Gradient compression is a widely-established remedy to tackle the communication bottleneck in distributed training of large deep neural networks (DNNs). Under the error-feedback framework, Top-k sparsification, sometimes with k as little as 0.1% of the gradient size, enables training to the same model quality as the uncompressed case for a similar iteration count. From the optimization perspective, we find that Top-k is the communication-optimal sparsifier given a per-iteration k element budget. We argue that to further the benefits of gradient sparsification, especially for DNNs, a different perspective is necessary — one that moves from per-iteration optimality to consider optimality for the entire training.
We identify that the total error — the sum of the compression errors for all iterations — encapsulates sparsification throughout training. Then, we propose a communication complexity model that minimizes the total error under a communication budget for the entire training. We find that the hard-threshold sparsifier, a variant of the Top-k sparsifier with k determined by a constant hard-threshold, is the optimal sparsifier for this model. Motivated by this, we provide convex and non-convex convergence analyses for the hard-threshold sparsifier with error-feedback. Unlike with Top-k sparsifier, we show that hard-threshold has the same asymptotic convergence and linear speedup property as SGD in the convex case and has no impact on the data-heterogeneity in the non-convex case. Our diverse experiments on various DNNs and a logistic regression model demonstrated that the hard-threshold sparsifier is more communication-efficient than Top-k.