bigredbob - 2 months ago 23

Python Question

Ok this is one of those trickier than it sounds questions so I'm turning to stack overflow because I can't think of a good answer. Here is what I want: I need Python to generate a simple a list of numbers from 0 to 1,000,000,000 in random order to be used for serial numbers (using a random number so that you can't tell how many have been assigned or do timing attacks as easily, i.e. guessing the next one that will come up). These numbers are stored in a database table (indexed) along with the information linked to them. The program generating them doesn't run forever so it can't rely on internal state.

No big deal right? Just generate a list of numbers, shove them into an array and use Python "random.shuffle(big_number_array)" and we're done. Problem is I'd like to avoid having to store a list of numbers (and thus read the file, pop one off the top, save the file and close it). I'd rather generate them on the fly. Problem is that the solutions I can think of have problems:

1) Generate a random number and then check if it has already been used. If it has been used generate a new number, check, repeat as needed until I find an unused one. Problem here is that I may get unlucky and generate a lot of used numbers before getting one that is unused. Possible fix: use a very large pool of numbers to reduce the chances of this (but then I end up with silly long numbers).

2) Generate a random number and then check if it has already been used. If it has been used add or subtract one from the number and check again, keep repeating until I hit an unused number. Problem is this is no longer a random number as I have introduced bias (eventually I will get clumps of numbers and you'd be able to predict the next number with a better chance of success).

3) Generate a random number and then check if it has already been used. If it has been used add or subtract another randomly generated random number and check again, problem is we're back to simply generating random numbers and checking as in solution 1.

4) Suck it up and generate the random list and save it, have a daemon put them into a Queue so there are numbers available (and avoid constantly opening and closing a file, batching it instead).

5) Generate much larger random numbers and hash them (i.e. using MD5) to get a smaller numeric value, we should rarely get collisions, but I end up with larger than needed numbers again.

6) Prepend or append time based information to the random number (i.e. unix timestamp) to reduce chances of a collision, again I get larger numbers than I need.

Anyone have any clever ideas that will reduce the chances of a "collision" (i.e. generating a random number that is already taken) but will also allow me to keep the number "small" (i.e. less than a billion (or a thousand million for your europeans =)).

Answer and why I accepted it:

So I will simply go with 1, and hope it's not an issue, however if it is I will go with the deterministic solution of generating all the numbers and storing them so that there is a guarentee of getting a new random number, and I can use "small" numbers (i.e. 9 digits instead of an MD5/etc.).

Answer

This is a neat problem, and I've been thinking about it for a while (with solutions similar to Sjoerd's), but in the end, here's what I think:

Use your point 1) and stop worrying.

Assuming real randomness, the probability that a random number has already been chosen before is the count of previously chosen numbers divided by the size of your pool, i.e. the maximal number.

If you say you only need a billion numbers, i.e. nine digits: Treat yourself to 3 more digits, so you have 12-digit serial numbers (that's three groups of four digits – nice and readable).

Even when you're close to having chosen a billion numbers previously, the probability that your new number is already taken is still only 0,1%.

Do step 1 and draw again. You can still check for an "infinite" loop, say don't try more than 1000 times or so, and then fallback to adding 1 (or something else).

You'll win the lottery before that fallback ever gets used.