Stochastic Gradient Descent (let’s call it SGD from now on, because that feels a bit less repetitive) is an online optimisation algorithm that’s received a lot of attention in recent years for several reasons (and is notable for its applications in optimising neural networks). One of the most attractive things about it is its scalability - because of how it differs from other gradient descent algorithms, SGD lends itself neatly to massively parallel architectures and streaming data. SGD is also a very capable online learning algorithm, too - so it’s quite a useful technique to know.

A recap of Gradient Descent

First off, let’s start with a recap of our good ol’ buddy gradient descent (GD). GD is an iterative optimisation algorithm that takes small steps towards a minimum of some function (notice that I say a minimum instead of the minimum - GD can get caught in local minima if the starting point is poorly chosen or the function is highly nonconvex). It works by evaluating the output of the objective function at a particular set of parameter values - and then taking partial derivatives of the output with respect to each of the parameters. Using these partial derivatives, it’s possible to determine which parameters can be changed to minimise the value of the objective function. Basically, the algorithm finds the direction that most minimises the objective… and then takes a step in that direction. Rinse and repeat until convergence!

A quick peek under the bonnet…

Let’s jump into some of the maths. The GD algorithm’s objective is to minimise some function JJ by determining the optimal values of some parameter set θ\theta. This is done iteratively, so a single iteration (a single update of the parameters θ\theta) would look something like this;

θ=θoldαθE[J(θ;X,y)] \theta = \theta_{old} - \alpha \nabla_{\theta} E\left[ J(\theta; X, y) \right]

The interesting thing to note here is that GD requires computing the expected value of the function J(θ;X,y)J(\theta; X, y) over the whole dataset (i.e. E[J(θ;X,y)]E\left[ J(\theta; X, y) \right]). That is, the objective function is evaluated over the entire dataset and then averaged - and this happens during each iteration of the GD algorithm. This is fine for smaller optimisation tasks, but this can run into significant problems at scale - evaluating a function over a whole dataset can prove intractable.

An example with Linear Regression

Right. Remember linear regression? Minimising mean squared error? In case your memory is a little fuzzy (like mine), let’s look at the objective function for a linear regression (with a grateful nod to Cosma Shalizi’s excellent lecture notes on this topic1).

In this case, our learning problem has nn examples and mm features. Let’s define some things up front, so that our objective function makes sense.

  • Let Xn×m\underset{n \times m}{X} be our design matrix - with rows for each training example and columns for each feature (and an additional column for the bias term)
  • Let yn×1\underset{n \times 1}{y} be a vector holding our target variable - we want to predict yy given the data in our matrix XX.
  • Let θm×1\underset{m \times 1}{\theta} be our parameter vector - an mm-length vector containing the coefficients for each feature and the bias term.

In this case, the objective function over a dataset XX is defined as follows;

J(θ;X,y)=12n(yXθ)T(yXθ) J(\theta; X, y) = \frac{1}{2n} (y - X\theta)^{T}(y - X\theta)

Note that sometimes machine learning practitioners divide this function by a factor of two (i.e. the 12n\frac{1}{2n} at the beginning) so that the derivative is a little bit neater. This isn’t strictly necessary and doesn’t change the overall shape of the function - it’s just a mathematical convenience.

To use gradient descent to optimise J(θ;X,y)J(\theta; X, y), we’d want to begin by setting θ\theta to some arbitrary values. We then evaluate the function’s gradient at that point to get an idea of the slope of the local area. We then focus on taking a number of small steps “downhill” to update θ\theta by nudging the weights in the direction that minimises the objective. By taking enough steps this way, we will eventually arrive at an optimum.

One thing to note here is that the linear regression objective function is quadratic (like the one pictured below). It is therefore convex and has a single global optimum — this isn’t always the case with more complex functions.

A quadratic function (like this) has a single global optimum.

Figuring out which way is downhill

Let’s compute the derivative for this objective function - once we’ve done that, we can start stepping down the hill. This involves a little bit of matrix calculus, so I’ve left some extra steps in so that it’s clear what’s happening. Both Cosma Shalizi’s lecture notes and the Matrix Cookbook2 are really handy here.

θJ(θ;X,y)=θ12n(yXθ)(yXθ)=12nθ(yTy2θTXTy+θTXTXθ)=12n(2XTy+θθTXTXθ))=12n(2XTy+2XTXθ)=1n(XTy+XTXθ)=1n(XTXθXTy) \begin{aligned} \frac{\partial}{\partial \theta} J(\theta; X, y) & = \frac{\partial}{\partial \theta} \frac{1}{2n} (y - X\theta)(y - X\theta) \\ & = \frac{1}{2n} \frac{\partial}{\partial \theta} \big( y^{T}y - 2\theta^{T}X^{T}y + \theta^{T}X^{T}X\theta \big) \\ & = \frac{1}{2n} \big(-2X^{T}y + \frac{\partial}{\partial \theta} \theta^{T}X^{T}X\theta) \big) \\ & = \frac{1}{2n} \big(-2X^{T}y + 2X^{T}X\theta \big) \\ & = \frac{1}{n} \big(-X^{T}y + X^{T}X\theta \big) \\ & = \frac{1}{n} \big(X^{T}X\theta - X^{T}y \big) \end{aligned}

Putting it all together

Now that the derivative of this function is known, we can plop it directly into the gradient descent algorithm. The objective function that we determined earlier computes the expected value over the entire dataset, so we can simply drop it in place. A single round of parameter updates would look like this:

θ=θα(1nXTXθXTy) \theta = \theta - \alpha \big( \frac{1}{n} X^{T}X\theta - X^{T}y \big)

I applied this parameter update to the Boston housing dataset3 and then ran GD for 200 iterations with α=0.05\alpha = 0.05. Below is a plot showing the overall error on each iteration - you can see the error begin to converge to a stable state after about 25 iterations;

Error convergence after 200 iterations on the Boston housing

Now that we know GD works on our linear regression problem, let’s head back over to SGD-land and start tinkering with that instead.

Now… back to SGD!

Right. Now that we’ve recapped bog-standard gradient descent, let’s dive right into the interesting stuff. Luckily, you now know everything you need to understand SGD because it’s only a slight modification to the standard algorithm. The update procedure for SGD is almost exactly the same as for standard GD - except we don’t take the expected value of the objective function over the entire dataset, we simply compute it for a single row4. That is, we just slice out a single row of our training data, and use that in a single iteration of the SGD algorithm.

θ=θoldαθJ(θ;X(i),y(i)) \theta = \theta_{old} - \alpha \nabla_{\theta} J(\theta; X_{(i)}, y_{(i)})

Of course, as we’re only computing the gradient based on a single example at a time, we’re going to need far more iterations to converge upon a sensible result. It’s quite a natural way to think about presenting data to SGD in terms of “epochs” - essentially presenting as many examples as were in the original dataset. So, in this case, 200 epochs is approximately equal to 200 passes of the gradient descent algorithm above.

Error convergence after 200 SGD "epochs" (approx. 10,000 iterations) on the
Boston housing dataset

After 200 epochs (i.e. seeing the entire dataset 200 times), the MSE converges to a reasonably stable figure - similar to the unmodified gradient descent algorithm above.

However - as you may expect, updating the parameter vector based on a single training example is going to play havoc with the initial variance in the training error (and the gradient of the parameter vector). This has some significant implications for setting the learning rate - because the variance is so high, a considerably smaller learning rate is required.

During the initial few iterations of SGD, both the parameter vector and the MSE will initially have far greater variance as the parameters are being updated directly with each training example. Over time, as the number of training examples analysed grows larger, the influence of each individual example diminishes and the parameters will start to converge to a steady state.

To demonstrate the high variance in SGD, here’s a comparison of the error rate convergence during the first 50 iterations of standard GD (left) and SGD (right) - note that each GD iteration analyses the entire dataset, while each SGD iteration only analyses a single example (this is why standard GD seems to converge much faster in this plot).

Difference between error convergence on first 50 iterations of GD and

Disadvantages and traps for SGD

Slow convergence in ravines and valleys

A downside of SGD is that it can struggle on certain types of topographic features, such as functions in “ravines” - a long shallow path surrounded by steep walls. An unfortunate sequence of training examples can cause SGD to update the parameters θ\theta such that the objective essentially “bounces” off the walls of the ravine - that is, it oscillates between the steep sections but never arrives at the local minimum in the middle.

Typically this is addressed by modifying the algorithm to take into account “momentum”. That is, once the parameters start to converge in a particular direction, a certain amount of “force” is required to overcome that momentum. This helps overcome some of the effects of noisy data by applying a kind of smoothing effect to the parameters, and effectively dampens the oscillations that can occur in ravines and other challenging topographical features.

The implementation of momentum is simple enough. We keep track of a vector vv which contains information about the algorithm’s current momentum - and we use a parameter γ\[0,1\)\gamma \in \[0, 1\) which controls the exponential weighting of past values in the momentum vector vv. Then, instead of directly updating the parameters with the gradient vector, we update θ\theta by subtracting our momentum-augmented vector vv instead.

v=γv+αθJ(θ;X(i),y(i))θ=θv \begin{aligned} v &= \gamma v + \alpha \nabla_{\theta}J(\theta; X_{(i)}, y_{(i)}) \\ \theta &= \theta - v \end{aligned}

Choosing the correct learning rate

The sensitivity of SGD to individual training examples also means that it’s much more important to choosing a sensible learning rate, α\alpha. Setting α\alpha too high means the algorithm won’t converge smoothly (or that it might oscillate between several sub-optimal states), and setting it too low means that it’ll take far longer to converge than necessary (if ever!).

There are several heuristic approaches for determining α\alpha that seem to be relatively common in practice. One such example is Leon Bottou’s heuristic5 (used in the SGD implementation in sklearn), while several other learning schedules are mentioned in the Stanford Deep Learning materials (this includes approaches like reducing the learning rate as the algorithm begins to converge, or using an optimisation technique like simulated annealing to periodically choose a better learning rate).


Something that caught me out when working on my own implementation of this algorithm was poorly scaled input. It turns out that one of the most important things to do before using SGD is to scale your input data to sensible values. Scaling to zero mean and unit variance (typically referred to as “standardisation” in the machine learning literature) is as straightforward as Xscaled=(XXˉ)σX2X_{scaled} = \frac{(X - \bar{X})}{\sigma_X^{2}}.

Using gradient descent algorithms with unscaled data can cause highly suboptimal results - in the best case scenario, it’ll just cause slow convergence; in the worst case, the gradient will become unmanageable due to numerical precision errors (i.e. the “exploding gradient” or “vanishing gradient”) - which stops the algorithm converging at all.

Dataset ordering

Finally, the ordering of the dataset can bias the way that the gradients develop as SGD is exposed to more of the training data. If there’s some meaningful ordering to the data (e.g. think of horse racing results where race winners are listed in the first row for each race). If this happens over an appreciable number of training examples, then this can cause the algorithm to choose vastly sub-optimal parameter values. There are several ways around this, but the easiest solution is simply to shuffle the dataset before using SGD.

The solution? Mini-batch gradient descent

Mini-batch gradient descent (MBGD)uses, surprisingly enough, small bundles of training examples to optimise the parameters in batches. This is actually quite a neat formulation, as it addresses some of the problems of both vanilla GD and SGD outlined above. Firstly, performing optimisation in small batches of training examples allows programmers to use a vectorised implementation of gradient descent - which is considerably faster than the iterative approach in SGD. However, MBGD is still very easy to parallelise as it will typically use a relatively small batch size (e.g. it’s perfectly feasible to use a batch size of 100 to 200 examples).

Secondly, because training happens in batches (even if they’re only small ones) this has the handy side-effect of substantially reducing the variance between iterative applications of the algorithm. Note that this won’t remove all of the variance between iterations - but it will certainly help. Again, a single parameter update with MBGD would look something like this;

θ=θoldα1bθJ(θ;X[i,i+b],y[i,i+b]) \theta = \theta_{old} - \alpha \frac{1}{b} \nabla_{\theta} J(\theta; X_{[i, i + b]}, y_{[i, i + b]})

Note that the batch size here is denoted by bb - and the indices on XX and yy simply indicate a slice of the dataset (i.e. a mini-batch).

In summary

So, that’s it - SGD in a nutshell. We looked at gradient descent from first principles, and applied it to a standard least-squares linear regression problem (which we also derived from scratch). We then implemented stochastic gradient descent for comparison, and achieved similar results (but with some small trade-offs). We looked at some caveats and traps that you should keep in mind when implementing SGD yourself, and finally, we proposed mini-batch GD as a potential best-of-both-worlds compromise between vanilla GD and SGD. Check out the further reading below for more information and further reading. Until next time!

References and further reading