If one have files $x_1, x_2, .., x_n$. What are the benefits of using hashing trees $-$ also known as Merkle trees $-$ (for example in git) instead of computing one hash value $h(x_1,x_2,..,x_n)$ ?


A Merkle tree is used for effective retrieving or sending data on the network that you can send/retrieve the data on any order and verify the current data with additional $O(\log n)$-data transmit and in $O(\log n)$-time. Actually, only the root hash is stored $O(1)$. While keeping the root hash any data retrieved/send verified.

\begin{array}{lcr} & \text{With Merkle Tree } & \\ \hline \text{receiver} & \text{data transmit } & \text{Databank} \\ \hline \text{keeps the root hash} & & \text{keeps the files}\\ O(1)\text{-space} & & \\ & \xrightarrow{\text{request the ith file }} & \\ & \xleftarrow{\text{sends ith file with the }O(\log n) \text{ siblings to the root hash}}\\ \text{Verification in} & & \\ O(\log n)\text{- time} & & \end{array}

The above diagram that you are the owner of the data and outsourced it. If the client wants to upload the data, first they can transmit the root hash digitally signed to the server where the diagram continues.

If you use one hash, then to verify you need to send/receive all of the data and compute the hash all over it $O(n)$-data transmit and in $O(n)$-time. There are also parallel hashing like ParallelHash of the SHA3 or Blake3. This can decrease the hashing time of $h(x_1,x_2,..,x_n)$ if you have more than one core/thread. In theory, this is $O(\log n)$, however, in practice, it may not. Still, to verify, one needs to transfer all at once, i.e. $O(n)$-data transmit.

\begin{array}{lcr} & \text{With Single Hash } & \\ \hline \text{receiver} & \text{data transmit } & \text{Databank} \\ \hline \text{keep hash} & & \text{keeps the files}\\ O(1)\text{-space} & & \\ & \xrightarrow{\text{request the ith file }} & \\ & \xleftarrow{\text{sends all files } O( n) \text{-data transmit}}\\ \text{Verification in} & & \\ O(n)\text{- time} & & \end{array}

Therefore the benefit is reduced hash time and reduced data transmission.

  • $\begingroup$ Whoever upvotes this answer, please go and read and upvote the Squamish's amazing answer, too. It is linked. $\endgroup$ – kelalaka Dec 19 '20 at 22:16
  • $\begingroup$ But this way you're assuming that the tree is binary. What if the tree is not binary? $\endgroup$ – funidentifier Dec 21 '20 at 1:12
  • $\begingroup$ @funidentifier There are works in Academia about those, Obviously, the depth of the tree is decreased, however, one will need more siblings than the depth. One needs to look at each case. Note that by Definition a Merkle Tree is Binary Tree. $\endgroup$ – kelalaka Dec 21 '20 at 1:25
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for your answer. Whether the tree is binary or not, I think that the point of "efficient verifications" still hold. Am I right? $\endgroup$ – funidentifier Dec 21 '20 at 12:37
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, That is the point. $\endgroup$ – kelalaka Dec 21 '20 at 12:45

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