Approximate distributed top-k queries

Boaz Patt-Shamir, Allon Shafrir

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We consider a distributed system where each node keeps a local count for items (similar to elections where nodes are ballot boxes and items are candidates). A top-k query in such a system asks which are the k items whose global count, across all nodes in the system, is the largest. In this paper, we present a Monte Carlo algorithm that outputs, with high probability, a set of k candidates which approximates the top-k items. The algorithm is motivated by sensor networks in that it focuses on reducing the individual communication complexity. In contrast to previous algorithms, the communication complexity depends only on the global scores and not on the partition of scores among nodes. If the number of nodes is large, our algorithm dramatically reduces the communication complexity when compared with deterministic algorithms. We show that the complexity of our algorithm is close to a lower bound on the cell-probe complexity of any non-interactive top-k approximation algorithm. We show that for some natural global distributions (such as the Geometric or Zipf distributions), our algorithm needs only polylogarithmic number of communication bits per node.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-22
Number of pages22
JournalDistributed Computing
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jun 2008


  • Aggregate queries
  • Communication complexity
  • Distributed algorithms
  • Random sampling
  • Sensor networks


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