Algebraic modeling languages

JuMP is an algebraic modeling language for mathematical optimization written in the Julia language. In this page, we explain what an algebraic modeling language actually is.

What is an algebraic modeling language?

If you have taken a class in mixed-integer linear programming, you will have seen a formulation like:

\[\begin{aligned} \min \; & c^\top x \\ \text{s.t.} & A x = b \\ & x \ge 0 \\ & x_i \in \mathbb{Z}, \quad \forall i \in \mathcal{I} \end{aligned}\]

where c, A, and b are appropriately sized vectors and matrices of data, and $\mathcal{I}$ denotes the set of variables that are integer.

Solvers expect problems in a standard form like this because it limits the types of constraints that they need to consider. This makes writing a solver much easier.

What is a solver?

A solver is a software package that computes solutions to one or more classes of problems.

For example, HiGHS is a solver for linear programming (LP) and mixed integer programming (MIP) problems. It incorporates algorithms such as the simplex method and the interior-point method.

JuMP currently supports a number of open-source and commercial solvers, which can be viewed in the Supported-solvers table.

Despite the textbook view of a linear program, you probably formulated problems algebraically like so:

\[\begin{aligned} \max \; & \sum\limits_{i = 1}^n c_i x_i \\ \text{s.t.} & \sum\limits_{i = 1}^n w_i x_i \le b \\ & x_i \ge 0 \quad \forall i = 1,\ldots,n \\ & x_i \in \mathbb{Z} \quad \forall i = 1,\ldots,n. \end{aligned}\]


Do you recognize this formulation? It's the knapsack problem.

Users prefer to write problems in algebraic form because it is more convenient. For example, we used $\le b$, even though the standard form only supported constraints of the form $Ax = b$.

We could convert our knapsack problem into the standard form by adding a new slack variable $x_0$:

\[\begin{aligned} \max \; & \sum\limits_{i = 1}^n c_i x_i \\ \text{s.t.} & x_0 + \sum\limits_{i = 1}^n w_i x_i = b \\ & x_i \ge 0 \quad \forall i = 0,\ldots,n \\ & x_i \in \mathbb{Z} \quad \forall i = 1,\ldots,n. \end{aligned}\]

However, as models get more complicated, this manual conversion becomes more and more error-prone.

An algebraic modeling language is a tool that simplifies the translation between the algebraic form of the modeler, and the standard form of the solver.

Each algebraic modeling language has two main parts:

  1. A domain specific language for the user to write down problems in algebraic form.
  2. A converter from the algebraic form into a standard form supported by the solver (and back again).

Part 2 is less trivial than it might seem, because each solver has a unique application programming interface (API) and data structure for representing optimization models and obtaining results.

JuMP uses the MathOptInterface.jl package to abstract these differences between solvers.

What is MathOptInterface?

MathOptInterface (MOI) is an abstraction layer designed to provide an interface to mathematical optimization solvers so that users do not need to understand multiple solver-specific APIs. MOI can be used directly, or through a higher-level modeling interface like JuMP.

There are three main parts to MathOptInterface:

  1. A solver-independent API that abstracts concepts such as adding and deleting variables and constraints, setting and getting parameters, and querying results. For more information on the MathOptInterface API, read the documentation.

  2. An automatic rewriting system based on equivalent formulations of a constraint. For more information on this rewriting system, read the LazyBridgeOptimizer section of the manual, and our paper on arXiv.

  3. Utilities for managing how and when models are copied to solvers. For more information on this, read the CachingOptimizer section of the manual.

From user to solver

This section provides a brief summary of the steps that happen in order to translate the model that the user writes into a model that the solver understands.

Step I: writing in algebraic form

JuMP provides the first part of an algebraic modeling language using the @variable, @objective, and @constraint macros.

For example, here's how we write the knapsack problem in JuMP:

julia> using JuMP, HiGHS

julia> function algebraic_knapsack(c, w, b)
           n = length(c)
           model = Model(HiGHS.Optimizer)
           @variable(model, x[1:n] >= 0, Int)
           @objective(model, Max, sum(c[i] * x[i] for i = 1:n))
           @constraint(model, sum(w[i] * x[i] for i = 1:n) <= b)
           return value.(x)
algebraic_knapsack (generic function with 1 method)

julia> algebraic_knapsack([1, 2], [0.5, 0.5], 1.25)
2-element Vector{Float64}:

This formulation is compact, and it closely matches the algebraic formulation of the model we wrote out above.

Step II: algebraic to functional

For the next step, JuMP's macros re-write the variables and constraints into a functional form. Here's what the JuMP code looks like after this step:

julia> using JuMP, HiGHS

julia> function nonalgebraic_knapsack(c, w, b)
           n = length(c)
           model = Model(HiGHS.Optimizer)
           x = [VariableRef(model) for i = 1:n]
           for i = 1:n
               set_lower_bound(x[i], 0)
               set_name(x[i], "x[$i]")
           obj = AffExpr(0.0)
           for i = 1:n
               add_to_expression!(obj, c[i], x[i])
           set_objective(model, MAX_SENSE, obj)
           lhs = AffExpr(0.0)
           for i = 1:n
               add_to_expression!(lhs, w[i], x[i])
           con = build_constraint(error, lhs, MOI.LessThan(b))
           add_constraint(model, con)
           return value.(x)
nonalgebraic_knapsack (generic function with 1 method)

julia> nonalgebraic_knapsack([1, 2], [0.5, 0.5], 1.25)
2-element Vector{Float64}:

Hopefully you agree that the macro version is much easier to read.

Part III: JuMP to MathOptInterface

In the third step, JuMP converts the functional form of the problem, that is, nonalgebraic_knapsack, into the MathOptInterface API:

julia> import MathOptInterface as MOI

julia> import HiGHS

julia> function mathoptinterface_knapsack(optimizer, c, w, b)
           n = length(c)
           model = MOI.instantiate(optimizer)
           MOI.set(model, MOI.Silent(), true)
           x = MOI.add_variables(model, n)
           for i in 1:n
               MOI.add_constraint(model, x[i], MOI.GreaterThan(0.0))
               MOI.add_constraint(model, x[i], MOI.Integer())
               MOI.set(model, MOI.VariableName(), x[i], "x[$i]")
           MOI.set(model, MOI.ObjectiveSense(), MOI.MAX_SENSE)
           obj = MOI.ScalarAffineFunction(MOI.ScalarAffineTerm.(c, x), 0.0)
           MOI.set(model, MOI.ObjectiveFunction{typeof(obj)}(), obj)
               MOI.ScalarAffineFunction(MOI.ScalarAffineTerm.(w, x), 0.0),
           return MOI.get.(model, MOI.VariablePrimal(), x)
mathoptinterface_knapsack (generic function with 1 method)

julia> mathoptinterface_knapsack(HiGHS.Optimizer, [1.0, 2.0], [0.5, 0.5], 1.25)
2-element Vector{Float64}:

The code is becoming more verbose and looking less like the mathematical formulation that we started with.

Step IV: MathOptInterface to HiGHS

As a final step, the HiGHS.jl package converts the MathOptInterface form, that is, mathoptinterface_knapsack, into a HiGHS-specific API:

julia> using HiGHS

julia> function highs_knapsack(c, w, b)
           n = length(c)
           model = Highs_create()
           Highs_setBoolOptionValue(model, "output_flag", false)
           for i in 1:n
               Highs_addCol(model, c[i], 0.0, Inf, 0, C_NULL, C_NULL)
               Highs_changeColIntegrality(model, i-1, 1)
           Highs_changeObjectiveSense(model, -1)
           x = fill(NaN, 2)
           Highs_getSolution(model, x, C_NULL, C_NULL, C_NULL)
           return x
highs_knapsack (generic function with 1 method)

julia> highs_knapsack([1.0, 2.0], [0.5, 0.5], 1.25)
2-element Vector{Float64}:

We've now gone from a algebraic model that looked identical to the mathematical model we started with, to a verbose function that uses HiGHS-specific functionality.

The difference between algebraic_knapsack and highs_knapsack highlights the benefit that algebraic modeling languages provide to users. Moreover, if we used a different solver, the solver-specific function would be entirely different. A key benefit of an algebraic modeling language is that you can change the solver without needing to rewrite the model.