The Basics of Data Structures and Their Importance in Computer Science

Understanding how computers work is a hugely tedious task and involves more than just knowing how to type in an Excel sheet. One of the most fundamental concepts in computer science happens to be that of data structures.

As the name suggests, data structures are basically different mechanisms that enable the computer to store information. After all, the storage process needs to have some sort of pattern to it right? Data cannot be or rather, should not be stored in a randomized manner.

Each of these structures has different characteristics, qualities, advantages and disadvantages of their own. Understanding how each of them work and how they are applied in a real computer is what this field of computer science is all about. So let’s take a look at some of the basic data structures out there.

1. Arrays

An array is the most basic type of data structure used in everyday programming.

A. Simply put, it is a set of contiguous memory blocks that store a certain type of data. What that means is that an array is basically a linear structure that contains smaller structures, all of which are of the same data type.

B. The main thing to note about arrays is that they have a fixed length, which cannot be changed once the array has been declared in memory.

C. Also, the memory blocks as mentioned above, are contiguous in nature which means they are present immediately one after the other in main memory (RAM).

D. In computer terminology, each of these blocks is denoted by their position, known as the index of the array block. The index starts from 0 (for the first block) all the way up to n-1 (for the last block), where ’n’ denotes the total length of the array.

As you can probably guess, when you want to store a bunch of similar data in one place, you use an array. In order to access the data stored in each block, you will have to traverse these blocks one after the other. This is easy to achieve and is usually done with something known as ‘loops’ in programming languages.

2. Stacks

Another extremely important data structure to learn about is the stack. The entire structure of a stack is based around the entity it is based on — which is quite literally a stack.

i. The idea of implementation of a stack is that data is placed on top of one another and the first one that you get to access is the one that has been placed last on the top.

ii. As such, because of this nature, a stack is said to follow the ‘LIFO’ terminology which basically stands for ‘Last in First Out’.

iii. This basically encapsulates the property by which data is accessed from a stack, as mentioned right above.

As far as implementation is concerned, there are plenty of ways in which it can be done. In fact, one can use an array to implement a stack. The thing is, a stack is simply an idea or a concept of how a pile of data should look like when placed on top of one another. Putting it into practice requires something which can be manifested, like an array.

The idea is fairly simple. A variable known as ‘top’ is maintained that contains the location of the currently topmost placed data in the stack. There are many operations that can be done on a stack like Insertion and Deletion, both of which involve adding and deleting an element from the top of the stack respectively and updating the ‘top’ variable correspondingly.

3. Queue

If one side of the coin is the stack, the opposite side is the queue. Just like its counterpart, a queue functions the same way as the entity it is based on.

A. You will have noticed how in real life, a queue involves entry from one side of its length while exit is controlled from the opposite end. That is exactly how a queue in data structure also works.

B. Not only that, it is also noticeable that the person who enters first into the queue is also the one to exit first. Because of this characteristic, a queue is said to follow ‘FIFO’ terminology which basically stands for ‘First In First Out’, as mentioned right before.

C. The contrast between a queue and stack should also be mentioned now, especially in the way how a stack allows for addition and deletion elements from only one side of it.

As you can guess, each of these implementations has their own place in computer functionality and is used on a regular basis continuously.

As far as implementation is concerned, there are 2 variables that need to be maintained instead of 1 like in a stack. These 2 variables can be labelled as ‘front’ and ‘rear’. By now, you should have a fair idea of how this is supposed to work. The ‘front’ controls the exit of a certain data item while ‘rear’ controls the entry of data items.

4. Trees

Last but not the least, let’s discuss a bit about Trees. As the name suggests, this is a kind of data structure which basically tries to implement the characteristics of a real life tree, both in terms of structure and functionality.

  1. Here, the data items are placed hierarchically with connections existing between successive levels of data items.
  2. These data items are termed as a ‘node’ and each node can have any number of successors. However, by practice, the most commonly used type of a tree is the binary tree that is built in a way such that each node can have at most 2 successors.

There are several different types of tree data structure. The most commonly used one is a variation of the binary tree, as mentioned above. It is called a Binary Search Tree or BST in short. If you are aware of what Binary Search is, understanding a BST will be much easier.

  1. Simply put, the tree is made in a way so that each successor to the left of the parent node is smaller than the parent while the one on the right is larger than the parent.
  2. There are several kinds of traversal techniques that are used in conjunction with a BST, which you would need to, understand to fully realize its full application in computer science.

If you are still having some trouble understanding some of the characteristics of data structures mentioned here, please do not be afraid to refer to some help. There are plenty of professional resources available, which will help you get a better grasp of said concepts.

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