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Stacks With SplStack

Posted by on January 2, 2024

As developers, we have times when we get to process a lot of data. Sometimes it’s a few kilobytes of data and we don’t need to worry about the performance because computers are so fast. When we’re looking at gigabytes or more of data then we need to be aware of the performance of our algorithms or we might not even be able to complete the process in our lifetime.

In this article, we’ll discuss the stack data structure and how to use stacks in PHP.

What Are Data Structures?

Before we go too far into what a stack is we need to have a small side discussion to discuss data structures.

A data structure is a way of organizing data inside a computer so we can use it effectively.

The overarching idea is that we need to be able to take data and use our code to optimize it so we can process it most efficiently. Depending on the data there are lots of different ways it can be organized but the same kinds of problems keep coming up over and over again so we have a basic set of data structures we can use to solve those problems.

Each of these data structures has different performance characteristics. We’ll use what’s known as the Big O Notation to describe the performance of the data structure with different processes like adding elements, deleting elements, and searching for a specific element as the number of elements gets very large. It can range from O(1) indicating it takes the same amount of time regardless of how many elements exist or O(n) indicating it increases linearly as the number of elements increases up to O(n!) which is something we need to strive to prevent.

There are two major types of data structures.

The first is linear data structures where elements are arranged in a sequence. Examples of this include arrays, lists, stacks, and queues.

The second is non-linear data structures where a linear structure doesn’t work because of operational complexities. Examples include graphs and trees.

Stacks In General

Stacks are a linear data structure that contains elements that are linked to each other. This is much like a linked list but with the major difference that stacks operate in a Last In First Out (or LIFO) method. This means that we can only add elements from one end and remove them from the same end. This makes them ideal for keeping track of items that need to be processed in the reverse order than they were found. Because they’re linked to each other we must access data sequentially and random access is not possible.

When we want to insert or delete items into the stack we do so at the start of the stack. Because we’re keeping track of the end of the stack adding an element is O(1). Deleting an element is generally only done at the end of the stack.

Because we need to look at each element, in turn, when we’re searching for an element the worst case will have to run through every element in the list so it’s O(n). This isn’t horrible but it’s not the best outcome for a search so if you’re doing a lot of searches it’s best to look at alternative data structures like a tree.

Depending on your implementation of the stack your using elements are either pushed to the stack and then popped. The built-in PHP class SplStack is a stack class based on the SplDoublyLinkedList class we discussed in our previous video so it uses push() and pop().

Some benefits of stacks are that they do not require contiguous blocks of memory and therefore can help reduce memory fragmentation and they support efficient removal and addition of elements.

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Stacks In PHP

We must stress to never create your implementation of data structures as it wastes time that could be used to add helpful features to our software. When I was in a data structures class we would spend a week implementing each data structure and if we were lucky it would work when it was time to turn it in. Someone has already uploaded an implementation of all these data structures to GitHub if it isn’t included in PHP.

Thankfully PHP comes with implementation for stacks in the SplStack class. It provides the basic features we need to have inside a stack without too much extra. If you’ve watched our video on the SplDoublyLinkedList class a lot of this will be familiar as SplStack is implemented using the SplDoublyLinkedList.

The most important functions are push() and pop() which add new elements into the stack and remove elements respectively.

Ideally, we would just push elements into the stack and then remove them when we’re ready to process them but we may also need to iterate through the elements to see what’s in the stack. There are two ways to do this.

The first is using a foreach loop.

$stack = new SplStack();

foreach ($stack as $value) {
  echo $value, PHP_EOL;

The other is using some of the other public functions of SplStack. We have the rewind() function to reset our iteration to the head of the list, valid() to see if we’ve gone off the end of the list, current() to access the current data, and next() to go forward through the list.

    echo $stack->current(), PHP_EOL;

What we want to do is pop items off as they shouldn’t be needed again (that’s the whole point of the stack). To do that we’ll use the count() function to see if there are still elements in the stack.

while($stack->count()) {
    $item = $stack->pop();
    echo $item, PHP_EOL;

At the end of this process, the stack will be empty because we popped all the elements off.

Let’s work through an example of how we can create a tool to “loop” through all the files in a directory structure without using recursion.

To start we’ll create a stack and put our search directory into it. For this example, we’ll search the /etc directory.

Next, we’ll enter into a loop where we loop through until we’ve checked all the elements in the stack.

I always like to set some kind of a count check to prevent an infinite loop so we’ll add that as well.

Now, we need to add a check to see if the $currentPath is a directory. If it is we’ll get the contents of the directory and add it to the stack for later checks.

Finally, we can add our logic to process the file.

$toCheck = new SplStack();

$count = 0;
while($count < 10000 && $toCheck->count()) {
    $currentPath = $toCheck->pop();

    if (is_dir($currentPath)) {
        $subItems = glob("$currentPath/*");

        foreach ($subItems as $newItem) {
    } else {
        // do our processing here
        echo $currentPath, PHP_EOL;


Because we’re using a stack to drive this logic we’re implementing what’s known as a depth-first search because we’re working our way down the to lowest level of our search before we work our way back up.

The benefit to this solution over recursion is that it’s easier to debug and we could serialize the stack, save it to disk, and restart it later.

What You Need to Know

  • Stacks are a tool for keeping a linear list of items
  • Good performance inserting/deleting
  • Poor performance searching
  • Useful for reversing a sequence

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