node package manager
Easy sharing. Manage teams and permissions with one click. Create a free org »

deep-equal-ident

Deep comparison with object identity checks Build Status

This function performs a deep comparison between the two values a and b. It has the same signature and functionality as lodash's isEqual function, with one difference: It also tracks the identity of nested objects.

This function is intended to be used for unit tests (see below how to use it with chai.js).

Installation

npm install -S deep-equal-ident

and use it as

var deepEqualIdent = require('deep-equal-ident');
// ... 
if (deepEqualIdent(foo, bar)) {
 // deep equal 
}

Use with chai.js

This module provides integration with the chai.js assertion framework (for Node.js at least). Enable the extensions with

chai.use(require('deep-equal-ident/chai'));

Then you can use either the expect or assert interface:

// expect 
expect(foo).to.deep.identically.equal(bar);
expect(foo).to.identically.equal(bar);
 
// assert 
assert.deepEqualIdent(foo, bar);
assert.NotDeepEqualIdent(foo, bar);

So, what is this really about?

Most deep equality tests (including _.isEqual) consider the following structures as equal:

var a = [1,2,3];
var b = [1,2,3];
var foo = [a, a];
var bar = [a, b];
_.isEqual(foo , bar): // => true 

Here, foo contains two reference to the same object, but bar contains references to two different (not identical) objects. a and b might be itself considered as equal (they do after all contain the same values), but the structures of foo and bar are different.

deepEqualIdent will consider these values as not equal:

deepEqualIdent(foo, bar); // => false 

The following slightly different structures would be considered equal:

var a = [1,2,3];
var b = [1,2,3];
var foo = [a, a];
var bar = [b, b];
deepEqualIdent(foo, bar); // => true 

Why does it matter?

Let's have a look at another procedure to answer that question: deep cloning. Given

var a = [1,2,3];
var foo = [a, a];

a good deep cloning algorithm would recognize that both elements in foo refer to the same object and thus would create a single copy of a:

var a_copy = [1,2,3];
var foo_copy = [a_copy, a_copy];

This is desired because we want foo_copy behave exactly like foo when we process it. I.e. if the first element is mutated, the second element should mutate as well:

foo_copy[0][0] += 1;
console.log(foo_copy); // => [[2,2,3], [2,2,3]] 

If the deep copy algorithm would produce separate copies for each element in foo instead

var a_copy_1 = [1,2,3];
var a_copy_2 = [1,2,3];
var foo_copy = [a_copy_1, a_copy_2];

then mutating the first element of foo_copy would not produce the same result as mutation the first element of foo, and thus it would not be an exact copy of foo.


I hope this makes it clearer why considering the identity of objects during comparison is important: To preserve the structural integrity. If two nested structures are said to be equal, they should behave exactly the same for all intends and purposes.

Another way to look at it is to visualize the relationship between the values as graphs. Let's change the structure a bit:

var a = [1,2,3];
var b = [1,2,3];
var foo = [a, {x: a}];
var bar = [a, {x: b}];

Graph representations:

   - foo -        - bar -
  |       |      |       |
  v       v      v       v
  a <--- { }     a      { }
                         |
                         v
                         b

I think this makes it very obvious that the structure of foo and bar are different and thus would produce different results when processed.

OK, so how did you implement it?

It's really straightforward. Just like with deep cloning, we have to keep track of which objects we already encountered in a and associate it with the corresponding value in b. Interestingly, deep cloning methods that can handle cycles are already doing this, but only vertically, not horizontally. It shouldn't be too much effort to modify them to support this out of the box.

There are a couple of ways to do it, each with its advantages and disadvantages. I implemented two of them and choose to build them on top of lodash's isEqual function, since it allows me to pass a callback and utilize all of the other comparison logic that isEqual provides.

Tags

One way is to "tag" objects we have already seen and associate them with the corresponding other object (creating some kind of bijective relationship). For this I just added a new, not enumerable property to the object and setting the other object as value, e.g.

Object.defineProperty(a, '__<random prop>__', {value: b});
Object.defineProperty(b, '__<random prop>__', {value: a});

Now whenever we encounter an object (a1) that already has the property, we check whether it has a reference to b1. We also have to check the other direction, i.e. if b1 refers to a1. Overall this allows for the following outcomes:

  • a1 and b1 not tagged: Not seen before => tag
  • Either a1 or b1 not tagged: not equal
  • a1 tagged but does not refer to b1: not equal
  • b1 tagged but does not refer to a1: not equal

It's important to note that we can't detect equality. While the overall structure might be the same, e.g. we have [a, a] and [b, b], a and b might still be different. So we have to let the actual comparison algorithm determine equality of these two values.

Stack

The previous solution has the advantage that determining the "not equality" is quick, but it doesn't work for immutable objects. As alternative, we can push each of the objects onto a stack and whenever we encounter another object, we iterate over the stack and check whether it is already contained in the stack. The result is the same as with tags.

The disadvantage is that performance decreases the more objects have to be compared.

Maps

The solution to the immutability and performance problems could be ES6 Maps, assuming they are supported they are supported by the environment this code runs in.

An implementation using Maps is included and is used if global.Map is available.

Caveats

deep-equal-ident incorrectly assumes the following structures to be equal:

var a = [[]];
var foo = [a, a[0]];
var bar = [a, []];
deepEqualIdent(foo, bar); // true 

That's because lodash doesn't traverse deeper into the first element (because foo[0] === bar[0], so the algorithm doesn't know about the objects inside foo[0] (and bar[0]) and therefore cannot detect whether they repeat elsewhere in the data structure.