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Department of Computer Science

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

Beer-Sheva, 84-105, Israel

{am,kaplan e}@cs.bgu.ac.il

organizational parts that need to timetable their staﬀ in an independent way,

while adhering to some global constraints. Later the departmental timetables

are combined to yield a coherent, consistent solution. This last phase involves

negotiations with the various agents and requests for changes in their own

solutions.

Most of the real world distributed timetabling problems that fall under this

class have global constraints that involve many of the agents in the system.

Models that use networks of binary constraints are inadequate. As a result,

this paper proposes a new model that contains only one additional agent -

the Central agent (CA) that coordinates the search process of all Scheduling

Agents (SAs). Preliminary experiments show that a sophisticated heuristic is

needed for the CA to eﬀectively interact with its scheduling agents in order to

ﬁnd an optimal solution. The approach and the results reported in this paper

are an initial attempt to investigate possible solution methods for networks of

SAs.

1 Introduction

Timetabling problems (TTPs) involve an organization with a set of tasks that need

to be fulﬁlled by a set of resources, with their own qualiﬁcations, constraints and

preferences. The organization enforces overall regulations and attempts to achieve

some global objectives such as lowering the overall cost. This leads naturally to the

formulation of TTPs as constraints networks (CNs).

Many real world TTPs are composed of organizational parts that need to produce

their timetables in an independent way, while adhering to some global constraints.

Later the departments timetables are combined to yield a coherent, consistent solu-

tion. This last phase involve negotiations with the various agents and requests for

changes in their own solutions.

An example for such real-life problem is the construction of a weekly timetable of

nurses in several wards of a large hospital. Each ward needs a weekly timetable for its

nurses, that satisﬁes the shift and task requirements, attempting to satisfy also the

nurses’ personal preferences. The generation of a weekly schedule for the nurses in a

ward is typically performed by each ward independently.

Based on the departments timetables, a transportation plan for all the nurses must

be constructed. Since the number of vehicles sent and the distances they cover are

limited by hospital saving policies, such a transportation plan generates additional

constraints between the weekly schedules of the wards.

Since the separate timetables for wards are generated locally, the constraints

among these timetables, imposed by the limits on transportation vehicles, have to

be negotiated among the scheduling agents of the wards.

In the last decade, Constraints Satisfaction Problem (CSP) techniques have become

the method of choice for modeling many types of optimization problems, in particular,

those involving heterogeneous constrains and combinatorial search.

In many ﬁelds fast response become one of the most important factor for success,

especially in the commercial world of today. In ﬁelds that utilize CSP techniques, the

running time is a critical factor. This is especially true when we want to use CSP

techniques to search for some optimal solution.

Recently, the AI community has shown an increasing interest in solving distributed

problem using the agents paradigm. Diﬀerent parts of the problem are held by diﬀerent

agents, which behave autonomously and collaborate among themselves in order to

achieve a global solution. The World Wide Web oﬀers many opportunities to actually

solving real problems through agents.

Several works consider constraints satisfaction in a distributed form (See Yokoo

book [20] for an introduction). These works are motivated by the existence of naturally

distributed constraints problems, for which it is impossible or undesirable to gather

the whole problem knowledge into a single agent and to solve it using centralized CSP

algorithms. There are several reasons for that. The cost of collecting all information

into a single agent could be too high. This includes not only communication costs,

but also the cost of translating the problem knowledge into a common format, which

could be prohibitive for some applications. Furthermore, gathering all information

into a single agent implies that this agent knows every detail about the problem,

which could be undesirable for security or privacy reasons (cf. [11]). The new term,

for this family of problems is Distributed Constraints Satisfaction Problem (DisCSP).

The generic model for distributed timetabling is that of distributed search. Agents

solve their local assignment problem and interact via messages to make their local

schedules compatible with the global constraints of transportation. This scenario falls

exactly into the domain of distributed constraint networks (DisCNs) and distributed

search algorithms [21]. The agents that generate the weekly schedules of the wards

are termed Scheduling Agents (SAs).

construction of university timetables. More speciﬁcally, class room allocation in the

context of the courses timetabling activities within the university. Some departments

are not able to construct a good timetable, since they are over constrained by the lack

of class rooms. The problem of allocating classrooms dynamically is so sever in some

universities that each department is assigned a ﬁxed set of lecture rooms which are

managed by the department. For example, this is the case in Imperial College [13].

There are additional complexity factor to this problem:

– The amount and type of lecture space available varies widely between depart-

ments. Departments which are short of lecture space need to make arrangements

with other departments.

– A better timetable for the students requires each department to try and meet its

teaching requirements and hold a maximum number of teaching activities within

its buildings.

One popular solution for this class of room allocation problems is to allow the

departments to construct a partial timetable using their own resources to a maximum,

and then try to allocated a room for the other teaching activities through booking

arrangements between departments (cf. [13]).

Since each department owns diﬀerent resources, has diﬀerent teaching require-

ments, and diﬀerent preferences, this is a typical DisTTP problem. Each SA solves

the timetabling problem for a single department. Solving the problem separately for

each department allows departments to easily set and change their own preferences

and constraints independently. Departments can follow diﬀerent strategies for utiliz-

ing their teaching space. Each department needs to solve a diﬀerent problem and can

use a diﬀerent CSP solver tuned up to it’s needs. This distributed agents model is

in line with the irreversible trend toward decentralized information sources, a trend

that makes the current approach of a global, centralized, search (based on a central

computer) less and less adequate.

Based on the departmental timetables, a room allocation plan for the whole uni-

versity must be constructed. Since the number of the rooms and their capacities are

limited and may be regulated by the university policies, such a room allocation plan

generates additional constraints between the schedules of the departments.

The above real world Distributed Timetabling Problem (DisTTP) is an instance of

Distributed Constraints Satisfaction Problems (DisCSP). Its Distributed Constraints

Network (DisCN) has a typical structure, in which the local timetabling problem is

quite complex and the global problem includes relatively few constraints. One can

think of a DisTTP as a network of scheduling agents.

There are two well known families of algorithms for solving timetabling problems -

exhaustive (or complete) search algorithms and stochastic (or local) search algorithms

(cf. [14]). Exhaustive search can go on systematically to ﬁnd all possible timetables,

while stochastic search, typically, produces one solution, reaching a minimum. It has

been shown in the past [10] that for real-world ETPs, stochastic search methods out-

perform complete search in eﬃciency terms. Several search algorithms for distributed

constraints networks have been proposed in the last decade (cf. [17, 16, 21, 2, 6, 15]).

However, existing algorithms for solving DisCNs are all exhaustive. In the present

paper we show that both methods are useful for solving DisETPs.

One possible approach for solving DisETPs uses exhaustive search for the SAs. In

this approach, the SAs perform their exhaustive, systematic, algorithm continuously.

Each new local solution they ﬁnd is sent as a message to the CA. This method is

based on the fact that any global solution will always incorporate one local timetable

from each SA (i.e. for each ward of the hospital in our example). In order to produce

the overall solution, the CA has to search among the set of local solutions, while its

domain is constantly enlarged, for one subset that satisﬁes all the global (inter-agent)

SA 1

New const.

SA 4 CA SA 2

Timetables

SA 3

Fig. 1. The Central Agent (CA) adds new constraints to the scheduling agents (SAi s). The

SAs solve the modiﬁed problem and send back a new timetable

constraints. The advantage of the exhaustive search approach is in it’s high degree of

concurrency. In addition, it is guaranteed to ﬁnd a global solution if such a solution

exists. However, for real world problems, complete search can be very slow [10] .

A second, more practical method, uses local search for SAs to generate their local

timetables. Each SA can ﬁnd a local timetable relatively fast, but then it waits for a

request, from the central agent, to improve its solution. This request is the result of the

CA attempt to resolve some additional global constraint violations. Upon receiving

such a message, an SA resumes its local search (i.e. hill climbing) in order to ﬁnd

an improved solution. The advantage of the local search agents approach is that it is

likely to converge quickly to some global solution, by using the strategy of improving

local solutions. The main drawback of this approach is that the CA may ﬁnd itself

performing cycles in searching for a globally improved solution, since local solutions

improve only locally.

The present paper investigates combinations of the above two approaches on real-

istic instances of DisETPs. The local ETPs are real world instances of wards in a large

hospital. The constraints among timetables of the wards are simple limit constraints

on the number of nurses that have to be transported, at the end of their shifts, to

several residential location. The induced inter-agent constraint on SAs can be repre-

sented very simply by the CA and are also simple to calculate, as partial limits on

the number of nurses in a certain group in each of the shifts.

This paper focuses on real world problems that by their nature need to be solved

by agents. Each agent is responsible to solve a single, local, however very complex

CSP problem. The local solutions are combined to yield a coherent, globally consistent

solution. The last phase involves negotiations among agents and requests for changes

in the agents’ solutions.

The paper is organized as follows. Section 2 describes a general framework for

a DisTTP problem. This framework consists of two diﬀerent levels that need to be

dealt with in order to solve a distributed timetabling problem: Section 2.1 describes

the global level that deals with the solution methodology for the central agent which

needs to search for a combination of SAs solutions that satisﬁes the global constraints

of the problem. Section 2.2 describes the local level that deals with search algorithms

for SAs that can solve a local timetabling problem where constraints are added or

removed dynamically. Section 3 presents preliminary results of experiments on Dis-

ETPs that point in the direction of stochastic search for the SAs. The experiments

were performed on the same DisETP scenario and carried out with two diﬀerent CA

control approaches. The overall conclusion is that the model for “intelligent” CA,

that controls SAs in a problem depended manner, is of value. Section 4 draws some

preliminary conclusions.

Since the separate timetable for the departments are generated locally, the constraints

among these timetables, imposed by the limits on rooms space, have to be negoti-

ated among departmental scheduling agents. The above generic model falls into the

framework of Distributed Constraints Satisfaction Problems (DisCSP) [16, 21, 20]. We

will use the term Scheduling Agent (SA) to refer to the particular case in which an

agent has to solve a local CSP (the department TTP in our example) in a global dis-

tributed search. In our model, agents solve their local assignment problem and interact

via messages to make their local schedules compatible with the global constraints of

the problem.

In our model for DisTTPs, shown in Figure 1, an additional agent models the

constraints among the agents - the Central Agent (CA). The CA deals with all the

intra-SA constraints. All agents communicate by sending and receiving messages from

the CA. SAs send their local timetables to the central agent. The CA checks the

local timetables for conﬂicts with global constraints and decides which agents have

to be requested to change their local timetables. Based on this model, two families of

concurrent algorithms for solving DisTTPs are proposed and compared in Section 3.

There are clearly two diﬀerent levels (see Figure 2) that need to be deal with in

order to solve a distributed timetabling problem:

The global level: The solution methodology for the central agent needs to search

for a combination of SAs solutions that satisﬁes the global constraints of the

problem. In many cases the search is for an optimal global solution.

The local level: Search algorithms for SAs that can solve a local timetable problem

where constraints are added or removed dynamically.

The main diﬃculty of the CA problem stems from the fact that the values for assign-

ment in the CA constraint network are acquired incrementally from the scheduling

agents. This transforms the CA constraints satisfaction problem into a special class

of Dynamic CSP (DCSP).

CA

New constraints

Global level

Local level

Timetables

SA 1 SA 2 SA 3 SA 4

Fig. 2. The diﬀerent levels of the problem model: The global and the local levels

Preliminary results show that the CA has to have an eﬀective way to interact with

the SAs, in order to get an optimal solution in a reasonable time frame. An important

issue here is the ability of the CA to control its SAs in such a away that the CA can

accumulate a promising set of alternative local solutions in a short time.

Initially, the CA must wait until all SAs return with at least one solution. There-

after, the CA start its own search for a legal combination of SAs’ solutions satisfying

the global constraints of the problem. The CA search space can grow very fast and

usually, quite soon, it become a prohibitively large search space. For example: 10

departments, each with 100 alternative timetables result in 1020 nodes on the CA’s

search tree.

Preliminary results on realistic DisETP (Section 3 have shown that the CA should

start with complete search, and then move to local search when too many alternative

timetables have arrived. Eventually the CA performs a local search that based on

scanning the neighborhood around the current solution. One of the basic operations

of this scan is a request for an alternative timetable from some SA. The time that

a SA needs for computing the next solution varies wildly. One possible solution for

this diﬃculty is that the CA will manage a dynamic buﬀer of alternative timetables.

Another approach for the CA is to request multiple alternative solutions simultane-

ously from some selected SAs at each step of it’s local search as a form of intelligent

improvement moves.

In the paradigm of the experiments present in this paper, the CA search for an

optimal global solution. In such paradigm the basic operation for the CA is to request

an alternative solution from one of its SAs. One way to guide the SA is by dynamically

adding new constraints to the SA’s local problem. In our problem, the CA can ﬁnd

out, for example, that on Wednesday, in the time slot of 14:00 to 16:00 there are not

enough rooms with capacity range of 100 - 200. In order to satisfy this global constraint

the CA can select the SA with the largest number of requests for such rooms in this

time slot and send it a message, asking this SA to search for an alternative local

solution. This new local solution has to satisﬁed additional constraint: “No more then

5 courses on Wednesday, 14:00 to 16:00, with number of students in range of 100 -

200.”. Each new SA solution is an additional new value to one variable of the CA

constraints network.

When one try to solve a DisTTP, in either way, one needs to solve TTP problems

that are dynamically changing. The basic idea, here, is that each SA starts with

its original TTP problem which is an instance of a Local CS Problem (LCSP). We

term the original constraints of the original local problem Original Local Constraints

(OLC). Whenever any of the SA ﬁnd a solution that complies with all its OLC, it

sends this solution to the Central Agent. When the CA gets at least one solution from

each of the SAs, it starts a search for a solution to the Global CS problem (GCSP)

which include the Global constraints (GC). Each variable of the GCSP represent one

SA. The domain of each variable is the set of solutions for the LCSP of its SA. At the

start of the search, the domains include only the ﬁrst solution found by the SAs. Then

the domain of each variable of the CA, is dynamically increased as the SAs ﬁnd more

solutions that complies with all of its OLC. In this model the CA must solves a CSP

that variable domains are dynamically changing. Only recently with the increasing

use of the Internet, such class of problem are very little treated in the concurrent

academic research community.

It can be said that the CA operates in an environment that is very similar to an

open-world environment of the Internet. Many real world problems that used to be

solved by traditional CSP techniques, can be solved more eﬀectively in a distributed

setting. For example, for the problem of computer conﬁguration, it is now possible, to

locate through the Internet, on-line, during the search for a solution, additional sup-

pliers of some needed parts. The term Open Constraint Satisfaction Problem (OCSP)

was ﬁrst used for such a search environment by Faltings and Macho-Gonzalez [8] in

2002.

When moving to Open CSP, it immediately becomes obvious that most successful

CSP solving methods, in particular constraint propagation, are based on the closed-

world assumption where the domains of the variables are completely known and are

ﬁxed during the search process. For an Open CSP setting, this assumption no longer

holds (cf. [18, 3, 4, 1]). This change requires an adaptation of the current search algo-

rithm.

Open constraint satisfaction problems bear some resemblance to interactive con-

straint satisfaction (ICSP) introduced by Lemma et. el. in 1999 [7]. In the ICSP

model, domain values are acquired during the solution process only when necessary,

and inserted into the variable domains. In this methodology the forward checking

(FC) algorithm can be modiﬁed so that when domains become empty, it launches a

speciﬁc request for additional values that would satisfy the constraints on that vari-

able. Similarly to our CA search problem, the ICSP acquisition process of new domain

values from external agents needs to be guided in order to acquire only new values

that satisfy a speciﬁc constraint. In the ICSP model the acquisition of new values is an

immediate interactive operation and it typically gathers more values than necessary.

In the DisTTP model, a request from the CA for a new solution from a SA is usually

a very expensive operation and the focus is on minimizing the information gathering

activity.

For the second approach, where each SA uses local search, the level of dynamic CSP

goes deeper into the level of the local ETPs. When the CA gets one solution from

each of its SA, the CA computes the current value of the cost function. In the nurses

transportation problem, this is the cost of transportation of all the nurses at the start

and end of each shift. In the next step, the CA try to reduce the cost by a request

for all or some of its SAs to deliver another solution with some new constraints that

the CA imposes. For example, suppose that in the ﬁrst set of solutions that each SA

delivered to the CA there is only one nurse a, that needed a transportation to target

A and 3 sets of 4 nurses each, to 3 other locations: B, C and D. Furthermore, suppose

that there are taxis with capacity of 5 passengers that are available. In such a case,

it is easy to see that a reasonable move of the CA is to ask the SA that makes the

schedule for the nurse a, SAa , to replace the nurse a with any other nurse that lives

in location B, C or D. Now SAa is facing a CSP with constraints that are changing

dynamically.

In this model each SA must solves a CSP dynamically changing CSP. This is an

instance of a known, albeit very little treated, class of CSP problems: the Dynamic

Constraints Satisfaction Problem (DCSP) (cf. [5, 19, 1]).

210

"complete"

205 "local"

Cost of transportation

200

195

190

185

180

175

170

0k 10k 20k 30k 40k 50k 60k 70k 80k 90k 100k

Number of iterations

Fig. 3. Comparing complete search to local search: At some point, too many alternative

solutions make the complete search ineﬀective.

In order to understand the basic behavior of our model we have conducted prelim-

inary experiments. At the basis of our experiments is a real world family of problems.

One set of problems is the timetabling of nurses in a hospital. There are several wards

in the hospital. Each ward schedules its employees independently. The hospital works

3 shifts a day, 7 days a week. The hospital manages transportation for nurses, for

each shift. Transportation lines are grouped into destinations. Cab/bus capacities are

ﬁxed. To achieve cost eﬀectiveness, the SAs need to coordinate their timetables. SAs

are not aware of inter-ward transportation constraints.

In our experiments there are 21 shifts. All wards weekly timetable are similar - 29

employees have to be assigned to 3 tasks for a total of 105 assignments over 7 days.

There are 5 lines of transportation. Cabs have a capacity of 1-7 passengers. There are

diﬀerent costs for lines for diﬀerent shifts. Since the number of passengers depends on

the timetables of all SAs, only the CA can compute the cost by summing the number

of passengers in each shift for each transportation line and then compute how many

cabs are needed in each line. The strategy of the CA is to “ﬁll-up” the cabs in each

line in order to achieve optimality of cost.

210

"local"

205 "dynamic"

200

Cost of transportation

195

190

185

180

175

170

165

160

0k 20k 40k 60k 80k 100k 120k

Number of iterations

Fig. 4. Using sophisticated interaction between the CA and its SAs enable the search to ﬁnd

much better solution faster.

In order to explore a wide range of the problem space, many instances of this real

world ETP were generated with varying amounts of binary constraints, by adding

or removing conﬂicts among shifts. Adding conﬂicts among shifts create a random

sample of problems with the same underlying structure (i.e., shifts; tasks; employees;

limits) and diﬀerent domains of values. This has the additional experimental value of

a large random ensemble of problems.

For diﬃcult TTP problems the SAs generate only few alternative schedules in

a reasonable time frame. For such problem class the CA needs to use a heuristic

that will enhance the chance of encountering lower transportation cost for the next

SA solution. The CA requests the SAs to generate timetables with needed features

in order to avoid cabs with only one passenger. The CA sends messages that add

a constraint to selected set of SAs, to limit the number of nurses for some line. In

addition, new constraints are needed to prevent the SA from adding a nurse to a line

with full cabs. Another option for this heuristic is to add new constraints that request

SAs that can reduce nurses for lines with an almost empty cab.

In the ﬁrst set of experiments that is presented in Figure 3 the eﬀect of using

local search technique for the CA search is compared with the best complete search

algorithm: FC-CBJ [12]. Using the number of iterations performed as the measure-

ment unit for the search eﬀort, we compare the eﬀorts needed to solve the same set

of problems by a pure FC-CBJ algorithm and by the simple ( Random Hill climbing

(RHC) algorithm. It is easy to see that in a 1/3 of the time needed for FC-CBJ, RHC

can ﬁnd a solution that it about 10% cheaper. Each point on the graph of Figure 3

represents the average of a set of 100 problem instances.

The next step of investigation is to check the eﬀectiveness of intelligent interaction

between the CA and its SAs. In other words, the importance of a good strategy for the

CA search method. The results shown in Figure 4 shown clearly that the central agent

must search smartly and coordinate the SAs in order to ﬁnd better combinations of

SAs’ timetables. A combination that enables the CA to ﬁnd a global solution with

a lower transportation cost. In the algorithm marked as “dynamic”, the CA adds

and dynamically removes constraints to the problems of the SAs. The best solution

achieved is 10% cheaper then the simple local search. From theses experiments we can

conclude that the CA needs speciﬁc heuristics for directing SAs in improving their

timetables.

4 Discussion

A new, general model for distributed timetabling problems was presented and its be-

havior on large and hard constraints networks of TTPs was experimentally tested.

DisTTP can be naturally represented as distributed CSPs, where each of the agents

solves a local CSP representing its timetable. Since the local problems of the agents

can be quite complex, the resulting DisTTP is very diﬀerent from the DisCSP that

appears in the literature [20]. We have termed these agents Scheduling Agents (SAs).

Scheduling agents are connected by few global constraints, such as classroom capac-

ity in university timetabling. This makes the DisCSP non binary and these global

constraints can naturally be represented by an additional agent that we termed the

Central Agent (SA). When the CA performs an exhaustive search for a global solu-

tion for the DisTTP, the problem can become huge. This is because each node on the

search tree of the CA is a complete solution of the SAs’ timetables.

Our model and approaches were implemented for a real world distributed employee

timetabling problem (DisETP) involving several wards of a large hospital. Each of the

SAs solves a large ETP with more than one hundred needed assignments. The strong

result shown in Figure 3 is quite intuitive - when the search space of possible SA

timetables become large, local search is essential for the CA (cf. [9]).

The second set of experiments dealt with the interaction between the CA that try

to satisfy global constraints and the SAs, each searching for a good local timetable.

We have tested one simple policy for the CA - improve global transportation cost

by dynamically constraining the requested timetables of selected SAs. This policy ap-

pears to work much better (Figure 4) then simple hill climbing. This result shows that

the heuristics used by the CA have a signiﬁcant impact on its runtime performance.

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