Finite state automata (FSA), also known as finite state machines (FSM), are usually classified as being deterministic (DFA) or non-deterministic (NFA). A deterministic finite state automaton has exactly one transition from every state for each possible input. In other words, whatever state the FSA is in, if it encounters a symbol for which a transition exists, there will be just one transition and obviously as a result, one follow up state. For a given string, the path through a DFA is deterministic since there is no place along the way where the machine would have to choose between more than one transition. Given this definition it isn’t too hard to figure out what an NFA is. Unlike in DFA, it is possible for states in an NFA to have more than one transition per input symbol. Additionally, states in an NFA may have states that don’t require an input symbol at all, transitioning on the empty string ε.
Superficially it would appear that deterministic and non-deterministic finite state automata are entirely separate beasts. It turns out, however, that they are equivalent. For any language recognized by an NFA, there exists a DFA that recognizes that language and vice versa. The algorithm to make the conversion from NFA to DFA is relatively simple, even if the resulting DFA is considerably more complex than the original NFA. After the jump I will prove this equivalence and also step through a short example of converting an NFA to an equivalent DFA.