One interviewer asked me how I would sort lines in a 5GB text file, if I had only 1GB of RAM. The task seemed to me quite interesting and I couldn't resist from implementing it the next morning.
I wish I had some background on it, but I really don't know much about external sorting algorithms. I wrote this code mostly using intuition, so I would appreciate if you share your knowledge on more advanced techniques in comments.
In order to sort the file, I first split it to smaller files. On the first iteration, I run through the input file and find all lines that start from the same character. If some resultant files are still larger than the amount of available memory, I split them by first two characters and so on. Then each smaller file is being sorted in memory and saved on the disk. The final stage is merging the sorted list of sorted files into a single file.
Example. Consider the following text file:
For simplicity let's assume that we run a very ancient computer and can't afford sorting files more than 10 bytes long. Our input file is larger, so we need to split it. We start the process by splitting by one character. So after the first step, we will have three files:
Files m and o can now be sorted in memory. However file a is still too large. So we need to split further.
File av is less than ten bytes, however file ap is still large. So we split once again.
Now that we have five small sorted files instead of a single big one, we range them in order of their beginnings and merge them together, saving results into output file.
Looks good, however this algorithm has a flaw: consider that the input file contains five gigabytes of the same line repeated many times. It's easy to see that in this case the algorithm will be stuck in an endless loop trying to split this file over and over again. A similar problem is illustrated below. Consider we have the following
strings and our memory is not sufficient to sort them.
As they all start from '
a', they all will be copied into the same chunk in the first iteration. In the second iteration, we are going to split line by first two characters, however line '
a' consists of only one character! We'll face the same situation in each iteration.
I handle these two problems by separating
strings smaller than current substring length into a special unsorted file. As we don't need to sort it, the file can be of any size. (If only case-sensitive sorting were supported, it wouldn't be necessary to save short lines into a file, but only calculate their number.)
Incidentally the algorithm is stable, i.e., it maintains the relative order of records with equal values.
Using the Code
HugeFileSort contains the following properties, which specify how sorting will be performed:
MaxFileSize - the maximum file size that can be sorted in-memory (100MB by default)
StringComparer - comparer used for sorting (case-sensitive
CurrentCulture by default)
Encoding - the input file encoding (UTF8 by default)
The main method is called simply
Sort. It accepts two
strings: input and output file names. If size of input file is less than
MaxFileSize, its content is simply loaded into memory and being sorted. Otherwise the procedure described above is being performed.
public void Sort(string inputFileName, string outputFileName)
chunks = new SortedDictionary<string, ChunkInfo>(Comparer);
var info = new FileInfo(inputFileName);
if (info.Length < maxFileSize)
var dir = new DirectoryInfo("tmp");
During the execution, temporary directory tmp is created in the current folder. For the sake of better display, final set of temporary files is not deleted and stays in the folder. In production code, please uncomment two lines in the
private void Merge(string outputFileName)
using (var output = File.Create(outputFileName))
foreach (var name in chunks)
if (name.Value.NoSortFileName != null)
if (name.Value.FileName != null)
The core of the algorithm is the splitting method.
private void SplitFile(string inputFileName, int chars)
var files = new Dictionary<string, FileChunk>(Comparer);
using (var sr = new StreamReader(inputFileName, Encoding))
while (sr.Peek() >= 0)
string entry = sr.ReadLine();
if (entry.Length < chars)
if (!chunks.TryGetValue(entry, out nameInfo))
chunks.Add(entry, nameInfo = new ChunkInfo());
string start = entry.Substring(0, chars);
if (!files.TryGetValue(start, out sfi))
sfi = new FileChunk(Encoding);
foreach (var file in files)
if (file.Value.Size > maxFileSize)
SplitFile(file.Value.FileName, chars + 1);
if (!chunks.TryGetValue(file.Key, out nameInfo))
chunks.Add(file.Key, nameInfo = new ChunkInfo());
nameInfo.FileName = file.Value.FileName;
ChunkInfo are auxiliary nested classes. The former is the helper that corresponds to new files on each iteration and is used to write lines into files. The latter contains information about the data that will be merged into the resultant file. During the recursive work of the algorithm, the program populates the sorted dictionary that maps text line startings to the instances of
SortedDictionary<string, ChunkInfo> chunks;
ChunkInfo contains the following information:
FileName - the name of the file that contains sorted lines starting with the given substring
NoSortFileName - the name of the file that contains non-sorted lines equal to the given substring (may differ by case)
Both properties can be
The class also contains method
AddSmallString() that writes a given
string into file
Test application requires three command-line arguments: input file name, output file name and max file size in bytes. It performs case-insensitive sorting of UTF8 files.
If you want to break it, pass in a large file with little or no line ends. As it uses standard
TextReader to read text lines from the input file it loads, it is not prone to such errors.
- 20th November, 2011: Initial post