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Applications, Advantages and Disadvantages of Linked List

Linked lists are a data structure widely utilized in computer science and programming. Unlike arrays that store data in memory, linked lists comprise nodes containing data fields and pointers to other nodes. The connectivity between these nodes gives rise to their designation as linked lists.

Linked lists offer advantages compared to fixed arrays and other data structures. Inserting and deleting elements from a linked list is highly efficient without rearranging all elements in memory. Moreover, linked lists can adjust their sizes dynamically, utilizing the memory at any given moment.

Yet linked lists also possess their drawbacks. Random access becomes less efficient when elements are not stored sequentially in memory within a linked list. Operations such as access, search and deletion on a linked list may involve traversing the list.

Comprehending the strengths and limitations of linked lists is crucial in determining when their adaptability and fluidity surpass the speed of arrays. Linked lists excel in scenarios like stacks, queues or other instances where efficient insertion/deletion operations, variable sizing and element reordering are essential. It is imperative to evaluate the trade-offs when selecting a data structure for an application.

We will explore the benefits linked lists offer over arrays and alternative data structures.

Let's also talk about situations where the extra work and absence of access can render linked lists a favourable option. Understanding this concept will help programmers choose between linked lists and other methods wisely.

applications, Advantages and Disadvantages of Linked List

Linked Lists

A linked list organizes data in a linear sequence of "nodes". Each Node contains two parts: the stored data and a reference or "pointer" to the next Node in the list. The first Node is called the head, while the last node points to null, marking the end of the list.

Singly-linked lists only allow traversal in one direction from head to tail via the next references. Doubly linked lists include an additional pointer to the previous Node, allowing bidirectional traversal.

Structurally, linked lists are inherently recursive - each Node references another instance of a linked list (the rest of the nodes afterwards). This chain of references is what gives a linked list its flexibility. Array elements are stored contiguously in memory according to their index, but linked list nodes can be scattered across memory.

Adding a node to a linked list is O(1) since the new Node can be stored anywhere in memory. Compare this to adding an element to an array, which may require shifting all subsequent elements if the underlying array is not long enough.

Likewise, removing a node is simple - just update the previous Node's next pointer to skip over the removed Node. Arrays again require shifting elements to fill the gap.

A key disadvantage is accessing a specific index requires iterating through the linked list from the head, an O(N) operation. Arrays have constant time O(1) random access.

Thus, linked lists have complementary strengths and weaknesses relative to arrays. Selecting the right structure depends on whether access patterns favour insertion/deletion or random access.


To implement a basic singly linked list, we need to define a Node class or struct that contains two fields:

  1. Data - This stores the actual data value for that Node
  2. Next - This stores a reference or pointer to the next Node in the linked list.

Additionally, we need a Linked List class that keeps track of the head of the list (a reference to the first Node) and, optionally, the list size.

The key steps to implementing basic operations on the linked list are:

Inserting a new node:

  1. Create a new Node instance with the desired data value
  2. Set the new Node's Next reference to refer to the current head node of the list
  3. Update the head reference in the Linked List instance to point to the new Node
  4. Increment the size of the linked list

Deleting a node:

  1. Traverse to the Node before the one we want to delete
  2. Update its Next reference to skip over the Node we want to delete and point directly to the next Node
  3. Decrement the size of the linked list

Searching for a node:

  1. Traverse the list starting from the head node
  2. For each Node, compare its data value to the target search value
  3. If a match is found, return that node reference
  4. If the end of the list (next == null) is reached, return null

The key advantage of a linked list is efficient insertion and deletion due to the dynamic allocation of nodes and pointers to stitch them together. The tradeoff is a lack of random access and needing to sequentially traverse nodes to find, access or delete elements.


applications, Advantages and Disadvantages of Linked List


  1. Define a Node class to represent each Node in the linked list. It contains data and a next reference.
  2. Define a LinkedList class to represent the full list. It contains a head reference to the first Node and a size variable.
  3. The insertStart() method handles inserting at the start of the list:
    • Create a new Node with the given data
    • Set its next to refer to the current head
    • Set the head of the list to the new Node
    • Increment the size
  4. The delete() method handles deleting a specific node:
    • Traverse the list, tracking current and previous nodes
    • When the target data is found, adjust the next pointer of the previous Node to skip over the Node we want to delete
    • Decrement the size
  5. The search() method allows finding a specific node:
    • Traverse the list from the head, checking each Node's data
    • Return the Node if found. Else return None if reached the end.
  6. The Node and LinkedList classes encapsulate the key behaviour needed for a linked list - references between nodes and basic operations like insert, delete and search.
  7. By leveraging these classes, we can create and manipulate linked list data structures in an application.

The key advantage of this implementation is efficient insertion and deletion by manipulating node references rather than shifting array elements. The disadvantage is no random access.

Applications of Linked Lists

Implementing Stacks and Queues

Linked lists provide an ideal underlying data structure for implementing stacks and queues. For a stack, we simply insert and remove it from the head of the list. This gives O(1) push and pop operations. We insert at the tail and remove from the head for a queue, leveraging efficient insertion/deletion. The dynamic sizing and lack of random access are not drawbacks for these use cases.

Example Usage: Linked lists are commonly used to build call stack implementations and breadth-first search tree traversal algorithms relying on queues. The efficient insertion/removal and lack of fixed size make linked lists a natural fit.

Dynamic Memory Allocation

The heap memory programs used are commonly managed via a data structure called the free list. This keeps track of free memory blocks available for allocation. Linked lists allow efficiently inserting and removing blocks of varying sizes in the free list. When a block is freed, it can be easily inserted back into the free list.

Example Usage: The GNU C library uses an implicitly linked list system to manage the process heap efficiently and allocate dynamic memory to programs.

File System Directory Traversal

File systems store directory contents such as files and folders as linked lists or trees. This allows efficient adding, removing and listing files by manipulating pointers rather than shifting array contents.

Example Usage: The Linux ext2/ext3 file systems use a doubly linked list representing each directory's contents. New entries can easily be added/removed.

Audio Playlist Management

Playlists of audio tracks can be implemented naturally as linked lists. Tracks can be reordered on the fly by changing which nodes point to each other rather than moving array elements. Inserting and removing tracks is also efficient.

Example Usage: Apps like Spotify use the advantages of linked lists to enable smooth drag-and-drop track reordering and efficient playlist mutations.

Hash Table Chaining

Hash table buckets that collide to the same hash value can store those entries as linked lists. This provides efficient chaining compared to using arrays that must be resized. Adding/removing entries with the same hash is easy with the insertion/deletion of nodes.

Example Usage: Python's hash table implementation uses linked lists for chaining colliding entries, removing the need to resize arrays.

Adjacency Lists in Graphs

Graph nodes can each maintain linked lists of their adjacent nodes. This provides optimal storage for sparse graphs. Inserting/removing edges is efficient by adding/removing pointers for a given node's linked list.

Example Usage: Social network friend connections can be stored per user as linked friends lists. New friendships can be easily and efficiently added.

Thus, linked lists leverage their core strengths in many key data structures and applications that rely on efficient insertion, deletion and reordering. The versatility and simplicity of linked lists make them a fundamental building block in many domains.

Advantages of Linked Lists

Dynamic Size

Linked lists can expand and shrink in size as needed. This provides flexibility in cases where the amount of data is unpredictable or likely to change frequently. Memory is allocated dynamically as new nodes are needed.

Example Usage: Stacks and queues implemented with linked lists can grow and shrink based on application demands rather than preallocating fixed capacity arrays.

Efficient Insertion and Deletion

Adding and removing nodes from a linked list is efficient as it only involves modifying a few pointers. Compare this to arrays where inserting or deleting may require shifting all elements.

Example Usage: Implementing the free store for memory allocation allows efficient splitting and coalescing of blocks as needed. Linked lists outperform arrays here.

Memory Efficiency

Linked list nodes only consume memory for the data they contain and pointers. Arrays require allocating contiguous blocks of memory even if elements are unused. This makes linked lists more memory efficient for some use cases.

Example Usage: Graph adjacency lists only allocate memory for actual edges rather than a full array with empty slots. Useful for sparse graphs.

Reordering Elements

Elements in a linked list can easily be reordered by modifying the next/previous pointers. Reordering arrays requires shifting elements, which is more complex.

Example Usage: Playlists implemented as linked lists allow simple drag-and-drop reordering of tracks.


Linked lists allow efficient insertion and deletion from any position, not just the ends. Arrays are limited to pushing/popping from the end or inserting/deleting in the middle.

Example Usage: File systems can efficiently insert, remove, or lookup files in a directory regardless of location.

Iteration Support

Linked lists allow forward and backward traversal by following the next and previous references. Standard iterators can leverage the pointers between nodes.

Example Usage: Linked list iterators are used when implementing stacks, queues, and other structures requiring sequential access.

Concurrency Friendliness

Adding and removing nodes from a linked list can be done safely by multiple threads sharing access. Arrays require complex synchronization when resizing.

Example Usage: A shared job queue can use lock-free linked list manipulation instead of locking the full array.

Cache Friendliness

Arrays suffer from poor cache locality as they get larger due to each element referencing random memory addresses. Linked lists have better locality from linear node allocation.

Example Usage: Long-linked lists outperform giant arrays by keeping data in CPU caches rather than main memory.

Simpler Code

Linked list insertion and deletion require only changing a few pointers. The equivalent array operations are longer and more complex.

Example Usage: Linked list implementations of stacks, queues, graphs, etc., are simpler and shorter than array-based versions.

Non-contiguous memory allocation

Unlike arrays, linked list nodes can be stored anywhere in memory where space is available. This provides more flexibility during allocation compared to arrays that require a single contiguous block of memory big enough to hold all elements. Linked lists can dynamically grow and shrink, allocating scattered nodes through free memory. This makes allocation failures less likely.

No wasted space

Arrays might be pre-allocated with more capacity than needed to allow for growth. This leads to unused memory reserved that cannot be leveraged for other purposes. Linked lists only consume the memory they need at any given time for existing nodes. No space is wasted, providing more efficient use of available memory.

Unlimited size

The size of an array is fixed at creation time. In contrast, linked lists have no theoretical size limit - they can grow indefinitely to accommodate new nodes as long as memory is available. This makes linked lists advantageous for use cases with unbounded, unpredictable growth. The only limit is the system's total available memory.

Data agnostic

Arrays require that every element be the same data type, whereas linked list nodes can contain data of any type. This provides more flexibility. The same linked list can contain different data types by having nodes store void* data pointers. This adaptability can be leveraged to create heterogeneous collections.

Recursive data structures

Linked list nodes contain a pointer to another linked list as the next element. This recursive definition enables complex recursive data structures like trees and graphs to be implemented elegantly and efficiently using linked lists for connections between nodes. Arrays cannot capture these recursive relationships naturally.

Thus, we can see that linked lists provide many software engineering benefits beyond just the efficiency of insertion and deletion. Their flexibility, memory usage, concurrency support, and simplicity make them a versatile tool for many data structures and use cases.

Disadvantages of Linked Lists

Memory Overhead

Linked list nodes require extra memory to store pointer references to the next and previous nodes. This overhead means linked lists take up more memory than arrays to store the same data.

Example: An array of ints only needs contiguous space for the ints. A linked list of ints uses extra memory for each Node's pointer references.

No Random Access

Arrays allow constant time O(1) random access to any element by index. Linked lists require sequential traversal O(n) to reach a specific, slower index.

Example: Lookup up the 500th element in an array is instant. Finding the 500th Node in a linked list requires traversing 499 nodes first.

Locality of Reference

Arrays store data contiguously in memory, allowing better CPU caching and prefetching utilization. Linked list nodes are dynamically allocated, hurting locality.

Example: Iterating an array will load contiguous memory addresses into the cache. Linked list node access is more random.

Sequential Access

Accessing elements in sequence requires pointer jumping for linked lists. Hardware optimizations like GPUs favour sequential array access for parallelism and vectorization.

Example: Matrix operations are accelerated using arrays due to sequential access and regular structure.

Complexity of Operations

Basic operations like accessing, inserting, and removing elements can be more complex and slower for linked lists than equivalent array operations.

Example: Finding an element requires a linear search for linked lists but is instant with arrays.

Sorting Difficulties

Linked lists are poor for sorting workloads. Pointer references make common sorting algorithms like quicksort inefficient compared to sorting a contiguous array.

Example: A linked list merge sort requires restructuring node pointers. An array quicksort can shuffle elements in place.

Fixed Array Advantages

Arrays allow random access, data locality, sequential access, and complexity advantages. Some use cases heavily leverage these strengths, and linked lists are unsuitable.

Example: Graphic pipelines, matrix algebra, and databases optimize for array strengths.

Wasted Memory

Mutable linked lists don't allow for avoiding the allocation of unused nodes. Fixed arrays can preallocate just the memory needed upfront.

Example: A program processing 1000 elements will incur overhead in allocating 1000 linked list nodes even if unused. A 1000-element array avoids this.

Not optimized for modern hardware

Trends like SIMD instructions and vectorization utilize parallelism and pipelining that performs better on sequential array access. The more random memory access of linked lists fails to leverage these hardware optimizations.

Thus, linked lists should be avoided for performance-critical code requiring heavy indexing, sorting, sequential access, and fixed memory use. However, linked lists dominate when the key priorities are dynamism and efficient insertion/deletion. Tradeoffs exist, and understanding linked list disadvantages allows for sound data structure selection.

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