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Different kinds of data structures are suited to different kinds of applications, and some are highly specialized to specific tasks. For example, B-trees are particularly well-suited for implementation of databases, while compiler implementations usually use hash tables to look up identifiers.
Data structures provide a means to manage large amounts of data efficiently, such as large databases and internet indexing services. Usually, efficient data structures are a key to designing efficient algorithms. Some formal design methods and programming languages emphasize data structures, rather than algorithms, as the key organizing factor in software design. Storing and retrieving can be carried out on data stored in both main memory and in secondary memory.
Many others are possible, but they tend to be further variations and compounds of the above.
Data structures are generally based on the ability of a computer to fetch and store data at any place in its memory, specified by an address—a bit string that can be itself stored in memory and manipulated by the program. Thus the record and array data structures are based on computing the addresses of data items with arithmetic operations; while the linked data structures are based on storing addresses of data items within the structure itself. Many data structures use both principles, sometimes combined in non-trivial ways (as in XOR linking).
The implementation of a data structure usually requires writing a set of procedures that create and manipulate instances of that structure. The efficiency of a data structure cannot be analyzed separately from those operations. This observation motivates the theoretical concept of an abstract data type, a data structure that is defined indirectly by the operations that may be performed on it, and the mathematical properties of those operations (including their space and time cost).
Most assembly languages and some low-level languages, such as BCPL (Basic Combined Programming Language), lack support for data structures. Many high-level programming languages and some higher-level assembly languages, such as MASM, on the other hand, have special syntax or other built-in support for certain data structures, such as vectors (one-dimensional arrays) in the C language or multi-dimensional arrays in Pascal.
Most programming languages feature some sort of library mechanism that allows data structure implementations to be reused by different programs. Modern languages usually come with standard libraries that implement the most common data structures. Examples are the C++ Standard Template Library, the Java Collections Framework, and Microsoft's .NET Framework.
Modern languages also generally support modular programming, the separation between the interface of a library module and its implementation. Some provide opaque data types that allow clients to hide implementation details. Object-oriented programming languages, such as C++, Java and Smalltalk may use classes for this purpose.
Many known data structures have concurrent versions that allow multiple computing threads to access the data structure simultaneously.
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