Introduction to Queues

Stacks provide LIFO access to data, but sometimes we need first-in-first-out, or FIFO, access. Consider, for example, the computation of capital gains from stock sales. Typically an investor will buy shares of a stock commodity at various times and for different prices. When shares are sold, the amount of money received doesn’t depend on which shares of a given commodity are sold, as each share is worth the same amount at that time. Likewise, the unsold shares of that commodity each have the same value. However, for accounting purposes, it does matter. Specifically, the capital gain for that sale is defined to be the amount received from the sale minus the amount originally paid for those shares, assuming the shares sold are the oldest shares of that commodity owned by the investor.

Suppose now that we want to compute the capital gains from sales of stock. As shares are purchased, we need to record the purchase price of each share, along with the order in which the shares were purchased. As shares are sold, we need to retrieve the original purchase price of the oldest shares of each commodity sold. We therefore need first-in-first-out access to the purchase prices of the shares of each commodity owned. To keep this relatively simple, in what follows we will assume that we only need to keep track of one stock commodity.

A queue provides FIFO access to data items. Like a stack, a queue is a sequence of data items. However, a queue behaves more like a line of people at a ticket counter. Each person who enters the queue enters at the back, and the next person who is served is the person at the front. Thus, the people in the queue are served in FIFO order. Likewise, new data items are added to the back of a queue, and data items are retrieved from the front.

The .NET Framework provides both a non-generic queue of objects ( System.Collections.Queue) and a generic queue ( System.Collections.Generic.Queue<T>). For simplicity, we will focus on the generic version. The non-generic version is the same, except that wherever the type parameter T is used in the generic version, object is used in the non-generic version.

Like Stack<T>, Queue<T> has a public constructor that takes no parameters and constructs an empty queue, along with a public Count property that gets the number of elements in the queue (as an int). It also has the following public methods:

  • An Enqueue method that takes a single parameter of type T and places it at the back of the queue.
  • A Peek method that takes no parameters and returns the element (of type T) at the front of the queue without changing the queue’s contents. If the queue is empty, this method throws an InvalidOperationException.
  • A Dequeue method, which takes no parameters and removes and returns the element at the front of the queue. If the queue is empty, this method throws an InvalidOperationException.

To implement a capital gain calculator using a Queue<T>, we first need to determine what type to make the elements. We will need to store the purchase price of each share we buy in the queue. An appropriate type for storing monetary amounts is the decimal type. Therefore, we will use an initially empty Queue<decimal>. Each time we buy shares, we enqueue the purchase price of each share onto the queue. When we sell shares, we need to compute the sum of the capital gains for all of the shares we sold. To get the capital gain for a single share, we dequeue its original purchase price from the queue, and subtract that purchase price from the selling price. Using the queue in this way ensures that we sell the shares in FIFO order.