Smooth Primal-Dual Coordinate Descent Algorithms for Nonsmooth Convex Optimization

11/09/2017 ∙ by Ahmet Alacaoglu, et al. ∙ EPFL Télécom ParisTech University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 0

We propose a new randomized coordinate descent method for a convex optimization template with broad applications. Our analysis relies on a novel combination of four ideas applied to the primal-dual gap function: smoothing, acceleration, homotopy, and coordinate descent with non-uniform sampling. As a result, our method features the first convergence rate guarantees among the coordinate descent methods, that are the best-known under a variety of common structure assumptions on the template. We provide numerical evidence to support the theoretical results with a comparison to state-of-the-art algorithms.



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1 Introduction

We develop randomized coordinate descent methods to solve the following composite convex problem:


where , , and are proper, closed and convex functions, is a given matrix. The optimization template (1

) covers many important applications including support vector machines, sparse model selection, logistic regression, etc. It is also convenient to formulate generic constrained convex problems by choosing an appropriate


Within convex optimization, coordinate descent methods have recently become increasingly popular in the literature Nesterov2012 ; richtarik2014iteration ; richtarik2016parallel ; fercoq2015accelerated ; shalev2013stochastic ; necoara2016parallel

. These methods are particularly well-suited to solve huge-scale problems arising from machine learning applications where matrix-vector operations are prohibitive

Nesterov2012 .

To our knowledge, there is no coordinate descent method for the general three-composite form (1) within our structure assumptions studied here that has rigorous convergence guarantees. Our paper specifically fills this gap. For such a theoretical development, coordinate descent algorithms require specific assumptions on the convex optimization problems Nesterov2012 ; fercoq2015accelerated ; necoara2016parallel . As a result, to rigorously handle the three-composite case, we assume that () is smooth, () is non-smooth but decomposable (each component has an “efficiently computable” proximal operator), and () is non-smooth.

Our approach:

In a nutshell, we generalize fercoq2015accelerated ; qu2016coordinate to the three composite case (1). For this purpose, we combine several classical and contemporary ideas: We exploit the smoothing technique in Nesterov2005c , the efficient implementation technique in lee2013efficient ; fercoq2015accelerated , the homotopy strategy in tran2015smooth , and the nonuniform coordinate selection rule in qu2016coordinate

in our algorithm, to achieve the best known complexity estimate for the template.

Surprisingly, the combination of these ideas is achieved in a very natural and elementary primal-dual gap-based framework. However, the extension is indeed not trivial since it requires to deal with the composition of a non-smooth function and a linear operator .

While our work has connections to the methods developed in qu2016coordinate ; fercoq2013smooth ; fercoq2015coordinate , it is rather distinct. First, we consider a more general problem (1) than the one in fercoq2015accelerated ; qu2016coordinate ; fercoq2013smooth . Second, our method relies on Nesterov’s accelerated scheme rather than a primal-dual method as in fercoq2015coordinate . Moreover, we obtain the first rigorous convergence rate guarantees as opposed to fercoq2015coordinate . In addition, we allow using any sampling distribution for choosing the coordinates.

Our contributions: We propose a new smooth primal-dual randomized coordinate descent method for solving (1) where is smooth, is nonsmooth, separable and has a block-wise proximal operator, and is a general nonsmooth function. Under such a structure, we show that our algorithm achieves the best known convergence rate, where is the iteration count and to our knowledge, this is the first time that this convergence rate is proven for a coordinate descent algorithm.

We instantiate our algorithm to solve special cases of (1) including the case and constrained problems. We analyze the convergence rate guarantees of these variants individually and discuss the choices of sampling distributions.

Exploiting the strategy in lee2013efficient ; fercoq2015accelerated , our algorithm can be implemented in parallel by breaking up the full vector updates. We also provide a restart strategy to enhance practical performance.

Paper organization:

We review some preliminary results in Section 2. The main contribution of this paper is in Section 3 with the main algorithm and its convergence guarantee. We also present special cases of the proposed algorithm. Section 4 provides numerical evidence to illustrate the performance of our algorithms in comparison to existing methods. The proofs are deferred to the supplementary document.

2 Preliminaries


Let be the set of positive integer indices. Let us decompose the variable vector into -blocks denoted by as such that each block has the size with

. We also decompose the identity matrix

of into block as , where has unit vectors. In this case, any vector can be written as , and each block becomes for . We define the partial gradients as for . For a convex function , we use to denote its domain, to denote its Fenchel conjugate, and to denote its proximal operator. For a convex set , denotes its indicator function. We also need the following weighted norms:


Here, is a symmetric positive definite matrix, and for and . In addition, we use to denote .

Formal assumptions on the template:

We require the following assumptions to tackle (1):

Assumption 1.

The functions , and are all proper, closed and convex. Moreover, they satisfy

  • The partial derivative of is Lipschitz continuous with the Lipschitz constant , i.e., for all .

  • The function is separable, which has the following form .

  • One of the following assumptions for holds for Subsections 3.3 and 3.4, respectively:

    • is Lipschitz continuous which is equivalent to the boundedness of .

    • is the indicator function for an equality constraint, i.e., .

Now, we briefly describe the main techniques used in this paper.


Acceleration techniques in convex optimization date back to the seminal work of Nesterov in nesterov1983method , and is one of standard techniques in convex optimization. We exploit such a scheme to achieve the best known rate for the nonsmooth template (1).

Nonuniform distribution:

We assume that is a random index on

associated with a probability distribution

such that


When for all

, we obtain the uniform distribution. Let

be i.i.d. realizations of the random index after iteration. We define as the -field generated by these realizations.

Smoothing techniques:

We can write the convex function using its Fenchel conjugate . Since in (1) is convex but possibly nonsmooth, we smooth as


where is given and is the smoothness parameter. Moreover, the quadratic function is defined based on a given norm in . Let us denote by , the unique solution of this concave maximization problem in (4), i.e.:


where is the proximal operator of . If we assume that is Lipschitz continuous, or equivalently that is bounded, then it holds that


Let us define a new smoothed function . Then, is differentiable, and its block partial gradient


is also Lipschitz continuous with the Lipschitz constant , where is given in Assumption 1, and is the -th block of .


In smoothing-based methods, the choice of the smoothness parameter is critical. This choice may require the knowledge of the desired accuracy, number of maximum iterations or the diameters of the primal and/or dual domains as in Nesterov2005c . In order to make this choice flexible and our method applicable to the constrained problems, we employ a homotopy strategy developed in tran2015smooth for deterministic algorithms, to gradually update the smoothness parameter while making sure that it converges to .

3 Smooth primal-dual randomized coordinate descent

In this section, we develop a smoothing primal-dual method to solve (1). Or approach is to combine the four key techniques mentioned above: smoothing, acceleration, homotopy, and randomized coordinate descent. Similar to qu2016coordinate we allow to use arbitrary nonuniform distribution, which may allow to design a good distribution that captures the underlying structure of specific problems.

3.1 The algorithm

Algorithm 1 below smooths, accelerates, and randomizes the coordinate descent method.

1 Choose and as two input parameters. Choose .
2 Set for . Compute and for all .
3 Set for . Set .
4 for  do
5       Update and compute .
6       Compute the dual step
7      Select a block coordinate according to the probability distribution .
8       Set , and compute the primal -block coordinate:
9       Update .
10       Compute as the unique positive root of .
11       Update and for .
12 end for
Algorithm 1 SMooth, Accelerate, Randomize The Coordinate Descent (SMART-CD)

From the update and , it directly follows that . Therefore, it is possible to implement the algorithm without forming .

3.2 Efficient implementation

While the basic variant in Algorithm 1 requires full vector updates at each iteration, we exploit the idea in lee2013efficient ; fercoq2015accelerated and show that we can partially update these vectors in a more efficient manner.

1 Choose a parameter and as two input parameters. Choose .
2 Set for . Compute and for all .
3 Set for and . Set .
4 for  do
5       Compute the dual step
6      Select a block coordinate according to the probability distribution .
7       Let . Compute
8       Update .
9       Update .
10       Compute as the unique positive root of .
11       Update and for .
12 end for
Algorithm 2 Efficient SMART-CD

We present the following result which shows the equivalence between Algorithm 1 and Algorithm 2, the proof of which can be found in the supplementary document.

Proposition 3.1.

Let , and . Then, , and , for all , where , , and are defined in Algorithm 1.

According to Algorithm  2, we never need to form or update full-dimensional vectors. Only times that we need are when computing the gradient and the dual variable . We present two special cases which are common in machine learning, in which we can compute these steps efficiently.

Remark 3.2.

Under the following assumptions, we can characterize the per-iteration complexity explicitly. Let , and

  • has the form , where is the standard unit vector.

  • h is separable as in or .

Assuming that we store and maintain the residuals , , , , then we have the per-iteration cost as arithmetic operations. If is partially separable as in richtarik2016parallel , then the complexity of each iteration will remain moderate.

3.3 Case 1: Convergence analysis of SMART-CD for Lipschitz continuous

We provide the following main theorem, which characterizes the convergence rate of Algorithm 1.

Theorem 3.3.

Let be an optimal solution of (1) and let be given. In addition, let and be given parameters. For all , the sequence generated by Algorithm 1 satisfies:


where and is as defined by (6).

In the special case when we use uniform distribution, , the convergence rate reduces to

where . This estimate shows that the convergence rate of Algorithm 1 is

which is the best known so far to the best of our knowledge.

3.4 Case 2: Convergence analysis of SMART-CD for non-smooth constrained optimization

In this section, we instantiate Algorithm 1 to solve constrained convex optimization problem with possibly non-smooth terms in the objective. Clearly, if we choose in (1) as the indicator function of the set for a given vector , then we obtain a constrained problem:


where and are defined as in (1), , and .

We can specify Algorithm 1 to solve this constrained problem by modifying the following two steps:

  • The update of at Step 6 is changed to


    which requires one matrix-vector multiplication in .

  • The update of at Step 10 and at Step 11 are changed to


Now, we analyze the convergence of this algorithm by providing the following theorem.

Theorem 3.4.

Let be the sequence generated by Algorithm 1 for solving (9) using the updates (10) and (11) and let be an arbitrary optimal solution of the dual problem of (9). In addition, let and be given parameters. Then, we have the following estimates:


where . We note that the following lower bound always holds .

3.5 Other special cases

We consider the following special cases of Algorithm 1:

The case :

In this case, we obtain an algorithm similar to the one studied in qu2016coordinate except that we have non-uniform sampling instead of importance sampling. If the distribution is uniform, then we obtain the method in fercoq2015accelerated .

The case :

In this case, we have , which can handle the linearly constrained problems with smooth objective function. In this case, we can choose , and the coordinate proximal gradient step, Step 8 in Algorithm 1, is simplified as


In addition, we replace Step 9 with


We then obtain the following results:

Corollary 3.5.

Assume that Assumption 1 holds. Let , and Step 8 and 9 of Algorithm 1 be updated by (13) and (14), respectively. If, in addition, is Lipschitz continuous, then we have


where is defined by (6).

If, instead of Lipschitz continuous , we have to solve the constrained problem (9) with , then we have


where .

3.6 Restarting SMART-CD

It is known that restarting an accelerated method significantly enhances its practical performance when the underlying problem admits a (restricted) strong convexity condition. As a result, we describe below how to restart (i.e., the momentum term) in Efficient SMART-CD. If the restart is injected in the -th iteration, then we restart the algorithm with the following steps:

The first three steps of the restart procedure is for restarting the primal variable which is classical o2015adaptive . Restarting is also suggested in tran2015smooth . The cost of this procedure is essentially equal to the cost of one iteration as described in Remark 3.2

, therefore even restarting once every epoch will not cause a significant difference in terms of per-iteration cost.

4 Numerical evidence

We illustrate the performance of Efficient SMART-CD in brain imaging and support vector machines applications. We also include one representative example of a degenerate linear program to illustrate why the convergence rate guarantees of our algorithm matter. We compare SMART-CD with Vu-Condat-CD

fercoq2015coordinate , which is a coordinate descent variant of Vu-Condat’s algorithm vu2013splitting , FISTA beck2009fast , ASGARD tran2015smooth , Chambolle-Pock’s primal-dual algorithm chambolle2011first , L-BFGS byrd1995limited and SDCA shalev2013stochastic .

4.1 A degenerate linear program: Why do convergence rate guarantees matter?

We consider the following degenerate linear program studied in tran2015smooth :


Here, the constraint is repeated times. This problem satisfies the linear constraint qualification condition, which guarantees the primal-dual optimality. If we define


we can fit this problem and its dual form into our template (1).

For this experiment, we select the dimensions and . We implement our algorithm and compare it with Vu-Condat-CD. We also combine our method with the restarting strategy proposed above. We use the same mapping to fit the problem into the template of Vu-Condat-CD.

Figure 1: The convergence behavior of algorithms on a degenerate linear program.

Figure 1 illustrates the convergence behavior of Vu-Condat-CD and SMART-CD. We compare primal suboptimality and feasibility in the plots. The explicit solution of the problem is used to generate the plot with primal suboptimality. We observe that degeneracy of the problem prevents Vu-Condat-CD from making any progress towards the solution, where SMART-CD preserves rate as predicted by theory. We emphasize that the authors in fercoq2015coordinate proved almost sure convergence for Vu-Condat-CD but they did not provide a convergence rate guarantee for this method. Since the problem is certainly non-strongly convex, restarting does not significantly improve performance of SMART-CD.

4.2 Total Variation and -regularized least squares regression with functional MRI data

In this experiment, we consider a computational neuroscience application where prediction is done based on a sequence of functional MRI images. Since the images are high dimensional and the number of samples that can be taken is limited, TV- regularization is used to get stable and predictive estimation results dohmatob2014benchmarking . The convex optimization problem we solve is of the form:


This problem fits to our template with

where is the 3D finite difference operator to define a total variation norm and .

We use an fMRI dataset where the primal variable is 3D image of the brain that contains voxels. Feature matrix has rows, each representing the brain activity for the corresponding example dohmatob2014benchmarking . We compare our algorithm with Vu-Condat’s algorithm, FISTA, ASGARD, Chambolle-Pock’s primal-dual algorithm, L-BFGS and Vu-Condat-CD.

Figure 2: The convergence of algorithms for problem (18). The regularization parameters for the first plot are , for the second plot are , for the third plot are .

Figure 2 illustrates the convergence behaviour of the algorithms for different values of the regularization parameters. Per-iteration cost of SMART-CD and Vu-Condat-CD is similar, therefore the behavior of these two algorithms are quite similar in this experiment. Since Vu-Condat’s, Chambolle-Pock’s, FISTA and ASGARD methods work with full dimensional variables, they have slow convergence in time. L-BFGS has a close performance to coordinate descent methods.

The simulation in Figure 2 is performed using benchmarking tool of dohmatob2014benchmarking . The algorithms are tuned for the best parameters in practice.

4.3 Linear support vector machines problem with bias

In this section, we consider an application of our algorithm to support vector machines (SVM) problem for binary classification. Given a training set with examples such that and class labels such that , we define the soft margin primal support vector machines problem with bias as


As it is a common practice, we solve its dual formulation, which is a constrained problem:


where represents a diagonal matrix that has the class labels in its diagonal and is formed by the example vectors. If we define

then, we can fit this problem into our template in (9).

We apply the specific version of SMART-CD for constrained setting from Section 3.4 and compare with Vu-Condat-CD and SDCA. Even though SDCA is a state-of-the-art method for SVMs, we are not able to handle the bias term using SDCA. Hence, it only applies to (20) when constraint is removed. This causes SDCA not to converge to the optimal solution when there is bias term in the problem (19). The following table summarizes the properties of the classification datasets we used.

Data Set Training Size Number of Features Convergence Plot
rcv1.binary chang2011libsvm ; lewis2004rcv1 20,242 47,236 Figure 3, plot 1
a8a chang2011libsvm ; Lichman:2013 22,696 123 Figure 3, plot 2
gisette chang2011libsvm ; guyon2005result 6,000 5,000 Figure 3, plot 3

Figure 3 illustrates the performance of the algorithms for solving the dual formulation of SVM in (20). We compute the duality gap for each algorithm and present the results with epochs in the horizontal axis since per-iteration complexity of the algorithms is similar. As expected, SDCA gets stuck at a low accuracy since it ignores one of the constraints in the problem. We demonstrate this fact in the first experiment and then limit the comparison to SMART-CD and Vu-Condat-CD. Equipped with restart strategy, SMART-CD shows the fastest convergence behavior due to the restricted strong convexity of (20).

Figure 3: The convergence of algorithms on the dual SVM (20) with bias. We only used SDCA in the first dataset since it stagnates at a very low accuracy.

5 Conclusions

Coordinate descent methods have been increasingly deployed to tackle huge scale machine learning problems in recent years. The most notable works include Nesterov2012 ; richtarik2014iteration ; richtarik2016parallel ; fercoq2015accelerated ; shalev2013stochastic ; necoara2016parallel . Our method relates to several works in the literature including fercoq2015accelerated ; fercoq2013smooth ; Nesterov2012 ; nesterov2017efficiency ; qu2016coordinate ; tran2015smooth . The algorithms developed in fercoq2015accelerated ; richtarik2014iteration ; richtarik2016parallel only considered a special case of (1) with , and cannot be trivially extended to apply to general setting (1). Here, our algorithm can be viewed as an adaptive variant of the method developed in fercoq2015accelerated extended to the sum of three functions. The idea of homotopy strategies relate to tran2015smooth for first-order primal-dual methods. This paper further extends such an idea to randomized coordinate descent methods for solving (1). We note that a naive application of the method developed in fercoq2015accelerated to the smoothed problem with a carefully chosen fixed smoothness parameter would result in the complexity , whereas using our homotopy strategy on the smoothness parameter, we reduced this complexity to .

With additional strong convexity assumption on problem template (1), it is possible to obtain rate by using deterministic first-order primal-dual algorithms chambolle2011first ; tran2015smooth . It remains as future work to incorporate strong convexity to coordinate descent methods for solving nonsmooth optimization problems with a faster convergence rate.


The work of O. Fercoq was supported by a public grant as part of the Investissement d’avenir project, reference ANR-11-LABX-0056-LMH, LabEx LMH. The work of Q. Tran-Dinh was partly supported by NSF grant, DMS-1619884, USA. The work of A. Alacaoglu and V. Cevher was supported by European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement n 725594 - time-data).


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Appendix A Key lemmas

The following properties are key to design the algorithm, whose proofs are very similar to the proof of (tran2015smooth, , Lemma 10) by using a different norm, and we omit the proof here. The proof of the last property directly follows by using the explicit form of in the special case when .

Lemma A.1.

For any , the function defined by (4) satisfies the following properties:

  • is convex and smooth. Its gradient is Lipschitz continuous with the Lipschitz constant .