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A tree structure is an algorithm for placing and locating files (called records or keys) in a database. The algorithm finds data by repeatedly making choices at decision points called nodes. A node can have as few as two branches (also called children), or as many as several dozen. The structure is straightforward, but in terms of the number of nodes and children, a tree can be gigantic.
In a tree, records are stored in locations called leaves. This name derives from the fact that records always exist at end points; there is nothing beyond them. The starting point is called the root. The maximum number of children per node is called the order of the tree. The maximum number of access operations required to reach the desired record is called the depth. In some trees, the order is the same at every node and the depth is the same for every record. This type of structure is said to be balanced. Other trees have varying numbers of children per node, and different records might lie at different depths. In that case, the tree is said to have an unbalanced or asymmetrical structure.
The illustration shows three examples of tree structures. (Note that the portrayals are upside-down compared to real tree plants.) Structures A and B are balanced, and structure C is unbalanced. Roots are at the top, and are represented by red arrows and red lines. Nodes are shown as gray dots. Children are solid black lines. Leaves are at the bottom, and are represented by green dots. As the process moves toward the leaves and away from the root, children can branch out from a node, but children never merge into a node.
In a practical tree, there can be thousands, millions, or billions of nodes, children, leaves, and records. Not every leaf necessarily contains a record, but more than half do. A leaf that does not contain data is called a null. The trees shown here are simple enough to be rendered in two dimensions, but with some large databases, three dimensions are needed to clearly depict the structure.
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