6.4. What is Local Search (LS)?

In the toolbox of Operations Research practitioners, Local Search (LS) is very important as it is often the best (and sometimes only) method to solve difficult problems. We start this section by describing what Local Search is and what Local Search methods have in common. Then we discuss their efficiency and compare them with global methods.

Some paragraphs are quite dense, so don’t be scared if you don’t “get it all” after the first reading. With time and practice, the use of Local Search methods will become a second nature.

6.4.1. The basic ingredients

Local Search is a whole bunch of families of (meta-)heuristics[1] that roughly share the following ingredients:

  1. They start with a solution (feasible or not);
  2. They improve locally this solution;
  3. They finish the search when reaching a stopping criterion but usually without any guarantee on the quality of the found solution(s).

We will discuss these three ingredients in details in a moment but before here are some examples of Local Search (meta-)heuristics[2]:

  • Tabu Search | (62 100)
  • Hill Climbing | (54 300)
  • Scatter Search | (5 600)
  • Simulated Annealing | (474 000)
  • Beam Search | (12 700)
  • Particle Swarm Optimization | (74 500)
  • Greedy Descent | (263)
  • Gradient Search | (16 300)
  • Variable Neighbourhood Search | (1 620)
  • Guided Local Search | (2 020)
  • Genetic Algorithms | (530 000)
  • Ant Colony Optimization | (31 100)
  • Greedy Adaptive Search Procedure (GRASP)
  • ...

and there are a lot more! Most of these methods are quite recent in Research Operations (from the eighties and later on).

Most successful methods take into account their search history to guide the search. Even better - when well implemented - reactive methods[3] learn and adapt themselves during the search. As you might have guessed from the long list of different Local Search (meta-) heuristics, there is no universal solving method[4]. The more insight/knowledge of the structure of your specific problem you gather, the better you can shape your algorithm to solve efficiently your problem.

Let’s discuss the three common ingredients and their implementation in or-tools.

  1. They start with a solution (feasible or not):

    To improve locally a solution, you need to start with a solution. In or-tools this solution has to be feasible. You can produce an initial solution and give it to the solver or let the solver find one for you with a DecisionBuilder that you provide the Local Search algorithm with.

    What if your problem is to find a feasible solution? You relax the constraints[5] until you can construct a starting solution for that relaxed model. From there, you enforce the relaxed constraints by adding corresponding terms in the objective function (like in a Lagrangian relaxation for instance). It might sound complicated but it really isn’t.

  2. They improve locally this solution:

    This is the tricky part to understand. Improvements to the initial solution are done locally. This means that you need to define a neighborhood (explicitly or implicitly) for a given solution and a way to explore this neighborhood. Two solutions can be close (i.e. they belong to the same neighborhood) or very far apart depending on the definition of a neighborhood.

    The idea is to (partially or completely) explore a neighborhood around an initial solution, find a good (or the best) solution in this neighborhood and start all over again until a stopping criterion is met.

    Let’s denote by \mathcal{N}_x the neighborhood of a solution x.

    In its very basic form, we could formulate Local Search like this:


    Often, steps 1. and 2. are done simultaneously. This is the case in or-tools.

    The following figure illustrates this process:


    This figure depicts a function f to minimize. Don’t be fooled by its 2-dimensionality. The x-axis represents solutions in a multi-dimensional space. The z-axis represents a 1-dimensional space with the values of the objective function f.

    Let’s zoom in on the neighborhoods and found solutions:


    The Local Search procedure starts from an initial feasible solution x_0 and searches the neighborhood \mathcal{N}_{x_0} of this solution. The “best” solution found is x_1. The Local Search procedure starts over again but with x_1 as starting solution. In the neighborhood \mathcal{N}_{x_1}, the best solution found is x_2. The procedure continues on and on until stopping criteria are met. Let’s say that one of these criteria is met and the search ends with x_3. You can see that while the method moves towards the local optima, it misses it and completely misses the global optimum! This is why the method is called local search: it probably will find a local optimum (or come close to) but it is unable to find a global optimum (except by chance).

    If we had continued the search, chances are that our procedure would have iterated around the local optimum. In this case, we say that the Local Search algorithm is trapped by a local optimum. Some LS methods - like Tabu Search - were developed to escape such local optimum but again there is no guarantee whatsoever that they can succeed.

    The figure above is very instructive. For instance, you can see that neighborhoods don’t have to be of equal size or centred around a variable x_i. You can also see that the relationship “being in the neighborhood of” is not necessarily symmetric: x_1 \in \mathcal{N}_{x_0} but x_0 \not \in \mathcal{N}_{x_1}[6]!

    In or-tools, you define a neighborhood by implementing the MakeNextNeighbor() callback method[7] from a LocalSearchOperator: every time this method is called internally by the solver, it constructs one solution of the neighborhood. If you have constructed a successful candidate, make MakeNextNeighbor() returns true. When the whole neighborhood has been visited, make it returns false.

  3. They finish the search when reaching a stopping criterion but usually without any guarantee on the quality of the found solution(s):

    Common stopping criteria include:

    • time limits:
      • for the whole solving process or
      • for some parts of the solving process.
    • maximum number of steps/iterations:
      • maximum number of branches;
      • maximum number of failures;
      • maximum number of solutions;
      • ...
    • improvements criteria:
      • stop if no improvement for n number of steps/x time;
      • stop if gap between estimate of optimal solution and best solution obtained so far is smaller than x;
      • ...

    These stopping criteria can be further divided in:

    • absolute: for instance, a global maximal number of iterations;
    • relative: for instance, the improvements are too small with respect to the time, the number of iterations, the number of solutions, ... .

    Most of the time, you combine some of these criteria together. You can also update them during the search. In or-tools, stopping criteria are implemented using specialized SearchMonitors: SearchLimits (see the subsection SearchLimits).

What is it with the word meta[8]?

A heuristic is an algorithm that provides a (hopefully) good solution for a given problem. A meta-heuristic is more like a theoretical framework to solve problems: you have to adapt the meta-heuristic to your needs. For instance, Genetic Algorithms use a recombination of parts of solutions (the genes) but for a specific problem, you have to find out what parts of solution you can combine and how you can combine them. A meta-heuristic gives you guidelines to construct your algorithm.

It’s a recipe on how to write a recipe. You have one level of indirection like in meta-programming where you write code to generate code.

6.4.2. Is Local Search efficient?

In two words: yes but...[9]

Let’s dissect this terse answer:

  • yes:

    To really answer this question, you need to know what exactly you mean by “efficient”. If you’re looking for a global optimum then Local Search - at least in its basic form but read the subsection Global optimization methods and Local Search below - is probably not for you. If you are looking for a guarantee on the quality of the solution(s) found, then again you might want to look for another tool.

  • but...:

    Local search methods are strongly dependent on your knowledge of the problem and your ability to use this knowledge during the search. For instance, very often the initial solution plays a crucial role in the efficiency of the Local Search. You might start from a solution that is too far from a global (or local) optimum or worse you start from a solution from which it is impossible to reach a global (or even local) optimum with your neighborhood definition. Several techniques have been proposed to tackle these annoyances. One of them is to restart the search with different initial solutions. Another is to change the definition of a neighborhood during the search like in Variable Neighbourhood Search (VNS).

LS is a tradeoff between efficiency and the fact that LS doesn’t try to find a global optimum, i.e. in other words you are willing to give up the idea of finding a global optimum for the satisfaction to quickly find a (hopefully good) local optimum.

A certain blindness

LS methods are most of the time really blind when they search. Often you hear the analogy between LS methods and descending a hill[10] to find the lowest point in a valley (when we minimize a function). It would be more appropriate to compare LS methods with going down a valley flooded by mist: you don’t see very far in what direction to go to continue downhill. Sometimes you don’t see anything at all and you don’t even know if you are allowed to set a foot in front of you!