Precalculated modified preorder tree traversal

MPTT it quite old and very clever way for transposing hierarchical - tree structure to a two-dimensional representation that is suitable for relational databases. MPTT allows to translate information about node tree position into two numbers - left and right bound. Two number fields can be easily indexed and look ups for records in the tree can take advantage of database indexes and perform really quickly.

I won’t go into details of the (well) documented MPTT algorithm itself, because there are a lot of sources where you can go for comprehensible explanation (better than I would be able to provide). If you are not familiar with the algorithm, please, go first and read these articles:

We’re often working with hierarchical data in my company and so we really wanted to have this gear implemented as optimally as possible. Original MPTT algorithm has one big drawback and that is costly updates when you move nodes in the tree, insert new and remove old nodes. Simply said - MPTT has heavy writes and light reads.

In our e-commerce sollution we work with loads of data that are accessed primarily in a hierarchical fashion. When you browse your online store you usually want to see a collection of products in certain category and all its sub categories. Even if it seems as a simple operation it might translate to really complex query that might target millions of records in the database. Wholesalers have complex price policies and can have dozens of different prices for single item, dozens attributes that describe the item, dozens of product shapes and looks and cartesian product might grow to tens of millions of records. So you really want use any filtering constraint that would keep the combination count at sane levels. Using MPTT bounds seems to be a good way to go, because that’s the way user looks at the data.

To be able to take advantage of the numeric (left/right bound) index we need to copy the bounds not only to all products, but also to other records (such as prices) that we want to finally join in a single big cartesian product (even noSQL solution would benefit from indexed MPTT bounds, so there is no need to think about MPTT only in connection with relational database). If we would be content with original MPTT it would lead to regular update of thousands of records in case of simple write operations with the tree. So we invested some time to come up with some improvements that would tackle the heavy writes.

We decided to limit ourselves with a few constraints that would allow us to use much more efficient form of MPTT. Let’s say that we can constraint ourselves with maximum level count (depth of the tree) and maximum count of children nodes of each parent node. That would mean that we’ll be able to compute overall numeric interval that would be required to place any of the new node in advance.

Also let’s keep all these attributes per node:

mutable attributes

  • numberOfChildren (count of intermittent children of the node allow to easily detect leaf nodes)
  • order (allows to sort child nodes in the scope of parent node without necessity to touch left/right bounds)

immutable attributes

  • level (depth of the node)
  • left (left MPTT bound - as in original algorithm)
  • right (right MPTT bound - as in original algorithm)

Immutable properties are assigned at the moment of the node creation and must not be changed afterwards. As you can see left and right bound are among them and that’s crucial for our indexed data that are counted in millions.

We can say that if we prepare the tree for 10 levels and 55 children per node we would need 55^11 number interval to cover the top level nodes (and that’s slightly lower than 2^64 that often represents big integers in database engines). But let’s use more comprehensible numbers as examples - if we are content with 3 levels and 2 children per node, we’d need only span of 0 - 16. Tree leveling would look like this:

  • 0 - 7
    • 0 - 3
      • 0 - 1
      • 2 - 3
    • 4 - 7
      • 4 - 5
      • 6 - 7
  • 8 - 15
    • 8 - 11
      • 8 - 9
      • 10 - 11
    • 12 - 15
      • 12 - 13
      • 14 - 15

Look at this tree as a honeycomb that is empty at the beginning and will gradually fill up as we add the contents. Let’s go through all necessary operations one by one:

Read operations

Retrieve all children of the node

select * from MPTT where left >= node.left and right <= node.right

Retrieve all children of the node in the next Y levels

select * from MPTT where left >= node.left and right <= node.right and level >= node.level and level <= node.level + Y

Retrieve all parents of the node

select * from MPTT where left <= node.left and right => node.right

Retrieve all parents of the node in the upper Y levels

select * from MPTT where left <= node.left and right => node.right and level >= node.level and level <= node.level + Y

Retrieve all leaf nodes of the parent node

select * from MPTT a where left <= node.left and right => node.right and node.numberOfChildren = 0

Construct entire tree

  • retrieve all nodes
  • group them by level
  • group them by parent node
  • sort all by order ascending
  • print in recurse fashion nodes and for each node get nodes of the next level where left >= node.left and right <= node.right

Write operations

Add new node

  • find parent node
  • compute / read number interval of the parent node
  • find first unoccupied slot in it and assign it to the new node (ie. assign left + right bound)
  • set numberOfChildren of the new node to zero
  • set level of the new node to parent.level plus one
  • increase numberOfChildren of the parent by one
  • set the order of the new node to parent.numberOfChildren

Remove node

  • find the node
  • remove all nodes that has node.leftBound >= removedNode.leftBound and node.rightBound <= removedNode.rightBound
  • find all nodes that has node.leftBound > removedNode.leftBound and node.rightBound <= parentNode.rightBound and decrease their order by one
  • decrease numberOfChildren of parent node by one

Move node from position X to Y on the same level

  • find node X
  • find node Y
  • set X.order = Y.order
  • decrease order by one of all nodes where node.leftBound > X.leftBound and node.rightBound <= Y.rightBound and node.level = X.level

Move node from position X to Y on different levels

  • remove node X
  • add node X after Y on different level

Add new node after X node

  • combine operations Add new node
  • and Move node from position X to Y on the same level


As you can see - by constraining ourselves with limited width and depth of the tree, we’re able to significantly reduce the complexity of the updates to the tree and still keep all lookup queries really fast. Key attributes - left and right bound can be made immutable and never change during life time of the tree. That leads to significant reduction of the complexity of the additional updates of records bound to the products that are attached to the category tree. There is single write operation that remains rather costly and that is moving node to different level of the tree, which still requires boundary reassignment.

The main drawback in PMPTT algorithm is the situation when we run out of levels or need to store more children for the same parent node than was accounted for in the time of tree creation. Such situations would require complete recomputation of the entire tree.