Linking Search Space Structure, Run-Time Dynamics, and Problem Difficulty: A Step Toward Demystifying Tabu Search

J. P. Watson, L.D. Whitley, and A. E. Howe

Tabu search is one of the most effective heuristics for locating high-quality solutions to a diverse array of NP-hard combinatorial optimization problems. Despite the widespread success of tabu search, researchers have a poor understanding of many key theoretical aspects of this algorithm, including models of the high-level run-time dynamics and identification of those search space features that influence problem difficulty. We consider these questions in the context of the job-shop scheduling problem (JSP), a domain where tabu search algorithms have been shown to be remarkably effective. Previously, we demonstrated that the mean distance between random local optima and the nearest optimal solution is highly correlated with problem difficulty for a well-known tabu search algorithm for the JSP introduced by Taillard. In this paper, we discuss various shortcomings of this measure and develop a new model of problem difficulty that corrects these deficiencies. We show that Taillard's algorithm can be modeled with high fidelity as a simple variant of a straightforward random walk. The random walk model accounts for nearly all of the variability in the cost required to locate both optimal and sub-optimal solutions to random JSPs, and provides an explanation for differences in the difficulty of random versus structured JSPs. Finally, we discuss and empirically substantiate two novel predictions regarding tabu search algorithm behavior. First, the method for constructing the initial solution is highly unlikely to impact the performance of tabu search. Second, tabu tenure should be selected to be as small as possible while simultaneously avoiding search stagnation; values larger than necessary lead to significant degradations in performance.

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