Journal article

Algorithms and experiments: The new (and the old) methodology

The last twenty years have seen enormous progress in the design of algorithms, but little of it has been put into practice. Because many recently developed algorithms are hard to characterize theoretically and have large running_time coefficients, the gap between theory and practice has widened over these years. Experimentation is indispensable in the assessment of heuristics for hard problems, in the characterization of asymptotic behavior of complex algorithms, and in the comparison of competing designs for tractable problems. Implementation, although perhaps not rigorous experimentation, was characteristic of early work in algorithms and data structures. Donald Knuth has throughout insisted on testing every algorithm and conducting analyses that can predict behavior on actual data, more recently, Jon Bentley has vividly illustrated the difficulty of implementation and the value of testing. Numerical analysts have long understood the need for standardized test suites to ensure robustness, precision and efficiency of numerical libraries. It is only recently, however, that the algorithms community has shown signs of returning to implementation and testing as an integral part of algorithm development. The emerging disciplines of experimental algorithmics and algorithm engineering have revived and are extending many of the approaches used by computing pioneers such as Floyd and Knuth and are placing on a formal basis many of Bentley's observations. We reflect on these issues, looking back at the last thirty years of algorithm development and forward to new challenges: designing cache_aware algorithms, algorithms for mixed models of computation, algorithms for external memory, and algorithms for scientific research.

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