Over the years, people involved in computer science and engineering have worked really hard on optimisations of various natures. Given that we live in a world with limited resources, humanity has always worked on ways to optimise the costs and speed literally everything.
In software engineering, I would argue, the most popular approach to performance improvement is caching. While there are various applications of caching, depending on the area of software engineering, the idea behind caching is quite simple: store data that is often needed/used in fast structure/storage so it can be retrieved very fast.
In fact, caches have to be fast along two dimensions: 1. Ensuring that as many of the requests for files go to it (cache hit), not over the network or to main memory (cache miss); 2. The overhead of using it should be small: testing membership and deciding when to replace a file should be as fast as possible.
In this article we will focus on the second part: taking a specific implementation approach to Least Frequently Used cache and making its membership test and eviction algorithms performant. Also, we’ll also cover the basics and explore where such a caching scheme can be useful.
LFU is a caching algorithm in which the Least Frequently Used item in the cache is removed whenever the cache’s capacity limit is reached. This means that for every item in our cache we have to keep track of how frequently it is used. Once the capacity is exceeded of the cache, an eviction algorithm will be run which has to pick and expire (remove) items from the cache.
If you have ever implemented an LFU cache you’ve probably looked into using a min-heap data structure because it handles insertion, deletion, and update in logarithmic time complexity. In this article, we will look at another approach to implementing it.
But before we go into the implementation, let’s see in what cases LFU is better than the alternatives.
Where LFU shines
Imagine an asset cache on a CDN, where the assets are cached based on the usage patterns. So, when users request some images for the web page they are requesting, this CDN will add it to its cache for other users to get it even faster.
For example, one such image (asset) is the logo of the website. Can you imagine how many times a day Google’s logo is requested across all of their products? I’d really like to find that number out, but for now, we can probably agree that the number is HUGE.
Such asset caches are the perfect use-case for LFU caches. An LFU cache eviction algorithm will never evict frequently accessed assets. In fact, in such a cache Google’s logo will be cached virtually forever. In contrast, if there are any images that are going to be accessed due to a new landing page of a new product that’s on front page of Reddit, Slashdot & Hackernews, once the hype-storm passes the assets will be evicted faster because the access frequency will drop dramatically, although in the past few days they have been accessed many times.
As you might already be noticing, this approach to cache eviction is very efficient in cases where the access patterns of the cached objects do not change often. While LRU caches will evict the assets that would not be accessed recently, the LFU eviction approach would evict the assets that are not needed any more after the hype has settled.
Implementing an LFU cache
Now, let’s get to the meat of it. As we said before, instead of looking at a min-heap as a possible data structure that would back our LFU cache, we’re going to look at a better approach.
In fact, in 2010, a group of researchers Prof. Ketan Shah, Anirban Mitra & Dhruv
Matani published a paper titled “An O(1) algorithm for implementing the LFU
cache eviction scheme” (you can check it here) in
which they explain an implementation of an LFU cache that has a runtime
O(1) for all of its operations, which include insertion, access
and deletion (eviction).
Here, I’ll show you how we can implement this cache and walk you through the implementation.
The data structure(s)
Nope, it’s not going to be some sort of a Frankenstein red-black tree. It’s, in fact, two doubly-linked lists and a hash table. Yes, that’s all.
To be able to understand the fundamentals of this implementation of LFU, let’s look at the linked list and hash table as graphics. Before we look at the actual graphics, we need to understand how the hash table and linked lists will be used.
The hash table will store all of the items with a key that is processed through a hashing algorithm (for our purpose we can keep it simple) and the value will be the actual item:
The linked lists are a bit more complicated. The first one will be the “frequency list”, which will have all of the frequencies of access. Each of the nodes in this list will have an item list, which will contain all of the items that have been accessed with the corresponding frequency. Additionally, each of the items in the item list will have a pointer to their ancestor in the frequency list:
If we look at our graphical example above, we can notice that the items
D have been accessed 1 time. The items
F have been
accessed 4 times and so on. The blue lines are the pointers that each of the
items in the item lists has to their ancestor in the frequency list.
So, what would happen if item
E gets accessed one more time? Let’s go through
1. Retrieving the item from the hash table is easy (and scales well,
2. We would access the item’s
frequencyParent pointer, from which we can check
what is the next frequency in the list
3. If the new frequency is present (e.g.
8), we will push it as the first item
of the item list under frequency node
4. If the new frequency is not present, we will create the frequency node
and will add
E to its item list
That’s it. Retrieving the item and refreshing the frequency of the item is
Before we go into implementing the access algorithm, let’s first establish the
basic types that we would need to make this work.
As we said earlier, we need to model the types required that will be the backbone of our cache.
struct will be the
CacheItem. This will be the actual item that
will be stored in the cache:
It contains the
key by which we can look it up in the hash table, the
which is the actual cached item and a
frequencyParent pointer to the pointer
in the frequency list.
struct is the
FrequencyItem, which represents each of the items in
the frequency list. It contains a set of entries which will be a set of
CacheItem pointers. We will use a
map to store it so we can treat it as a
set, which contains only unique items:
struct that we will need to have a smooth running cache is, well, the
Cache will contain the hashmap, called
bykey (the naming comes from the
paper linked above), the frequency list called
freqs, the maximum capacity of
the cache called
capacity and the
size of the cache which represents the
count of items cached at any given moment.
New, set & get
Let’s look at the first three functions needed to make our cache work. The first one is a little constructor function:
New will create a new
Cache struct and will set all the
defaults to it. In case you’re wondering how
list.New() works: for the
frequency list, we will use Go’s
container/list package, which contains a neat
linked-list implementation. You can check
its documentation for more details.
The second function, which will be implemented on the
Cache, is the
The function will take the cache key and the actual value/item to be cached as
arguments. Then, it checks if the item is already cached or not. If it is cached,
it will just update the value on the item. Otherwise, it will create a new
CacheItem which will encapsulate the actual value, it will set the
it will add the item to the
bykey hashtable and it will increment the
of the cache.
Now, in both logical branches I have added some comments for the missing pieces:
Cache will have to know how to increment the access frequency for
CacheItem, but we are yet to implement that;
Cache will have to know how to evict an item based on the access frequency
size reaches the
We will keep these comments in until we implement the
The third function that
Cache will receive is
Get - accessing the item by
the key from the hashtable and returning it:
There’s no magic here as well - we check if the
bykey hashtable contains a
value with the
key argument and we return it if present. Otherwise, we return
nil. Here, just like in
Set, we will leave the placeholder comment where we
have to add the frequency increment function call once we implement it.
Updating the access frequency
As we already saw, with every access action to the cache we have to update the access frequency of the accessed item.
Let’s look at the steps that our
Increment function would have to take.
First, for the item to be expired we will have to decide if this item is already
a part of the hash table and the frequency list or not. If it is, we will have
to find out its new frequency value and its next frequency position (node) in
the frequency list.
Second, we will have to figure out if for the new frequency there’s already a
node in the frequency list or not. If there is one, we will have to add the item
to its list of
entries and assign its new access frequency
(which is the current access frequency + 1). If there’s none, we will have to
create a new frequency node in the frequency list (and set all of its sane
defaults) and then add the item to its list of
Third, once we have a
FrequencyParent detected, our function will have to set
the new parent to the
item that’s being incremented and add it to the parent’s
As the final step, the
increment function will remove the item from the
entries of the old frequency node (
Here’s the code in Golang:
Let’s refer back to our original diagram of the frequency and entries lists and
walk through incrementing the
The first steps that our
increment function will take are to allocate a
pointer to node
frequencyParent) and its
value (which is
4 is present in the list, it will find the next node in the
frequency list, which in our case is node
Once it figures out that the new frequency for the
E node should be
5 and not
7, it will append a new frequency node in the list, between nodes
5 node is added to the list, the function will set the defaults needed
for the node to function properly. Then it will set
E’s pointer to the new
As the last step it will take the
item, which has a
*CacheItem type, and
will add it to the
entries list while deleting it from the
entries list from
Let’s look at what are the steps to remove a
CacheItem from a
Once we know the node in the list from which we want to remove it, we can just
remove the item from the
entries list and also completely remove the
FrequencyItem from the frequency list if the
entries become empty:
The last piece of the puzzle is eviction, or in other words, removing the least frequently used items once the cache reaches its maximum capacity.
We have to know how many items we want to evict. Usually, our cache would have
a low and high bound, so when the high bound is reached we will remove items
until the low bound. In our case, we will evict an arbitrary number of items,
Evict function will take as an argument.
The function will start to “walk through” the frequency list from the beginning
towards the end. Since the frequency list is in ascending order, it will start
to remove the
entries from the first frequency node onwards, until it removes
as many items as the arbitrary number passed in.
If a frequency node contains no
entries due to eviction, the
will have to remove the frequency node from the frequency list as well. It will
do that by invoking the
Remove function. That way, the eviction will not leave
any garbage behind.
Here’s the code of what we described above:
Back to Set and Get
At the beginning of this article we implemented the
One thing that we didn’t have available back then is the
functions, so we can use them accordingly. Let’s add their invocation.
Incrementing access frequency
Get function, if we find an item in the
bykey hash table, we need
to increment it’s access frequency before we proceed to return its
With this change, the
Cache will increment the frequency of that particular
item before we return it. But, are we forgetting something? Also, the
function makes access to the cached items when it actually caches them. This
means that when an item is cached it will immediately be added to the frequency
list, under the node with value
Eviction after addition
Set function allows users of our LFU
Cache to cache more items in it.
A key component of any cache is that it should know how to evict items (free up
space) when new items are added to the cache. For an LFU cache, the least
frequently used items need to be removed when the cache is at capacity.
Let’s first add a function that will return a
bool if the cache has reached
its maximum capacity:
The function is simple: checks if the current
size of the
Cache is bigger or
equals than the
Now, let’s put this into use in the
Set function. Once we have a new item set
in the cache, we have to check if the cache has reached its capacity and then
evict a number of items from it.
For simplicity, we will remove only 10 items every time we reach max capacity:
With this change, if at any point adding an item reaches the capacity of the cache, the cache will evict the least frequently used items.
If you would like to see the whole code for this article, you can check out this gist.
Comments on scaling and time complexity
LFU is an interesting eviction scheme, especially when compared to LRU, in my opinion, due to its unconventional nature. While its application is limited, the algorithm and the backing data structures explained in the paper used in this article are fascinating due to the scaling ability of the approach.
If we revisit the paper that we mentioned at the
beginning of the article, we will see that while LFU is not news, but it was
traditionally implemented using a min-heap, which has a logarithmic time for
insert, lookup and deletion. Interestingly in this paper, the authors explain
that the approach they propose has an
O(1) time complexity for each of the
operations (insertion, lookup and deletion) because the operations are based on
a hash table. Additionally, the linked lists do not add any time complexity
because we do not traverse the lists at any point - we merely add or remove a
node in them if needed (which is an O(1) operation).
In this article, we went through the basics of LFU caches. We established what are the most important performance metrics (hit to miss ratio, membership & eviction speed). We saw that while it’s not the most widely used caching scheme, it sure can be very performant in some use cases.
Then we went on to implement it, using an approach that scales quite well in terms of time complexity. We saw the complexities of implementing the eviction and frequency incrementation algorithms. In the end, we explored some more how the approach we used to implement it scales.
If you would like to read more on the topic, here are a couple of links that will enrich your knowledge of LFU caches and caching in general:
- “An O(1) algorithm for implementing the LFU cache eviction scheme” - Prof. Ketan Shah, Anirban Mitra, Dhruv Matani
- “Caching in theory and practice” - Pavel Panchekha
- “LFU (Least Frequently Used) Cache Implementation” - Geeks for Geeks