There is nothing wrong with rand
per se, but there is a lot of confusion about what rand
does and
how it does it. The often results in rand
being used in situations where it is a very poor choice.
In general, rand
should be avoided except in the most simple of cases where pseudorandom numbers are
desired, and even then there are caveats. So the question is, what exactly is the problem with rand
?
Let us count the ways:

Range:
rand
returns numbers in the range of [0, RAND_MAX
), and RAND_MAX
is specified with
a minimum value of 32,767. Portable code cannot assume that the range is any larger than this, so portable code is
very limited in the random numbers that can be predictably generated. Compare this with better random number generators that have
a range of 32 or 64 bits.

Period: The period of
rand
is implementation defined, but typically falls around 2^321. Compare this with
the Mersenne Twister algorithm, which is 2^199371. You typically want the period of a random number generator to exceed the amount of
numbers expected to be generated, because that's the point where the sequence repeats.

Quality:
rand
has a history of poor implementations, where the quality of the numbers generated were
either very predictable or not 'random' enough. Notable in these implementations the low order bits were decidedly not
random, which prompted programmers to only use the high order bits for adjusting ranges (which we'll see shortly).

Distribution: First and foremost,
rand
is not required to conform to any standard distribution.
Typically, the base random number generator is expected to return values in a uniform distribution. That is, every number in the
range is equally likely to be returned for any given request. Even when rand
claims a uniform distribution, it may
not be a terribly good distribution, which greatly affects any attempts to adjust the range.
So when should you use rand
? According to the above, rand
is fine to use when you don't need numbers outside of
[0, 32,767), won't generate more numbers than the common period, don't particularly care about the quality of the pseudorandom sequence,
and don't need the sequence to conform to a strict distribution. That's a lot of not caring for my tastes, but there are certainly
situations where all of them apply.
However, there is another wrench that can be thrown in our gears, because a great many applications need a smaller range than
[0, 32,767). For this, the programmer typically adjusts the range by forcing a number returned by rand
into a smaller
range. For example, to roll a 6 sided die, one would prefer to only receive values in the range of [0, 6). This is often done using
the remainder operator:
int r = rand() % N;
Or if both a lower and upper bound are needed:
int r = LO + rand() % (HI  LO);
Anyone who does this will be rewarded with a seemingly random sequence and be thrilled that their clever solution worked. Unfortunately,
this does not work. The first solution only works when N
evenly divides into RAND_MAX
. The second
solution isn't any better. The reason is because forcing the range in this way eliminates any chance of having a uniform distribution.
Now, this is okay if you care nothing about some numbers being more probable than others, but to be correct, you must work with the
distribution instead of destroy it.
Why does the distribution get destroyed though? It's the pigeonhole principle.
If you have a bunch of numbers and try to merge them into a smaller number of buckets, unless the number of buckets is evenly divisible by
the range of numbers, some buckets will be given more numbers than other buckets. Thus the distribution of numbers in the buckets is worse
than the distribution of numbers in the original range.
Most experienced C programmers will tell you that using remainder with random numbers is bad, but not many of them will be able
to tell you why. This is similar to the goto
issue, where beginners are taught to blindly believe that any code with
a goto
statement is spaghetti code and any use of goto
is evil. The solution suggested to get around the
remainder issue is usually division by RAND_MAX
. For a range of [0, N), you would do something like this:
int r = rand() / (RAND_MAX / N + 1);
With the lower and upper bound support looking like this:
int r = M + rand() / (RAND_MAX / (N  M) + 1);
All is well, right? This produces a seemingly random sequence. The seasoned community is happy because you are not using the
remainder operator with rand
, and you are happy because you got your random numbers and foiled the evils of rand
.
But wait! This is not an improvement...at all. This 'solution' does nothing to alleviate distribution problems. In reality, it
is a fix for poor implementations of rand
where the low order bits are very nonrandom. The remainder operator
uses the low order bits primarily while the 'fix' uses the high order bits. It may help, but it doesn't do jack diddly where
distribution is concerned.
A real fix is to work with the natural distribution rather than try to circumvent it. Simply call rand
until
you get a number that fits within your selected range:
int r;
do
{
r = rand();
} while (r >= HI);
Or for both lower and upper bounds:
int r;
do
{
r = rand();
} while (r < LO  r >= HI);
Not only does this fix the distribution problem, it also avoids the low order bit problem entirely. The down side to this solution is
that the performance dictated by the range. A small range could potentially call rand
many times. Unfortunately, there
is not a workaround for this if you are interested in maintaining the natural distribution of the random number generator. Further,
this does not fix any problems in the natural distrubtion of the random number generator. If rand
does not
have a good uniform distribution naturally, the above loops will not improve matters.
Often you'll see recommendations to introduce floatingpoint to 'fix'...something. I myself made this recommendation in a previous
incarnation of this article, and it shames me to admit it. The problem is floatingpoint creates its own problems, and those
problems often exacerbate the problems you're using it to solve. As they say, if you have 1 problem and decide to use floatingpoint,
now you have 2.000001 problems. Please do not use floatingpoint to try fixing distribution issues with rand
, it will
only result in further heartache.
It should be kept in mind that these distribution problems are consistent with all random number generators that return a ranged integer,
not just rand
. So please do not read this article as me harping on rand
, rather read it as me harping on the
majority of programmers who use it incorrectly. I suppose that's not much better, but it is what it is. :) And note that even if you
are using the most awesome random number generator available, adjusting the range will require some thought if it needs to
be done correctly.
Seeding rand
Probably the most vexing problem with how people use rand
is how the generator is seeded. The usual solution is to get
the system time using the time
function. In theory, this is a great idea because not only does it seed the random number
generator with an ever changing value, but it is also portable:
srand((unsigned int)time(NULL));
Right? Well no, not really. The issue is that time_t
is a restricted type, and may not be meaningfully converted
to unsigned int
. That is not a terribly big issue as I have yet to see a system where it would fail to work correctly,
and I do not know anyone who has either. But subtle lingering portability issues should leave a sour taste in the mouth.
Fortunately, there is a way to use the result of time
portably as a seed for rand
; just hash the bytes
of a time_t:
unsigned time_seed()
{
time_t now = time(0);
unsigned char *p = (unsigned char *)&now;
unsigned seed = 0;
for (size_t i = 0; i < sizeof now; i++)
{
seed = seed * (UCHAR_MAX + 2U) + p[i];
}
return seed;
}
...
srand (time_seed());
A hash will take advantage of the way the system time changes. Even better, the C and C++ standards guarantee that type
punning is a portable operation for simple types, and time_t
is a simple type. So hashing the system time
and seeding rand
with it is a portable solution with desirable properties.
Of course, one might wonder why we should go to all of the trouble when time_t
is extremely likely to work.
The uncertainty of being able to use time_t
alone should be a good enough reason to avoid directly seeding
rand
with one.
Now for the caveat, and there always seems to be one. :( The resolution for time
is 1 second. That's not
a requirement, but it is the overwhelming choice in implementations. This means that calling time_seed
multiple times in a second will result in the same seed. Further, because the time is predictable, the seed will
also be predictable. Unfortunately, I have yet to find a better way to seed a random number generator in C in a portable
manner. I've actually received a lot of feedback on this (thank you! keep it coming), but none of them were portable. The
best one was a hash of the environ
variable in POSIXbased systems, and while it was very interesting, for
such systems I would prefer simply using /dev/random from the beginning to avoid all of the problems from this article
entirely.
Honorable Mention (C++11)
The C++11 standard introduced the <random>
header, which offers some amazingly effective, yet equally
amazingly confusing random number utilities. Ultimately for the average programmer it is rather simple, but you need to
recognize that the majority of the classes can be ignored. Typically, the only ones that matter are:
std::mt19337
: Mersenne Twister 32 bit implementation.
std::mt19337_64
: Mersenne Twister 64 bit implementation.
std::random_device
: Implementationdependent random number generator.
std::uniform_int_distribution
: Accurately adjusts numbers from a generator into a uniform integer range.
std::uniform_real_distribution
: Accurately adjusts numbers from a generator into a uniform floatingpoint range.
Using the library is straightforward. You create a random number generator (an engine object), create a distribution object, then
apply the engine object to the distribution object to get the random numbers you want using operator()
of the distribution object.
Since std::random_device
is notably slower than the Mersenne Twister, my preference is to use it only for seeding the Mersenne
Twister algorithm in cases where Mersenne Twister is the primary engine:
#include <iostream>
#include <random>
int main()
{
std::random_device seed;
std::mt19937 gen(seed());
std::uniform_int_distribution<int> dist(0, 100);
for (int i = 0; i < 10; i++)
{
std::cout << dist(gen) << '\n';
}
}
Obviously, if you're writing code in C, this option is not available. But for C++ programmers, you should probably forget that
rand
exists and use the new <random>
library.
Conclusion
There is really nothing wrong with rand
, despite what you may be told. The problem is with the people who use it, and
how they use it incorrectly and without having all of the facts. Another problem is that one can use rand
incorrectly
and still get seemingly random results, so the incorrect use appears to work as expected.
Now for the big question: Does any of this matter to you? Yes, of course it does. A keen understanding of how things work will give
you insight into writing good code. Will you encounter these problems in everyday programming? Probably not. Pseudorandom numbers
are typically expected to be sufficiently random for the application but no more. As such, most people who use rand
will either not see, or not care, about the discussed issues. In fact, these issues are generally not noticeable except on a very
large scale or a very small scale.
An article on rand
isn't complete without the usual caveat that rand
isn't required to be a strong random
number generator. In fact, it's usually pretty weak. For little things that don't need a good random number generator,
rand
will do fine, and whatever option you use for adjusting ranges will be equally fine. For everything else, a
much stronger algorithm with more guarantees, such as the Mersenne Twister, is strongly recommended. In other words, for a dice rolling
school project, rand
is just peachy. But for a slot machine in Las Vegas, you need the very best you can get, and
rand
is not it.
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