Suffix Trees

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e.g. Given the string 'mississippi',
'issi' is a substring, 'miss' is a prefix (& a substring), & 'ippi' is a suffix. Note that a substring is a prefix of a suffix, and a suffix of a prefix.

A Suffix Tree is a data-structure that allows many problems on strings (sequences of characters) to be solved quickly. If is a string, then is the suffix of txt that starts at position i, e.g.

T1  = mississippi = txt
T2  = ississippi
T3  = ssissippi
T4  = sissippi
T5  = issippi
T6  = ssippi
T7  = sippi
T8  = ippi
T9  = ppi
T10 = pi
T11 = i
T12 =               (empty)

The suffix tree for 'txt' is a Trie-like or PATRICIA-like data structure that represents the suffixes of txt.

A given suffix tree can be used to search for a substring, pat[1..m] in O(m) time. There are n(n+1)/2 substrings in txt[1..n] so it is rather surprising that a suffix tree can be built in O(n) time. Adding just one character to txt increases the number of substrings by n+1, but they are not independent. Weiner (1973) gave the first algorithm and McCreight (1976) gave a more readable account for constructing the suffix tree while processing txt from right to left. Only much later did Ukkonen (1992, 1995) give a left-to-right on-line algorithm, i.e., an algorithm that maintains a suffix tree for txt[1..i] at each step as i is increased from 1 to n.

If the non-empty suffixes are sorted:

T11 = i
T8  = ippi
T5  = issippi
T2  = ississippi
T1  = mississippi
T10 = pi
T9  = ppi
T7  = sippi
T4  = sissippi
T6  = ssippi
T3  = ssissippi
it becomes obvious that some of them (may) share common prefixes. Here there are substrings starting with 'i', 'm', 'p' and 's', but all of those starting 'is', in fact start 'issi'. Two or more common prefixes share a common path from the root of the suffix tree (as in a PATRICIA tree). Now, a search (sub)string pat must be a prefix of a suffix of txt, if it occurs in txt.

           tree                       substrings

tree-->|---mississippi                m .. mississippi
       |---i-->|---ssi-->|---ssippi   i .. ississippi
       |       |         |
       |       |         |---ppi      issip,issipp,issippi
       |       |
       |       |---ppi                ip, ipp, ippi
       |---s-->|---si-->|---ssippi    s .. ssissippi
       |       |        |
       |       |        |---ppi       ssip, ssipp, ssippi
       |       |
       |       |---i-->|---ssippi     si .. sissippi
       |               |
       |               |---ppi        sip, sipp, sippi
       |---p-->|---pi                 p, pp, ppi
               |---i                  p, pi
--- Suffix Tree for "mississippi" ---

Each edge (arc) of the suffix tree is labelled with a substring of txt which is implemented by pointers to the start and end of the substring, e.g. 'ssi' by <3,5>. One of the observation in Ukkonen's algorithm is that an edge, <i,n>, leading to a leaf can be implemented by <i,∞> where '∞', i.e., infinity, means 'to the end of the string'.

Suffix Tree Demonstration

Change the Text txt=... in the HTML FORM below, and click on 'go'; experiment with different text strings:


NB. If the string is "short", a simple sort routine is run first to sort the suffices the slow way for comparison with the tree; this is not done if the string is "long".

If the termination of txt is important, this can be indicated by a special terminating character often denoted by '$' in papers on strings (~zero char in C/Unix).

Building a Suffix Tree, (a) Slowly

We show how a suffix tree might be built "by hand". Three dots, '...', are used to show the current end of any suffix that will grow as more characters are processed. Starting with the empty suffix tree, consider the string 'm':



Adding the second character to get 'mi' there are now suffixes 'mi' and 'i':



Next 'mis'



There is no need to add any more splits for 'miss' because 's' is part of 'ss'.



However, with 'missi' there must be a split because one 's' is followed by 'i', the other by 's'



The 6th character, 's', brings us to 'missis' and no split because both 'i's are followed by 's's.









A lot suddenly happens for 'mississip', because it brings the first 'p', and causes the third 'i' to be followed by 'p' where the other two are followed by 'ssi'. Consequently one of the 'ssi' is followed by 'p', the other by 'ssip', ditto 'si'.


       |       |         |
       |       |         |---p...
       |       |
       |       |---p...
       |       |        |
       |       |        |---p...
       |       |
       |       |---i-->|---ssip...
       |               |
       |               |---p...

By comparison 'mississipp' is very quiet


       |       |         |
       |       |         |---pp...
       |       |
       |       |---pp...
       |       |        |
       |       |        |---pp...
       |       |
       |       |---i-->|---ssipp...
       |               |
       |               |---pp...

'mississippi' is an anti-climax


       |       |         |
       |       |         |---ppi
       |       |
       |       |---ppi
       |       |        |
       |       |        |---ppi
       |       |
       |       |---i-->|---ssippi
       |               |
       |               |---ppi

and we are done. The challenge, to a computer scientist, is to make sure treei is updated to treei+1 efficiently. This can be done (Ukkonen 1992, 1995) so that treen can be built, starting from tree0, in O(n)-time overall.

(b) Faster

The following terminology is adapted from Ukkonen (1995).

  • If 'x' is a substring of txt then 'x' represents the state (i.e., location) in the suffix-tree found by tracing out the characters of x from the root. Note that x might be part-way along an edge of the tree.
  • A vertex (node) of the suffix-tree is called an explicit state.
  • A substring x=txt[L..R] can be represented by (L,R).
  • If 'v' is a vertex of the suffix-tree, the pair '(v,x)', equivalently (v,(L,R)), represents the state (location) in the suffix-tree found by tracing out the characters of x from v.
  • (v,x) is canonical if v is the last explit state on the path from v to (v,x). NB. (v,empty) is canonical.
  • A special vertex called 'bottom' is added and is denoted _|_.
The transition function, g( ), is defined as follows:
g(_|_, a) = root, for all characters 'a'.
g(x, a) = y where y=xa, for character 'a'.
f( ):
f(x)=y, if x~=empty and x=ay
The suffix function f'( ) is defined as follows:
If vertex v=x where x~=empty then f'(v)=y where x=ay for some character 'a' and substring y (possibly empty).
The boundary path s1, s2, ..., si, si+1 of suffix-treei-1:
s1=(1,i-1), i.e., the state corresponding to txt[1..i-1]
The active point is the first sj on the boundary path that is not a leaf, and
the end-point is the first sj' that has a txt[i]-transition.

When treei-1 is expanded into treei, character txt[i] must be dealt with. This is done during a traversal of the boundary path. Any state on the boundary path before sj is a leaf and could be extended by adding txt[i] to the incoming arc, but this can be done for free by representing arcs to leaves by (L,∞) where '∞' is 'infinity'. So it it is only necessary to examine states from the active point sj and prior to the end-point sj' .

"[states from sj and before sj'  create entirely new branches that start from states sh, j<=h<j'. ... They are found along the boundary path of [treei-1] using reference pairs and suffix links." – Ukkonen (1995).

// almost  JavaScript (try view-source)

function upDate(s, k, i)
// (s, (k, i-1)) is the canonical reference pair for the active point
 { var oldr = root;
   var (endPoint, r) = test_and_split(s, k, i-1, Txt.charAt(i));

   while (!endPoint)
    { r.addTransition(i, infinity, new State());
      if (oldr != root) oldr.sLink = r; // build suffix-link active-path

      oldr = r;
      var (s,k) = canonize(s.sLink, k, i-1)
      (endPoint, r) = test_and_split(s, k, i-1, Txt.charAt(i))

   if(oldr != root) oldr.sLink = s;

   return new pair(s, k);

Note that r.addTransition(...) adds an edge from state r, labelling the edge with a substring. New txt[i]-transitions must be "open" transitions of the form (L,∞).

Where necessary, test_and_split(...) replaces edges s--->s1 with s--->r--->s1 for a new node r. This makes r=(s,(k,p)) explicit.

function test_and_split(s, k, p, t)
 { if(k<=p)
    { // find the t_k transition g'(s,(k',p'))=s' from s
      // k1 is k'  p1 is p' in Ukkonen '95
      var ((k1,p1), s1)  = s[Txt.charAt(k)];

      if (t == Txt.charAt(k1 + p - k + 1))
         return new pair(true, s);
       { var r = new State()
         s.addTransition(k1, k1+p-k,   r);     // s---->r---->s1
         r.addTransition(    k1+p-k+1, p1, s1);
         return new pair(false, r)
   else // k > p;  ? is there a t-transition from s ?
      return new pair(s[t] != null, s);

Canonize(...) takes (s,w)=(s,(k,p)) and steps over intermediate nodes by spelling out the characters of w=txt[k..p] for as far as possible.

function canonize(s, k, p)    // s--->...
 { if(p < k) return new pair (s, k);

   // find the t_k transition g'(s,(k',p'))=s' from s
   // k1 is k',  p1 is p' in Ukk' '95
   var ((k1,p1), s1) = s[Txt.charAt(k)];     // s--(k1,p1)-->s1

   while(p1-k1 <= p-k)                       // s--(k1,p1)-->s1--->...
    { k += p1 - k1 + 1;  // remove |(k1,p1)| chars from front of (k,p)
      s = s1;
      if(k <= p)
       { ((k1,p1), s1) = s[Txt.charAt(k)];   // s--(k1,p1)-->s1
   return new pair(s, k);

The main controlling routine repeatedly takes the next character, updates the sites on the active path and finds and canonizes the new active point:

function ukkonen95()// construct suffix tree for Txt[0..N-1]
 { var s, k, i;
   var bt;

   root = new State();
   bt = new State();                            // bt (bottom or _|_)

   // Want to create transitions for all possible chars
   // from bt to root
   for (i=0; i < Txt.length; i++)
      bt.addTransition(i,i, root);

   root.sLink = bt;
   s=root; k=0;    // NB. k=0, unlike Ukkonen our strings are 0 based

   for(i=0; i < Txt.length; i++)
    { var (s,k) = upDate(s, k, i);   // follow path from active-point
      (s,k) = canonize(s, k, i);

It relies upon the fact (lemma 2 Ukkonen (1995)) that if (s,(k,i-1)) is a reference pair for the end-point, sj' , of treei-1 then (s,(k,i)) is a reference pair for the active point of treei.

Suffix Tree Applications

Suffix Trees can be used to solve a large number of string problems that occur in text-editing, free-text search, computational biology, and other application areas. Some examples are given below.

String Search

Searching for a substring, pat[1..m], in txt[1..n], can be solved in O(m) time (after the suffix tree for txt has been built in O(n) time).

Longest Repeated Substring

Add a special ''end of string'' character, e.g. '$', to txt[1..n] and build a suffix tree; the longest repeated substring of txt[1..n] is indicated by the deepest fork node in the suffix tree, where depth is measured by the number of characters traversed from the root, i.e., 'issi' in the case of 'mississippi'. The longest repeated substring can be found in O(n) time using a suffix tree.

Longest Common Substring

The longest common substring of two strings, txt1 and txt2, can be found by building a generalized suffix tree for txt1 and txt2: Each node is marked to indicate if it represents a suffix of txt1 or txt2 or both. The deepest node marked for both txt1 and txt2 represents the longest common substring.

Equivalently, one can build a (basic) suffix tree for the string txt1$txt2#, where '$' is a special terminator for txt1 and '#' is a special terminator for txt2. The longest common substring is indicated by the deepest fork node that has both '...$...' and '...#...' (no $) beneath it.
(Try it using the HTML FORM above.)

Note that the 'longest common substring problem' is different to the 'longest common subsequence problem' which is closely related to the 'edit-distance problem': An instance of a subsequence can have gaps where it appears in txt1 and in txt2, but an instance of a substring cannot have gaps.


A palindrome is a string, P, such that P=reverse(P). e.g. 'abba'=reverse('abba'). e.g. 'ississi' is the longest palindrome in 'mississippi'.

The longest palindrome of txt[1..n] can be found in O(n) time, e.g. by building the suffix tree for txt$reverse(txt)# or by building the generalized suffix tree for txt and reverse(txt).
(Try it.)

-- L.A.

Suffix Tree Notes

Significant developments are due to Weiner (1973), McCreight (1976) and Ukkonen (1992,1995).

  • See also Tries and PATRICIA trees, but remember that they are for implementing lookup-tables containing many, usually short, strings rather than for indexing substrings of one long text.
  • E. M. McCreight. A Space-Economical Suffix Tree Construction Algorithm. J. of Algorithms, 23(2) pp.262-272, 1976.
    Credited with making Weiner's suffix trees (1973) more efficient and (a little) more accessible (understandable).
    "... algorithms due to Weiner ('73) and McCreight ('76) do not process the string ... in the natural left-to-right order." – [Ukk. 1992, p.484].
    "... McC. ... adds the suffixes to the tree in decreasing order of their length." – [Ukkonen 1995, p.249].
  • E. Ukkonen. Constructing Suffix Trees On-Line in Linear Time. In Algorithms, Software, Architecture, J. v. Leeuwen (ed), vol.1 of Information Processing 92, Proc. IFIP 12th World Computer Congress, Madrid, Spain, Elsevier Sci. Publ., pp.484-492, 1992.
    Gives an on-line algorithm, i.e., it processes the input text incrementally from left to right, and at each stage it has a suffix tree for the part of the text that has been processed so far. But see the note about "inaccuracies" below!
    E. Ukkonen. On-line Construction of Suffix Trees. Algorithmica, 14(3), pp.249-260, 1995.
    p260: "J.Karkkainen pointed out some inaccuracies in the earlier [1992] version of this work."
  • P. Weiner. Linear Pattern Matching Algorithms. Proc. 14th IEEE Annual Symp. on Switching and Automata Theory, pp.1-11, 1973.
    Extremely important paper introducing suffix trees and hence fast ways of solving many problems on strings.
    "... algorithms due to Weiner ('73) and McC. ('76) do not process the string ... in the natural left-to-right order." – [Ukk. 1992, p.484].
    "... W. ... proceeds right to left and adds the suffixes ... in increasing order of their length ..." – [Ukkonen 1995, p.249].
  • Also see [String Searching], [suffix array], and [BWT].
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