Data Structure, Disjoint-Sets

The most common use I have found for the Disjoint Sets data structure is to determine if adding a specific edge to a graph would form a cycle. In Kruskal’s algorithm, it is used in this way to build a minimal spanning tree. Building a maze is similar to applying Kruskal’s algorithm except we use random edges instead of shortest edges. I’ll discuss how to build a maze this way in the future. This article will discuss the data structure. For previous articles using mazes to discuss programming topics, see Choosing a Data Structure and A Strategy for Initializing Immutable Objects.

In mathematics, sets are disjoint if they have no members in common. Think of a Disjoint Sets data structure as a collection of such sets. Initially, each set contains only one element. Once we initialize the data structure with the number of sets, there are only two supported operations: we can ask the data structure which set an element belongs to, and you can merge two of the sets. The data structure is sometimes called “Union-Find”.

To use the findSet() operation, we must understand the notion of a “representative” element. The data structure chooses one element as the representative for a set. So if element a and element b are in the same set, and the data structure has chosen a as the representative, then both findSet(a) and findSet(b) will return a.


In C++, the class interface for such a data structure might look like this:

class DisjointSets {
        DisjointSets(std::size_t numElements);
        std::size_t findSet(std::size_t element);
        void unionSets(std::size_t rep1, std::size_t rep2);

        std::vector<std::size_t> nodes;

Note that the elements are of type size_t as this type can represent the maximum number of elements we can keep in a vector. If there is satellite data it can be stored elsewhere in a vector indexed by these elements. This keeps the implementation simple.

Upon creation there will be numElements sets, each containing one element, the representative for that set. That means that initially findSet(n) returns n for all n < numElements.

Now if we call unionSets(0,1), then findSet(0) and findSet(1) will both return 0 or both return 1, depending on the implementation. This return value is the representative for the new set containing {0,1}. If we then call unionSets(findSet(0), 2) there will be one set that contains {0,1,2} and single-element sets for each of the remaining elements greater than 2. Note that unionSets() takes representatives as arguments. So we can’t simply call unionSets(0,2) after we called unionSets(0,1) because the representative for that first set may be 0 or 1. We could find the representative on behalf of the caller in the implementation of unionSets(), but doing so would impose a performance penalty on those callers who don’t need it. The proper mechanism here is an assertion that the parameters are in fact representatives.

If we continue to call unionSets(findSet(0), n) repeatedly for the rest of the values of n < numElements-1, findSet(n) will return the same value for every n because there will be only one set.


The way I have chosen to implement this is to use a vector<size_t> where each element contains either its own index position, indicating that it is a representative, or the index to a parent position in the vector which should be a parent in the chain used to find the representative. Links are followed this way until an index is found that “points” to itself, indicating that it is the representative.

Initially, each element contains its own index. For example, the vector v is initialized to {0,1,2,3,…,numElements-1}. This means each of numElements set contains one element and the representative for set n is n because v[n] == n. Once we call unionSets(0,1) the vector might look like this: {0,0,2,3,…,numElements-1}. v[1] “points” to v[0] and v[0] points to itself, so 0 is the representative of the set {0,1}. findSet(0) and findSet(1) both return 0.

To continue the example, if we then call unionSets(findSet(0),2), the vector might look like this: {0,0,2,3,…,numElements-1}. v[2] points to v[1] and v[1] points to v[0] and v[0] points to itself. So 0 is the representative for the set containing {0,1,2}. Note that the vector could also be represented as {0,0,0,3,…,numElements-1} and the result would be the same: v[1] and v[2] both point directly to their representative. This is an implementation detail and an optimization opportunity. findSet() could perform better if each element in a set pointed directly to its representative rather than having to traverse a tree to the root each time. This is referred to as “path compression.” It is implemented in findSet() such that each find compresses the tree a little if possible so that future finds will be faster. When I measured the effect of this optimization on a large test problem, the execution time dropped from over 100 seconds to 1 second.

The implementation of unionSets() can be as simple as:

void DisjointSets::unionSets(size_t rep1, size_t rep2)
    nodes[rep2] = rep1;

After this call, nodes[rep2] points to rep1, and rep1 is either the representative or points to the next parent in its tree.

A recursive implementation of findSet() can be as simple as:

size_t DisjointSets::findSet(size_t element)
    if (nodes[element] == element) {
        return element;

    return findSet(nodes[element]);

This implementation uses tail recursion, which enables the compiler to turn the recursion into a loop. However, it does not have the path compression optimization described above and it was the slowest implementation I measured by far.

Below is the same recursive implementation with path compression added in the last line.

size_t DisjointSets::findSet(size_t element)
    if (nodes[element] == element) {
        return element;

    return nodes[element] = findSet(nodes[element]);

In this version, we lose the tail recursion optimization but gain a huge performance win by improving the runtime complexity. This version runs in one one-hundredth of the time as the first version. But now we have to worry about overflowing the stack.

Since the compiler can’t eliminate the recursion any more, we can rewrite the function ourselves as a loop.

size_t DisjointSets::findSet(size_t element)
    size_t orig = element;

    while (nodes[element] != element) {
        element = nodes[element];

    nodes[orig] = element;

    return element;

This is slightly slower than the recursive version because the path compression is less aggressive, but is safer because we no longer have to worry about the stack. We could improve the path compression in this version at the expense of making it a little harder to read, but the gain would be small and so I’ll skip it for now.

For completeness, our constructor looks like this:

DisjointSets::DisjointSets(size_t numberElements)
    : nodes(numberElements)
    iota(begin(nodes), end(nodes), 0);

The call to std::iota() in the constructor initializes the vector to {0,1,2,3…,numberElements-1}.

Another Optimization: Union by Rank

You should know that there is one more opportunity for optimization here. When merging two sets, we have two options. We can make the longer chain one element longer, or we can make the shorter chain one element longer. Since we would like shorter chains on average when following them to representative elements in findSet(), we should grow the shorter chain instead of growing the longer chain. In our current implementation, we don’t take that into account and we just chain one to the other based on the order of the parameters. I’m not going to show how to implement the optimization here in order to keep it simple. Note that in my measurements, each of the two optimizations, path compression and union by rank, alone provide a huge performance win. When used together, the second optimization only provides a very small increase in performance over implementing just one or the other.


In the introduction, I mentioned Kruskal’s algorithm and generating a maze. Here are a couple other applications of the data structure.

Disconnected Subgraphs

We can use Disjoint Sets to answer the question, “Given a graph, how many disconnected subgraphs does it contain?”

To answer this question, simply iterate each edge, add both connected vertices to the data structure, then count the number of sets. To do this, our implementation could track the number of sets, decrementing it each time a union is performed, and provide a member function to retrieve the count. Or we could use it as-is and call findSet() iteratively after adding the vertices, and then count the number of unique representatives it returns.

Detecting a Cycle

We can use Disjoint Sets to answer the general question, “Given a graph, are there any cycles?” This is similar to how Kruskal’s algorithm uses it.

To answer this question, iterate each edge in the graph. We call findSet() for each of the two vertices of the edges. If the two calls return the same representative, then there is already a path between the vertices and adding the vertex in question would create a cycle and we have answered the question and can stop. If not, we call unionSets() for the two vertices and continue with the next edge. Once we have visited each edge and have not stopped then there are no cycles.

Functional Programming

As an experiment, I wanted to see what would happen to the performance if changed unionSets() to return a new DisjointSet object instead of modifying the current one. I kept the path compression optimization in findSet(), which is technically a side effect, but only because I wanted the experiment to terminate in a reasonable amount of time. The time to run a large test case increased from 2 sec to 1337 sec when I switched to the functional approach. I am curious to know how this could be implemented in a functional programming language with good performance. If you have any ideas, please let me know in the comments.


There aren’t many uses for the Disjoint Sets data structure, but it is really useful in solving certain graph problems. It can be implemented in a few lines of code and made efficient by adding path compression. File this away somewhere so it will be handy when you need it. The code can be found here.

To read about using Disjoint-Sets to create a maze, see the next article, Using Disjoint-Sets.

Written on September 26, 2015