A reader and parser for satisfiability instances stored in the DIMACS
Background and Description
Satisfiability (SAT) instances are typically stored on disk in a format
called the DIMACS SAT/CNF format. The name DIMACS comes from the Rutgers
University research group Center for Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical
Computer Science (DIMACS). The DIMACS group hosted several challenges in the
1990s on algorithms and implementations related to graphs and other NP hard
http://dimacs.rutgers.edu/Challenges/). In 1992, the Second DIMACS
Implementation Challenge included problems on graph cliques, graph coloring,
and satisfiability. The original DIMACS format for satisfiablity problems
comes from this challenge, although it's hard to find evidence of this
today. (In fact, there used to be a document online describing the format used
in this challenge, but that has since been removed. It's quite difficult to
find any mention of the format or challenge in the literature either. This
makes the reason behind the DIMACS part of the satisfiability format
The SAT community has since taken ownership of this format and uses versions
of it for SAT competitions. The format seems to change at times, but is always
based around the DIMACS CNF format. Recent competitions use the definition
from the 2009 SAT Competition (
specification is far from complete, however, and it is unfortunate there is no
research paper that defines and evaluates a SAT problem specification.
Here, we define a reader and parser for files in the DIMACS SAT format. The
general strategy will be to read the entire file into a list of bytes. This
list will be interpreted as a list of integers (but this could be changed to a
list of bytes or list of signed bytes, etc.). We then parse this list into
either a list of clauses (which are lists of integers) or a flat list of
integers (where clauses are separated by zeroes). If the parsing fails, an
error string is generated. This string contains a call stack of sorts, so the
offending part of the file can be located. If the string is empty, then
Jared Davis and Sol Swords have defined a DIMACS writer and a SAT solver
output reader for their SATLINK books. Additional information can be found
Here, we define, in English, our interpretation of the most common
specification for the DIMACS CNF format. A DIMACS CNF file is divided into two
sections: the preamble and the clauses section.
The preamble is divided into two subsections: the comment section and the
problem line. The comment section is optional and comes before the problem
line, if it exists. The comment section is composed of comment lines where
each comment line begins with the prefix c
(that is, the character
followed by a space). There is no whitespace before the prefix.
The problem line is the second part of the preamble and is mandatory. The
problem line begins with the prefix p
(the character p
followed by a
space). (As an aside, the p
is short for problem
.) Again, there is no
whitespace before the prefix. This prefix is followed by the string cnf
indicating the problem is in the conjunctive normal form (CNF) format.
(There are other formats from the DIMACS group with other problem identifiers.)
The problem line then contains a positive integer indicating the highest
variable used in the formula. Finally, the problem line ends in a positive
integer indicating the number of clauses in the formula. An example problem
line looks like p cnf 4 8
which indicated the CNF formula described in
the clauses section uses a maximum of 4 variables and contains exactly 8
The clauses section immediately follows the problem line and occupies the
remainder of the file. A CNF formula consists of a conjunction of clauses
which are disjunctions of literals. The ANDs and ORs of the formula are
implicit in the DIMACS CNF representation. The clauses section is a series of
integers separated by any amount of whitespace including spaces, tabs, and
newlines. Zero is a special integer that indicates the end of a clause. Each
clause consists of literals, indicated by positive and negative integers,
followed by a zero. The absolute value of any integer indicates the variable.
Positive integers indicate the positive literal and negative integers indicate
the negative literal, which is the negation of the associated variable. An
example clause in the DIMACS CNF format is 1 -2 -3 0
the logical clause x_1 OR NOT x_2 OR NOT x_3
Furthermore, variables cannot exceed the maximum variable provided on the
problem line, and the number of clauses in the clauses section must be exactly
the number provided on the problem line. Both literals and variables must be
unique in each clause. Clauses must be unique sets in the formula: no two
clauses may be permuatations of each other. The empty clause is
permissable (but makes the formula trivially unsatisfiable when
present). (None of these features are checked in the parser below. They would
require a formula validator and hashing mechanism to examine the formula
There are several inconsistencies in documented DIMACS CNF specifications. It
would be nice to support each of these variations with parser options.
In most representations, the comments subsection is limited to the beginning of
the file. However, some specifications allow for comments to be interspersed
throughout the clauses sections. This encourages organizational descriptions
of sets of clauses.
Usually, the components of a problem line are separated by one space. However,
some specifications allow for multiple spaces (but not newlines) inside the
The maximum variable in the problem line exists to indicate the amount of space
to allocate in a solver. This can be quite inefficient for benchmarks where
many variables are unused in the formula. These types of benchmarks exist
because some encoding schemes might not be compact. Some specifications
require each variable from 1 to the maximum variable appear in the clauses
section. One application of this parser might be to report unused variables or
condense a formula that skips certain variable numberings.
Some specifications require that each clause occupy a single line of the file.
That is, every clause-terminating zero should be followed by a newline and the
whitespace separating literals cannot contain newlines. This makes parsing a
bit easier and makes the file easier to debug. This requirement is probably
the most common difference between DIMACS CNF specifications.
While the most common specification disallows tautologies (clauses that contain
both a literal and its negation), many specifications allow these clauses.
Duplicate literals within a single clause could be allowed, but it seems like a
Some specifications disallow the empty clause (a clause with no literals before
the terminating zero).
A specification could allow the number of clauses in the clauses section to be
different from number listed on the problem line.
Donald Knuth proposes a new format/specification for satisfiability instances
in his new volume of The Art of Computer Programming
). The DIMACS format is
not very human-friendly. Knuth's SAT
format allows for human-readable
formulas. In this format, variables can be strings of (up to eight?) ASCII
characters, negation is represented by a tilde character (~), whitespace is
limited to one space character, clauses are limited to one per line, and
clauses are not zero-terminated.