What is optimization?

Optimization is an important tool in decision making and in analyzing physical systems. In mathematical terms, an optimization problem is the problem of finding the best solution from among the set of all feasible solutions.


In the simplest case, an optimization problem consists of maximizing or minimizing a real function by systematically choosing input values from within an allowed set and computing the value of this function. More generally, optimization includes finding ‘best available’ values of some objective function or functions given a defined domain (or a set of constraints).

Optimization problem Types

An important step in the optimization process is classifying your optimization model (or problem), since a particular algorithm for solving optimization problems is tailored to a particular type of problem. The various optimization problem types are:


· Continuous Optimization versus Discrete Optimization

Some models only make sense if the variables take on values from a discrete set, often a subset of integers, whereas other models contain variables that can take on any real value. Models with discrete variables are discrete optimization problems; models with continuous variables are continuous optimization problems. Continuous optimization problems tend to be easier to solve than discrete optimization problems; the smoothness of the functions means that the objective function and constraint function values at a point x can be used to deduce information about points in the neighborhood of x. However, improvements in algorithms coupled with advancements in computing technology have dramatically increased the size and complexity of discrete optimization problems that can be solved efficiently. Continuous optimization algorithms are important in discrete optimization because many discrete optimization algorithms generate a sequence of continuous sub-problems.

· Unconstrained Optimization versus Constrained Optimization

Another important distinction is between problems in which there are no constraints on the variables and problems in which there are constraints on the variables. Unconstrained optimization problems arise directly in many practical applications; they also arise in the reformulation of constrained optimization problems in which the constraints are replaced by a penalty term in the objective function. Constrained optimization problems arise from applications in which there are explicit (e.g. physical) constraints on the variables. The constraints on the variables can vary widely from simple bounds to systems of equalities and inequalities that model complex relationships among the variables. Constrained optimization problems can be further classified according to the nature of the constraints (e.g., linear, nonlinear, convex) and the smoothness of the functions (e.g., differentiable or non-differentiable).

· None, One or Many Objectives

Most optimization problems have a single objective function. There are interesting cases when optimization problems have no objective function or multiple objective functions. Feasibility problems are problems in which the goal is to find values for the variables that satisfy the constraints of a model with no particular objective to optimize. Multi-objective optimization involves more than one objective function to be optimized simultaneously. Multi-objective optimization has been applied in many fields of science, including engineering, economics and logistics where optimal decisions need to be taken in the presence of trade-offs between two or more conflicting objectives.

· Deterministic Optimization versus Stochastic Optimization

In deterministic optimization, it is assumed that the data for the given problem are known accurately. However, for many actual problems, the data cannot be known accurately for a variety of reasons. The first reason is due to simple measurement error. The second and more fundamental reason is that some data represent information about the future (e. g., product demand or price for a future time period) and simply cannot be known with certainty. In optimization under uncertainty, or stochastic optimization, the uncertainty is incorporated into the model. Robust optimization techniques can be used when the parameters are known only within certain bounds; the goal is to find a solution that is feasible for all data and optimal in some sense. Stochastic programming models take advantage of the fact that probability distributions governing the data are known or can be estimated; the goal is to find some policy that is feasible for all (or almost all) the possible data instances and optimizes the expected performance of the model.