F2F with reality on sorting in JAVA

The above code snippet has a call to the sort function which is used heavily in most of the application logic. This simple function call instantly reminds us of all the sorting algorithms that we studied back in our College days.
This simple looking function has changed a lot and is not the same as we knew it.

F2F with Reality

It was the time when I was working for my previous employer on a feature enhancement. During testing on our STAGE environment, QA reported an abnormal behaviour while sorting the data on one particular interface in our application. Soon, this behaviour was seen on all the interfaces which involved sorting of data as a functionality.
Since, I was the DEV working on one of these interfaces I started looking into the problem and really came face to face with the reality that I didn’t knew about the most used stuff in JAVA.
All the sorting algorithms that were taught back in college days be it the famous Quick sort or Merge sort, JAVA choose none.
In my search of truth, I found out that people at Oracle had updated the sorting classes in JAVA when they introduced the new 1.7 version.

Our application initially was running on JAVA 6 with maven and Struts was being used (Yeah, it was an old project). I was a part when migration of this application to Spring was happening. Our servers though had already migrated from JBoss to Wildfly with JAVA 8 as default and maven to gradle.

Coming back to the issue, the issue reported was also then observed on our production environment (thankfully, our client wasn’t using the sorting feature regularly and this was never reported). The issue was actually because the old comparators that were written back then were improper and the JAVA update resulted in a situation where the comparator class started throwing a never seen before exception (at least for me!)

Me, after reading for like a couple of days, trying to understand the algorithm and what exactly as causing the issue, changed all of the comparators in our codebase.


JAVA ditched Quick-Sort when it realised the true power of this new sorting algorithm, majorly because it preformed pretty well on real time data. Unlike most sorting algorithms, TimSort is rather new, it was invented in 2002 by Tim Peters (and named after him, Yes, he deserves this!).
Tim Sort was designed and accepted by python as its default sorting algorithm. Since then, it has been a standard sorting algorithm in Python, JAVA 7 & above and Android JDK 1.5 & above.


The algorithm is based on the idea that in real world, data-array contains ordered sub-arrays. And often it really is so. With such data, Tim sort goes ahead of all other algorithms. Do not expect any complex mathematical discoveries. The thing is that in reality, Tim sort is not a standalone algorithm but a hybrid one, an efficient combination of a number of other algorithms. The mechanism of the algorithm can be briefly explained as follows:

The Algorithm

Step1 — Calculate minrun
Step2 — Split the runs and sort them individually
Step3 — Merge the runs

Min-run and it’s calculation

This method is used calculate the minimum run length for an array of specified length.
Here MIN_MERGE is the minimum length of array to apply merge sort.

As said earlier, Tim sort is basically a combination of Insertion and Merge sort. To maintain high performance of this sorting algorithm, the length of the array to be sorted by a particular algorithm matters the most. For example, if we do an insertion sort on a large array or apply merge sort on a small array, such a choice will result in loss of performance and Tim sort will loose all of the head-start it achieves.

To take the advantage of selective sorting, it would be best if we apply insertion sort to small and partially sorted arrays. While applying merge sort to considerable sized arrays for merging to be efficient.

This is why calculation of min-run is very important part of the algorithm.

The main logic, the function here builds is, if presented array size is too small for merge sort, simply return 0 and go for insertion sort for this array.
And if an array is of considerable length calculate the min run length.

This method will return :

MIN_MERGE/2 : if n is exact power of 2
n : if n < MIN_MERGE
k (where MIN_MERGE/2 <= k <= MIN_MERGE)

Sorting individual runs

The returned number represents the number of elements it could find in sorted order (ascending or descending).
In case the elements are in descending order, they are reversed to ascending order.

Using countRunAndMakeAscending() method we sort the first part of the array. While for sorting of the second half i.e. non-sorted elements is done using Binary Sort.


When a run is identified, its base address and length are pushed on a stack. The merging function is then called to see whether it should merge it with the proceeding run(s).
Merging adjacent runs of lengths A and B in-place is very difficult. Theoretical constructions are known that can do it, but they’re too difficult and slow for practical use. But if we have temp memory equal to min(A, B), it’s easy. By this we mean, the smaller array is copied into temporary array and that memory is used in the process of merging. Thus, an optimisation of reusing the memory.

So, Merging begins in the usual, obvious way, comparing the first element of A to the first of B, and moving B[0] to the merge area if it’s less than A[0], else moving A[0] to the merge area. Call this the “one pair at a time” mode. The only twist here is keeping track of how many times in a row “the winner” comes from the same run. If that count reaches MIN_GALLOP, we switch to “galloping mode”


Now, the input array is in a split state where each sub-array is sorted and are needed to be merged into the final sorted array. Instead of merging one by one Tim sort uses galloping.

Initially, we use exponential search to find the max index, as soon as we hit the limit we do a binary search to pin-point the index. Once the max index is confirmed, we apply the binary search. We search the first element of the array in the other array to find the index at which the merge should take place.
Till this index, we bulk copy the values in the final array. This process is repeated till all elements are merged.
This enhances the performance incredibly as a combination of exponential search and binary search is much much faster than linear search or binary search alone.
Though, in a case of complete overlap, this can take time. But this is not the case every time and using this optimisation gives a thumbs-up majority of the time.

This sums up about TimSort and hope you got an idea on how sorting is internally implemented in JAVA.
I strongly recommend everyone to read through the code once.

“This seemed a weird and a noob post at first look. ~ everyone.

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