Algorithm analysis

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The RAM model of computation
    1. Best, worst, and average-case complexity
  3. Big O notation
  4. Growth rates and dominance relations
  5. Conclusion
  6. References


Algorithm analysis involves calculating the complexity of algorithms, normally either how much time they spend running, or the amount of storage they require to execute.

Two common tools used for algorithm analysis are the RAM model of computation, and the asymptotic analysis of worst-case complexity [1, P. 31].

The RAM model of computation

The RAM (Random Access Machine) model is used for analysing algorithms without running them on a physical machine.

The RAM model has the following properties:

  • A simple operation (+, \, *, -, =, if) takes one time step
  • Loops and subroutines are comprised of simple operations
  • Memory is unlimited and access takes one time step (the RAM model does not consider whether data is on cache or disk)

[1, Pp. 31-2]

Using the RAM model, you measure the running time of an algorithm by counting the number of steps an algorithm takes on a given input [1, P. 32].

Despite the simplifying assumptions made by the RAM model, it works well in practice.

Best, worst, and average-case complexity

Often, an algorithm’s input determines the number of steps the algorithm takes to run.

For a given input n:

  • The best-case complexity is the minimum number of steps taken to complete.
  • The worst-case complexity is the maximum number of steps taken to complete.
  • The average-case complexity is the average number of steps taken to complete.

[1, P. 33]

Each of these complexities defines a numerical function that represents time vs problem size. For example, for an input of size n, an algorithm takes 2n steps to complete in the worst case. The worst-case function for time complexity here is T(n)=2n.

This can be graphed:

Figure: A graph of T(n)=2n

Worst-case complexity is normally the most useful measure. This is because the best-case is often so unlikely that it isn’t beneficial to think about. The average-case can be useful, but it is usually difficult to determine. The worst-case is both likely to happen, and easy to calculate [1, P. 33].

Big O notation

Big O is a mathematical notation that describes the limiting behavior of a function as its input tends towards infinity.

Big O is useful in algorithm analysis because the functions that we get from counting steps often require a lot of detail to specify. For example, a worst-case analysis might produce a function like this:

T(n) = 1234n² + 1228n + 92lg₂n + 8736

In reality, this level of detail is not much more informative than stating that “the time grows quadratically with n” [1, P. 34].

It’s easier to instead compare the upper and lower bounds of time-complexity functions with asymptotic notation. This includes big O, big omega, and big theta [1, P. 34].

Figure: Upper and lower bounds for n > n0 [1, P. 35]

Big O describes the upper bound on a function f. f(n) = O(g(n)) means c · g(n) is an upper bound on f(n). There exists some constant c such that f(n) is always ≤ c · g(n), for large enough n (i.e., n ≥ n0 for some constant n0) [1, P. 35].

Big O notation ignores multiplicative constants. In big O analysis, f(n)=n and g(n)=2n are identical.

Big omega describes the lower bound on a function. f(n) = Ω(g(n)) means c · g(n) is a lower bound on f(n). There exists some constant c such that f(n) is always ≥ c · g(n), for all n ≥ n0 [1, P. 35].

Big theta defines a tight bound where a function f is bound both above and below. f(n) = Θ(g(n)) means c1 · g(n) is an upper bound on f(n) and c2 · g(n) is a lower bound on f(n), for all n ≥ n0. There exist constants c1 and c2 such that f(n) ≤ c1 · g(n) and f(n) ≥ c2 · g(n). This means that g(n) provides a tight bound on f(n) [1, P. 35].

Big O is the most common notation used when analysing algorithms.

Growth rates and dominance relations

Big O notation creates classes of functions, where all functions in a class are equivalent in big O analysis [1, P. 39].

There are a few common classes:

Notation Name Description
O(1) Constant No matter the size of the input, the algorithm will take the same amount of time to complete.
O(log n) Logarithmic Logarithmic algorithms grow slowly because they halve the amount of data they work with on each iteration. For example, binary search.
O(n) Linear Linear algorithms grow linearly with n. For example an algorithm to calculate the exponent of a number by multiplying a value n times in a loop.
O(nlog n) Superlinear Superlinear algorithms grow just a little faster than linear algorithms. Common sorting algorithms like Mergesort and Quicksort run in superlinear time.
O(n²) Quadratic Quadratic algorithms run slowly. An example is an algorithm that checks for duplicates in an array by looping over each element, and then looping over every other element to check for matches.
O(2ⁿ) Exponential Exponential algorithms are very slow. An example is a recursive algorithm to find the nth term of the fibonacci sequence.
O(n!) Factorial Factorial algorithms quickly become useless. They occur when generating all permutations of n [1, P. 39].

You can see the growth rate of the common classes in the following table:

n f(n) lgn n nlgn 2ⁿ n!
10 0.003 μs 0.01 μs 0.033 μs 0.1 μs 1 μs 3.63 ms
20 0.004 μs 0.02 μs 0.086 μs 0.4 μs 1 ms 77.1 years
30 0.005 μs 0.03 μs 0.147 μs 0.9 μs 1 sec 8.4 × 1015 yrs
40 0.005 μs 0.04 μs 0.213 μs 1.6 μs 18.3 min  
50 0.006 μs 0.05 μs 0.282 μs 2.5 μs 13 days  
100 0.007 μs 0.1 μs 0.644 μs 10 μs 4 × 10^13 yrs    
1,000 0.010 μs 1.00 μs 9.966 μs 1 ms    
10,000 0.013 μs 10 μs 130 μs 100 ms    
100,000 0.017 μs 0.10 ms 1.67 ms 10 sec    
1,000,000 0.020 μs 1 ms 19.93 ms 16.7 min    
10,000,000 0.023 μs 0.01 sec 0.23 sec 1.16 days    
100,000,000 0.027 μs 0.10 sec 2.66 sec 115.7 days    
1,000,000,000 0.030 μs 1 sec 29.90 sec 31.7 years    

[1, P. 38]


Most commonly, algorithms are analyzed by counting the number of steps an algorithm takes to complete in the worst-case, which creates a time-complexity function. The time-complexity function is then expressed using Big O notation.

Big O creates common classes of algorithms, like linear algorithms, and exponential algorithms. It’s useful to learn the names of these classes, because they come up often when discussing algorithms.


  1. [1] S. Skiena, The Algorithm Design Manual, 2nd ed. Springer, 2008.