Complexity of a solution

In computer science, usually the problem is not how to solve a problem, but how to solve a problem efficiently. For instance, take the problem of searching. Many searching algorithms are well-known; the difficulty is not to find a way to search an element, but to find a way to efficiently find. We gonna discuss about it in here, and also about big O notation

Why Important

Let someone is assigned to write a program to process some records the organization receives from time to time. You implemented two different algorithms and tested them on several sets of test data. The processing times you obtained are in Table 1.

# of records sol1 sol2
10000 0.5s 0.8s
50000 5s 1.2s

After implementation, we probably can tell which of these two implementations is better for us. For the organization this solution may be fine. But from the developer’s point of view, it would be much better if he could estimate the values in Table before writing the actual code – then he could only implement the better algorithm.


Big O notation (with a capital letter O, not a zero), also called Landau's symbol, is a symbolism used in complexity theory, computer science, and mathematics to describe the behavior of functions. Basically, it tells us how fast a function can compute.
Landau's symbol comes from the name of the German number theoretician Edmund Landau who invented the notation. The letter O is used because the rate of growth of a function is also called its order.
For example, when analyzing some algorithm, one might find that the time (or the number of steps) it takes to complete a problem of size n is given by T(n) = 3 n^2+ 2. If we ignore constants (which makes sense because those depend on the particular hardware the program is run on) and slower growing terms, we could say "T(n) grows at the order of n^2" and write: T(n) = O(n^2).

Some Common Term

Here is a list of classes of functions that are commonly encountered when analyzing algorithms. The slower growing functions are listed first. c is some arbitrary constant.

Notation Name
O(1) constant
O(log(n)) logarithmic
O((log(n))^c) polylogarithmic
O(n) linear
O(n^2) quadratic
O(n^c) polynomial
O(c^n) exponential


The best way to understand Big O fruitfully is by producing some examples in code. So, below are some common orders of growth along with descriptions and examples.


O(1) describes an algorithm whose execution time(or space) is always same, regardless of the size of the input data set.

def element_at data, n


O(N) describes an algorithm whose performance will grow linearly and in direct proportion to the size of the input data set. The below example demonstrates how Big O always count the worst-case performance scenario; Big O notation will generally assume the upper limit where the algorithm will perform the maximum number of iterations.

def sum_of_array data
  sum = 0
  data.each do |n|
    sum += n


O(N^2) represents an algorithm that performs in the proportion to the square of the size of the input data set. This is common with algorithms that has nested iterations over the data set. Deeper nested iterations will result in O(N^3), O(N^4) etc.

def find_pair_in_array data, sum
  (0..data.length do |i|
     (i..data.length do |j|
      return true if data[i] + data[j] == sum


O(2^N) denotes an algorithm whose growth doubles with each iteration to the input data set. The growth curve of an O(2^N) function is exponential - starting off very low, then rising exponentially. An example of an O(2^N) function is the recursive calculation of Fibonacci numbers.

def fibonacci data, n
  return 1 if n == 1
  fibonacci(data, n - 1) + fibonacci(data, n - 2)

Hope it help you. Thank you.

Help: http://web.mit.edu/16.070/www/lecture/big_o.pdf

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