A Generic Method for Implementing Recursion as Iteration

Nov 11, 2019 12:38 · 1409 words · 7 minutes read

Recursion is a useful technique that lets us implement many algorithms in a more succinct and readable fashion than an iterative approach. Recursion also has a few drawbacks, namely:

  • Stack space is an issue in most programming languages and can lead to stack overflow
  • Proper tail call optimization is not supported in all programming languages

These limitations may eventually force you to re-implement a recursive solution as an iterative solution. To that end, I want to look at a generic method for implementing any recursive method (regardless of complexity) as an iterative method and then offer some commentary on the subject.

The code in this post will be written in Python but this technique works in any OO language and can be adapted to work in non-OO languages as well.

A Model for Recursive Functions

Lets start with a model for any recursive function and then build up our solution from there. We’ll be looking at a simple binary tree implementation and the method to print it. This code comes from TutorialsPoint

class Node:

    def __init__(self, data):

        self.left = None
        self.right = None
        self.data = data

    def insert(self, data):
# Compare the new value with the parent node
        if self.data:
            if data < self.data:
                if self.left is None:
                    self.left = Node(data)
            elif data > self.data:
                if self.right is None:
                    self.right = Node(data)
            self.data = data

# Print the tree
    def PrintTree(self):
        if self.left:
        print( self.data),
        if self.right:

The method we are concerned with implementing iteratively is the PrintTree method. PrintTree essentially examines all the way down the left side of an arbitrary tree and prints it, then backtracks up, prints the data, and then tracks all the way down the right side. This has the effect of printing the tree in order.

We can start working on a solution to our problem by realizing that all recursion involves a stack. While there are frames on the stack. Each one of those frames contains a number of operations (the literal code in the method). Finally new frames can be added onto the stack via a method call. So our model has to include at least these three things:

  1. A stack to track where in the recursion we are
  2. A state tracking mechanism that can say which operations we are executing now
  3. A way to add new frames to the stack

Implementing a Stack

Our stack implementation is relatively straightforward:

class IterativeProcessor:
    def __init__(self, initial_state):
        self._initial_state = initial_state

    def traverse(self):
        operator = Operator(self._initial_state)

        while operator.has_operations:
class Operator:
    def __init__(self, initial_state):
        self._stack = [initial_state]

    def has_operations(self):
        return len(self._stack) > 0

    def operate(self):
        top_of_stack = self._stack[-1]

            new_state = top_of_stack.next()
            if new_state:
        except TerminatedException:

We have two classes, IterativeProcessor and Operator. The job of IterativeProcessor is to initialize an Operator with our initial state (we’ll get into this next) and simply run operations as long as there are frames on the stack. This is our looping construct and prevents us from having to write a loop anywhere else.

Operator has the responsibility of maintaining the actual call stack. At each call of operate, we check the top of the stack and call the next method. All State objects have only one method next which may optionally return a State object which is then added to the stack. Finally, if the frame has concluded and has no next operations (it throws a TerminatedException) then we can pop it off the stack and allow another frame to start executing. This fulfills two of our requirements:

  • Operator maintains knowledge of the current call stack and can tell when there are no frames left to execute
  • State objects can add new frames to the stack by returning a State object

State Objects

The best way to see how the state objects work is to look at an example. Here’s an implementation of PrintTree using a State object that’s compatible with our Operator implementation:

class TreeTraverseState:
    def __init__(self, tree):
        self._tree = tree
        self._current_state = 0

    def next(self):
        if self._current_state == 0:
            return self._left_state()
        elif self._current_state == 1:
            return self._process_this_node_state()
        elif self._current_state == 2:
            return self._right_state()
            raise TerminatedException

    def _left_state(self):
        if self._tree.left:
            self._current_state = 1
            return TreeTraverseState(self._tree.left)
            return self._process_this_node_state()

    def _process_this_node_state(self):
        self._current_state = 2

    def _right_state(self):
        self._current_state = 3
        if self._tree.right:
            return TreeTraverseState(self._tree.right)
            raise TerminatedException

There’s nothing particularly fancy going on here, and that’s the point. We’ve translated our original PrintTree code into a series of individual states in a state machine. We then transition through the steps of the state machine with next, and each call to next can optionally return another state machine.

Thus our model is recursion as a stack of state machines. You can view a visualization here. Notice how the stack builds up with new TreeTraverseState instances for every node, and how those instances preserve their state allowing us to implement the algorithm correctly.


Translating recursive functions in this way has a few good features:

  1. The method is totally generic and can be re-used for any recursive function no matter how complex. In fact neither Operator nor IterativeProcessor need to change. The only class that needs to be re-implemented for different recursive functions is the State class.
  2. Translating the body of a recursive function into a State class is simple. The number of possible states in the machine is equal to the number of times the method can recurse + 1. After that you simply need to return a new instance of the State class with the correct arguments any time you would normally recurse, and raise TerminatedException for any base cases or any time you would not recurse.
  3. State classes are easy to unit test. Simply initialize with any arbitrary state and step through with next asserting that the correct values are returned

There are also two primary drawbacks:

  1. This method is memory intensive compared to other possible iterative implementations. Each State object is a full object and depending on how much you recurse, there can be a lot of them. Other iterative solutions may be more difficult to implement but will use less memory because of the number of objects instantiated using this method.
  2. This method is much harder to read than the recursive solution and is subtle if you aren’t familiar with state machines. Not only is there more code, you have to keep track of the state of each frame and the stack manually which is normally done by the underlying language for you.

For these reasons, this solution is mostly interesting for academic reasons. It could potentially find some use in replacing a very complex recursion such as in a recursive decent parser. Any simple recursion would be best replaced either by a more straight forward, less mechanical iterative approach, or by simply introducing a maximum recursion depth.

An author by the name of Tom Moertel produced an excellent series along similar lines as this post about re-implementing recursion as iteration with similar motivations as the ones listed here. The mechanics of translation are not as generic but are probably more appropriate for a real world implementation as they have generally lower memory overhead than this generic implementation.

Finally, I want to leave a challenge for the reader. The code below is an implementation of the factorial algorithm using our State objects:

class FactorialState:

    def __init__(self, n, accumulator):
        self._n = n
        self._accumulator = accumulator
        self._current_state = 0

    def next(self):
        if self._current_state == 0:
            self._current_state = 1
            if self._n < 2:
                raise TerminatedException

            return FactorialState(self._n - 1, self._accumulator)
            raise TerminatedException

class Accumulator:

    def __init__(self, start):
        self._start = start

    def mult(self, n):
        self._start *= n

    def div(self, n):
        self._start /= n

    def value(self):
        return self._start
accumulator = Accumulator(1)
IterativeProcessor(FactorialState(6, accumulator)).traverse()

If you visualize the code at Python Tutor (or step through it with an IDE debugger), you’ll see that there are many state machines sitting on the stack in Operator once the final stack frame is hit. These stacks are superfluous all along and basically just raise TermiantedException, wasting both time and memory.

If our Operator implemented proper tail call optimization, these stacks would never exist in the first place, rather we would simply pop the top of the stack and push the new stack frame at each step which would give us the same result. How can we implement tail call optimization in our Operator while still preserving the proper behavior for non-tail call recursion (such as our TreeState object)?