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Posted 22 Feb 2016

An Introduction to Integer Compression

, 15 Mar 2016
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Describes algorithms for integer compression, introduces a few libraries and shows how to use them


Modern CPUs are very fast, but RAM is not able to keep up with the speed. If RAM turns out to be a bottleneck, then compression can become attractive.

In this tip, I want to introduce you to compression algorithms for (unsigned) 32bit integers. A variety of algorithms exist, with several patent-free open source implementations available.

Delta Encoding

All algorithms have one thing in common: the smaller the integer, the better the compression. After all, small integers require fewer bits. Reducing the number of bits is especially easy when the integers are sorted, because then it's sufficient to store the delta values. This is called "Delta Encoding":

A sorted sequence

N1, N2, ... Nn

can be encoded as:

N1, N2 - N1, N3 - N2, ... Nn - Nn-1

During decompression, each delta is added to the previous value and the original value is reconstructed. The actual compression algorithm only stores the deltas. Since deltas are usually relatively small, the compression ratio improves.

But, as mentioned previously, delta encoding will only work with sorted sequences. And it slows down some of the operations, i.e., appending a value to the end of the sequence.

Variable Byte Compression

Variable Byte (or Varint, Varbyte) compression is quite old and simple. Small numbers (< 127) are stored in a single byte. If the number is larger, a "continuation bit" is set, and an additional byte is used. Here are a few examples:

Decimal     Binary                Variable Byte encoded
    127     00000000 01111111     01111111
    128     00000000 10000000     10000000 00000000
  16384     01000000 00000000     10000000 10000000 00000001

It requires just a few lines of code to uncompress an integer:

static inline int
read_int(const uint8_t *in, uint32_t *out)
  *out = in[0] & 0x7Fu;
  if (in[0] < 128)
    return 1;
  *out = ((in[1] & 0x7Fu) << 7) | *out;
  if (in[1] < 128)
    return 2;
  *out = ((in[2] & 0x7Fu) << 14) | *out;
  if (in[2] < 128)
    return 3;
  *out = ((in[3] & 0x7Fu) << 21) | *out;
  if (in[3] < 128)
    return 4;
  *out = ((in[4] & 0x7Fu) << 28) | *out;
  return 5;

However, the variable byte compression is relatively slow. There are just too many "if" branches which are impossible to predict for the CPU. Therefore the CPU cannot run multiple instructions in parallel, and the CPU pipeline stalls frequently.

Nevertheless, it is possible to use SIMD instructions to speed up the decoding. The continuation bits of up to 16 bytes can be collected with the SSE instruction _mm_movemask_epi8 and these bits can be used as an index into a lookup table for further instructions. The Masked Vbyte library from Daniel Lemire, Jeff Plaisance and Nathan Kurz does exactly this, although it uses only 12 bits for the lookup table (a 16bit lookup table would be too large). The table itself contains parameters for another SSE instruction, pshufb, which then rearranges the bytes.

Here is an example code which uses the Masked Vbyte library. It uses delta compression, and it has functions to lookup values or to select an integer from a compressed sequence, without decompressing it. I have contributed some of these functions. You will not find a faster variable byte compression library.

static void
  // Perform a one-time initialization

  // allocate storage for the encoded data
  std::vector<uint8_t> compressed(input.size() * 5);

  // encode the sequence
  size_t used = vbyte_encode_delta(&input[0], input.size(), &compressed[0], 0);
  std::cout << "MVByte: compressed " << 
  input.size() << " integers ("
         << input.size() * 4 << " bytes) to "
         << used << " bytes" << std::endl;

  // now we can perform operations directly on the compressed data, i.e.
  // selecting a value at a specific position:
  uint32_t v = masked_vbyte_select_delta(&compressed[0], input.size(), 0, 3);
  std::cout << "integer at position 3: " << v << std::endl;

  // and of course we can uncompress it again
  std::vector<uint32_t> output(input.size());
  masked_vbyte_decode_delta(&compressed[0], &output[0], input.size(), 0);

  assert(input == output);

Frame Of Reference Compression

The Masked Vbyte library requires a relatively new-ish Intel CPU for its SIMD instructions. For older CPUs, or non-Intel platforms, you will have to resort to other implementations. But even without SIMD, it is possible to come up with very efficient implementations. One of them is libfor, which implements the "Frame Of Reference" (FOR) algorithm. FOR does not store the deltas to the previous value, but to the beginning of the sequence. And unlike Variable Byte, it does not store a sequence of bytes, but a stream of bits and therefore can
have an even better compression ratio.

With FOR, a sequence

N1, N2, ... Nn

will be encoded as:

N1, N2 - N1, N3 - N1, ... Nn - N1

libfor has a clean API and also implements functions which directly operate on the compressed sequence, i.e., to append values, perform searches or to select a specific value. It has different APIs for sorted and unsorted sequences. FOR's implementation of select is very fast, and FOR can search sorted sequences very efficiently with binary search.

static void
  // number of bytes required to compress 'input'
  uint32_t bytes_reqd = for_compressed_size_sorted(&input[0], input.size());

  // allocate storage for the compressed data
  std::vector<uint8_t> compressed(bytes_reqd);

  // compress the sequence
  uint32_t used = for_compress_sorted(&input[0], &compressed[0], input.size());
  std::cout << "libfor: compressed " << 
  input.size() << " integers ("
         << input.size() * 4 << " bytes) to "
         << used << " bytes" << std::endl;

  // now we can perform operations directly on the compressed data, i.e.
  // appending a value, searching for a value or selecting a value at
  // a specific position:
  uint32_t v = for_select(&compressed[0], 3);
  std::cout << "integer at position 3: " << v << std::endl;

  // and of course we can uncompress it again
  std::vector<uint32_t> output(input.size());
  for_uncompress(&compressed[0], &output[0], input.size());

  assert(input == output);

Other Libraries and Projects

FOR is implemented in pure scalar C code, SimdFOR is a very similar implementation with SIMD instructions. It is faster, but only works on Intel CPUs. Both are not compatible.

The SimdComp library is similar to SimdFOR, but uses delta compression. It therefore requires sorted integers as input, and its compression ratio is by far the best of all the libraries listed here.

Here are a few questions you have to answer before choosing a library:

  • Are your integers sorted? Then pick one with delta compression.
  • Is your software also running on non-Intel CPUs? Then avoid implementations using SSE instructions.
  • Do you want to directly work on compressed data, without uncompressing? Then compare the libraries and check whether your requirements are met.
  • And finally run benchmarks for your specific data. Algorithms will compress better or worse depending on your input.

You can download the sample code from the following link:

You can find in-depth benchmarks of multiple compression libraries here:


This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)


About the Author

Software Developer
Germany Germany
I am the author of upscaledb (, a fast embedded key-value database with built-in analytical functions.

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Comments and Discussions

GeneralMy vote of 5 Pin
Daevor24-Feb-16 23:44
memberDaevor24-Feb-16 23:44 
GeneralRe: My vote of 5 Pin
cruppstahl25-Feb-16 0:10
membercruppstahl25-Feb-16 0:10 

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