Edd Mann Developer

Experimenting with the XOR Swap Method in Java

The Exclusive disjunction (or) swap algorithm is a little trick to swap values of equal data type without the use of a temporary variable. Typically, low-level data types like integers are used in practice, but in theory any value represented by fixed-length bit-strings will work. Though bad practice in most use-cases, it does help to highlight implementation details which can seem foreign to higher-level programmers. Due to the strong levels of abstraction put in place to help aid development of complicated systems we sometimes lose the beautify in working with the underlying bits and bytes. An example of such an abstraction is the garbage collector found in the JVM, which takes care of memory management concerns which in other lower-level languages would be of huge consideration.

Decimal to Binary Representation

To display each values binary representation in the experiment we could simply use the Integer.toBinaryString method, however, as this is a learning exercise below are two alternative implementation.

public static String toBin(int decimal)
    if (decimal == 0) return "0";

    StringBuilder sb = new StringBuilder();

    while (decimal > 0) {
        sb.append(decimal & 1);
        decimal >>= 1;

    return sb.reverse().toString();

The first example uses a bitwise and shift operation to inspect each bit of the integer value. This implementation handles the use-case of being initially supplied with a decimal value of zero. The resulting value is built up using a StringBuilder and reversed before the string instance is created. This is required as we wish to represent the least significant digit at the right most position.

public static String toBin(int decimal)
    return (decimal > 0)
        ? toBin(decimal / 2) + (decimal % 2)
        : "";

The second example instead uses division and modulus to recursively build up a string representation to return.

The Algorithm

Directing attention back to the algorithm, no stipulations are placed on value, however, due to aliasing concerns the two variables must be stored in different (distinct) memory address spaces. With this knowledge in hand, we can now produce an example of the algorithm.

int x, y;
x = 1, y = 2; // x=01, y=10
x = x ^ y;    // x=11, y=10
y = x ^ y;    // x=11, y=01
x = x ^ y;    // x=10, y=01

After initialising the two integers we combine (XOR) the two values, storing the resulting value back into the first variable. As the XOR operation is commutative, we are free to change the operand ordering of any or all three of the statements. We then move on to XOR the resulting first value and the initial second value, storing the result in the second variables location. Using an XOR in this manner in affect cancels out all the information we have gained from the second variable in the initial operation, leaving us with only the first value. Finally, we XOR the two values yet again, but this time storing the resulting value back in the first variable, which due to cancellation, leaves us with only the second value.