Sorting. It’s a classic problem that’s been studied for decades, and it’s a great first step towards “thinking algorithmically.” Over the years, a handful of sorting algorithms have emerged, each characterizable by it’s asymptotic order, a measure of how much longer an algorithm takes as the problem size gets bigger. While all sorting algorithms take longer to complete the more elements that must be sorted, some are slower than others.
For a sorter like bubble sort, the time grows quadradically longer for a linear increase in the number of inputs; it’s of order
O(N²).With a faster sorter like merge-sort, which is
O(N*log(N)), the time required grows far less quickly as the problem size gets bigger. Since sorting is a bit old-hat among many folks here, and since
O(N*log(N)) seems to be the generally-accepted baseline for top speed with a single core, I thought I’d pop the question: can we go faster?
In short — yes, we can! In fact, I’ll claim that we can sort in linear time, i.e a running time of
O(N). There’s a catch, though: to achieve linear time, we’ll need to build some custom hardware to help us out. In this post, I’ll unfold the problem of sorting in parallel, and then I”ll take us through a linear-time solution that we can synthesize at home on an FPGA.
Need to cut to the chase? Check out the full solution implemented in SystemVerilog on GitHub. I’ve wrapped it inside an SPI communication layer so that we can play with it using an everyday microcontroller.
To understand how it works, join us as we embark on an adventure in designing algorithms for hardware. If you’re used to thinking of programming in a stepwise fashion for a CPU, it’s time to get out your thinking cap!