Taming SplPriorityQueue

SplPriorityQueue is a fantastic new feature of PHP 5.3. However, in trying to utilize it in a few projects recently, I've run into some behavior that's (a) non-intuitive, and (b) in some cases at least, undesired. In this post, I'll present my solutions.

Of Heaps and Queues

Queues in programming are any data structure that, when iterated, return values in a "first-in-first-out" (FIFO) order. For "last-in-first-out" (LIFO) iteration, you define a stack.

A heap is a data structure where, given a specific node, all nodes beneath it are of a value less than it. (Technically, this would be considered a "max-heap," as you can also have a variant where all child nodes are of a value greater; this is called a "min-heap.")

A priority queue is a specialized version of a max-heap. Typically, data is registered with a specific priority — so the max-heap is looking at only the priority value, not the data itself. This allows inserting data into the queue in any order desired, while ensuring that they are iterated in the order specified by the priorities provided.

PHP offers SPL data structures corresponding to each:


The first problem I ran into was really a lapse of reasoning on my part, and is namely this:

Iterating over a heap removes the values from the heap.

Basically, in order to satisfy the heap contract, which is that the root node is always the maximum value (or minimum, in the case of a min-heap), any previous nodes must be removed.

The problem with this, obviously, is that if you want to iterate over a heap of any sort multiple times, well, you can't with the same instance.

The next problem I ran into was with SplPriorityQueue specifically: when items of equal priority are enqueued, the iteration order of these items is… unexpected. While the documentation notes that "multiple elements with the same priority will get dequeued in no particular order," the fact is that it is predictable, and unintuitive. For example, given the following:

$queue->insert('foo', 1000);
$queue->insert('bar', 1000);
$queue->insert('baz', 1000);
$queue->insert('bat', 1000);

foreach ($queue as $data) echo $data, " ";

I'd expect a result of "foo bar baz bat", assuming FIFO order (which is expected in a queue) for equal priorities; "foo baz bat bar", assuming ordering by data (which might be expected in a max-heap). In fact, neither is true: the first item will be emitted first, and then the remaining items in reverse order of when enqueued: "foo bat baz bar".

While this may be somewhat predictable, I find I don't want to assume such order, nor try and write code around it.


Allowing multiple iterations

Allowing multiple iterations of a queue is as easy as cloning it prior to iteration:

foreach (clone $queue as $datum) echo $datum, " ";

The problem is automating this — there are cases where I don't want users to really have to understand the internal implementation.

My solution to this was to use the idea of inner and outer iterators. In this particular case, I created a PriorityQueue class that composes an SplPriorityQueue instance, and which also implements IteratorAggregate. This allows the following:

namespace Foo;

class PriorityQueue implements Countable, IteratorAggregate
    protected $innerQueue;
    public function __construct()
        // I'll explain the lack of global namespacing later...
        $this->innerQueue = new SplPriorityQueue;

    public function count()
        return count($this->innerQueue);

    public function insert($datum, $priority)
        $this->innerQueue->insert($datum, $priority);
    public function getIterator()
        return clone $this->innerQueue;

This approach means that as I consume PriorityQueue, I can be assured that I can count and iterate over it… again and again.

I mention in the code comments that I'm not importing SplPriorityQueue into the namespace. The reason is that I want to also solve the problem of predictable queue order.

Enforcing predictable queue order

The solution to the queue order problem with equal priorities is actually quite simple. While I found it on the SplPriorityQueue::compare manual page, Matthew Turland also discusses it in a presentation on SPL, and it hinges on one, simple fact: priorities do not need to be integers.

What does this mean? It means that the following are not equivalent, and will lead to a more expected sort order:

$queue->insert('foo', array(1000, 1000));
$queue->insert('bar', array(1000, 100));
$queue->insert('baz', array(1000, 10));
$queue->insert('bat', array(1000, 1));

foreach ($queue as $data) echo $data, " ";

This results in "foo bar baz bat"!

The trick, then, is automating the solution. I achieved this in a custom SplPriorityQueue extension:

namespace Foo;

class SplPriorityQueue extends \SplPriorityQueue
    protected $queueOrder = PHP_INT_MAX;

    public function insert($datum, $priority)
        if (is_int($priority)) {
            $priority = array($priority, $this->queueOrder--);
        parent::insert($datum, $priority);

As each datum is added to the queue, if the priority is an integer, it wraps it in an array, using $queueOrder as a second value to the array, and decrementing $queueOrder on completion. The new priority is then used to insert the value.

Using this extension ensures that order in the priority queue is now predictable.


SplPriorityQueue is indeed powerful, and saves me a ton of time programming — and also likely CPU processes and memory when using larger data sets. While it may not always meet my use cases, the fact is that, particularly with namespacing available, I can easily override the class to meet my needs.