EF21: A New, Simpler, Theoretically Better, and Practically Faster Error Feedback

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 34 (NeurIPS 2021)

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Peter Richtarik, Igor Sokolov, Ilyas Fatkhullin


Error feedback (EF), also known as error compensation, is an immensely popular convergence stabilization mechanism in the context of distributed training of supervised machine learning models enhanced by the use of contractive communication compression mechanisms, such as Top-$k$. First proposed by Seide et al [2014] as a heuristic, EF resisted any theoretical understanding until recently [Stich et al., 2018, Alistarh et al., 2018]. While these early breakthroughs were followed by a steady stream of works offering various improvements and generalizations, the current theoretical understanding of EF is still very limited. Indeed, to the best of our knowledge, all existing analyses either i) apply to the single node setting only, ii) rely on very strong and often unreasonable assumptions, such as global boundedness of the gradients, or iterate-dependent assumptions that cannot be checked a-priori and may not hold in practice, or iii) circumvent these issues via the introduction of additional unbiased compressors, which increase the communication cost. In this work we fix all these deficiencies by proposing and analyzing a new EF mechanism, which we call EF21, which consistently and substantially outperforms EF in practice. Moreover, our theoretical analysis relies on standard assumptions only, works in the distributed heterogeneous data setting, and leads to better and more meaningful rates. In particular, we prove that EF21 enjoys a fast $\mathcal{O}(1/T)$ convergence rate for smooth nonconvex problems, beating the previous bound of $\mathcal{O}(1/T^{2/3})$, which was shown under a strong bounded gradients assumption. We further improve this to a fast linear rate for Polyak-Lojasiewicz functions, which is the first linear convergence result for an error feedback method not relying on unbiased compressors. Since EF has a large number of applications where it reigns supreme, we believe that our 2021 variant, EF21, will have a large impact on the practice of communication efficient distributed learning.