Let us assume that we are trying to solve $\min_x f(x)$, $f$ differentiable.

Computing a full gradient $\nabla f$ is more expensive that computing the gradient on a single coordinate $\nabla_i f$.

Is there any general theory that says that, say, for a convex function $f$, gradient descent is always better than coordinate descent? If not, why not use always coordinate descent, since it is cheaper? To be specific, I am comparing

$x^{t+1} = x^{t } - \alpha \nabla f(x^t)$


$x^{t+1}_i = x^{t }_i - \alpha \nabla_i f(x^t)$, where in each iteration $i$ is choose sequentially and in a cycle, or randomly, or using some other scheme.

For example, if $f(x = (x_1,x_2)) = \frac{1}{2}x_1^2 + \frac{\kappa}{2}x^2_2$, $\kappa \geq 1$, then the best possible rate of convergence for gradient descent is $\min_{\alpha} \max\{|1 - \alpha|,|1 - \alpha\kappa |\} = \frac{\kappa-1}{\kappa + 1}$. For two iterations, this rate is $\left( \frac{\kappa-1}{\kappa + 1}\right)^2$.

If, however, I do coordinate descent, alternating between descent in $x_1$ and descent in $x_2$, then I get a best possible rate of convergence for two iterations as $\min_{\alpha} \max\{|1 - \alpha|,|1 - \alpha\kappa + \alpha^2 \kappa|\}$, which, for certain values of $\kappa$, is smaller than $\left( \frac{\kappa-1}{\kappa + 1}\right)^2$.

So it seems that, even in simple examples, it is not clear that the more expensive gradient descent is better. Why use it then?

Here are some pictures of rate vs alpha (blue is coordinate descent), for $\kappa < 3.4$ and $\kappa > 3.4$:

$\kappa < 3.4$

$\kappa > 3.4$

  • $\begingroup$ Sorry...the rate for coordinate descent is for two updates, not for one update. So, the rate per one update, is the square root of that. However, for certain values of $\kappa$, coordinate descent is still better. In particular, for this example, for $\kappa > 3.4$, it seems like it is better to use coordinate descent. So the question still remains..... $\endgroup$ – OptStudent Mar 7 at 18:18
  • $\begingroup$ If you need to change your question, you can do this, it is not forbidden: this is particularly advisable especially if you have an important observation, like in this case. Instead of posting this as a comment, add it to the question as a new section of the answer, titled for example EDIT in bold. $\endgroup$ – Daniele Tampieri Mar 7 at 18:26
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Yes, new to the system...will try to edit question. $\endgroup$ – OptStudent Mar 7 at 18:29

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