The Programming Paradigm to Find One Solution Among 8,080,104 Candidates

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The Programming Paradigm to Find One Solution Among 8,080,104 Candidates

Introduction to Constraint Programming in Python with OR-tools

Image by author, emojis by OpenMoji (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Constraint Programming is a technique to find every solution that respects a set of predefined constraints.

It is an invaluable tool for data scientists to solve a huge variety of problems, such as scheduling, timetabling, sequencing, etc. In this article, we’ll see how to use CP in two different ways:

  1. Satisfiability: the goal is to find one or multiple feasible solutions (i.e., solutions that respect our constraints) by narrowing down a large set of potential solutions;
  2. Optimization: the goal is to find the best feasible solution according to an objective function, just like Linear Programming (LP).

We’ll use CP-SAT from Google OR-Tools, an excellent free and open source CP solver. Note that it is different from MPSolver, which is dedicated to Linear and Mixed Integer Programming. The difference between CP and LP is quite confusing, we’ll touch on this topic at the end of the article.

You can run the code with the following Google Colab notebook.

🪖 I. Satisfiability with the 3 scouts problem

Image by author, emojis by OpenMoji (CC BY-SA 4.0)

In the previous article, we created an army to defeat our opponent. But there was one small problem: we had to guess how powerful his army was.

This time, let’s send scouts to know the exact number. Our 3 scouts observed the enemy camp, and this is what they tell us:

  • Scout 1: “the number of soldiers is a multiple of 13”;
  • Scout 2: “the number of soldiers is a multiple of 19”;
  • Scout 3: “the number of soldiers is a multiple of 37”;
  • They all agree that the number of soldiers doesn’t exceed 10,000.

Our scouts have a personal way of counting soldiers, but we can combine these three observations to make a model.

Let’s call the number of soldiers army. We can translate our problem into the following congruence system:

If you’re not familiar with this notation, this is what it means in programming terms:

Let’s implement it with OR-Tools. The first thing we need to do is to import and create the CP-SAT model and solver.

The modeling process is very similar to what we did in Linear Programming.

The first step to create our CP model is to declare the variables. In this example, we only have one: army, the number of soldiers.

We have to give lower and upper bounds. The lower bound is 1 since we know there’s an army, and the upper bound is 10,000 according to the scouts:

In OR-Tools, we use the NewIntVar method to create this variable.

The second step is to declare the constraints.

We identified three constraints in this example. Modulo is a special operator, so we need a specific function to handle it with CP-SAT: AddModuloEquality. You can find a reference guide at this address if you need other methods.

Unlike Linear Programming, we don’t have to define an objective function here.

The reason is simple: there is nothing to optimize! We just want to find a feasible solution that satisfies our constraints, but there is no “good” or “bad” answers. This is a key feature of Constraint Programming.

Our model is complete, we can now ask OR-Tools to solve it.

================= Solution =================
Solved in 0.00 milliseconds
🪖 Army = 9139Check solution:
- Constraint 1: 9139 % 13 = 0
- Constraint 2: 9139 % 19 = 0
- Constraint 3: 9139 % 37 = 0

We obtained our solution in less than a millisecond: there are 9,139 soldiers in the enemy army. Huzzah, we can now fire the scouts!

We limited the search space with an upper bound of 10,000, which gave us a unique solution. But is it still the case if we push this limit?

Another perk of CP is the ability to find every possible solution to a problem. This might take a long time when the search space is large because the solver has to brute force the entire space (instead of reducing it with heuristics). Let’s explore this feature by printing every possible solution with a new upper bound of 100,000.

With OR-Tools, we ask the solver to look for every possible solution thanks to the enumerate_all_solutions parameter. We then assign it a callback class that prints every solution the solver finds.

We found 10 solutions! This was to be expected since we increased the upper bound tenfold: these solutions all are multiples of 9,139.

As you can see, this example has nothing to do with optimization: it’s a pure satisfiability problem. On another note, this congruence system can be solved manually with the Chinese remainder theorem. But CP is not limited to that…

🍻 II. Optimization and beer

Image by author, emojis by OpenMoji (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Let’s see another problem: our army will face the enemy in a few days. In the meantime, the quartermaster has to prepare the rations that will be used during the campaign.

The space in the supply wagons is limited and some rations are more popular than others. There are three possible rations:

  • 🥖 Bread: it takes only 1 space but soldiers don’t like it that much with a popularity of 3;
  • 🥩 Meat: it takes 3 spaces and has a popularity of 10;
  • 🍺 Beer: it takes 7 spaces but soldiers love it with a popularity of 26.
Image by author, emojis by OpenMoji (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The supply wagons have a capacity of 19 spaces. How to select the best rations to maximize the popularity?

This is an optimization problem we’ve already seen: actually, it is a variant of the famous knapsack problem. We could reuse the code from the previous article and just change the input parameters.

This time, we’ll solve it using Constraint Programming. This paradigm is not limited to finding feasible solutions. It can also perform optimization using different algorithms to handle this overhead.

Let’s create a model of the problem. First of all, we have to declare three variables: 🥖bread, 🥩meat, and 🍺beer. It’s possible to have 0 of them, but their number cannot exceed the maximal capacity.

This time, we only have one constraint: the space occupied by the bread, the meat, and the beer cannot exceed the wagons’ capacity (19).

We want to maximize the total popularity of the rations that are selected:

The model is complete, CP-SAT can solve the problem!

================= Solution =================
Solved in 0.00 milliseconds
Optimal value = 3712 popularity
- 🥖Bread = 0
- 🥩Meat = 2
- 🍺Beer = 142

We obtained the highest popularity (68) possible with a capacity of 19.

Is the constraint respected? Let’s quickly check it: 1×2 🥖 + 3×1 🥩 + 7×2 🍺 = 19, which is indeed ≤ 19.

Okay, I’d like to ask another question: how many solutions to this problem are there? Once again, we can answer it with a specific callback to count them.


We found 121 solutions with a capacity of 19. But this number quickly increases: with a capacity of 1000, there are 8,080,104 possible solutions! And yet, CP-SAT finds the optimal solution in less than a second. How is it possible?

CP solvers do not brute force the problem with an exhaustive search but combine heuristics and combinatorial search instead. More specifically, the three most popular techniques for constraint satisfaction problems are backtracking, constraint propagation, and local search.

CP-SAT is quite particular since it combines CP and SAT: it is part of a broader trend of merging CP, LP, SAT, and metaheuristics.

We said that the previous problem could be solved with Linear Programming, so let’s compare the code of both solutions:

Left: LP code, Right: CP code (image by author)

As you can see, the syntax is quite similar but it’s not the same: model/solver vs. solver, NewIntVar instead of IntVar, etc. There’s a bit of translation to do, but it’s easily manageable.

These two techniques are incredibly close to each other: they both handle variables with constraints and perform optimization using math and heuristics. However, CP is limited to discrete parameters, while LP handles continuous ones. On the other hand, you can implement specialized constraints like “all different” in CP, but not in LP. Here is a summary of the main differences between these two technologies:

Image by author, emojis by OpenMoji (CC BY-SA 4.0)

If you want to know more about this topic, I would recommend this article by Irvin J. Lustig and Jean-François Puget. CPLEX’s documentation also details the differences at this address, in terms of modeling and optimization.


Image by author

Constraint Programming is another incredible technique in the mathematical optimization toolbox. It is a radically different approach compared to traditional, declarative programming. In this article,

  • We saw two applications of CP with satisfiability and optimization;
  • We implemented CP models in OR-Tools and played with the callback function;
  • We highlighted the differences between CP and LP.

We limited ourselves to simple problems in this introduction, but CP has amazing applications in complex scheduling and routing problems. This is a topic I’d love to address in a future article.

If you’re interested to know more about it, feel free to follow me on Twitter at @maximelabonne. Thanks for your attention!


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