Recursion to Iteration

In most languages without the niceties of tail-call optimisation, elegant recursive solutions often degrade quickly into solutions which take up extensive amounts of memory; we know creating a new stack frame for each function call is expensive. A typical application for recursive functions is the depth-first search:

def search_graph(graph, name):
    for node in graph:
        if == name:
            yield node
        nodes = search_graph(node.children, name)
        for item in nodes:
            yield node

There’s a way around this that will need us to rethink the fundamental way which we approach problems. Using a LIFO stack we can refactor our recursive solutions into iterative ones:

def search_graph(graph, name):
    stack = list(graph)
    while stack:
        node = stack.pop()
        if == name:
            yield node

The way the iterative method works is quite unorthodox:

We create a list of nodes from a graph, which is an iterable of nodes (this is important in order to support generators).
N1 N2 N3
Pop a node from the stack, and yield it if it matches our criteria.
N1 N2
We also extend the stack with the children of the node. This is because we want to make sure that the next popped node is a node that is a child of the current node. Then steps 1 to 3 are repeated indefinitely until the stack is exhausted.
N1 N2 N3.1 N3.2 N3.3

To implement breadth-first search version of our graph-searching algorithm, our approach is a little different. Instead of using a LIFO stack we must use a FIFO queue:

from collections import deque

def breadth_first(graph, name):
    queue = deque(graph)
    while queue:
        node = queue.popleft()
        if == name:
            yield node

Notice that the semantics and behaviour have changed differently just from a few lines of code change. The visualisation of a FIFO queue is an excercise left to the reader. Note that in this case, using a double-ended queue (deque) is more efficient since we’re shifting elements from the “head” of the array rather than the end.

When there are cyclic references which often blow up recursive programs, the recommended approach (from experience) is to use a set of “seen” elements if your data-structures are hashable.