In the Steiner Forest problem, we are given a graph and a collection of source-sink pairs, and the goal is to find a subgraph of minimum total length such that all pairs are connected. The problem is APX-Hard and can be 2-approximated by, e.g., the elegant primal-dual algorithm of Agrawal, Klein, and Ravi from 1995.

We give a local-search-based constant-factor approximation for the problem. Local search brings in new techniques to an area that has for long not seen any improvements and might be a step towards a combinatorial algorithm for the more general survivable network design problem. Moreover, local search was an essential tool to tackle the dynamic MST/Steiner Tree problem, whereas dynamic Steiner Forest is still wide open.

It is easy to see that any constant factor local search algorithm requires steps that add/drop many edges together. We propose natural local moves which, at each step, either (a) add a shortest path in the current graph and then drop a bunch of inessential edges, or (b) add a set of edges to the current solution. This second type of moves is motivated by the potential function we use to measure progress, combining the cost of the solution with a penalty for each connected component. Our carefully-chosen local moves and potential function work in tandem to eliminate bad local minima that arise when using more traditional local moves.

Our analysis first considers the case where the local optimum is a single tree, and shows optimality w.r.t. moves that add a single edge (and drop a set of edges) is enough to bound the locality gap. For the general case, we show how to "project" the optimal solution onto the different trees of the local optimum without incurring too much cost (and this argument uses optimality w.r.t. both kinds of moves), followed by a tree-by-tree argument. We hope both the potential function, and our analysis techniques will be useful to develop and analyze local-search algorithms in other contexts.