## Abstract

Many practically deployed flow algorithms produce the output as a set of values associated with the network links. However, to actually deploy a flow in a network we often need to represent it as a set of paths between the source and destination nodes. In this paper we consider the problem of decomposing a flow into a small number of paths. We show that there is some fixed constant β >; 1 such that it is NP-hard to find a decomposition in which the number of paths is larger than the optimal by a factor of at most β. Furthermore, this holds even if arcs are associated only with three different flow values. We also show that straightforward greedy algorithms for the problem can produce much larger decompositions than the optimal one, on certain well tailored inputs. On the positive side we present a new approximation algorithm that decomposes all but an c-fraction of the flow into at most O(1/ϵ2) times the smallest possible number of paths. We compare the decompositions produced by these algorithms on real production networks and on synthetically generated data. Our results indicate that the dependency of the decomposition size on the fraction of flow covered is exponential. Hence, covering the last few percent of the flow may be costly, so if the application allows, it may be a good idea to decompose most but not all the flow. The experiments also reveal the fact that while for realistic data the greedy approach works very well, our novel algorithm which has a provable worst case guarantee, typically produces only slightly larger decompositions.

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