Lookup Tables Are Awesome

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I found out about lookup tables around a month ago, from a book about embedded systems, so I thought I should write about it. They are something I wish I had known about earlier. A lookup table is essentially a table (usually implemented as an array) containing pre-computed values.

Lookup tables are often used to avoid performing a lot of calculations in a program. They are used as a replacement for large nested if-else statements or switch statements. When using if-else statements, the program has to compute the conditions. This is more work for the program. Lookup tables don't have this problem as to use it, we only need to index it.

Example #1

A lookup table that a lot of people use, especially students, is the periodic table. Below is the code for a program that displays the name of the element based on their atomic number, with and without a lookup table. The code for all examples below is in C.

Here's the program without the table:

// to keep the example short, the program only handles the first 5 elements
#include <stdio.h>

int main() {
    int inp;
    printf("enter the atomic number of an element: ");
    scanf("%d", &inp);
    switch (inp) {
        case 1: puts("Hydrogen"); break;
        case 2: puts("Helium"); break;
        case 3: puts("Lithium"); break;
        case 4: puts("Beryllium"); break;
        case 5: puts("Boron"); break;
        default: puts("error: unknown element!");
    return 0;

And here's the program with the lookup table:

#include <stdio.h>

static const char *periodic_table[] = {
    "Hydrogen", "Helium", "Lithium", "Beryllium", "Boron"

int main() {
    int inp;
    printf("enter the atomic number of an element: ");
    scanf("%d", &inp);
    if (inp >= 1 && inp <= 5) {
    } else {
        puts("error: unknown element!");
    return 0;

Note that the periodic_table array uses the static storage class specifier. This means that the array is allocated only once and persists until the end of the program. const is also used here because the values in the table are read-only.

Although the code with the switch statement might look more intuitive, if more

elements are to be handled, the switch statement will end up too long and difficult to read and modify. On the other hand, with a lookup table, to handle more elements you only need to add the new elements to the table. The main function can be left unchanged.

Jump Tables

A jump table, or also known as a branch table, is a type of lookup table that contains program instructions. It is used to handle multiple similiar events in a program. It is often used in assembly programs, using gotos.

Jump tables can also be implemented in C, using function pointers. This is what I usually use lookup tables for. The table contains function pointers, and the program will call the function that corresponds to the table index.

Example #2

One of my side projects, a redis clone, uses a jump table to handle the different redis commands. Here's a few code snippets that shows the use of the jump table.

/* interpreter.c */


/* The lookup table is an array of function pointers. The functions each takes
 * a hashtable and a command, and returns a string. Arrays can only be in a
 * single type, so all of the functions here needs to have the same parameters
 * and return types.
static char *(*fns[])(HashTable *, Command *) = {
    &exec_del, &exec_exists, &exec_type,
    &exec_set, &exec_get, &exec_mset, &exec_mget,
    &exec_incr, &exec_decr, &exec_incrby, &exec_decrby, &exec_strlen,


/* The interpret function takes in a hashtable, and a command to run on it.
 * The function will first find the function that handles the command, call it,
 * and return its return value.
char *interpret(HashTable *ht, Command *cmd) {
    char *res;
    res = fns[cmd->type](ht, cmd);
    return res;

The index for the table uses the type member of the struct Command. It is an enum of all the possible commands. Enum member values start from 0, so it maps perfectly to the lookup table indexes. Here's the enum definition:

typedef struct Command {
    enum {
        DEL, EXISTS, TYPE,

    } type;

} Command;

The interpreter function used to use a huge switch statement to handle the commands. I changed it to use lookup tables after learning about them. After that I did some digging into the original Redis source. I found out later that it also uses a lookup table! Here's a part of the Redis source that shows the table:

/* redis.c */
struct redisCommand *commandTable;
struct redisCommand readonlyCommandTable[] = {



Lookup tables are one of the things I think most programmers should know about. It makes code much cleaner and easier to read. This applies not only to C, but also to other programming languages like Python, Java, etc.