What is Data Structure?
Updated on 20th Jan, 24 9.1K Views

Discover the why and how behind data structures, from the simplicity of arrays and linked lists to the complexity of trees and graphs. Find out their real-world applications and make your journey through the digital environment insightful and engaging.

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What are Data Structures?

Data structures are fundamental components in computer science that enable organizations to store and retrieve data in a systematic and efficient manner. They serve as the building blocks for designing algorithms and solving various computational problems. Data structures can be broadly categorized into two types: linear data structures and non-linear data structures. 

Linear data structures include basic types like arrays, linked lists, stacks, and queues, while non-linear data structures provide higher-level abstractions and include trees and graphs. Each data structure has its own advantages and is suitable for specific types of operations. 

For example, arrays are suitable for random access, linked lists for dynamic memory allocation, and trees for hierarchical relationships. Data structures are an essential component of computer science and software development since the performance and efficiency of algorithms are largely determined by the selection of an appropriate data structure.

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Why Do We Use Data Structures?

Effective and efficient software development relies heavily on the usage of data structures, which offer the frameworks and tools required to store, organize, and manipulate data in a way that satisfies the demands of diverse computational tasks.

Data structures are essential in computer science and programming for several reasons:

  • Data Organization: Data structures offer an effective method for arranging and storing data. They properly facilitate the organization of data, which simplifies its processing, modification, and retrieval. 
    • For example, we can store a collection of objects in a linked list in a non-sequential order, or we can store a collection of items in a sequential order using an array.
  • Efficiency: An algorithm’s ability to operate efficiently can be greatly impacted by the use of suitable data structures. Think about looking for a certain element in a huge dataset. The search process would need to go over the whole array if the data was kept in an unsorted array, which can be lengthy and ineffective. On the other hand, by periodically reducing the search space, the search process can be completed much more quickly, provided the data is kept in a sorted binary search tree.
  • Memory Management: An essential component of memory management is data structures. By ensuring that data is stored and retrieved in a way that reduces memory utilization and fragmentation, they assist us in effectively allocating and managing memory. This is especially crucial when working with sizable and complex data sets.
  • Code Reusability: Data structures facilitate the reuse of code by offering standardized methods for data management and organization. This cuts down on development time and effort by enabling programmers to construct and use standard data structures across several applications.
  • Problem-Solving: Data structures are essential building blocks for resolving a variety of computing issues such as search efficiency, memory optimization, and information retrieval. Programmers can create scalable and effective algorithms for a variety of tasks, including sorting, searching, graph traversal, and data manipulation, by comprehending and utilizing the right data structures.

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What are Data Types?

What are Data Types?

Before jumping into the types of data structures, it is necessary to have some knowledge about basic data types. 

In computer science and programming, a data type is a classification that specifies which type of value a variable can hold, what operations can be performed on that variable, and how these values are stored in memory. Data types are fundamental for organizing and manipulating data within a program.

The classification of data types is as follows:

Primitive Data Types

These are the basic building blocks of data. They are the simplest form of representing data and include:

Integer

Represents whole numbers without any decimal points.

Example Variable: age = 25

Float/Double

Represents numbers with decimal points.

Example Variable: height = 5.9

Character

Represents a single character (letter, digit, or symbol).

Example Variable: grade = ‘A’

Boolean

Represents true or false values.

Example Variable: is_passed = True

Composite Data Types

These are derived from primitive data types and are used to store collections of data. Common composite data types include:

Array

Represents a collection of elements of the same data type.

Example Variable: scores = [90, 85, 75, 95]

String

Represents a sequence of characters.

Example Variable: name = “John”

Struct/Record

Represents a collection of fields, where each field can have a different data type.

Example Variable: person = {name: “Alice”, age: 30, is_student: True}

List

Represents an ordered collection of elements that can be of different data types.

Example Variable: grades = [‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’]

Tuple

Represents an ordered collection of elements, similar to a list but is immutable.

Example Variable: coordinates = (3, 5)

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Types of Data Structures

The choice of a particular data structure depends on the requirements of the algorithm or operation being performed, as well as considerations such as time complexity, space complexity, and the nature of the data. Data structures are classified as:

Linear Data Structures

In computer science, linear data structures are a kind of data structure where every element of the data is ordered either linearly or sequentially. This indicates that every component has a specific location in relation to the others. Put another way, the elements are arranged in a logical order or sequence. Linear data structures are further divided into four types:

  • Arrays
  • Linked Lists
  • Stacks
  • Queues

Arrays

An array is a fundamental and widely used data structure in computer science that organizes elements of the same data type into a contiguous block of memory. The elements in an array are accessed using an index or a key, which represents their position within the array. The index usually starts at zero for the first element and increments by one for each subsequent element. This structure allows for efficient random access to elements.

Linked Lists

Linked Lists

A linked list is a linear data structure in which elements, called nodes, are connected sequentially. Unlike arrays, where elements are stored in contiguous memory locations, linked lists use pointers to link nodes together. Each node in a linked list consists of two parts: the information or value it contains as well as a link or reference to the node behind it in the chain. Usually, the final node indicates the end of the list by pointing to null.

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Stacks

Stacks

Stacks are Last In, First Out (LIFO) data structures that enable items to be pushed to the top and removed from the top. They are frequently employed in the implementation of function call stacks and undo/redo capabilities.

The two primary operations associated with a stack are:

  • Push: This operation adds an element to the top of the stack.
  • Pop: This operation removes the element from the top of the stack.

Queues

Queues

Queues are data structures that operate on the First In, First Out (FIFO) principle. This means that items can be added at the end of the queue and removed at the front. They are frequently employed in task scheduling and buffering implementations.

In a queue, elements are added at one end, known as the “rear” or “enqueue” operation, and removed from the other end, known as the “front” or “dequeue” operation. This ensures that the oldest elements are processed before the newer ones.

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Non-Linear Data Structures

Non-linear data structures are organizational formats in computer science where elements are interconnected in a way that does not follow a sequential order. Unlike linear structures (e.g., arrays or linked lists), non-linear structures allow elements to have multiple successors, forming complex relationships. These structures enable versatile modeling of relationships, supporting more complex and interconnected representations of data in various computational scenarios.

Non-linear data structures are classified into the following types:

  • Trees
  • Graphs

Trees

Trees

A tree data structure is a fundamental, or node-based, hierarchical arrangement of elements with parent-child relationships between each node. Every other node in the tree is either a leaf node, which has no children, or an internal node, which has at least one child. The topmost node is referred to as the root. The relationships between nodes are represented by the edges connecting them. The branching feature of a tree structure is what makes each node potentially have several child nodes. In computer science, trees are commonly utilized for tasks like efficient data organization, search algorithms (like binary search trees), and hierarchical data representation.

Graphs

Graphs

A set of nodes (also known as vertices) and the edges that join node pairs make up a graph data structure. It is a flexible representation that is employed to simulate the relationships between various elements. Generally, nodes in a graph stand for entities (such as towns, people, or web pages), and edges show the connections or interactions between these things. 

 Graphs can be directed or undirected. Moreover, graphs may feature weighted edges, which give a connection’s cost or strength a numerical value. Graphs are an essential and powerful data structure in computer science, with applications across social networks, transportation systems, and computer networks.

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Applications of Data Structures

Applications for data structures can be found in many computer science fields, and they are essential for creating effective algorithms. Some common applications include:

  • Databases: In order to organize and retrieve information from databases, data structures are essential. To maximize search performance, indexing structures such as hash tables and B-trees are employed.
  • Compiler Design: To describe program structures and enable effective analysis, data structures like symbolic tables and abstract syntax trees are used throughout the compilation process.
  • Operating Systems: File systems store and retrieve data efficiently by using data structures like directories and file allocation tables.
  • Artificial Intelligence: In AI applications, data structures like graphs and trees are crucial for representing knowledge, decision trees, and different search algorithms.
  • Web development: Hash tables (A hash table is a data structure that implements an associative array abstract data type, where data is stored in key-value pairs, and the keys are mapped to indices using a hash function for efficient retrieval and storage) are utilized for effective caching and indexing, whereas data structures like arrays and linked lists are used to construct dynamic data structures on websites.
  • Game Development: In the field of game development, data structures play a crucial role in the representation of game states, resource management, and algorithm optimization for collision detection and graphics rendering.

Wrap-up

Data structures form the backbone of computer science, providing the fundamental framework for organizing and managing information. Their versatility is evident across various applications, from optimizing algorithms and enhancing database management to facilitating efficient networking and enabling advancements in artificial intelligence. The strategic selection of data structures is paramount in achieving optimal computational performance, emphasizing their integral role in software development and problem-solving. As technology continues to evolve, the continued exploration and refinement of data structures remain essential for building robust, scalable, and efficient systems that power our digital world.

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