p.
  //
  void Append( unsigned char* p, size_t num );

  // Query #bits in use (initially zero).
  //
  size_t Size() const;

  // Get num bits starting with the start-th bit,
  // and store the result starting with the first
  // bit of p.
  //
  void Get( size_t start, size_t num, unsigned char* dest ) const;

private:
  // ... add details here ...
};

4. Is it possible to store a chess game using fewer than 12 bits per half-move? If so, demonstrate how. If not, why not?

Solution

1. Which standard container uses the least memory to store the same number of objects of the same type T: deque, list, set, or vector? Explain.

Each kind of container chooses a different space/performance tradeoff:

a) A vector<T> internally stores a contiguous array of T objects, and so has no per-element overhead at all.

b) A deque<T> can be thought of as a vector<T> whose internal storage is broken up into chunks. A deque<T> stores chunks, or "pages," of objects. This requires storing one extra pointer of management information per page, which usually works out to a fraction of a bit per element. There's no other per-element overhead because deque<T> doesn't store any extra pointers or other information for individual T objects.

c) A list<T> is a doubly-linked list of nodes that hold T elements. This means that for each T element, list<T> also stores two pointers, which point to the previous and next nodes in the list. Every time we insert a new T element, we also create two more pointers, so a list<T> requires two pointers' worth of overhead per element.

d) Finally, a set<T> (and, for that matter, a multiset<T>, map<Key,T>, or multimap<Key,T>) also stores nodes that hold T (or pair<const Key,T>) elements. The usual implementation of a set is as a tree with three extra pointers per node. Often people see this and think, 'why three pointers? isn't two enough, one for the left child and one for the right child?' Because it must be possible to efficiently iterate over the set, we also need an "up" pointer to the parent node, otherwise determining the 'next' element starting from some arbitrary iterator can't be done efficiently. (Besides trees, other internal implementations of set are possible; for example, an alternating skip list can be used, although this still requires at least three pointers per element in the set.[1])

Part of choosing an efficient in-memory representation of data is choosing the right (read: most space- and time-efficient) container that supports the functionality you need. But that's not the end of it by any means: Another big part of choosing an efficient in-memory representation of data is determining how to represent the data that will be put into those containers. This question brings us to the meat of this issue of GotW.

Different Ways To Represent Data

The point of Question 2 is to demonstrate that there can be a plethora of ways to represent the same information:

2. You are creating a worldwide chess server that stores all games ever played on it. Because the database can get very large, you want to represent each game using as few bytes as possible. For this problem, consider only the actual game moves and ignore extra information such as the players' names and comments.

The rest of this article uses the following terms and abbreviations:

KKing
QQueen
RRook
BBishop
NKnight
PPawn
rankrow on the chessboard, typically numbered 1 (White's home row)
to 8 (Black's home row)
filecolumn on the chessboard, typically numbered a (left) to h
(right)

For each of the following data sizes, demonstrate a format for representing a chess game that requires the indicated amount of data to store each half-move (a half-move is one move played by one side). For this question, assume 1 byte == 8 bits.

a) 128 bytes per half-move

One representation that would take this amount of space would be to assume that the program already knows the current board position (which it can deduce from the previous moves) and store the entire new board position using two bytes per square. In this case, we are mimicking one of the standard online notations, which uses a 'W' or 'B' or '.' to designate the side that owns the piece in the given square, and a 'K', 'Q', 'R', 'B', 'N', 'P', or '.' to designate the type of piece in the given square.

Using this scheme, and storing the board from rank 1 to rank 8, and file a to file h within each rank, one possible half-move representation might be:

  WRWNWBWQWKWBWNWRWPWPWP..WPWPWPWP......WP........................\
  ................................BPBPBPBPBPBPBPBPBRBNBBBQBKBBBNBR

If this is the first move, it represents "1. d4" (or, "1. P-Q4"), my usual opening move.


b) 32 bytes per half-move

The representation in (a) seems a little wasteful, since it's in ASCII text that humans can read, but we really only need a machine-readable format. After all, the software running in front of the chess database is going to take care of displaying positions to the user.

We can get down to 32 bytes per half-move by keeping the basic strategy above of storing the entire new board position, but this time storing only 4 bits for each square: we need 3 bits to store the piece type (e.g., 0 for K, 1 for Q, 2 for R, 3 for B, 4 for N, 5 for P, or 6 for none), and 1 bit to store the color (which can be ignored if there is no piece on the square).

Using this scheme, and storing the board from rank 1 to rank 8, and file a to file h within each rank, one possible half-move representation might consume this many bytes:

  XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX


c) minimum 4 bytes and maximum 8 bytes per half-move

We can achieve this by storing the half-move as text in old-style chess notation.

Old-style "descriptive" chess notation identifies squares using variable-length tags like K3 and QN8, instead of using two-character tags like e3 and b8. To write down a half-move this way requires at least 4 characters (e.g., P-Q4) and possibly as much as 8 characters (e.g., RKN1-KB1, P-KB8(Q)). Note that no extra trailing null or other delimiter is needed because the move format can be decoded unambiguously.

Using this scheme, one possible half-move representation might be:

  P-KB8(Q)


d) minimum 2 bytes and maximum 4 bytes per half-move

We can achieve this by storing the half-move as text in modern chess notation.

Modern "algebraic" chess notation is more compact, and any half-move can be written using at least 2 characters (e.g., d4) and at most 4 characters (e.g., Rgf1, gh=Q). Again, no special move delimiter is needed because the format can be decoded unambiguously.

Using this scheme, one possible half-move representation might be:

  gh=Q

(Incidentally, a major advantage of this representation outside the computing world is that it can be written down quickly on paper by a human, even under time pressure. The reduction from a maximum of 8 characters to a maximum of 4 characters, coupled with some improved conceptual simplicity, turns out to make a big difference to users -- also known as players.)


e) 12 bits per half-move

We can get more compact still by taking a different approach: What if we were to store just the moving piece's origin and destination squares? To encode one square location requires 6 bits because there are 64 possibilities; so to encode two square locations to allow for both the origin and the destination to be recorded requires 12 bits. That suffices for usual moves, but in the case of a pawn promotion, however, this scheme will need more than 12 bits.

That's already a lot better than the earlier attempts. Let's stop here for a moment, though, and consider how we might create auxiliary data structures to store such bits of information that won't play nice and fall on even byte boundaries.

BitBuffer, the Binary Slayer

3. To implement solution 2(e), you decide to create the following class that manages a buffer of bits. Implement it portably, so that it will work correctly on all conforming C++ compilers regardless of platform.

First, note that the directive "assume that 1 byte == 8 bits" applied only to Question #2 -- it does not apply here. We need a solution that will compile and run correctly on any conforming C++ implementation, no matter what kind of underlying platform it's running on.

The required interface boiled down to:

class BitBuffer
{
public:
  void Append( unsigned char* p, size_t num );
  size_t Size() const;
  void Get( size_t start, size_t num, unsigned char* dest ) const;
  // ...
};

You might wonder why the BitBuffer interface was specified in terms of pointers to unsigned char. First off, there's no such thing as a pointer to a bit in standard C++, so that's out. Second, the C++ standard guarantees that operations on unsigned types (including unsigned char, unsigned short, unsigned int, and unsigned long) won't run afoul of "hey, you didn't initialize that byte!" or "hey, that's not a valid value!" messages from your compiler. As Bjarne Stroustrup writes:[2]

The unsigned integer types are ideal for uses that treat storage as a bit array.

So compilers are required to treat unsigned char (and the other unsigned integer types) as raw bits of storage -- which is just what we want. There are other approaches, but this is a reasonable one that lets us exercise our bit-fiddling coding skills, which happens to be a major goal of this GotW.

The main question in implementing BitBuffer is: What internal representation should we use? I'll consider two major alternatives.

Attempt #1: Bit-Fiddling Into an unsigned char Buffer

The first idea is to implement the BitBuffer via an internal big block of unsigned chars, and fiddle the bits ourselves when we put them in and take them out. We could let BitBuffer have a member of type unsigned char* that points to the buffer, but let's at least use a vector<unsigned char> so that we don't have to worry as much about basic memory management.

Do you think the above sounds pretty easy? If you do, and you haven't yet tried to implement (and test!) it, take an hour or three and try it now. I bet you'll find it's not as simple as one might think.

I'm not entirely ashamed to report that this version took me quite a bit of effort to write. Just drafting the initial version of the code took me more programming effort than I expected, and then it took a lot of debugging effort to find and fix all the bugs. I didn't keep track of the development effort, but in retrospect I estimate it took me several score compiles, including several to add reporting cout's to analyze intermediate values and see where things were going wrong, plus half a dozen sessions in the debugger stepping through code, to determine and fix all the problems.

Here's the result. I don't claim it's perfect, but it passed the unit tests I threw at it, including single- and multi-byte appends and boundary cases. (You always write unit test harnesses for your code, right? And make sure your code passes them all, before you check the code in?) Note that this version of the code operates on chunks of bytes at a time -- for example, if we're using 8-bit bytes and have an offset of 3 bits, then we'll copy the first three bits as a unit and copy the last 5 bits as a unit, for two operations per byte. For simplicity, I also require the user to provide buffers that are a byte bigger than might otherwise be necessary, just so that I can simplify my own code by allowing a little running off the end.

// Example 3(a): BitBuffer implemented in terms of
// vector<unsigned char>. Hard work. Ugh.
//
class BitBuffer
{
public:
  BitBuffer() : buf_(0), size_(0) { }

  // Append num bits starting with the first bit of p.
  //
  void Append( unsigned char* p, size_t num )
  {
    int bits = numeric_limits<unsigned char>::digits;

    // first destination byte & bit offset
    int dst = size_ / bits;
    int off = size_ % bits;

    while( buf_.size() < (size_+num) / bits + 1 )
      buf_.push_back( 0 );

    for( int i = 0; i < (num+bits-1)/bits; ++i )
    {
      unsigned char mask = FirstBits(num - bits*i);
      buf_[dst+i] |= (*(p+i) & mask) >> off;
      if( off > 0 )
        buf_[dst+i+1] = (*(p+i) & mask) << (bits - off);
    }

    size_ += num;
  }

  // Query #bits in use (initially zero).
  //
  size_t Size() const
  {
    return size_;
  }

  // Get num bits starting with the start-th bit
  // (0-based), and store the result starting with
  // the first bit of dst. The buffer pointed at
  // by dst should be at least one byte bigger
  // than the minimum needed to hold num bits.
  //
  void Get( size_t start, size_t num, unsigned char* dst ) const
  {
    int bits = numeric_limits<unsigned char>::digits;

    // first source byte & bit offset
    int src = start / bits;
    int off = start % bits;

    for( int i = 0; i < (num+bits-1)/bits; ++i )
    {
      *(dst+i) = buf_[src+i] << off;
      if( off > 0 )
        *(dst+i) |= buf_[src+i+1] >> (bits - off);
    }
  }

private:
  vector<unsigned char> buf_;
  size_t size_; // in bits

  // Build a mask where the first n bits are 1 and
  // the rest are 0.
  //
  unsigned char FirstBits( size_t n )
  {
    int num = min( n, numeric_limits<unsigned char>::digits );
    unsigned char b = 0;
    while( num-- > 0 )
      b = (b >> 1) | (1 << (numeric_limits<unsigned char>::digits-1));
    return b;
  }
};

The above code is nontrivial. Take some time to read it and to convince yourself that it's doing the right thing. (If you think you've found a bug, first write a test harness that attempts to demonstrate the bug; once the bug has been confirmed, please do go ahead and send me both the bug report and the test harness that tickles the problem behavior.)

Attempt #2: Reusing a Standard Bit-Packed Containers

The second idea is to note that the standard library already includes two containers that store bits: bitset and vector<bool>. Now, bitset is a bad choice simply because bitset<N> has fixed length N and we'll be encoding variable-length bitstreams. No dice. Here vector<bool>, for all its other faults, is a tempting choice and in this case turns out to be just what the doctor ordered.

The most important thing I can say about the following code is this:

The Example 3(b) code was essentially correct on first writing.

Yes, really. Between my first compile and the final code, all I did was fix a few syntax typos like a missing semicolon (these are, after all, things the compiler is supposed to find for you) and add parentheses in two places where I'd forgotten that % has higher precedence than +. That's it.

// Example 3(b): BitBuffer implemented in terms of
// vector<bool>.
//
class BitBuffer
{
public:
  // Append num bits starting with the first bit of p.
  //
  void Append( unsigned char* p, size_t num )
  {
    int bits = numeric_limits<unsigned char>::digits;

    for( int i = 0; i < num; ++i )
    {
      buf_.push_back( *p & (1 << (bits-1 - i%bits)) );
      if( (i+1) % bits == 0 )
        ++p;
    }
  }

  // Query #bits in use (initially zero).
  //
  size_t Size() const
  {
    return buf_.size();
  }

  // Get num bits starting with the start-th bit
  // (0-based), and store the result starting
  // with the first bit of dst.
  //
  void Get( size_t start, size_t num, unsigned char* dst ) const
  {
    int bits = numeric_limits<unsigned char>::digits;

    *dst = 0;
    for( int i = 0; i < num; ++i )
    {
      *dst |= unsigned char(buf_[start+i]) << (bits-1 - i%bits);
      if( (i+1) % bits == 0 )
        *++dst = 0;
    }
  }

private:
  vector<bool> buf_;
};

That writing this version was so much easier than writing Example 2(a) shouldn't be surprising. This version reuses existing bit-fiddling code instead of writing its own, it uses about 50% fewer lines of code -- and it's disproportionately less buggy as a result! This time I didn't even have to ask the user to supply a bit of extra output space just to make my Get() code simpler, as I did in the first version.

I suspect that both solutions, especially the first, could probably be further improved -- there may be bugs I didn't detect, and maybe the code could be simplified a bit in ways I didn't see -- but I think they're pretty close to optimal in terms of both correctness and style.

The Big Squeeze

Let's take one final look at the compressed representation and see if there's anything more we can do to squeeze it down.

4. Is it possible to store a chess game using fewer than 12 bits per half-move? If so, demonstrate how. If not, why not?

Yes. For example, here are three ways:

We can get down to 10 bits per half-move by encoding the destination square and the piece that moved there. Encoding a square requires 6 bits, as above. Encoding which piece moved there can be done by simply identifying the number of the piece, assigning an arbitrary ordering to the squares, say from rank 1 to rank 8 and file a to file h within each rank, and numbering the pieces in the order their current squares appear in that ordering. There can only be 16 pieces on the board, so the piece can be identified using 4 bits, for a total of 10 bits.

Could we do better still? Let's reason it through: We can encode all possible squares as destination, but usually only a minority of squares could actually be moved to with a legal move, so there must be some redundancy left in that part of our encoding. Similarly, we can represent all pieces moving to the given square, even though almost certainly not all pieces could move to that square -- indeed, some pieces may not even have a legal move at all to any square --, so somehow we're probably encoding more than we need to encode. For example, we could compress the second part further by storing from 0 to 4 bits to identify the piece that moved: there are 1 to 16 possibilities, and if there is only one piece that could move to the square then we don't need to encode any bits at all. On decoding, we know how many possible pieces could have moved to the square, and so we know how many bits to pull from the input format for that half-move.

We can get down to an encoding that uses at least 0 and at most 8 bits per half-move as follows: First, invent an ordering of legal moves; for example, we could order the pieces according to their squares as above, and for each piece order its possible moves as possible destination squares according to the same square ordering. Then, store the number of the actual move made using the minimum number of bits required; for example, the opening position has 20 legal moves, and to store them as a plain binary number requires ceiling(log2(20)) = 5 bits.

The result is that we need a minimum of 0 bits to represent each half-move. Zero bits are needed if there is only one possibility, a forced move. But how many bits could be needed in the worst case? This corresponds directly to the question: How many moves could there be in a legal chess position? At http://www.drb.insel.de/~heiner/Chess/README_LONG, the author writes: "The current known maximum is 218 (Dickins 1968): 3Q4/1Q4Q1/4Q3/2Q4R/ Q4Q2/3Q4/1Q4Rp/1K1BBNNk w - - 0 1." The board looks like this:[3]

  - - - Q - - - -   3Q4
  - Q - - - - Q -   1Q4Q1
  - - - - Q - - -   4Q3
  - - Q - - - - R   2Q4R
  Q - - - - Q - -   Q4Q2
  - - - Q - - - -   3Q4
  - Q - - - - R p   1Q4Rp
  - K - B B N N k   1K1BBNNk

In this worst case, 8 bits are needed to encode the move as a plain binary number. On average, probably 5 bits will be required to store a typical move; the opening position has 20 moves, and a typical endgame with the side to move having, say, K+R+2P on an open board can yield about 30 legal moves if the Pawns are getting ready to promote, both of which cases require 5 bits to store using this method.

Thinking about this briefly should convince us that this encoding ought to be pretty close to optimal, because it is representing directly and exactly the answer to the question at hand: "Which legal move was made?" We are using the minimum number bits to represent the possibilities for any given move as a plain binary number, with full knowledge of what has gone before.

Can we do better still? Yes, although now we'll start to see diminishing returns as the further gains become incremental. This is because further gains rely on having more knowledge and/or saving only partial bits. To illustrate how we could do a bit better still, consider that the opening position has 20 moves, which we under the above scheme we would store using ceiling(log2(20)) = 5 bits -- yet really that choice of first move theoretically holds only log2(20) = 4.3 bits of actual information, even assuming that all moves are equally likely, and on average we should require even fewer bits because the two most popular opening moves for White account for the majority of all chess games. In brief, if we can additionally gain knowledge about the relative probabilities of each move (for example, by building into the compression engine a deterministic chess-playing program that can guess which moves are better or more likely than others for any given position), then we could use variable-length encodings such as Huffman and arithmetic compression that use fewer bits to store the more likely moves. This trades off computing time using domain-specific knowledge in return for better compression.

Conclusion

This GotW shows how domain-specific knowledge can be applied to make a significant difference in the solution of a given problem.

In summary, even without any knowledge of which moves are more likely in any given position, a typical 40-move (80-half-move) game can be stored in about 50 bytes. To get a sense of how tight a representation that really is, consider:

This concluding sentence is exactly 50 bytes long.

 

Notes

1. L. Marrie. "Alternating Skip Lists" (Dr. Dobb's Journal, 25(8), August 2000).

2. B. Stroustrup. The C++ Programming Language, Special Edition (Addison-Wesley, 2000)

3. I believe it should be straightforward to show that this is a legally reachable position: Black moved last, and the only legal move could have been to move the P on h3 to h2 (the P on h2 it could not have come from g3 because there's no White piece it could have captured). Note that, sometime in the past, all white Ps Queened, and the easiest way to let them do that with minimal captures is to have every 2nd black P be captured by a white P, where each captured black P allows two white Ps (the capturing P and the P on the capturee's file) to advance to the 8th rank with no further captures. Therefore White's move before that could have been to capture any of Black's 10 other pieces on any of the 16 squares White now controls, etc. If we just say that White's last 10 moves were each to capture a Black piece that had itself just moved to the target square, and we've accounted for the last 21 half-moves leading to the position shown.

Copyright 2009 Herb Sutter