The skip list is an elegant dictionary data structure that is commonly deployed in RAM. A skip list with N elements supports searches, inserts, and deletes in O(log N) operations with high probability (w.h.p.) and range queries returning K elements in O(log N + K) operations w.h.p. A seemingly natural way to generalize the skip list to external memory with block size B is to "promote" with probability 1/B, rather than 1/2. However, there are practical and theoretical obstacles to getting the skip list to retain its efficient performance, space bounds, and high-probability guarantees. We give an external-memory skip list that achieves write-optimized bounds. That is, for 0 < ε < 1, range queries take O(logBε N + K/B) I/Os w.h.p. and insertions and deletions take O((logBε N) / B1-ε) amortized I/Os w.h.p. Our write-optimized skip list inherits the virtue of simplicity from RAM skip lists. Moreover, it matches or beats the asymptotic bounds of prior write-optimized data structures such as the Bε & tree or LSM trees, which are deployed in high-performance databases and file systems. The main technical challenge in proving our bounds comes from the fact that there are so few levels in the skip list, an aspect of the data structure that is essential to getting strong external-memory bounds. We use extremal-graph coloring to show that it is possible to decompose paths in the skip list into uncorrelated groups, regardless of the insertion/deletion pattern. Thus, we achieve our bounds by averaging over these uncorrelated paths rather than by averaging over uncorrelated levels, as in the standard skip list.



May, 2017


  • Rob Johnson
  • Michael A. Bender
  • Martin Farach-Colton
  • Simon Mauras
  • Tyler Mayer
  • Cynthia A. Phillips
  • Helen Xu


  • External-Memory Data Structures
  • Skip Lists
  • Write-Optimized Data Structures




Proceedings of the 36th ACM SIGMOD-SIGACT-SIGAI Symposium on Principles of Database Systems (PODS 2017)