I have a semidefinite program (SDP) here, which is equivalent to the trace norm,

\begin{equation} \begin{array}{ll} \max_{Y \in \mathbb{R}^{m \times n}} & \text{trace}(X^T Y) \\ \text{subject to} & \left[ \begin{array}{cc} I_m & Y \\ Y^T & I_n \end{array} \right] \succeq 0, \end{array} \label{eq:aa:primal} \end{equation}

Now I want to derive its dual in a form,

\begin{equation} \begin{array}{ll} \min_{\substack{W_{1} \in \mathbb{S}^{m}, \\ W_{2} \in \mathbb{S}^{n}}} & \text{trace}(W_{1}) + \text{trace}(W_{2}) \\ \text{subject to} & \left[ \begin{array}{cc} W_{1} & (1/2) X \\ (1/2) X^T & W_{2} \end{array} \right] \succeq 0, \end{array} \label{eq:aa:dual} \end{equation}

How am I supposed to introduce the dual variables here?

  • $\begingroup$ Have you tried putting the primal problem into standard form ($\max \mbox{tr}(CQ)$ subject to $\mbox{tr}(A_{i}Q=b_{i}$ for $i=1, 2, \ldots, k$ and $Q \succeq 0$)? What is your objective function matrix $C$? What are the linear equality constraints? What is the dual of that standard form problem? $\endgroup$ Oct 23, 2016 at 1:07
  • $\begingroup$ The approach @BrianBorchers suggests is certainly a reasonable one. I think it is better, however, if people can learn to derive more general dual problems through the Lagrangian. In this case, the Lagrange multiplier is a single semidefinite matrix $Z\in\mathbb{R}^{(m+n)\times(m+n}$. What you will find as you simplify the dual function is that you can extract $W_1$ and $W_2$ out of that. $\endgroup$ Oct 23, 2016 at 16:42
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelGrant Thanks for your suggestion! However I am thinking why does it makes sense to integrate the product of two matrices which is another $m+n \times m+n$ matrix into the Lagrange form with $\text{trace}{X^TY}, which is not a matrix? $\endgroup$
    – good2know
    Oct 23, 2016 at 19:28
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure what you're asking. Do you know how to build a Lagrangian? $\endgroup$ Oct 23, 2016 at 19:29
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelGrant Are you suggesting adding an additional $-Z\left[ \begin{array}{cc} I_m & Y \\ Y^T & I_n \end{array} \right]$ in the optimization problem? $\endgroup$
    – good2know
    Oct 23, 2016 at 19:36

1 Answer 1


EDIT: I mistakenly misread the original problem as a minimization, not a maximization, so this is wrong. For one thing, the dual is indeed a minimization. But there will also be some sign differences as well. My apologies to the OP, and feel free to remove your upvotes and/or downvote.

Let me go ahead and write out my suggestion. As I mentioned, the Lagrange multiplier for any SDP constraint $Q \succeq 0$ is a PSD matrix of the same size. Thus the Lagrangian is $$L(Y,Z) = \langle X, Y \rangle - \left\langle Z,\begin{bmatrix} I_m & Y \\ Y^T & I_n \end{bmatrix} \right\rangle$$ where $Z\in\mathcal{S}^{m+n}_+$. (I'm using the definition $\langle A,B \rangle = \mathop{\textrm{Tr}}(A^TB)$ here.) To facilitate simplification, we express $Z$ in a block form: $$Z \triangleq \begin{bmatrix} Z_{11} & Z_{12} \\ Z_{12}^T & Z_{22} \end{bmatrix}$$ $$\begin{aligned} L(Y,Z) &= \langle X, Y \rangle - \left\langle \begin{bmatrix} Z_{11} & Z_{12} \\ Z_{12}^T & Z_{22} \end{bmatrix}, \begin{bmatrix} I_m & Y \\ Y^T & I_n \end{bmatrix} \right\rangle\\ &= \langle X, Y \rangle - \langle Z_{11}, I_m \rangle - \langle Z_{22}, I_n \rangle - 2 \langle Z_{12}, Y \rangle \\ &= \langle X - 2 Z_{12}, Y \rangle - \langle Z_{11}, I_m \rangle - \langle Z_{22}, I_n\rangle \end{aligned}$$ The dual function is therefore $$g(Z) = \inf_Y L(Y,Z) = \begin{cases} - \langle Z_{11}, I_m \rangle - \langle Z_{22}, I_n \rangle & X - 2 Z_{12} = 0 \\ -\infty & X - 2 Z_{12} \neq 0 \end{cases}$$ The $-\infty$ arises from the fact that if $X\neq 2Z_{12}$, that linear expression is unbounded below. So the only way you get a bounded value for $g(Z)$ is if that first term is identically zero. (For nonlinear dual functions, you would do a more traditional minimization; e.g., by differentiating with respect to $Y$.)

Given this dual function, the dual problem is \begin{array}{ll} \text{maximize} & g(Z) \\ \text{subject to} & Z \succeq 0 \end{array} Technically, this is the true Lagrange dual. But in practice we move the implicit domain constraints out of the dual function. \begin{array}{ll} \text{maximize} & - \langle Z_{11}, I_m \rangle - \langle Z_{22}, I_n \rangle \\ \text{subject to} & 2 Z_{12} = X \\ & Z \succeq 0 \end{array} Eliminating $Z_{12}$ we obtain \begin{array}{ll} \text{maximize} & - \langle Z_{11}, I_m \rangle - \langle Z_{22}, I_n \rangle = -\mathop{\textrm{Tr}}(Z_{11}) - \mathop{\textrm{Tr}}(Z_{22}) \\ \text{subject to} & \begin{bmatrix} Z_{11} & (1/2) X \\ (1/2) X^T & Z_{22} \end{bmatrix} \succeq 0 \end{array} Of course, we have $W_1 \rightarrow Z_{11}$ and $W_2 \rightarrow Z_{22}$. And the true dual is a maximization, not a minimization as you have written it, so flip yours to a maximization (negating the objective) and we're done.

  • $\begingroup$ I was close! Thanks for your answer! I didn't realize that trace could be written in the inner product! Thanks again for your enlightening answer. $\endgroup$
    – good2know
    Oct 23, 2016 at 19:58
  • $\begingroup$ Are you suggesting that the dual I gave is wrong and should be the maximization? $\endgroup$
    – good2know
    Oct 23, 2016 at 21:13
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, I am. The correct dual is a maximization. $\endgroup$ Oct 23, 2016 at 21:14
  • $\begingroup$ My TA said the original formulation of the dual is actually right, could you help me figuring out where we have missed? $\endgroup$
    – good2know
    Oct 31, 2016 at 22:33
  • $\begingroup$ Aha! Well, I'll tell you what I missed---for some reason, I thought your original problem was a minimization, so the dual was a maximization. But now that I've taken another look I realize that of course it is the other way around! My apologies. $\endgroup$ Oct 31, 2016 at 22:35

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