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November 28, 2007 .net , , , , ,

Searching a Tree of Objects with Linq

UPDATE: Posted a follow-up here.
I’ve finally had legitimate use for LINQ to Objects, not just to make the syntax cleaner, but also to simplify the underlying code and provide me a lot of flexibility without significant work.

The scenario

I have a tree of objects that have both a type and a name. The name is unique, the Type is not. The interface is this:

public interface INode
  int Id { get; }
  string Name { get; set; }
  string Type { get; set; }
  List<INode> Children { get; }

I want to be able to find a single named Node in the tree and I want to be able to retrieve a collection of all nodes for a particular type. The searchable interface could be expressed as this:

public interface ISearchableNode : INode
  INode FindByName(string name);
  IEnumerable<INode> FindByType(string name);

Both require me to walk the tree and examine each node, so clearly I just want to have one walk routine and generically evaluate the node in question. In C# 2.0 parlance, that means I could pass an anonymous delegate into my generic find routine and have it recursively iterate through all the children. I also pass along a resultset to be populated.

The signature for the evaluation delegate looks like this:

delegate bool FindDelegate(INode node);

but since I’m using C# 3.0 (i.e. .NET 3.5) I can use lambda expressions to avoid creating a delegate and simplify my syntax. Instead of FindDelegate, I can simply use Func<INode,bool>:

// Instead of this:
private void Find(INode node, List<INode> resultSet, FindDelegate findDelegate);
// called like this for a Name search:
Find(this, resultSet, delegate(INode node) { return node.Name == name; });

// I can use this:
private void Find(INode node, List<INode> resultSet, Func<INode, bool> f)
// called like this:
Find(this, resultSet, node => node.Name == name);

Thus giving me the following implementation for ISearchableNode:

public INode FindByName(string name)
  List<INode> resultSet = new List<INode>();
  Find(this, resultSet, x => x.Name == name);
  return resultSet.FirstOrDefault();

public IEnumerable<INode> FindByType(string type)
  List<INode> resultSet = new List<INode>();
  Find(this, resultSet, x => x.Type == type);
  return (IEnumerable<INode>)resultSet;

private void Find(INode node, List<INode> resultSet, Func<INode, bool> f)
  if (f(node))
  foreach (INode child in node.Children)
    Find(child, resultSet, f);

Problem solved, move on… Well, except there is significant room for improvement. Here are the two main issues that ought to be resolved:

  1. Syntax is limited to two types of searches and exposing the generic find makes for an ugly syntax. It would be much nicer if queries to the tree could be expressed in LINQ syntax.
  2. It’s also inefficient for the Name search, since I’m walking the entire tree, even if the first node matched the criteria.

LINQ to Hierarchical Data

In order to use LINQ to objects, I need to either create a custom query provider or implement IEnumerable. The latter is significantly simpler and could be expressed using the following interface:

public interface IQueryableNode : IEnumerable<INode> { }

Ok, ok, I don’t even need an interface, I could just implement IEnumerable<INode>… But what does that actually mean? In the simplest sense, I’m iterating over the node’s children, however, I also with do descend into the children’s children and so on. So a simple foreach won’t do. I could just do the same tree walking with a resultset as I did above and return the Enumerator of the resulting list to implement the interface, but C# 2.0 introduced a much more useful way to implement non-linear Iterators, i.e. the yield keyword. Instead of building a list to be interated over, yield let’s the iterating code return values as they are found, which means it can be used for recursive iteration. Thus the GetEnumerator is implemented simply as follows

#region IEnumerable<Node> Members
public IEnumerator<INode> GetEnumerator()
  yield return this;
  foreach (Node child in Children)
    foreach (Node subchild in child)
      yield return subchild;

#region IEnumerable Members
System.Collections.IEnumerator System.Collections.IEnumerable.GetEnumerator()
  return this.GetEnumerator();

Nice and simple and ready for LINQ.

Searching for all Nodes of a type becomes

var allBar = from n in x
                where n.Type == "bar"
                select n;
foreach (Node n in allBar)
  // do something with that node

and the search for a specifically named node becomes

INode node = (from n in x
              where n.Name == "i"
              select n).FirstOrDefault();

But the real benefit of this approach is that I don’t have hard-coded search methods, but can express much more complex queries in a very natural syntax without any extra code on the Node.

Deferred execution

As it turns out, using yield for the recursive iteration also solved the second issue. As yield returns values as it encounters them during iteration, the search doesn’t happen until the query is executed. And one of the side effects of LINQ syntax is that creating a query does not execute it until the result set is iterated over. Therefore, FirstOrDefault() actually short-circuits the query as soon as the first match (and in case of Name, it’s going to be the only match) is hit.

4 to “Searching a Tree of Objects with Linq”

  1. Anonymous says...

    I am new to Linq. We are trying to do the exact same thing, recursively traverse through a tree and find a node. Could you please post the sample app if you have one?

  2. ether says...


    I don't really have a sample App. In general, there is no magic here, linq usage it is really just syntatic convenience over manually traversing the tree and checking each node. That said, this technique can be used for any tree that has a common node type and has a way of accessing the node's children. Come to think of it, with lambda's i can create a generic provider of AsDepthFirstEnumerable() and AsBreadthFirstEnumerable() that can be used with Linq. Look for a follow up post in the next couple of days.

  3. Anonymous says...

    Unfortunately, your implementation of the enumerator spoils data binding somehow.
    To have databinding working it's necessary to implement an enumerator.

    Or is there an easier solution?


  4. mydani says...

    Thanks for this stuff – but I suggest rather than implementing IEnumerable directly, a method called AsEnumerable should be added to the desired object – this will enable LINQ queries but NOT spoil standard databinding mechanisms…

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