Maximum Contiguous Subarray

August 20, 2019 • ☕️ 4 min read

Problem SolvingArrayDivide and ConquerKadane's AlgorithmDynamic Programming

Problem Statement

Given an integer array nums; find the contiguous subarray (containing at least one number) which has the largest sum and return its sum.


Input: [-2, 1, -3, 4, -1, 2, 1, -5, 4]
Output: 6
Explanation: [4, -1, 2, 1] has the largest sum = 6.


The naive or brute force method is to run two loops. The outer loop picks the beginning element, the inner loop finds the maximum possible sum with first element picked by outer loop which is the localMax and compares this localMax with the globalMax. And finally return the globalMax. This solution is pretty straight forward, right? The time complexity of this method is O(n²)

int maxSubArray(vector<int>& nums) {
int size = nums.size();
int sum = 0, maxSum = INT_MIN;
for(int i=0; i<size; i++) {
sum = 0;
for(int j=i; j<size; j++) {
sum += nums[j];
if(maxSum < sum) maxSum = sum;
return maxSum;

But we might notice that this is not a very good method because as the size of array increases, the number of possible subarrays increases rapidly, thus increasing computational complexity. Or to be more precise, if the size of the array is n, then the time complexity of this solution is O(n²) which is not very good.

How can we improve this? There is an algorithm named Kadane's Algorithm to solve this problem in an efficient way. To better understand Kadane’s Algorithm; first, we would go through a short introduction of Dynamic Programming. So, let’s get into it.

Dynamic Programming

Dynamic Programming is a method for solving a complex problem by breaking it down into a collection of simpler subproblems, solving each of those subproblems just once, and storing their solutions using a memory-based data structure (array, map, etc.); so, the next time the same sub-problem occurs, instead of recomputing its solution, one simply looks up the previously computed solution, thereby saving computation time.

Though there’s more to dynamic programming, we would move forward to understand the Maximum Subarray Problem.

We would use the brute force approach discussed above again, but this time we would start backward. We would start from the last element and calculate the sum of every possible subarray ending with the element A[n-1], as shown in the figure below. Then, we would calculate the sum of every possible subarray ending with A[n-2], A[n-3] and so on up to A[0].

Backward Brute Force Approach: Iteration 0 (left) and Iteration 1 (right)
Backward Brute Force Approach: Iteration 0 (left) and Iteration 1 (right)

Now let’s focus on the subarrays ending with the element A[4] = -1 and A[5] = 2 shown in the figure below.

asset 2

From the figure above, we see that the localMax[4] is 3 which is the sum of the subarray [4, -1]. Now let’s have a look at the subarrays ending with A[5]. We’ll notice that these subarrays can be divided into two parts, the subarrays ending with A[4] (highlighted with yellow) and the single element subarray A[5] (in green).

Let’s say somehow we know the localMax[4]. Then we see that to calculate the localMax[5], we don’t need to compute the sum of all subarrays ending with A[5] since we already know the result from arrays ending with A[4]. Note that, if array [4, -1] had the maximum sum, then we only need to check the arrays highlighted with the red arrows to calculate localMax[5]. And this leads us to the principle on which Kadane’s Algorithm works.

localMax at index i is the maximum of A[i] and the sum of A[i] and localMax at index i-1.

localMax[i] = max(A[i], A[i] + localMax[i-1])

This way, at every index i, the problem splits down into finding the maximum of just two numbers, A[i] and (A[i] + localMax[i-1]). Thus the maximum subarray problem can be solved by solving these sub-problems of finding localMaxs recursively. Also, note that localMax[0] would be A[0] and that’s the base case.

int maxSubArray(vector<int>& nums) {
int size = nums.size();
vector<int> localMax(size);
int globalMax = localMax[0] = nums[0];
for(int i=1; i<size; i++) {
localMax[i] = max(nums[i], localMax[i-1] + nums[i]);
if(localMax[i] > globalMax) globalMax = localMax[i];
return globalMax;

Using this method, we need to iterate through the array just once, which is just a line sweep and obviously a lot better than our previous brute force approach. Time complexity of this algorithm is O(n) and space complexity is O(n) too.

Here, we can optimize the space complexity by taking localMax[i-1] which is the previous sum into a single variable localMax i.e. eliminating the localMax vector. It’ll minimize the space complexity down to O(1).

int maxSubArray(vector<int>& nums) {
int size = nums.size();
int globalMax = localMax = nums[0];
for(int i=1; i<size; i++) {
localMax = max(nums[i], localMax + nums[i]);
if(localMax > globalMax) globalMax = localMax;
return globalMax;

Follow up

We have figured out the O(n) solution, let’s try coding another solution using the divide and conquer approach.

Using Divide and Conquer approach, we can find the maximum subarray sum in O(nlogn) time. Following is the Divide and Conquer algorithm:

  1. Divide the given array in two halves
  2. Return the maximum of following three
    • Maximum subarray sum in left half
    • Maximum subarray sum in right half
    • Maximum subarray sum such that the subarray crosses the midpoint
int maxCrossingSum(int arr[], int l, int m, int h)
int sum = 0;
int left_sum = INT_MIN;
for (int i = m; i >= l; i--) {
sum = sum + arr[i];
if (sum > left_sum) left_sum = sum;
sum = 0;
int right_sum = INT_MIN;
for (int i = m+1; i <= h; i++) {
sum = sum + arr[i];
if (sum > right_sum) right_sum = sum;
return left_sum + right_sum;
int maxSubArraySum(int arr[], int l, int h)
if (l == h) return arr[l];
int m = (l + h) / 2;
return max(maxSubArraySum(arr, l, m),
maxSubArraySum(arr, m+1, h),
maxCrossingSum(arr, l, m, h));

We are making maxSubArraySum function to calculate the maximum sum of the subarray in an array. Here, we are calling the function maxSubArraySum for both the left and the right subarrays i.e. recursively checking the left and the right subarrays for the maximum sum of a subarray.

Now, we have to handle the third case i.e. when the subarray with the maximum sum contains both the right and the left subarrays (containing the middle element). We will now make a function called maxCrossingSum to calculate the maximum sum of the subarray crossing the middle element and then call it inside the maxSubArraySum function.

Here, we are covering all three cases mentioned above and then just returning the maximum of these three. Now, let’s write the maxCrossingSum function which is simple but trickier; we just have to iterate over the right and the left sides of the middle element and find the maximum sum.

Here, our first loop is iterating from the middle element to the lowest element of the left subarray to find the maximum sum and similarly the second loop is iterating from the middle+1 element to the highest element of the subarray to calculate the maximum sum of the subarray on the right side. And finally, we are returning the sum of this two.

Written by Nayeem Reza
Software Engineer | Tech Enthusiast | Traveler