Spaghetti Optimization

My cookbook about Math, Algorithms, and Programming

Graph Coloring: Column Generation or Column Enumeration?

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In this post, I like to share a simple idea on how to solve to optimality some hard instances of the Graph Coloring problem. This simple idea yields a “new time” record for a couple of hard instances.

To date, the best exact approach to solve Graph Coloring is based on Branch-and-Price [1, 2, 3]. The branch-and-price method is completely different from the Constraint Programming approach I discussed in a previous post. A key component of Branch-and-Price is the column generation phase, which is intuitively quite simple, but mathematically rather involved for a short blog post.

Here, I want to show you that a modern Mixed Integer Programming (MIP) solver, such as Gurobi or CPLEX, can solve a few hard instances of graph coloring with the following “null implementation effort”:

  1. Enumerate all possible columns
  2. Build a .mps instance with those columns
  3. Use a MIP solver to solve the .mps instance

Indeed, in this post we try to answer to the following question:

Is there any hope to solve any hard graph coloring instances with this naive approach?


Given an undirected graph and a set of colors , the minimum (vertex) graph coloring problem consists of assigning a color to each vertex, while every pair of adjacent vertices gets a different color. The objective is to minimize the number of colors used in a solution.

The branch-and-price approach to graph coloring is based on a set covering formulation. Let be the collection of all the maximal stable sets of , and let be the maximal stable sets that contain the vertex . Let be a 0-1 variable equal to 1 if all the vertices in the maximal stable set get assigned the same color. Hence, the set covering model is:

Indeed, we “cover” every vertex of with the minimal number of maximal stable sets. The issue with this model is the total number of maximal stable sets in , which is exponential in the number of vertices of G.

Column Generation is a “mathematically elegant” method to by-pass this issue: it lets you to solve the set covering model by generating a very small subset of the elements in . This happens by repeatedly solving an auxiliary problem, called the pricing subproblem. For graph coloring, the pricing subproblem consists of a Maximum Weighted Stable Set problem. If you are interested in Column Generation, I recommend you to look at the first chapter of the Column Generation book, which contains a nice tutorial on the topic, and I would strongly recommend reading the nice survey “Selected Topics in Column Generation”, [4].

How many maximal stable sets are in a hard graph coloring instance?

If this number were not so high, we could enumerate all the stable sets in and attempt to directly solve the set covering model without resorting to column generation. However, “high” is a subjective measure, so let me do some computations on my laptop and give you some precise numbers.

Hard instances

Among the DIMACS instances of Graph Coloring, there are a few instances proposed by David Johnson, which are still unsolved (in the sense that we have not a computational proof of optimality of the best known upper bounds).

The table below shows the dimensions of these instances. The name of instances are DSJC{n}.{d}, where {n} is the number of vertices and {d} gives the density of the graph (e.g., DSJC125.9 has 125 vertices and 0.9 of density).

Graph Nodes Edges Max stable sets Enumeration Time
DSJC125.9 125 6,961 524 0.00
DSJC250.9 250 27,897 2,580 0.01
DSJC500.9 500 112,437 14,560 0.12
DSJC1000.9 1,000 449,449 100,389 2.20
DSJC125.5 125 3,891 43,268 0.53
DSJC250.5 250 15,668 1,470,363 43.16
DSJC500.5 500 62,624 ? out of memory
DSJC1000.5 1,000 249,826 ? out of memory
DSJC125.1 125 736 ? out of memory
DSJC250.1 250 3,218 ? out of memory
DSJC500.1 500 12,458 ? out of memory
DSJC1000.1 1,000 49,629 ? out of memory

As you can see the number of maximal stable sets (i.e. the cardinality of ) of several instances is not so high, above all for very dense graphs, where the number of stables set is less than the number of edges. However, for sparse graphs, the number of maximal stable sets is too large for the memory available in my laptop.

Now, let me re-state the main question of this post:

Can we enumerate all the maximal stable sets of and use a MIP solver such as Gurobi or CPLEX to solve any Johnson’s instance of Graph Coloring?


I have written a small script which uses Cliquer to enumerate all the maximal stable sets of a graph, and then I generate an .mps instance for each of the DSJC instance where I was able to store all maximal stable sets. The .mps file are on my public GitHub repository for this post.

The table below shows some numbers for the sparse instances obtained using Gurobi (v6.0.0) with a timeout of 10 minutes on my laptop. If you compare these numbers with the results published in the literature, you can see that they are not bad at all.

Believe me, these number are not bad at all, and establish a new TIME RECORD.

For example, the instance DSJC250.9 was solved to optimality only recently in 11094 seconds by [3], while the column enumeration approach solves the same instance on a similar hardware in only 23 seconds (!), and, honestly, our work in [2] did not solve this instance to optimality at all.

Graph Best known Enum. Time Run time LB UB Time [2] LB[2] UB [2]
DSJC125.9 44 0.00 0.44 44 44 44 44 44
DSJC250.9 72 0.01 23 72 72 timeout 71 72
DSJC500.9 128 0.12 timeout 123 128 timeout 123 136
DSJC1000.9 222 2.20 timeout 215 229 timeout 215 245
DSJC125.5 17 0.53 70.6 17 17 19033 17 17
DSJC250.5 28 43.16 timeout 26 33 timeout 26 31

Can we ever solve to optimality DSJC500.9 and DSJC1000.9 via Column Enumeration?

I would say:

“Yes, we can!”

… but likely we need to be smarter while branching on the decision variables, since the default branching strategy of a generic MIP solver does not exploit the structure of the problem. If I had the time to work again on Graph Coloring, I would likely use the same branching scheme used in [2], where we combined a Zykov’s branching rule with a randomized iterative deepening depth-first search (randomised because at each restart we were using a different initial pool of columns). Another interesting option would be to tighten the set covering formulation with valid inequalities, by starting with those studied in [5].

In conclusion, I believe that enumerating all columns can be a simple but good starting point to attempt to solve to optimality at least the instances DSJC500.9 and DSJC1000.9.

Do you have some spare time and are you willing to take up the challenge?


  1. A Mehrotra, MA Trick. A column generation approach for graph coloring. INFORMS Journal on Computing. Fall 1996 vol. 8(4), pp.344-354. [pdf]

  2. S. Gualandi and F. Malucelli. Exact Solution of Graph Coloring Problems via Constraint Programming and Column Generation. INFORMS Journal on Computing. Winter 2012 vol. 24(1), pp.81-100. [pdf] [preprint]

  3. S. Held, W. Cook, E.C. Sewell. Maximum-weight stable sets and safe lower bounds for graph coloring. Mathematical Programming Computation. December 2012, Volume 4, Issue 4, pp 363-381. [pdf]

  4. M. Lubbecke and J. Desrosiers. Selected topics in column generation. Operations Research. 2005, Volume 53, Issue 6, pp 1007-1023. [pdf]

  5. Set covering and packing formulations of graph coloring: algorithms and first polyhedral results. Discrete Optimization. 2009, Volume 6, Issue 2, pp 135-147. [pdf]

Big Data and Convex Optimization

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In the last months, I came several times across different definitions of Big Data. However, when someone asks me what Big Data means in practice, I am never able to give a satisfactory explanation. Indeed, you can easily find a flood of posts on twitter, blogs, newspaper, and even scientific journals and conferences, but I always kept feeling that Big Data is a buzzword.

By sheer serendipity, this morning I came across three paragraphs clearly stating the importance of Big Data from a scientific standpoint, that I like to cross-post here (the following paragraphs appear in the introduction of [1]):

In all applied fields, it is now commonplace to attack problems through data analysis, particularly through the use of statistical and machine learning algorithms on what are often large datasets. In industry, this trend has been referred to as ‘Big Data’, and it has had a significant impact in areas as varied as artificial intelligence, internet applications, computational biology, medicine, finance, marketing, journalism, network analysis, and logistics.

Though these problems arise in diverse application domains, they share some key characteristics. First, the datasets are often extremely large, consisting of hundreds of millions or billions of training examples; second, the data is often very high-dimensional, because it is now possible to measure and store very detailed information about each example; and third, because of the large scale of many applications, the data is often stored or even collected in a distributed manner. As a result, it has become of central importance to develop algorithms that are both rich enough to capture the complexity of modern data, and scalable enough to process huge datasets in a parallelized or fully decentralized fashion. Indeed, some researchers have suggested that even highly complex and structured problems may succumb most easily to relatively simple models trained on vast datasets.

Many such problems can be posed in the framework of Convex Optimization.

Given the significant work on decomposition methods and decentralized algorithms in the optimization community, it is natural to look to parallel optimization algorithms as a mechanism for solving large-scale statistical tasks. This approach also has the benefit that one algorithm could be flexible enough to solve many problems.

Even if I am not an expert of Convex Optimization [2], I do have my own mathematical optimization bias. Likely, you may have a different opinion (that I am always happy to hear), but, honestly, the above paragraphs are the best content that I have read so far about Big Data.


[1] S. Boyd, N. Parikh, E. Chu, B. Peleato, J. Eckstein. Distributed Optimization and Statistical Learning via the Alternating Direction Method of Multipliers. Foundations and Trends in Machine Learning. Vol. 3, No. 1 (2010) 1–122. [pdf]

[2] If you like to have a speedy overview of Convex Optimization, you may read a J.F. Puget’s blog post.

The Impact of Preprocessing on the MIPLIB2003

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What do you know about preprocessing for Mixed Integer Programming (MIP) problems?

After a nice chat with Bo Jensen, CEO, founder, and co-owner (really, he is a Rocket Scientist!) at Sulum Optimization, I realised that I know barely anything.

By definition, we have that:

“Presolving is a way to transform the given problem instance into an equivalent instance that is (hopefully) easier to solve.” (see, chap. 10 in Tobias Achterberg’s Thesis)

All I know is that every MIP solver has a Presolve parameter, which can take different values. For instance, Gurobi has three possible values for that parameter (you can find more details on the Gurobi online manual):

  • Presolve=0: no presolve at all
  • Presolve=1: standard presolve
  • Presolve=2: aggressive presolve: “More aggressive application of presolve takes more time, but can sometimes lead to a significantly tighter model.”

However, I can’t tell you the real impact of that parameter on the overall solution process of a MIP instance. Thus, here we go: let me write a new post that addresses this basic question!

How to measure the Impact of Preprocessing?

To measure the impact of preprocessing we need four ingredients:

  1. A MIP solver
  2. A Data set
  3. Computer power
  4. A method to measure the impact of preprocessing

Changing one of the ingredients could give you different results, but, hopefully, the big picture will not change too much.

As a solver, I have selected the current release of Gurobi (i.e., version 5.6.2). For the data set, likely the most critical ingredient, I have used the MIPLIB2003, basically because I had already all the 60 instances on my server. For running the test I have used an old cluster from the Math Department of University of Pavia.

The measure of impact I have decided to use (after considering other alternatives) is quite conservative: the fraction of closed instances as a function of runtime.

During the last weekend, I have collected a bunch of logs for the 60 instances of the MIPLIB2003, and, then, using RStudio, I have draw the following cumulative plot:

The picture is as simple as clear:

Preprocessing does always pay-off and permits to solve around 10% more of the instances within the same time limit!

In this post, I will not discuss additional technical details, but I just want to add two observations:

  1. Standard preprocessing has removed in average 20.3% of nonzero entries of the original model, while aggressive preprocessing has removed 22.5% of nonzero entries, only a few more.
  2. The average MIP gaps as reported by Gurobi at timeout are: no-presolve = 13.44%, standard = 9.08%, and aggressive = 11.02%.

Likely, the aggressive presolve setting has been decided by Gurobi using a different, much larger, and customer-oriented dataset.

Open Questions

Indeed, preprocessing is a very important feature of a modern MIP solver as Gurobi. Investing few seconds before starting the branch-and-bound MIP search can save a significant amount of runtime. However, a more aggressive preprocessing strategy does not seem to payoff, in average, on the MIPLIB2003.

Unfortunately, preprocessing is somehow disregarded from the research community. There are few recent papers dealing with preprocessing (“ehi! if you do have one, please, let me know about it, ok?”). Most of papers are from the 90s and about Linear Programming, i.e., without integer variables, which mess up everything.

Here a list of basic questions I have in mind:

  • If cutting planes are used to approximate the convex hull of an Integer Problem, preprocessing for what is used for, really?
  • Preprocessing techniques have been designed considering a trade-off between efficiency and efficacy (see, MWP Savelsbergh, Preprocessing and Probing Techniques for MIP problems, Journal of Computing, vol6(4) 445-454, 1995). With recent progress in software and hardware technologies, can we revise this trade-off in favor of efficacy?
  • Preprocessing techniques used for Linear Programming are effective when applied to LP relaxations of Integer Problems?
  • Should preprocessing sparsify the coefficient matrix?
  • Using the more recent MIPLIB2010 should we expect much different results?
  • Which is a better method to measure the impact of preprocessing on a collection of instances?

If you want to share your idea, experience, or opinion, with respect to these questions, you could comment below or send me an email.

Now, to conclude, my bonus question:

Do you have any new smart idea for improving preprocessing?

Well, if you had, I guess you would at least write a paper about, but, do not go for a patent, please!

An Informal Report From the Combinatorial Optimization Workshop @ Aussois 2014

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It is very hard to report about the Combinatorial Optimization Workshop in Aussois. It was like an “informal” IPCO with Super Heroes researchers in the audience, leaded by Captain Egon, who appears at work in the following photo-tweet:

The Captain gave an inspiring talk by questioning the recursive paradigm of cutting planes algorithms. With a very basic example, Balas has shown how a non basic vertex (solution) can produce a much deeper cut than a cut generated by an optimal basis. Around this intuition, Balas has presented a very nice generalization of Intersection Cuts… a new paper enters my “PAPERS-TO-BE-READ” folder.

To stay on the subject of cutting planes, the talk by Marco Molinaro in the first day of the workshop was really nice. He raises the fundamental question on how important are sparse cuts versus dense cuts. The importance of sparse cuts comes from linear algebra: when solving the simplex it is better to have small determinants in the coefficient matrix of the Linear Programming relaxation in order to avoid numerical issues; sparse cuts implicitly help in keeping small the determinants (intuitively, you have more zeros in the matrix). Dense cuts play the opposite role, but they can be really important to improve the bound of the LP relaxation. In his talk, Molinaro has shown and proofed, for three particular cases, when sparse cuts are enough, and when they are not. Another paper goes on the “PAPERS-TO-BE-READ” folder.

In the same day of Molinaro, it was really inspiring the talk by Sebastian Pokutta, who really gave a completely new (for me) perspective on Extended Formulations by using Information Theory. Sebastian is the author of a blog, and I hope he will post about his talk.

Andrea Lodi has discussed about an Optimization problem that arises in Supervised Learning. For this problem, the COIN-OR solver Couenne, developed by Pietro Belotti, significantly outperforms CPLEX. The issues seem to come from on a number of basic big-M (indicator) constraints. To make a long story short, if you have to solve a hard problem, it does pay off to try different solvers, since there is not a “win-all” solver.

Do you have an original new idea for developing solvers? Do not be intimidated by CPLEX or Gurobi and go for it!

The presentation by Marco Senatore was brilliant and his work looks very interesting. I have particularly enjoyed the application in Public Transport that he has mentioned at the end of his talk.

I recommend to have a look at the presentation of Stephan Held about the Reach-aware Steiner Tree Problem. He has an interesting Steiner tree-like problem with a very important application in chip design. The presentation has impressive pictures of what optimal solutions look like in chip design.

At the end of talk, Stephan announced the 11th DIMACS challenge on Steiner Tree Problems.

Eduardo Uchoa gave another impressive presentation on recent progresses on the classical Capacitated Vehicle Routing Problem (CVRP). He has a very sophisticated branch-and-price-and-cut algorithm, which comes with a very efficient implementation of every possible idea developed for CVRP, plus new ideas on solving efficiently the pricing sub problems (my understanding, but I might be wrong, is that they have a very efficient dominance rule for solving a shortest path sub problem). +1 item in the “PAPERS-TO-BE-READ” folder.

The last day of the workshop, I have enjoyed the two talks by Simge Kucukyavuz and Jim Luedtke on Stochastic Integer Programming: for me is a completely new topic, but the two presentations were really inspiring.

To conclude, Domenico Salvagnin has shown how far it is possible to go by carefully using MIP technologies such as cutting planes, symmetry handling, and problem decomposition. Unfortunately, it does happen too often that when someone (typically a non OR expert) has a difficult application problem, he writes down a more or less complicated Integer Programming model, tries a solver, sees it takes too much time, and gives up with exact methods. Domenico, by solving the largest unsolved instance for the 3-dimensional assignment problem, has shown that

there are potentially no limits for MIP solvers!

In this post, I have only mentioned a few talks, which somehow overlap with my research interests. However, every talk was really interesting. Fortunately, Francois Margot has strongly encouraged all of the speakers to upload their slides and/or papers, so you can find (almost) all of them on the program web page of the workshop. Visit the website and have a nice reading!

To conclude, let me steal another nice picture from twitter:

Public Transport and Big Data

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Big Data is nowadays a buzzword. A simple query for “Big Data” on Google gives about 26,700,000 results.

Public Transport is not really a buzzword, but still on Google you can get almost the same number as with “Big Data”: 26,400,000 results.

Why is Public Transport so important?

Because many of us use Public Transport every day, but most of us still use their own car to go to work, to bring child at school, and to go shopping. This has a negative impact on the quality of life of everyone and is clearly inefficient since it does cost more:

  1. More money.
  2. More pollution.
  3. More time.

(Well, for time, it is not always true, but it happens more often than commonly perceived).

Thus, an important challenge is to improve the quality of Public Transport while keeping its cost competitive. The ultimate goal should be to increase the number of people that trust and use Public Transport.

How is it possible to achieve this goal?

Transport Operators are Big Data producers (are they?)

Modern transport operators have installed so called Automatic Vehicle Monitoring (AVM) systems that use several technologies to monitor the fleet of vehicles that operates the service (e.g., metro coaches, buses, metro trains, trains, …).

The stream of data produced by an AVM might be considered as Big Data because of its volume and velocity (see Big Data For Dummies, by J.F. Puget). Each vehicle produces at regular intervals (measured in seconds) data concerning its position and status. This information is stored in remote data centers. The data for a single day might not be considered as “Big”, however once you start to analyze the historical data, the volume increases significantly. For instance, a public transport operator could easily have around 2000 thousands vehicles that operate 24 hours a day, producing data potentially every second.

At the moment, this stream of data misses the third dimension of Big Data that is variety. However, new projects that aim at integrating this information with the stream of data coming from social networks are quickly reaching maturity. One of such project is SuperHub, a FP7 project that has recently won the best exhibit award in Cluster 2 “Smart and sustainable cities for 2020+”, at the ICT2013 Conference in Vilnius.

I don’t know whether transport operators are really Big Data producers or they are merely Small Data producers, but data collected using AVMs are nowadays mainly used to report and monitor the daily activities.

In my own opinion, the data produced by transport operators, integrated with input coming from social networks, should be used to improve the quality of the public transport, for instance, by trying to better tackle Disruption Management issues.

So, I am curious:

Do you know any project that uses AVM data, combined with Social Network inputs (e.g., from Twitter), to elaborate Disruption Management strategies for Public Transport? If yes, do they use Mathematical Optimization at all?

Reading Excuses

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I love reading!

I love reading about everything and I am glad that part of my work consists in reading.

Unfortunately, for researchers, reading is not always that easy, as clearly explained in The Researcher’s Bible:

Reading is difficult: The difficulty seems to depend on the stage of academic development. Initially it is hard to know what to read (many documents are unpublished), later reading becomes seductive and is used as an excuse to avoid research. Finally one lacks the time and patience to keep up with reading (and fears to find evidence that one’s own work is second rate or that one is slipping behind)

For my stage of academic development, reading is extremely seductive, and the situation became even worse after reading the answers to the following question raised by Michael Trick on OR-exchange:

What paper should everyone read?

If you are looking for excuses to avoid research, go through those answers and select any paper you like, you will have outstanding and authoritative excuses!

GeCol: A Graph Coloring Solver on Top of Gecode

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This post is about solving the classical Graph Coloring problem by using a simple solver, named here GeCol, that is built on top of the Constraint Programming (CP) solver Gecode. The approach of GeCol is based on the CP model described in [1]. Here, we want to explore some of the new features of the last version of Gecode (version 4.0.0), namely:

  • Lightweight Dynamic Symmetry Breaking (LDSB) [2]
  • Accumulated Failure Count (AFC) and Activity-based strategies for variable selection while branching, combined with Restart Based Search

We are going to present computational results using these features to solve the instances of the Graph Coloring DIMACS Challenge. However, this post is not going to describe in great details what these features are: please, for this purpose, refer to the Modeling and Programming with Gecode book.

As usual, all the sources used to write this post are publicly available on my GitHub repository.

Modeling Graph Coloring with Constraint Programming

Given an undirected graph and a set of colors , the minimum (vertex) graph coloring problem consists of assigning a color to each vertex, while every pair of adjacent vertices gets a different color. The objective is to minimize the number of colors.

To model this problem with CP, we can use for each vertex an integer variable with domain equals to : if , then color is assigned to vertex . Using (inclusion-wise) maximal cliques, it is possible to post constraints on subsets of adjacent vertices: every subset of vertices belonging to the same clique must get a different color. In CP, we can use the well-known alldifferent constraint for posting these constraints.

In practice, to build our CP model, first, we find a collection of maximal cliques , such that for every edge there exists at least a clique that contains both vertices and . Second, we post the following constraints:

where denotes the subset of variables corresponding to the vertices that belong to the clique .

In order to minimize the number of colors, we use a simple iterative procedure. Every time we found a coloring with colors, we restart the search by restricting the cardinality of to . If no feasible coloring exists with colors, we have proved optimality for the last feasible coloring found, i.e. .

In addition, we apply a few basic preprocessing steps that are described in [1]. The maximal cliques are computed using Cliquer v1.21 [5].

Lightweight Dynamic Symmetry Breaking

The Graph Coloring problem is an optimization problem that has several equivalent optimum solutions: for instance, given an optimal assignment of colors to vertices, any permutation of the colors, gives a solution with the same optimum value.

While this property is implicitly considered in Column Generation approaches to Graph Coloring (e.g., see [3], [1], and [4]), the CP model we have just presented, suffers from symmetries issues: the values of the domains of the integer variables are symmetric.

The Lightweight Dynamic Symmetry Breaking is a strategy for dealing with this issue [2]. In Gecode, you can define a set of values that are symmetric as follows:

Symmetries syms; syms << ValueSymmetry(IntArgs::create(k,1));

and then when posting the branching strategy you just write (just note that use of object syms):

branch(*this, x, INT_VAR_SIZE_MIN(), INT_VAL_MIN(), syms);

With three lines of code, you have solved (some of) the symmetry issues.

How efficient is Lightweight Dynamic Symmetry Breaking for Graph Coloring?

We try to answer to this question with the plot below that shows the results for two versions of GeCol:

  • (A) The first version without any breaking symmetry strategy
  • (B) The second version with the Lightweight Dynamic Breaking Symmetry

Both versions select for branching the variable with the smallest domain size. The plot reports the empirical cumulative distribution as function of run time (in log-scale). The tests were run with a timeout of 300 seconds on a quite old server. Note that at the timeout, the version with LDBS has solved around 55% of the instances, while the version without LDBS has solved only around 48% of the instances.

Accumulated Failure Count and Activity-based Branching

The second new feature of Gecode that we explore here is the Accumulated Failure Count and the Activity-based branching strategies.

While solving any CP model, the strategy used to select the next variable to branch over is very important. The Accumulated Failure Count strategy stores the cumulative number of failures for each variable (for details see Section 8.5 in MPG). The Activity-based search does something similar, but instead of counting failures, measures the activity of each variable. In a sense, these two strategies try to learn from failures and activities as they occur during the search process.

These two branching strategies are more effective when combined with Restart Based Search: the solver performs the search with increasing cutoff values on the number of failures. Gecode offers several optional strategies to improve the cutoff. In our tests, we have used a geometric cutoff sequence (Section 9.4 in MPG).

How effective are the Accumulated Failure Count and the Activity-based strategies for Graph Coloring when combined with Restart Based Search?

The second plot below shows a comparison of 3 versions of GeCol, with 3 different branching strategies:

  • (A) Select the variable with smallest domain size
  • (B) Select the variable with largest Activity Cumulated value
  • (C) Select the variable with largest Accumulated Failure Count (AFC) value

The last strategy is tremendously efficient: it dominates the other two strategies, and it is able to solve more of the 60% of the considered instances within the timeout of 300 seconds.

However, it is possible to do still slightly better. Likely, at the begging of the search phase, several variables have the same value of AFC. Therefore, it is possible to improve the branching strategy by breaking ties: we can divide the ACT or the AFC value of a variable by the its domain size. The next plot shows the results with these other branching strategies:

  • (A) Select the variable with largest ratio of variable degree vs. domain size
  • (B) Select the variable with largest ratio of Activity Cumulated value vs. domain size
  • (C) Select the variable with largest ratio of Accumulated Failure Count vs. domain size


The new features of Gecode are very interesting and offer plenty of options. The LDBS is very general, and it could be easily applied to several other combinatorial optimization problems. Also the new branching strategies gives important enhancements, above all when combined with restart based search.

”…with great power there must also come – great responsibility!” (Uncle Ben, The Amazing Spider-Man, n.660, Marvel Comics)

As a drawback, it is becoming harder and harder to find the best parameter configuration for solvers as Gecode (but this is true also for other type of solvers, e.g. Gurobi and Cplex).

Can you find or suggest a better parameter configuration for GeCol?


  1. S. Gualandi and F. Malucelli. Exact Solution of Graph Coloring Problems via Constraint Programming and Column Generation. INFORMS Journal on Computing. Winter 2012 vol. 24(1), pp.81-100. [pdf] [preprint]

  2. C. Mears, M.G. de la Banda, B. Demoen, M. Wallace. Lightweight dynamic symmetry breaking. In Eighth International Workshop on Symmetry in Constraint Satisfaction Problems, SymCon’08, 2008. [pdf]

  3. A Mehrotra, MA Trick. A column generation approach for graph coloring. INFORMS Journal on Computing. Fall 1996 vol. 8(4), pp.344-354. [pdf]

  4. S. Held, W. Cook, E.C. Sewell. Maximum-weight stable sets and safe lower bounds for graph coloring. Mathematical Programming Computation. December 2012, Volume 4, Issue 4, pp 363-381. [pdf]

  5. Patric R.J. Ostergard. A fast algorithm for the maximum clique problem. Discrete Applied Mathematics, vol. 120(1-3), pp. 197–207, 2002 [pdf]

Backtrack Programming in C

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Recently, I have discovered a nice tiny library (1 file!) that supports Backtrack Programming in standard C. The library is called CBack and is developed by Keld Helsgaun, who is known in the Operations Research and Computer Science communities for his efficient implementation of the Lin-Kernighan heuristics for the Travelling Salesman Problem.

CBack offers basically two functions that are described in [1] as follows:

  1. Choice(N): “is used when a choice is to be made among a number of alternatives, where N is a positive integer denoting the number of alternatives”.
  2. Backtrack(): “causes the program to backtrack, that is to say, return to the most recent call of Choice, which has not yet returned all its values”.

With these two functions is pretty simple to develop exact enumeration algorithms. The CBack library comes with several examples, such as algorithms for the N-queens problem and the 15-puzzle. Below, I will show you how to use CBack to implement a simple algorithm that finds a Maximum Clique in an undirected graph.

As usual, the source code used to write this post is publicly available on my GitHub repository.

Basic use of CBack

The CBack documentation shows as first example the following code snippet:

int i, j;
i = Choice(3);
j = Choice(2);
printf("i = %d, j = %d\n",i,j);

The output produced by the snippet is:

i = 1, j = 1
i = 1, j = 2
i = 2, j = 1
i = 2, j = 2
i = 3, j = 1
i = 3, j = 2

If you are familiar with backtrack programming (e.g., Prolog), you should not be surprised by the output, and you can jump to the next section. Otherwise, the Figure below sketches the program execution.

When the program executes the Choice(N=3) statement, that is the first call to the first choice (line 2), value 1 is assigned to variable i. Behind the scene, the Choice function stores the current execution state of the program in its own stack, and records the next possible choices (i.e. the other possible program branches), that are values 2 and 3. Next, the second Choice(N=2) assigns value 1 to j (line 3), and again the state of the program is stored for later use. Then, the printf outputs i = 1 , j = 1 (line 4 and first line of output). Now, it is time to backtrack (line 5).

What is happening here?

Look again at the figure above: When the Backtrack() function is invoked, the algorithm backtracks and continues the execution from the most recent Choice stored in its stack, i.e. it assigns to variable j value 2, and printf outputs i = 1, j = 2. Later, the Backtrack() is invoked again, and this time the algorithm backtracks until the previous possible choice that corresponds to the assignment of value 2 to variable i, and it executes i = 2. Once the second choice for variable i is performed, there are again two possible choices for variable j, since the program has backtracked to a point that precedes that statement. Thus, the program executes j = 1, and printf outputs i = 2, j = 1. At this point, the program backtracks again, and consider the next possible choice, j = 2. This is repeated until all possible choices for Choice(3) and Choice(2) are exhausted, yielding the 6 possible combinations of i and j that the problem gave as output.

Indeed, during the execution, the program has implicitly visited in a depth-first manner the search tree of the previous figure. CBack supports also different search strategy, such as best first, but I will not cover that topic here.

In order to store and restore the program execution state (well, more precisely the calling environment), Choice(N) and Backtrack use two threatening C standard functions, setjmp and longjmp. For the details of their use in CBack, see [1].

A Basic Maximum Clique Algorithm

The reason why I like this library, apart from remembering me the time I was programming with Mozart, is that it permits to implement quickly exact algorithms based on enumeration. While enumeration is usually disregarded as inefficient (“ehi, it is just brute force!”), it is still one of the best method to solve small instances of almost any combinatorial optimization problem. In addition, many sophisticated exact algorithms use plain enumeration as a subroutine, when during the search process the size of the problem becomes small enough.

Consider now the Maximum Clique Problem: Given an undirected graph , the problem is to find the largest complete subgraph of . More formally, you look for the largest subset of the vertex set such that for any pair of nodes in there exists an arc .

The well-known branch-and-bound algorithm of Carraghan and Pardalos [2] is based on enumeration. The implementation of Applegate and Johnson, called dfmax.c, is a very efficient implementation of that algorithm. Next, I show a basic implementation of the same algorithm that uses CBack for backtracking.

The Carraghan and Pardalos algorithm uses three sets: the current clique , the largest clique found so far , and the set of candidate vertices . The pseudo code of the algorithm is as follows (as described in [3]):

Basic Maximum Clique Algorithm
function findClique(C, P)
   if |C| > |C*| then C* <- C  // store the best clique
   if |C| + |P| > |C*| then
      for all v in P // the order does matter 
         P <- P \ {v}
         C' <- C u {v}
         P' <- P  \intersect N(v)  // neighbors of p
         findClique(C', P')

function main()
   C* <- {}  // empty set, C* global variable
   return C*

As you can see, the backtracking is here described in terms of a recursive function. However, using CBack, we can implement the same algorithm without using recursion.

Maximum Clique with CBack

We use an array S of integers, one for each vertex of . If S[v]=0, then vertex belongs to the candidate set ; if S[v]=1, then vertex is in ; if S[v]=2, then vertex cannot be neither in nor in . The variable s stores the size of current clique.

Let me show you directly the C code:

Max Clique via Branch-and-Bound
for (v = 0; v < n; v++ ) {
   /// If the current clique cannot be extended to a clique
   /// larger than C*, where LB=|C*|, then backtrack
   if ( s + P <= LB )
   if ( S[v] < 2 ) {  /// Skip removed vertices  
      /// Choice: Either v is in C (S[v]=1) or is not (S[v]=2)
      S[v] = Choice(2);
      if ( S[v] == 2 ) { /// P <- P \ {v} 
         P--;  /// Decrease the size of the candidate set 
      } else { /// S[v]=1: C <- C u {v}
         s++;   /// Update current clique size 
         if ( s > LB ) {
            LB = s;  /// Store the new best clique
            for ( w = 0; w <= v; w++ )
               C[w] = S[w];
         /// Restrict the candidate set 
         for ( w = V[v+1]; w > V[v] ; w-- )
            if ( S[E[w]] == 0 ) {
               S[E[w]] = 2;
               P--; /// Decrease the size of the candidate set 

Well, I like this code pretty much, despite being a “plain old” C program. The algorithm and code can be improved in several ways (ordering the vertices, improving the pruning, using upper bounds from heuristic vertex coloring, using induced degree as in [2]), but still, the main loop and the backtrack machinery is all there, in a few lines of code!

Maybe you wonder about the efficiency of this code, but at the moment I have not a precise answer. For sure, the ordering of the vertices is crucial, and can make a huge difference on solving the max-clique DIMACS instances. I have used CBack to implement my own version of the Ostengard’s max-clique algorithm [4], but my implementation is somehow slower. I suspect that the difference is due to data structure used to store the graph (Ostengard’s implementation relies on bitsets), but not in the way the backtracking is achieved. Although, to answer to such question could be a subject of another post.

In conclusion, if you need to implement an exact enumerative algorithm, CBack could be an option to consider.


  1. Keld Helsgaun. CBack: A Simple Tool for Backtrack Programming in C. Software: Practice and Experience, vol. 25(8), pp. 905-934, 2006. [doi]

  2. Carraghan and Pardalos. An exact algorithm for the maximum clique problem. Operations Research Letters, vol. 9(6), pp. 375-382, 1990, [pdf]

  3. Torsten Fahle. Simple and Fast: Improving a Branch-and-Bound Algorithm. In Proc ESA 2002, LNCS 2461, pp. 485-498. [doi]

  4. Patric R.J. Ostergard. A fast algorithm for the maximum clique problem. Discrete Applied Mathematics, vol. 120(1-3), pp. 197–207, 2002 [pdf]

From Blackboard to Code: Gomory Cuts Using CPLEX

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Edited on May 16th, 2013: fixes due to M. Chiarandini

On the blackboard, to solve small Integer Linear Programs with 2 variables and less or equal constraints is easy, since they can be plotted in the plane and the linear relaxation can be solved geometrically. You can draw the lattice of integer points, and once you have found a new cutting plane, you show that it cuts off the optimum solution of the LP relaxation.

This post presents a naive (textbook) implementation of Fractional Gomory Cuts that uses the basic solution computed by CPLEX, the commercial Linear Programming solver used in our lab sessions. In practice, this post is an online supplement to one of my last exercise session.

In order to solve the “blackboard” examples with CPLEX, it is necessary to use a couple of functions that a few years ago were undocumented. GUROBI has very similar functions, but they are currently undocumented. (Edited May 16th, 2013: From version 5.5, Gurobi has documented its advanced simplex routines)

As usual, all the sources used to write this post are publicly available on my GitHub repository.

The basics

Given a Integer Linear Program in the form:

it is possible to rewrite the problem in standard form by adding slack variables:

where is the identity matrix and is a vector of slack variables, one for each constraint in . Let us denote by the linear relaxation of obtained by relaxing the integrality constraint.

The optimum solution vector of , if it exists and it is finite, it is used to derive a basis (for a formal definition of basis, see [1] or [3]). Indeed, the basis partitions the columns of matrix into two submatrices and , where is given by the columns corresponding to the basic variables, and by columns corresponding to variables out of the base (they are equal to zero in the optimal solution vector).

Remember that, by definition, is nonsingular and therefore is invertible. Using the matrices and , it is easy to derive the following inequalities (for details, see any OR textbook, e.g., [1]):

where the operator is applied component wise to the matrix elements. In practice, for each fractional basic variable, it is possible to generate a valid Gomory cut.

The key step to generate Gomory cuts is to get an optimal basis or, even better, the inverse of the basis matrix multiplied by and by . Once we have that matrix, in order to generate a Gomory cut from a fractional basic variable, we just use the last equation in the previous derivation, applying it to each row of the system of inequalities

Given the optimal basis, the optimal basic vector is , since the non basic variables are equal to zero. Let be the index of a fractional basic variable, and let be the index of the constraint corresponding to variable in the equations , then the Gomory cut for variable is:

Using the CPLEX callable library

The CPLEX callable library (written in C) has the following advanced functions:

  • CPXbinvarow computes the i-th row of the tableau
  • CPXbinvrow computes the i-th row of the basis inverse
  • CPXbinvacol computes the representation of the j-th column in terms of the basis
  • CPXbinvcol computes the j-th column of the basis inverse

Using the first two functions, Gomory cuts from an optimal base can be generated as follows:

Gomory cut Fork Me on GitHub
printf("\nGenerate Gomory cuts:\n");
idx = 0;
cut = 0;  /// Index of cut to be added
for ( i = 0; i < m-1; ++i )
if ( floor(b_bar[i]) != b_bar[i] ) {
   printf("Row %d gives cut ->   ", i+1);
   POST_CMD( CPXbinvarow(env, model, i, z) );
   rmatbeg[cut] = idx;
   for ( j = 0; j < n1; ++j ) {
      z[j] = floor(z[j]); /// DANGER!
      if ( z[j] != 0 ) {
         rmatind[idx] = j;
         rmatval[idx] = z[j];
      /// Print the cut
      if ( z[j] >= 0 ) printf("+");
      printf("%.1f x%d ", z[j], j+1);
   gc_rhs[cut] = floor(b_bar[i]); /// DANGER!
   gc_sense[cut] = 'L';
   printf("<= %.1f\n", gc_rhs[cut]);
/// Add the new cuts
POST_CMD( CPXaddrows (env, model, 0, n_cuts, idx, gc_rhs, gc_sense,
         rmatbeg, rmatind, rmatval, NULL, NULL) );

The code reads row by row (index i) the inverse basis matrix multiplied by (line 7), which is temporally stored in vector z, and then the code stores the corresponding Gomory cut in the compact matrix given by vectors rmatbeg, rmatind, and rmatval (lines 8-15). The array b_bar contains the vector (line 21). In lines 26-27, all the cuts are added at once to the current LP data structure.

On GitHub you find a small program that I wrote to generate Gomory cuts for problems written as . The repository have an example of execution of my program.

The code is simple only because it is designed for small IPs in the form . Otherwise, the code must consider the effects of preprocessing, different sense of the constraints, and additional constraints introduced because of range constraints.

If you are interested in a real implementation of Mixed-Integer Gomory cuts, that are a generalization of Fractional Gomory cuts to mixed integer linear programs, please look at the SCIP source code.

Additional readings

The introduction of Mixed Integer Gomory cuts in CPLEX was The major breakthrough of CPLEX 6.5 and produced the version-to-version speed-up given by the blue bars in the chart below (source: Bixby’s slides available on the web):

Gomory cuts are still subject of research, since they pose a number of implementation challenges. These cuts suffer from severe numerical issues, mainly because the computation of the inverse matrix requires the division by its determinant.

“In 1959, […] We started to experience the unpredictability of the computational results rather steadily” (Gomory, see [4]).”

A recent paper by Cornuejols, Margot, and Nannicini deals with some of these issues [2].

If you like to learn more about how the basis are computed in the CPLEX LP solver, there is very nice paper by Bixby [3]. The paper explains different approaches to get the first basic feasible solution and gives some hints of the CPLEX implementation of that time, i.e., 1992. Though the paper does not deal with Gomory cuts directly, it is a very pleasant reading.

To conclude, for those of you interested in Optimization Stories there is a nice chapter by G. Cornuejols about the Ongoing Story of Gomory Cuts [4].


  1. C.H. Papadimitriou, K. Steiglitz. Combinatorial Optimization: Algorithms and Complexity. 1998. [book]

  2. G. Cornuejols, F. Margot and G. Nannicini. On the safety of Gomory cut generators. Submitted in 2012. Mathematical Programming Computation, under review. [preprint]

  3. R.E. Bixby. Implementing the Simplex Method: The Initial Basis. Journal on Computing vol. 4(3), pages 267–284, 1992. [abstract]

  4. G. Cornuejols. The Ongoing Story of Gomory Cuts. Documenta Mathematica - Optimization Stories. Pages 221-226, 2012. [preprint]

How Italian Commuters Discovered Operations Research

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Last week, more then 700,000 Italian commuters discovered the importance of Operations Research (OR). Nobody explicitly mentioned OR, but due to a horrible crew schedule of Trenord (a train operator with around 330 trains and 2700 employees), the commuters had a long, long, long nightmare. During the whole week, several trains were cancelled (1375 in total) and most of the trains were delayed. A newspaper wrote that a commuter waiting to go home had the painful record of 11 consecutive trains cancelled. The Italian online edition of Wired has an article about this horrible week. If you want to get an idea of the chaos you can search for “caos tilt software trenord” on

Trenord officially said that the software that planned the crew schedule is faulty. The software was bought last year from Goal Systems, a Spanish company. Rumors say that Trenord paid the Goal System around 1,500,000 Euro. Likely, the system is not faulty, but it “only” had bad input data.

What newspapers do not write

Before the Goal System, Trenord was using a different software, produced by Management Artificial Intelligence Operations Research srl (MAIOR) that is used by several public transportation companies in Italy, included ATM that operates the subway and buses in Milan. In addition, MAIOR collaborates with the Politecnico di Milano and the University of Pisa to improve continuously its software. Honestly, I am biased, since I collaborate with MAIOR. However, Trenord dismissed the software of MAOIR without any specific complaint, since the management had decided to buy the Goal System software.

Newspapers do not ask the following question:

Why to change a piece of software, if the previous one was working correctly?

In Italy, soccer players have a motto: “squadra che vince non si cambia”. Maybe at Trenord nobody plays soccer.

MAIOR is back

Likely, next week will be better for the 700,000 commuters, since OR experts from MAIOR are traveling to Milan to help Trenord to improve the situation.

Disclaimer (post edited on 18th December 2012)

  1. I am a Pavia-Milano commuter disappointed of the chaotic week we had.
  2. The information reported in this post were obtained with searches on and published on Italian online magazines.
  3. Surely, the Goal System is a piece of software as good as MAIOR software is.
  4. This post does not intend to offend anyone.