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Everything about Collections in .Net Framework
As a software developer you certainly knew something about collections as an important data type in modern programming languages especially in the .Net Framework 2.0 and above. As you may notice in the .Net Framework 2.0 Microsoft dedicated more efforts to make collection classes reach, intuitive, have good performance, and easy to use as possible. In our tutorial we will talk about Collections in .Net, what they are, how they work, when to use them, and some performance issues.
We can define a collection as a set or group of related items or records that can be referred to as a unit. A collection is a kind of data structure; that is a way of storing data in a computer to be manipulated and used in the most efficient way. starts from the base types data structures like primitive types (characters, integers,...), passing by the composite types like (unions), we can finally reach the linear types data structures like (arrays, linked lists, stacks, queues, hash tables, ...) which are the subject of our tutorial.
Generic and Non-Generic Collections
In the .Net Framework 1.x most of the collection classes store a data of type "System.Object", so you can store any types of data in the collection object or many types in the same collection object. This makes the addition of new items very easy, but when you need to extract a stored data from the collection you will first need to cast it back to its original data type. This cast had a performance impact especially when you are going to deal with the stored data repeatedly. It slows down your code plus making it less readable.
List As New
In the .Net Framework 2.0 the notion of generic is introduced to avoid the problem of casting as a source of performance drain and to allow the compiler to catch any try to store a different type of data in the specified collection at design time.
List As New
It is recommended to use generic collections. The only reason you may need to use non-generic collections is for legacy purposes or if you need your code to work with older versions of the .Net Framework. If you need to store different types of data in a collection you can still use generic collections, all what you need is to find a common base between the stored data types. In the worst case you can use the System.Object as the generic type parameter.
Dim List As New System.Collections.Generic.List(Of System.Object)
Types of Collections in .NET
There are many types of collections in the .Net Framework 2.0. The most general types of them are under the "System.Collections" namespace. All of them have the following basic methods and properties to manipulate the stored data. "Add" to add a new element, "Remove" to remove an existing element, and "Count" to get the total number of elements stored in a collection.
Found under the "System.Collections" namespace.
ArrayList: an array of contiguous indexed elements whose size can be increased dynamically at run time as required. You can use this data structure to store any types of data like integers, strings, structures, objects, .....
BitArray: an array of contiguous bit values (zeros and ones). Its size must be determined at design time.
SortedList: represents a list of key/value pair elements, sorted by keys and can be accessed by key and by index.
Stack: represents the data structure of last-in-first-out (LIFO).
Queue: represents the data structure of first-in-first-out (FIFO).
HashTable: represents a collection of key/value pair elements stored based on the hash code of the key.
Found under the "System.Collections.Generic" namespace.
LinkedList: represents a doubly linked list data structure of a specified data type.
Dictionary: represents a collection of keys and values.
List: the generic counterpart of the ArrayList collection.
Queue: the generic counterpart of the non-generic Queue collection.
Stack: the generic counterpart of the non-generic Stack collection.
When to Decide to Use a Collection?
Sometimes the answer is obvious, sometimes it is not. A collection is used to tie certain items that have a similar nature together in one set and refer to them as one group of data. As an example, when you need to store some data about your customers, you can obviously use a collection for this purpose. As a guideline you should use a collection when you have more than one item that serve similar purposes and all have the same importance, when the number of items are unknown at design time, when you need to sort items, when you need to iterate through items, or when you need to expose the items to a consumer that expects collection type.
Some performance issues when woring with collectins
The main purpose of collections is to deal with a large number of items, and as the number of items increased the performance of your application will be affected. To reduce the effect of the number of items on your application you have to choose the right kind of collection you will use. This depends on the usage patterns that are expected from your collection. You have to decide whether you will insert all the items in the collection only on initialization of your application, or you will do that through out the life time of the application. How many times will you need to iterate through the items of the collection. Will you need to insert new items at the middle, or just add the new ones to the end of the collection. Is it important to store your items in order or not, and so on. You have to decide what is the key operation you need; is it iteration?, insertion, lookup, or saving data in order. You can choose the right collection depending on the usage pattern of data.
For example when your main concern is lookups and you don't mind about the order of items, your first choice should be System.Collections.Generic.Dictionary. that has a very fast lookups plus quick additions and removals. The mentioned three operations operate quickly even if the collection contains millions of items.
Dic As New
If your usage is mostly addition and a few deletions, and if it is important for the logic of your program to keep items in order you will need to use the System.Collections.Generic.List collection. In this situation lookup will be slow because the need to traverse the entire list items to get the required one. Inserting items at the middle of the collection or removing existing items will take a valuable amount of time too, but adding items at the end will be very quick.
L As New
This tutorial is written by ThinkAndCare.
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