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DFS vs. BFS: Full Comparison and 9 Key Differences

data structure

DFS vs. BFS: Full Comparison and 9 Key Differences

When searching through graphs or tree data structures, two popular algorithms are Depth-First Search (DFS) and Breadth-First Search (BFS). Both serve the same purpose of finding a path or traversing a graph; however, DFS vs. BFS differ in terms of their approach and efficiency.

DFS is recursive, traversing deep into the graph and backtracking when reaching dead ends, while BFS iteratively visits all adjacent nodes before moving forward. This article will contrast DFS and BFS by outlining key differences as well as the pros and cons associated with each approach.

DFS vs. BFS: Side-by-Side Comparison

FeaturesDepth First Search (DFS)Breadth First Search (BFS)
AlgorithmTraverses depth firstTraverses breadth first
Data StructureUses stackUses queue
MemoryUses less memoryUses more memory
PathDoes not guarantee the shortest pathGuarantees the shortest path
GoalUsed to traverse to the deepest nodes of a tree or graphUsed to traverse all nodes of a tree or graph
BacktrackingCan backtrackCannot backtrack
ApplicationMaze solving, topological sorting, graph coloringShortest path finding, finding connected components, web crawling

DFS vs. BFS: What’s the Difference?

At first glance, Breadth-First Search (BFS) and Depth-First Search (DFS) algorithms appear similar. BFS traverses according to tree breadth, while DFS follows depth. Both share a common goal: searching through graphs to locate an individual node or path. Therefore, the key differences between them will be discussed further below.

Approach and Traversal Order

DFS (Depth First Search) and BFS (Breadth First Search) are two widely-used algorithms for traversing graphs and trees. Both algorithms visit each node or vertex of the graph or tree; however, their order of traversal and approach vary.

DFS takes a depth-first approach, traversing each branch in turn until it reaches the depth of each. In other words, it explores as far along each branch as possible before backtracking. The traversal order used by DFS is LIFO (Last In First Out), meaning it uses a stack data structure for storing visited nodes.

Conversely, BFS takes a breadth-first approach; it visits all nodes at the current depth before moving on to those at a deeper depth. That is, it analyzes every node at each level before progressing further down. Furthermore, its traversal order is FIFO (First In First Out), which utilizes a queue data structure for storing visited nodes.

DFS vs. BFS
The DFS algorithm will search as far as possible down each branch before it backtracks.

©Wolfram Esser/CC BY-SA 3.0 – License

Time and Space Complexity

Another significant difference between DFS and BFS is their time-and-space complexity. DFS’s time complexity is O(V+E), where V is the number of vertices and E is the edge count in a graph or tree. Furthermore, its space complexity also exceeds O(V+E) since all visited nodes must be stored on a stack until reaching their respective leaves.

Contrarily, BFS has a time complexity of O(V+E), similar to DFS; however, its space complexity is O(V), as it stores all visited nodes in an array. Therefore, BFS may require more memory than DFS when dealing with large graphs or trees.

Use Cases and Applications

DFS and BFS have distinct uses and applications. DFS is often employed when the search space is large and deep, with the goal being to explore as far down any given path as before backtracking. It can also be beneficial when trying to locate a solution in games or puzzles where the answer may be located deep down within the puzzle space.

BFS, on the other hand, is often employed when searching a large and shallow search space to identify the shortest path between two nodes or vertices. It also determines the closest distance between two network nodes or locations on a geographical map.

Completeness and Optimality

Search algorithms must meet two essential requirements: completeness and optimality. Completeness refers to whether the algorithm can guarantee finding a solution if one exists, while optimality implies finding the shortest or most optimal path toward that solution.

DFS is not perfect or optimal, as it may get stuck in an infinite loop or fail to find the shortest path. DFS could become stuck if a cycle in its graph or tree fails to track visited nodes. Furthermore, DFS may find suboptimal paths toward solving problems.

However, BFS is complete and optimal. It guarantees to find a solution if one exists, as well as finding the shortest path therein. After exploring all nodes at one depth level before moving on to another, BFS ensures it finds the shortest path. Nonetheless, BFS may take longer than DFS in some cases, especially when dealing with deep or narrow graphs or trees.

Memory Management

Another crucial factor when selecting between DFS and BFS is Memory management. Memory management refers to how an algorithm uses memory and how much space is necessary for storing visited nodes.

DFS uses a stack to store visited nodes, but large search spaces or graphs can cause problems. In such instances, DFS may run out of memory and fail to locate an optimal solution; dense graphs or trees require more memory due to frequent cycles.

BFS relies on a queue data structure to store visited nodes, guaranteeing it doesn’t run out of memory. However, in certain circumstances, BFS may use more memory than DFS, especially when the graph or tree is wide and shallow or has many branches. BFS could also require more resources if there are many nodes or the structure is sparse.

DFS vs. BFS
A BFS algorithm searches all of the nodes at one depth before moving on to the nodes at the next depth.

©Alexander Drichel/CC BY-SA 3.0 – License

Implementation Complexity

The implementation complexity of an algorithm refers to how easy or difficult it is to execute it. This depends on the programming language used, data structures available, and any logic needed for successful completion.

DFS is typically easier to implement than BFS since it only needs a stack data structure and recursive function or loop. DFS can be implemented using an easy depth-first search algorithm that visits each node before exploring each branch in turn. Furthermore, it’s simpler to implement in recursive programming languages such as Python, where recursion comes naturally.

BFS, on the other hand, requires a queue data structure and loop. To implement it efficiently, BFS uses a breadth-first search algorithm that visits all nodes at one depth before moving on to the next. However, implementing BFS in recursive programming languages like Python can be more challenging since they require a real loop rather than simply recursion.

Applications

DFS and BFS have distinct applications in various domains. DFS is commonly employed in computer graphics, artificial intelligence, and web crawling to offer 3D models and images by exploring 3D space to render objects. Artificial intelligence uses DFS for decision trees or game trees – evaluating each move possible to explore the tree’s branches – while web crawlers use DFS to crawl the web and explore links on pages.

BFS has been widely used in network routing, shortest path algorithms, and puzzles. In network routing, it finds the shortest path between two nodes by exploring all potential paths until finding the shortest one. BFS also plays a role in shortest path algorithms like Dijkstra’s or A* that guarantees to find the shortest route; similarly, when solving puzzles such as Rubik‘s Cube using BFS, you get to determine the shortest solution that solves the puzzle.

The Algorithm to Solve Rubik's Cube
Using BFS to solve Rubik’s Cube will determine the quickest solution to solve the puzzle.

©gd_project/Shutterstock.com

Search Space

The search space is the set of all possible states or configurations an algorithm can explore to find its solution. It can be represented as a graph or tree, where each node represents one state or configuration, and each edge signifies a transition between them.

DFS investigates the search space depth-first manner, exploring each branch as far as possible before backtracking and exploring other branches. This approach works best for large and deep search spaces where the solution may lie deep within it. Unfortunately, DFS can become stuck in an infinite loop if an infinite loop is present and it does not keep track of visited nodes.

BFS traverses the search space in a breadth-first fashion, exploring all nodes at one depth before proceeding to the next. It is ideal for large or shallow search spaces where the solution may be close to the root. BFS guarantees to find the shortest path to that solution but may take more memory and be slower in some cases than DFS.

Search Strategy

A search strategy refers to an algorithm deciding which node to explore next. Factors like cost, heuristics, or randomness may guide this decision-making process.

DFS employs a depth-first search strategy, in which it explores each branch to the maximum extent possible before returning and exploring other branches. DFS doesn’t use any cost or heuristics when selecting which node to explore next; thus, it may explore suboptimal paths. In certain cases, DFS may also rely on randomness, such as Monte Carlo Tree Search.

BFS typically uses a breadth-first search strategy, exploring all nodes at one depth before proceeding to the next. Conversely, it employs a uniform cost search strategy that prioritizes nodes with the lowest cost. In certain cases, BFS may also rely on heuristics like the A* algorithm, which utilizes cost and estimated distance to decide which node to explore next.

DFS vs. BFS: 10 Must-Know Facts

  • DFS stands for Depth First Search, while BFS stands for Breadth First Search.
  • DFS traverses a graph or tree in a depthward motion, while BFS moves according to tree breadth.
  • To keep track of visited nodes during DFS traversal, they use a stack, while with BFS, it uses a queue.
  • DFS can be employed for topological sorting, cycle detection, and finding strongly connected components in graphs; while BFS aims to find the shortest path between two nodes.
  • DFS takes up less space, while BFS requires more since it stores all nodes at the current level before proceeding to the next.
  • DFS is faster when solving problems involving a large number of nodes, while BFS excels when dealing with smaller groups.
  • DFS traverses all nodes in a graph or tree, while BFS only visits those along the shortest path.
  • DFS uses a depth-first search strategy, while BFS employs a breadth-first approach.
  • DFS may not find the shortest path, while BFS always does.
  • Furthermore, DFS could get stuck in an infinite loop if your graph contains cycles; however, BFS always ends when only finite nodes are left.

DFS vs. BFS: Which One Is Better?

Depth-First Search (DFS) and Breadth-First Search (BFS) algorithms each possess their own specific advantages and drawbacks, making one better suited to certain scenarios than the other.

DFS efficiently traverses deep or infinite graphs with low space complexity and recursion-based implementation. It also effectively detects cycles in a graph since it explores as far along each branch before backtracking. DFS provides solutions to problems like finding connected components, topological sorting and the 8-puzzle; modifications are possible.

Conversely, BFS is more suitable for finding the shortest path between two nodes in a graph, as it examines all nodes at that depth before moving on to the next level. Furthermore, it can be employed in order to compute the minimum spanning tree of a graph and solve problems like Knight’s Tour.

Both algorithms have their own time complexities, and the choice between them depends on the particular problem and characteristics of the graph being analyzed. Generally speaking, BFS has a higher time complexity than DFS but guarantees the shortest path between two nodes in an unweighted graph; on the other hand, DFS may have lower complexity but may not always guarantee this shortest path.

In conclusion, the choice between DFS vs. BFS depends on the problem being solved and the graph being analyzed. Both algorithms have their strengths and weaknesses; therefore, understanding both can help select the most suitable one for a specific problem. It is thus essential to have both types of algorithms in your toolbox, along with examples in which they are most beneficial.

Frequently Asked Questions

Which algorithm is better for finding a path between two nodes?

BFS and DFS can be employed to find a path between two nodes. BFS is better at finding the shortest route, while DFS prefers finding paths that may not be the shortest but may have other desirable characteristics such as being of topological sort or strongly connected component.

Which algorithm is better for traversing a sparse graph?

BFS is superior for traversing a sparse graph since it explores all nodes at one level before moving on, making it efficient when there are few edges. On the contrary, DFS may explore many unrelated nodes, making it less efficient when working in sparse graphs.

Which algorithm is better for traversing a dense graph?

DFS is more efficient when traversing a dense graph, as it explores nodes depth-wise and can quickly backtrack to those still relevant to the search. However, BFS may probe many irrelevant nodes at once before reaching your desired node, making it less effective in dense networks.

Can DFS and BFS be used for finding the connected components of a graph?

Yes, both DFS and BFS can be employed to discover the connected components of a graph. DFS begins from one node and traverses as far as possible before returning and exploring other unvisited nodes, while BFS examines all nodes at one level before progressing onto the next.

Can DFS and BFS be used to detect cycles in a graph?

Yes, both DFS and BFS can be used to detect cycles in graphs. DFS detects cycles by keeping track of visited nodes in a list and stack of nodes being explored; if that same node reappears without being its parent in either order, then it’s considered a new cycle. Similarly, BFS maintains both lists of visited nodes and an active queue of nodes being explored; if a previously visited node reappears without being its own child within this latter queue, it is flagged as potentially damaging.

Can DFS and BFS be used to find the topological sort of a directed acyclic graph (DAG)?

Yes, both DFS and BFS can be employed to determine the topological sort of a DAG. With DFS, this is done by maintaining an index of visited nodes as well as an ongoing stack of those being explored. Once all children of each node have been explored, they are added to the topological sort; similarly, in BFS, there is also an index keeping track of visited nodes along with an ongoing queue that awaits exploration; when all parents of a node have been explored, it too is included in the topological sort.

Can DFS and BFS be used to find the shortest path in a weighted graph?

BFS can be employed to find the shortest path in an unweighted graph, while Dijkstra’s algorithm is employed for weighted graphs. However, DFS may also be successful when weights are non-negative and the search is limited to one connected component.

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