Generic Graph Representation


Where we discuss about a generic model for the graph.

I find it very instructive to study #algorithms, and also to try to code them in the most generic way possible. I’m not sure why, actually: most of the times the implementation can be easily tailored to the problem I have, and sometimes this means just re-implementing the whole thing… but that’s life.

I’ll gloss over a lot of pre-conditions here, assuming that you know… what a graph (in the graph theory sense) means.

Representing the Graph - Generically

To remain general, we should aim for a representation that assumes nothing about how the algorithm will be used. Will it be objects? Simple hashes? Arrays? Anything else?

We will just do the following assumptions:

  • a node is represented by a Perl scalar (this was easy);
  • the nodes that can be reached from a node X are in a list that can be retrieved through a function.

This should give us a model that is generic enough to use, while still being simple enough to implement independently of the real graph representation.

An example?

Let’s make an example: suppose that the graph is represented like this:

  • nodes are strings, representing places;
  • edges are represented implicitly with a hash of arrays.

Something like this:

my %graph = (
   airport => [qw< work >],
   home    => [qw< work school >],
   park    => [qw< school >],
   school  => [qw< park home >],
   work    => [qw< home airport >],

This tells us that we can reach work from the airport, or that we can reach both park and home from school. This representation is good for a very generic graph, including directed graphs.

Our nodes in this case are the strings airport, home, park, school, and work. The list associated to each node allows representing the edges.

In our representation, the following function would allow us to represent these adjacencies through a function:

sub graph_dependencies_sub {
   my %graph = @_;
   return sub {
      my ($node) = @_;
      return @{$graph{$node}};
my $graph_adjacencies = graph_adjacencies_sub(%graph);

Now $graph_adjacencies encapsulates our representation of the graph: when provided a node, it gives out the list of nodes that can be reached from it:

my @nodes_from_home = $graph_adjacencies->('home');

Another example?

We might, of course, start from a different representation for the graph, e.g. based on objects:

  • nodes are objects;
  • edges are represented as a list of adjacent nodes that each node holds.
package Graph;

sub new {
   my ($package, $name) = @_;
   return bless {name => $name, neighbors => {}}, $package;

sub name {
   my $self = shift;
   return $self->{name};

sub neighbors {
   my $self = shift;
   return @{$self->{neighbors}};

sub add_neighbors {
   my $self = shift;
   $self->{neighbors}{$_->name} = $_ for @_;
   return $self;

package main;

my ($airport, $home, $park, $school, $work) =
   map { Graph->new($_) } qw< airport home park school work >;
$home->add_neighbors($work, $school);
$school->add_neighbors($park, $home);
$work->add_neighbors($home, $airport);

It’s basically the same graph as before, only represented differently. Again, it’s easy to adapt to the generic representation, it’s basically just Graph::neighbors:

my $graph_adjacencies = \&Graph::neighbors;

Of course if you intend to inherit from Graph this will break, so the more robust thing to do is to use a wrapper:

sub graph_dependencies_sub {
   return sub {
      my ($node) = @_;
      return $node->neighbors;
my $graph_adjacencies = graph_adjacencies_sub();

Edge lists anyone?

This representation is sub-optimal when edges are represented as stand-alone elements, e.g.:

  • nodes are strings;
  • edges are represented as pairs of nodes in anonymous arrays [$from, $to].

Something like this (for the same graph):

my @edges = (
   [ 'airport', 'work' ],
   [ 'home', 'work' ],
   [ 'home', 'school' ],
   [ 'park', 'school' ],
   [ 'school', 'park' ],
   [ 'school', 'home' ],
   [ 'work', 'home' ],
   [ 'work', 'airport' ],

The adaptation in this case is a bit… clunky:

my $graph_adjacencies = sub {
   my ($node) = @_;
   map { $_->[1] } grep { $_->[0] eq $node } @edges;

Every time… we are iterating through the whole of @edges. Of course we can do some pre-computing:

sub graph_adjacencies_sub {
   my %graph;
   for my $edge (@_) {
      my ($from, $to) = @$edge;
      $graph{$from} = $to;
   return sub {
      my ($node) = @_;
      return @{$graph{$node}};
my $graph_adjacencies = graph_adjacencies_sub(@edges);

… at the expense of requiring some more space.

But hey! I promised that the representation would be generic and easy to adapt to, not that it would solve every problem in the world!

Summing Up

The representation that we introduced basically requires us to decide on what we mean by node and provide a function that computes the list of other nodes that can be reached from it. It allows us to represent whatever graph, and it’s fairly easy to adapt to… which we will leverage in the future discussing a few #algorithms about graphs.


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