LZ77 and LZ78
LZ77 and LZ78 are the names for the two lossless data compression
Lossless data compression
Lossless data compression is a class of data compression algorithms that allows the exact original data to be reconstructed from the compressed data. The term lossless is in contrast to lossy data compression, which only allows an approximation of the original data to be reconstructed, in exchange...

In mathematics and computer science, an algorithm is an effective method expressed as a finite list of well-defined instructions for calculating a function. Algorithms are used for calculation, data processing, and automated reasoning...

s published in papers by Abraham Lempel
Abraham Lempel
Abraham Lempel is an Israeli computer scientist and one of the fathers of the LZ family of lossless data compression algorithms.Lempel was born on 10 February 1936 in Lwów, Poland . He studied at Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, and received a B.Sc. in 1963, M.Sc. in 1965, and D.Sc. in...

 and Jacob Ziv
Jacob Ziv
Jacob Ziv is an Israeli computer scientist who, along with Abraham Lempel, developed the LZ family of lossless data compression algorithms.-Biography:...

 in 1977 and 1978. They are also known as LZ1 and LZ2 respectively. These two algorithms form the basis for most of the LZ variations including LZW, LZSS, LZMA and others.

They are both dictionary coder
Dictionary coder
A dictionary coder, also sometimes known as a substitution coder, is a class of lossless data compression algorithms which operate by searching for matches between the text to be compressed and a set of strings contained in a data structure maintained by the encoder...

s. LZ77 is the sliding window compression algorithm, which was later shown to be equivalent to the explicit dictionary compression technique of LZ78—however, they are only equivalent when the entire data is intended to be decompressed. LZ78 decompression allows random access to the input as long as the entire dictionary is available, while LZ77 decompression must always start at the beginning of the input.

The algorithms were named an IEEE Milestone in 2004.


LZ77 algorithms achieve compression by replacing repeated occurrences of data with references to a single copy of that data existing earlier in the input (uncompressed) data stream. A match is encoded by a pair of numbers called a length-distance pair, which is equivalent to the statement "each of the next length characters is equal to the characters exactly distance characters behind it in the uncompressed stream". (The "distance" is sometimes called the "offset" instead.)

To spot matches, the encoder must keep track of some amount of the most recent data, such as the last 2 kB, 4 kB, or 32 kB. The structure in which this data is held is called a sliding window, which is why LZ77 is sometimes called sliding window compression. The encoder needs to keep this data to look for matches, and the decoder needs to keep this data to interpret the matches the encoder refers to. The larger the sliding window is, the longer back the encoder may search for creating references.

It is not only acceptable but frequently useful to allow length-distance pairs to specify a length that actually exceeds the distance. As a copy command, this is puzzling: "Go back four characters and copy ten characters from that position into the current position". How can ten characters be copied over when only four of them are actually in the buffer? Tackling one byte at a time, there is no problem serving this request, because as a byte is copied over, it may be fed again as input to the copy command. When the copy-from position makes it to the initial destination position, it is consequently fed data that was pasted from the beginning of the copy-from position. The operation is thus equivalent to the statement "copy the data you were given and repetitively paste it until it fits". As this type of pair repeats a single copy of data multiple times, it can be used to incorporate a flexible and easy form of run-length encoding
Run-length encoding
Run-length encoding is a very simple form of data compression in which runs of data are stored as a single data value and count, rather than as the original run...



Even though all LZ77 algorithms work by definition on the same basic principle, they can vary widely in how they encode their compressed data to vary the numerical ranges of a length-distance pair, alter the number of bits consumed for a length-distance pair, and distinguish their length-distance pairs from literals (raw data encoded as itself, rather than as part of a length-distance pair). A few examples:
  • The algorithm illustrated in Lempel and Ziv's original 1977 paper outputs all its data three values at a time: the length and distance of the longest match found in the buffer, and the literal which followed that match. If two successive characters in the input stream could only be encoded as literals, the length of the length-distance pair would be 0.
  • In the PalmDoc format, a length-distance pair is always encoded by a two-byte sequence. Of the 16 bits that make up these two bytes, 11 bits go to encoding the distance, 3 go to encoding the length, and the remaining two are used to make sure the decoder can identify the first byte as the beginning of such a two-byte sequence.
  • In the implementation used for many games by Electronic Arts
    Electronic Arts
    Electronic Arts, Inc. is a major American developer, marketer, publisher and distributor of video games. Founded and incorporated on May 28, 1982 by Trip Hawkins, the company was a pioneer of the early home computer games industry and was notable for promoting the designers and programmers...

    , the size in bytes of a length-distance pair can be specified inside the first byte of the length-distance pair itself; depending on if the first byte begins with a 0, 10, 110, or 111 (when read in big-endian
    In computing, the term endian or endianness refers to the ordering of individually addressable sub-components within the representation of a larger data item as stored in external memory . Each sub-component in the representation has a unique degree of significance, like the place value of digits...

     bit orientation), the length of the entire length-distance pair can be 1 to 4 bytes large., the most popular LZ77 based compression method is DEFLATE
    Deflate is a lossless data compression algorithm that uses a combination of the LZ77 algorithm and Huffman coding. It was originally defined by Phil Katz for version 2 of his PKZIP archiving tool and was later specified in RFC 1951....

    ; it combines LZ77 with Huffman coding
    Huffman coding
    In computer science and information theory, Huffman coding is an entropy encoding algorithm used for lossless data compression. The term refers to the use of a variable-length code table for encoding a source symbol where the variable-length code table has been derived in a particular way based on...

    . Literals, lengths, and a symbol to indicate the end of the current block of data are all placed together into one alphabet. Distances can be safely placed into a separate alphabet; since a distance only occurs just after a length, it cannot be mistaken for another kind of symbol or vice-versa.


LZ78 algorithms achieve compression by replacing repeated occurrences of data with references to a dictionary that is built based on the input data stream. Each dictionary entry is of the form dictionary[...] = {index, character}, where index is the index to a previous dictionary entry, and character is appended to the string represented by dictionary[index]. For example, "abc" would be stored as follows: dictionary[k] = {j, 'c'}, dictionary[j] = {i, 'b'}, dictionary[i] = {0, 'a'}, where an index of 0 implies the end of a string. The algorithm initializes last matching index = 0 and next available index = 1. For each character of the input stream, the dictionary is searched for a match: {last matching index, character}. If a match is found, then last matching index is set to the index of the matching entry, and nothing is output. If a match is not found, then a new dictionary entry is created: dictionary[next available index] = {last matching index, character}, and the algorithm outputs last matching index, followed by character, then resets last matching index = 0 and increments next available index. Once the dictionary is full, no more entries are added. When the end of the input stream is reached, the algorithm outputs last matching index. Note that strings are stored in the dictionary in reverse order, which a LZ78 based decoder will have to deal with.

LZW is an LZ78 based algorithm that uses a dictionary pre-initialized with all possible characters (symbols), (or emulation of a pre-initialized dictionary). The main improvement of LZW is that when a match is not found, the current input stream character is assumed that it will be the first character of an existing string in the dictionary (since the dictionary is initialized with all possible characters), so only the last matching index is output (which may be the pre-initialized dictionary index corresponding to the previous (or the initial) input character). Refer to the LZW article for implementation details.
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