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Algorithms are methods for studying for solving problems that are suited for computer implementation. Most algorithms of interest involve organizing the data involved in the computation – schemes for organising data that leave them amenable to efficient processing by an algorithm. Simple algorithms can give rise to complicated data structures and, conversely, complicated algorithms can use simple data structures.

When we write a computer program, we are generally implementing a method that has been devised previously to solve some problem. This method is often independent of the particular programming language being used—it is likely to be equally appropriate for many computers and many programming languages. It is the method, rather than the computer program itself, that specifies the steps that we can take to solve the problem. The term algorithm is used in computer science to describe a finite, deterministic, and effective problem-solving method suitable for implementation as a computer program. Algorithms are the stuff of computer science: they are central objects of study in the field. We can define an algorithm by describing a procedure for solving a problem in a natural language, or by writing a computer program that implements the procedure.

Careful algorithm design is an extremely effective part of the process of solving a huge problem, whatever the applications area. When developing a huge or complex computer program, a great deal of effort must go into understanding and defining the problem to be solved, managing its complexity, and decomposing it into smaller subtasks that can be implemented easily. Often, many of the algorithms required after the decomposition are trivial to implement. In most cases, however, there are a few algorithms whose choice is critical because most of the system resources will be spent running those algorithms.

Choosing the best algorithm for a particular task can be a complicated process, perhaps involving sophisticated mathematical analysis. The branch of computer science that comprises the study of such questions is called analysis of algorithms.


Sedgewick, R. and Wayne, K. (2016). Algorithms. Boston: Addison-Wesley.

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