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What are the advantages of iteration over


recursion, and vice versa?
There are several reasons to avoid recursion in C:

Recursion is more difficult to understand in some algorithms (but see below). An


algorithm that can naturally be expressed iteratively may not be as easy to
understand if expressed recursively.
There is no portable way to tell how deep recursion can go without causing
trouble (how much `stack space' the machine has), and there is no way to recover
from too-deep recursion (a `stack overflow').
In C you can't do some nice things recursively. For instance, if I'm traversing a
binary tree, I probably want to do it using a for loop:
tree t;
item *i;

for (i = first (t); i != NULL; i = next (i)) {
...do something with i...
}

But you can't write the traversal recursively if you want to do this. Factoring the
traversal into iteration or forcing the use of a callback function are the only two
choices. The former is the lesser of the two evils, since you only have to do it
once and then can use many times in traversals.

(Now, if C had built-in support for co-routines, we could do this recursively


anyhow. Most procedural languages do not support co-routines; I hear that Icon is
an exception. It's really too bad, but I don't see this changing soon.)

Suppose that you need to pass some data to the recursive process. You might want
to keep a count of the number of nodes visited, or a set of parameters that
determine what to do at each node, or anything else. In order to do this, you have
to pass some data to every recursive call. This is a waste of time and space, unless
your compiler is much smarter than mine. Alternatively, you can use global
variables, but that's hardly a preferable solution.
Now, if you were to use an iterative solution instead, you could just have a single
set of local variables, and there is no need to pass anything recursively. This saves
the time and memory that would be used for passing these things in the recursive
calls.

Aborting a recursive process in midstream is a pain. Suppose that you're using a


function to enumerate all the items in a binary search tree, and you discover
halfway through that you don't need to look at any more items. Alternatively,
consider the problem of aborting after a syntax error while parsing an expression
via recursive descent. Trying to abort the process involves the cooperation of the
currently executing instance with all of the instances in which it is nested. This is
slow and sometimes nasty. Use of setjmp() and longjmp() is an alternative, but,
like goto, these constructs are best avoided when practical.

Even worse, suppose, in the context of the binary search tree example, that
halfway through you discover that you need to change directions, move
backward. I don't even want to think about how to do that recursively. It's simply
impractical.

Avoiding recursive calls often avoids other kinds of overhead, such as the
system's unavoidable function call overhead. On some systems this can be
significant, so a transformation from recursion to iteration can improve both speed
and space requirements.

There are reasons to avoid iteration, too:

Iteration is more difficult to understand in some algorithms (but see above). An


algorithm that can naturally be expressed recursively may not be as easy to
understand if expressed iteratively. It can also be difficult to convert a recursive
algorithm into an iterative algorithm, and verifying that the algorithms are
equivalent can also be difficult.
Recursion allows you to allocate additional automatic objects at each function
call. The iterative alternative is to repeatedly dynamically allocate or resize
memory blocks. On many platforms automatic allocation is much faster, to the
point that its speed bonus outweighs the speed penalty and storage cost of
recursive calls. (But some platforms don't support allocation of large amounts of
automatic data, as mentioned above; it's a trade-off.)

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Last updated 02 Jan 2004 23:45. Copyright 2004 Ben Pfaff.
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