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Computer Algorithms: Data Compression with Run-length Encoding

Introduction

No matter how fast today’s computers and networks are, the users will constantly need faster and faster services. To reduce the volume of the transferred data we usually use some sort of compression. That is why this computer sciences area will be always interesting to research and develop.

There are many data compression algorithms, some of them lossless, others lossy, but their main goal aways will be to spare storage space and traffic. These algorithms are very useful when talking about data transfer between two distant places. Perhaps the best example is the transfer between a web server and a browser.

In the last few years a lot of research has been done on compressing files, executed on the client side. Such files are javascript, css, htmls and images. In fact servers and clients already have some techniques to compress data, like using GZIP for instance, that can dramatically decrease the transfer. In the other hand there are lots of tools and tricks in order to decrease the size of the data.

Actually when a file is executed by the client’s virtual machine, it doesn’t matter how “beautifully” it is formatted from a programmer’s point of view. Thus the spaces, tabs and the new lines don’t bring any significant information for the environment. That is why such compressing tools like YUI Compressor, Google Closure Compiler, etc. remove those symbols. Well, they can achieve even more in order to improve the compression rate. In this post I won’t cover this, but this shows how important data compression algorithms are.

It would be great if we could just compress data with some tool. Unfortunately this is not the case and usually the compression rate depends on the data itself. It is obvious that the choice of data compression algorithm depends mainly on the data and first of all we must explore the data.

Here I’ll cover one very simple lossless data compression algorithm called “run-length encoding” that can be very useful in some cases.

Run-length Encoding

Overview

This algorithm consists of replacing large sequences of repeating data with only one item of this data followed by a counter showing how many times this item is repeated. To become clearer let’s see a string example.

aaaaaaaaaabbbaxxxxyyyzyx

This string’s length is 24 and as we can see there are lots of repetitions. Using the run-length algorithm, we replace any run with shorter string followed by a counter.

a10b3a1x4y3z1y1x1

The length of this string is 17, which is approximately 70% of the initial length. Continue reading Computer Algorithms: Data Compression with Run-length Encoding