Network Flow

Graphs, digraphs, and networks are just mathematical abstractions, but they are useful in practice because they help us to solve numerous important problems. In this chapter, we extend the network problem-solving model to encompass a dynamic situation where we imagine material flowing through the network, with different costs attached to different routes. These extensions allow us to tackle a surprisingly broad variety of problems with a long list of apps. We see that these problems and apps can be handled within a few natural models that we can relate to one another through reduction. There are several different ways, all of which are technically equivalent, to formulate the basic problems. To implement algorithms that solve them all, we settle on two specific problems, develop efficient algorithms to solve them, then develop algorithms that solve other problems by finding reductions to the known problems. In real life, we do not always have the freedom of choice that this idealized scenario suggests, because not all pairs of reduction relationships between these problems have been proved and because few optimal algorithms for solving any of the problems are known. Perhaps no efficient direct solution to a given problem has yet been invented, and perhaps no efficient reduction that directly relates a given pair of problems has yet been devised. The network-flow formulation that we cover in this chapter has been successful not only because simple reductions to it are easy to define for many problems, but also because numerous efficient algorithms for solving the basic network-flow problems have been devised. The following examples illustrate the range of problems that we can handle with network-flow models, algorithms, and implementations. They fall into general categories known as distribution problems, matching problems, and cut problems, each of which we examine in turn. We indicate several different related problems, rather than lay out specific details in these examples. Later in the chapter, when we undertake to develop and implement algorithms, we give rigorous descriptions of many of the problems mentioned here. In distribution problems, we are concerned with moving objects from one place to another within a network. Whether we are distributing hamburger and chicken to fast-food outlets or toys and clothes to discount stores along highways throughout the country—or software to computers or bits to display screens along communications networks throughout the world—the essential problems are the same. Distribution problems typify the challenges that we face in managing a large and complex operation. Algorithms to solve them are broadly applicable and are critical in numerous apps. Merchandise distribution A company has factories, where goods are produced; distribution centers, where the goods are stored temporarily; and retail outlets, where the goods are sold. The company must distribute the goods from factories through distribution centers to retail outlets on a regular basis, using distribution channels that have varying capacities and unit distribution costs. Is it possible to get the goods from the warehouses to the retail outlets such that supply meets demand everywhere? What is the least-cost way to do so? Screenshot illustrates a distribution problem.

Screenshot Distribution problem

In this instance of the distribution problem, we have three supply vertices (0 through 2), four distribution points (3 through 6), three demand vertices (7 through 9), and twelve channels. Each supply vertex has a rate of production; each demand vertex a rate of consumption; and each channel a maximum capacity and a cost per unit distributed. The problem is to minimize costs while distributing material through the channels (without exceeding capacity anywhere) such that the total rate of material leaving each supply vertex equals its rate of production, the total rate at which material arrives at each demand vertex equals its rate of consumption, and the total rate at which material arrives at each distribution point equals the total rate at which material leaves.

Java graphics 22fig01.gif

Screenshot illustrates the transportation problem, a special case of the merchandise-distribution problem where we eliminate the distribution centers and the capacities on the channels. This version is important in its own right and is significant (as we see in ) not just because of important direct apps but also because it turns out not to be a "special case" at all—indeed, it is equivalent in difficulty to the general version of the problem.

Screenshot Transportation problem

The transportation problem is like the distribution problem, but with no channel-capacity restrictions and no distribution points. In this instance, we have five supply vertices (0 through 4), five demand vertices (5 through 9), and twelve channels. The problem is to find the lowest-cost way to distribute material through the channels such that supply exactly meets demand everywhere. Specifically, we require an assignment of weights (distribution rates) to the edges such that the sum of weights on outgoing edges equals the supply at each supply vertex, the sum of weights on ingoing edges equals the demand at each demand vertex, and the total cost (sum of weight times cost for all edges) is minimized over all such assignments.

Java graphics 22fig02.gif

Communications A communications network has a set of requests to transmit messages between servers that are connected by channels (abstract wires) that are capable of transferring information at varying rates. What is the maximum rate at which information can be transferred between two specified servers in the network? If there are costs associated with the channels, what is the cheapest way to send the information at a given rate that is less than the maximum? Traffic flow A city government needs to formulate a plan for evacuating people from the city in an emergency. What is the minimum amount of time that it would take to evacuate the city, if we suppose that we can control traffic flow so as to realize the minimum? Traffic planners also might formulate questions like this when deciding which new roads, bridges, or tunnels might alleviate rush-hour or vacation-weekend traffic problems. In matching problems, the network represents the possible ways to connect pairs of vertices, and our goal is to choose among the connections (according to specified criteria) without including any vertex twice. In other words, the chosen set of edges defines a way to pair vertices with one another. We might be matching students to colleges, applicants to jobs, courses to available hours for a school, or members of Congress to committee assignments. In each of these situations, we might imagine a variety of criteria defining the characteristics of the matches sought. Job placement A job-placement service arranges interviews for a set of students with a set of companies; these interviews result in a set of job offers. Assuming that an interview followed by a job offer represents mutual interest in the student taking a job at the company, it is in everyone's best interests to maximize the number of job placements. Screenshot is an example illustrating that this task can be complicated.

Screenshot Job placement

Suppose that we have six students, each needing jobs, and six companies, each needing to hire a student. These two lists (one sorted by student, the other sorted by company) give a list of job offers, which indicate mutual interest in matching students and jobs. Is there some way to match students to jobs so that every job is filled and every student gets a job? If not, what is the maximum number of jobs that can be filled?

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Minimum-distance point matching Given two sets of N points, find the set of N line segments, each with one endpoint from each of the point sets, with minimum total length. One app of this purely geometric problem is in radar tracking systems. Each sweep of the radar gives a set of points that represent planes. We assume that the planes are kept sufficiently well spaced that solving this problem allows us to associate each plane's position on one sweep to its position on the next, thus giving us the paths of all the planes. Other data-sampling apps can be cast in this framework. In cut problems, such as the one illustrated in Screenshot, we remove edges to cut networks into two or more pieces. Cut problems are directly related to fundamental questions of graph connectivity that we first examined in . In this chapter, we discuss a central theorem that demonstrates a surprising connection between cut and flow problems, substantially expanding the reach of network-flow algorithms.

Screenshot Cutting supply lines

This diagram represents the roads connecting an army's supply depot at the top to the troops at the bottom. The black dots represent an enemy bombing plan that would separate troops from supplies. The enemy's goal is to minimize the cost of bombing (perhaps assuming that the cost of cutting an edge is proportional to its width), and the army's goal is to design its road network to maximize the enemy's minimum cost. The same model is useful in improving the reliability of communications networks and many other apps.

Java graphics 22fig04.gif

Network reliability A simplified model considers a telephone network as consisting of a set of wires that connect telephones through switches such that there is the possibility of a switched path through trunk lines connecting any two given telephones. What is the maximum number of trunk lines that could be cut without any pair of switches being disconnected? Cutting supply lines A country at war moves supplies from depots to troops along an interconnected highway system. An enemy can cut off the troops from the supplies by bombing roads, with the number of bombs required to destroy a road proportional to that road's width. What is the minimum number of bombs that the enemy must drop to ensure that no troops can get supplies? Each of the apps just cited immediately suggests numerous related questions, and there are still other related models, such as the job-scheduling problems that we considered in . We consider further examples throughout this chapter, yet still treat only a small fraction of the important, directly related practical problems. The network-flow model that we consider in this chapter is important not just because it provides us with two simply stated problems to which many of the practical problems reduce but also because we have efficient algorithms for solving the two problems. This breadth of applicability has led to the development of numerous algorithms and implementations. The solutions that we consider illustrate the tension between our quest for implementations of general applicability and our quest for efficient solutions to specific problems. The study of network-flow algorithms is fascinating because it brings us tantalizingly close to compact and elegant implementations that achieve both goals. We consider two particular problems within the network-flow model: the maxflow problem and the mincost-flow problem. We see specific relationships among these problem-solving models, the shortest-path model of , the linear-programming (LP) model of Part 8, and numerous specific problem models including some of those just discussed. At first blush, many of these problems might seem to be completely different from network-flow problems. Determining a given problem's relationship to known problems is often the most important step in developing a solution to that problem. Moreover, this step is often significant because, as is usual with graph algorithms, we must understand the fine line between trivial and intractable problems before we attempt to develop implementations. The infrastructure of problems and the relationships among the problems that we consider in this chapter provides a helpful context for addressing such issues. In the rough categorization that we began with in , the algorithms that we examine in this chapter demonstrate that network-flow problems are "easy," because we have straightforward implementations that are guaranteed to run in time proportional to a polynomial in the size of the network. Other implementations, although not guaranteed to run in polynomial time in the worst case, are compact and elegant and have been proved to solve a broad variety of other practical problems, such as the ones discussed here. We consider them in detail because of their utility. Researchers still seek faster algorithms, in order to enable huge apps and to save costs in critical ones. Ideal optimal algorithms that are guaranteed to be as fast as possible are yet to be discovered for network-flow problems. On the one hand, some of the problems that we reduce to network-flow problems are known to be easier to solve with specialized algorithms. In principle, we might consider implementing and improving these specialized algorithms. Although that approach is productive in some situations, efficient algorithms for solving many of the problems (other than through reduction to network flow) are not known. Even when specialized algorithms are known, developing implementations that can outperform good network-flow codes can be a significant challenge. Moreover, researchers are still improving network-flow algorithms, and the possibility remains that a good network-flow algorithm might outperform known specialized methods for a given practical problem. On the other hand, network-flow problems are special cases of the even more general LP problems that we discuss in Part 8. Although we could (and people often do) use an algorithm that solves LP problems to solve network-flow problems, the network-flow algorithms that we consider are simpler and more efficient than are those that solve LP problems. But researchers are still improving LP solvers, and the possibility remains that a good algorithm for LP problems might—when used for practical network-flow problems—outperform all the algorithms that we consider in this chapter. The classical solutions to network-flow problems are closely related to the other graph algorithms that we have been examining, and we can write surprisingly concise programs that solve them, using the algorithmic tools we have developed. As we have seen in many other situations, good algorithms and data structures can achieve substantial reductions in running times. Development of better implementations of classical generic algorithms is still being studied, and new approaches continue to be discovered. In we consider basic properties of flow networks, where we interpret a network's edge weights as capacities and consider properties of flows, which are a second set of edge weights that satisfy certain natural constraints. Next, we consider the maxflow problem, which is to compute a flow that is best in a specific technical sense. In s 22.2 and 22.3, we consider two approaches to solving the maxflow problem and examine a variety of implementations. Many of the algorithms and data structures that we have considered are directly relevant to the development of efficient solutions of the maxflow problem. We do not yet have the best possible algorithms to solve the maxflow problem, but we consider specific useful implementations. In , to illustrate the reach of the maxflow problem, we consider different formulations, as well as other reductions involving other problems. Maxflow algorithms and implementations prepare us to discuss an even more important and general model known as the mincost-flow problem, where we assign costs (another set of edge weights) and define flow costs, then look for a solution to the maxflow problem that is of minimal cost. We consider a classic generic solution to the mincost-flow problem known as the cycle-canceling algorithm; then, in , we give a particular implementation of the cycle-canceling algorithm known as the network simplex algorithm. In , we discuss reductions to the mincost-flow problem that encompass, among others, all the apps that we just outlined. Network-flow algorithms are an appropriate topic to conclude this tutorial for several reasons. They represent a payoff on our investment in learning basic algorithmic tools such as linked lists, priority queues, and general graph-search methods. The graph-processing classes that we have studied lead immediately to compact and efficient class implementations for network-flow problems. These implementations take us to a new level of problem-solving power and are immediately useful in numerous practical apps. Furthermore, studying their applicability and understanding their limitations sets the context for our examination of better algorithms and harder problems—the undertaking of Part 8.