On-Demand Prime Generation

Monday, December 28, 2009 :: Tagged under: pablolife engineering. ⏰ 4 minutes.

Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! 😄

Many Project Euler problems are made easier if you have a good facility for generating and detecting prime numbers. Usually when I see such a problem, I would immediately switch to Haskell, but the other day a problem took about a minute to solve (way too long), so I ported the functionality to C.

In both, I'm doing a simple trial division algorithm: a number is prime if no other number divides it. A simple glance at Wikipedia shows you only have to test up to and including the square root of the number you're testing, and the nature of primes means you really only need to test factorization by other primes.

In Haskell, I used a former exercise from my CS173 class that highlighted laziness as a language feature to achieve this. First, we declare our list of primes:

primes :: [Int]
primes = filter isPrime [1..]

And then we define the predicate to determine if a number is prime or not, on which our list depends:

isPrime :: Int -> Bool
isPrime 1 = False
isPrime 2 = True

isPrime n = checkFactors (takeWhile (\ x -> x <= (floor $ sqrt (fromIntegral x))) primes) n

checkFactors :: [Int] -> Int -> Bool
checkFactors [] _ = True
checkFactors (x:xs) num = (num `mod` x) /= 0 && checkFactors xs num

For those who aren't Haskellites (even those who are, since my Haskell probably isn't very pretty or idiomatic), the code is doing this:

Huh? You might have read over that a few times trying to piece it together and couldn't, as primes depends on isPrime and isPrime depends on primes. But not to worry, this is laziness at work :)

Laziness means that Haskell will only perform the computations it needs as it needs them, so as long as isPrime only needs as many numbers as primes has already computed, this works. Alternatively, so long as primes only needs to generate numbers isPrime can check, we're golden.

Imagine a snake that is three feet long eating a foot of itself from its tail, but growing a foot and a half longer as a result. It can do this continuously and grow to indefinite size!

More concretely, suppose I want to check if 9 is prime. A call to isPrime 9 causes the following to happen:

Next to shell languages, Haskell is the only language I can think of in wide use (if you consider Haskell in wide use...) that employs laziness by default, and it allows you a powerful abstraction like this. The laziness allows us to define the list of all primes to be used freely in the code as any other list, the program will only calculate as many primes as it needs, and it can calculate arbitrarily many primes. Furthermore, the primes are comparatively fast to compute, since there are no 'wasted' divisibility tests.

And so I solved a number of Project Euler problems in Haskell just so I can use this facility. That being said, the speed of the language itself left me wanting, so I ported a somewhat similar abstraction to C. We'll do this in the opposite order, first defining an isPrime:

isPrime(int num)
  int curr_prime, index = 0;
  double limit = sqrt(num);
  while ((curr_prime = takePrime(&index)) <= limit) {
    if (num % curr_prime == 0) return FALSE;
  return TRUE;

This relies on a takePrime function, which can be called continuously to fetch the next prime from an index value. It looks like:

unsigned int
takePrime(int* indx)
  unsigned int val = prime_ptr[*indx];
  if (val != UNCOMPUTED) {
    return val;
  else {
    unsigned int last_prime = prime_ptr[(*indx)-1];
    unsigned int next_prime;
    for (next_prime = last_prime + 1; ; ++next_prime){
      if (isPrime(next_prime)) break;
    prime_ptr[*indx] = next_prime;
    return next_prime;

Where prime_ptr is an array of integers, memset to some value UNCOMPUTED (I've left out most of the header information, as well as the init() and finished() calls that make this all work).

This takePrime preserves previously computed values (this is the purpose of the first condition), so if you ever need to check the i-th index of a value you've already computed, you simply return it. Otherwise, you take the last value you've computed previously, and increment all integers above it until you find your next prime. When you do, store it in the array and return it.

The C abstraction has a number of shortcomings over the Haskell version; namely, you can't pass in an arbitrary index and receive a prime number (last_prime only checks the prime immediately behind the one you are trying to compute. If you've only computed 6 primes and you ask for the 9th, you Segfault). You also lose the list abstraction (prime_ptr is static and this set of functions is #included, so I choose not to 'export' it), and you can't calculate arbitrarily many primes (the array has a fixed size).

All that being said, changes to correct those are pretty easy to implement; I've never needed them. But this allowed me to brute-force a few problems that might have had more elegant solutions. While I hate on C pretty frequently, gcc/g++ produce some pretty slick executables.

Thanks for the read! Disagreed? Violent agreement!? Feel free to join my mailing list, drop me a line at , or leave a comment below! I'd love to hear from you 😄