TFF for Federated Learning Research: Model and Update Compression

In this tutorial, we use the EMNIST dataset to demonstrate how to enable lossy compression algorithms to reduce communication cost in the Federated Averaging algorithm using the tff.learning.build_federated_averaging_process API and the tensor_encoding API. For more details on the Federated Averaging algorithm, see the paper Communication-Efficient Learning of Deep Networks from Decentralized Data.

Before we start

Before we start, please run the following to make sure that your environment is correctly setup. If you don't see a greeting, please refer to the Installation guide for instructions.

!pip install --quiet --upgrade tensorflow_federated_nightly
!pip install --quiet --upgrade tensorflow-model-optimization
!pip install --quiet --upgrade nest_asyncio

import nest_asyncio

%load_ext tensorboard
import functools

import numpy as np
import tensorflow as tf
import tensorflow_federated as tff

from tensorflow_model_optimization.python.core.internal import tensor_encoding as te

Verify if TFF is working.

def hello_world():
  return 'Hello, World!'

b'Hello, World!'

Preparing the input data

In this section we load and preprocess the EMNIST dataset included in TFF. Please check out Federated Learning for Image Classification tutorial for more details about EMNIST dataset.

# This value only applies to EMNIST dataset, consider choosing appropriate
# values if switching to other datasets.


emnist_train, emnist_test = tff.simulation.datasets.emnist.load_data(

def reshape_emnist_element(element):
  return (tf.expand_dims(element['pixels'], axis=-1), element['label'])

def preprocess_train_dataset(dataset):
  """Preprocessing function for the EMNIST training dataset."""
  return (dataset
          # Shuffle according to the largest client dataset
          # Repeat to do multiple local epochs
          # Batch to a fixed client batch size
          .batch(CLIENT_BATCH_SIZE, drop_remainder=False)
          # Preprocessing step

emnist_train = emnist_train.preprocess(preprocess_train_dataset)

Defining a model

Here we define a keras model based on the orginial FedAvg CNN, and then wrap the keras model in an instance of tff.learning.Model so that it can be consumed by TFF.

Note that we'll need a function which produces a model instead of simply a model directly. In addition, the function cannot just capture a pre-constructed model, it must create the model in the context that it is called. The reason is that TFF is designed to go to devices, and needs control over when resources are constructed so that they can be captured and packaged up.

def create_original_fedavg_cnn_model(only_digits=True):
  """The CNN model used in"""
  data_format = 'channels_last'

  max_pool = functools.partial(
      pool_size=(2, 2),
  conv2d = functools.partial(

  model = tf.keras.models.Sequential([
      tf.keras.layers.InputLayer(input_shape=(28, 28, 1)),
      tf.keras.layers.Dense(512, activation=tf.nn.relu),
      tf.keras.layers.Dense(10 if only_digits else 62),

  return model

# Gets the type information of the input data. TFF is a strongly typed
# functional programming framework, and needs type information about inputs to 
# the model.
input_spec = emnist_train.create_tf_dataset_for_client(

def tff_model_fn():
  keras_model = create_original_fedavg_cnn_model()
  return tff.learning.from_keras_model(

Training the model and outputting training metrics

Now we are ready to construct a Federated Averaging algorithm and train the defined model on EMNIST dataset.

First we need to build a Federated Averaging algorithm using the tff.learning.build_federated_averaging_process API.

federated_averaging = tff.learning.build_federated_averaging_process(
    client_optimizer_fn=lambda: tf.keras.optimizers.SGD(learning_rate=0.02),
    server_optimizer_fn=lambda: tf.keras.optimizers.SGD(learning_rate=1.0))

Now let's run the Federated Averaging algorithm. The execution of a Federated Learning algorithm from the perspective of TFF looks like this:

  1. Initialize the algorithm and get the inital server state. The server state contains necessary information to perform the algorithm. Recall, since TFF is functional, that this state includes both any optimizer state the algorithm uses (e.g. momentum terms) as well as the model parameters themselves--these will be passed as arguments and returned as results from TFF computations.
  2. Execute the algorithm round by round. In each round, a new server state will be returned as the result of each client training the model on its data. Typically in one round:
    1. Server broadcast the model to all the participating clients.
    2. Each client perform work based on the model and its own data.
    3. Server aggregates all the model to produce a sever state which contains a new model.

For more details, please see Custom Federated Algorithms, Part 2: Implementing Federated Averaging tutorial.

Training metrics are written to the Tensorboard directory for displaying after the training.

Load utility functions

def train(federated_averaging_process, num_rounds, num_clients_per_round, summary_writer):
  """Trains the federated averaging process and output metrics."""
  # Create a environment to get communication cost.
  environment = set_sizing_environment()

  # Initialize the Federated Averaging algorithm to get the initial server state.
  state = federated_averaging_process.initialize()

  with summary_writer.as_default():
    for round_num in range(num_rounds):
      # Sample the clients parcitipated in this round.
      sampled_clients = np.random.choice(
      # Create a list of `tf.Dataset` instances from the data of sampled clients.
      sampled_train_data = [
          for client in sampled_clients
      # Round one round of the algorithm based on the server state and client data
      # and output the new state and metrics.
      state, metrics =, sampled_train_data)

      # For more about size_info, please see
      size_info = environment.get_size_info()
      broadcasted_bits = size_info.broadcast_bits[-1]
      aggregated_bits = size_info.aggregate_bits[-1]

      print('round {:2d}, metrics={}, broadcasted_bits={}, aggregated_bits={}'.format(round_num, metrics, format_size(broadcasted_bits), format_size(aggregated_bits)))

      # Add metrics to Tensorboard.
      for name, value in metrics['train'].items():
          tf.summary.scalar(name, value, step=round_num)

      # Add broadcasted and aggregated data size to Tensorboard.
      tf.summary.scalar('cumulative_broadcasted_bits', broadcasted_bits, step=round_num)
      tf.summary.scalar('cumulative_aggregated_bits', aggregated_bits, step=round_num)
# Clean the log directory to avoid conflicts.
!rm -R /tmp/logs/scalars/*

# Set up the log directory and writer for Tensorboard.
logdir = "/tmp/logs/scalars/original/"
summary_writer = tf.summary.create_file_writer(logdir)

train(federated_averaging_process=federated_averaging, num_rounds=10,
      num_clients_per_round=10, summary_writer=summary_writer)
round  0, metrics=<broadcast=<>,aggregation=<>,train=<sparse_categorical_accuracy=0.09433962404727936,loss=2.3181073665618896>>, broadcasted_bits=507.62MiB, aggregated_bits=507.62MiB
round  1, metrics=<broadcast=<>,aggregation=<>,train=<sparse_categorical_accuracy=0.0765027329325676,loss=2.3148586750030518>>, broadcasted_bits=1015.24MiB, aggregated_bits=1015.24MiB
round  2, metrics=<broadcast=<>,aggregation=<>,train=<sparse_categorical_accuracy=0.08872458338737488,loss=2.3089394569396973>>, broadcasted_bits=1.49GiB, aggregated_bits=1.49GiB
round  3, metrics=<broadcast=<>,aggregation=<>,train=<sparse_categorical_accuracy=0.10852713137865067,loss=2.304060220718384>>, broadcasted_bits=1.98GiB, aggregated_bits=1.98GiB
round  4, metrics=<broadcast=<>,aggregation=<>,train=<sparse_categorical_accuracy=0.10818713158369064,loss=2.3026843070983887>>, broadcasted_bits=2.48GiB, aggregated_bits=2.48GiB
round  5, metrics=<broadcast=<>,aggregation=<>,train=<sparse_categorical_accuracy=0.10454985499382019,loss=2.300365447998047>>, broadcasted_bits=2.97GiB, aggregated_bits=2.97GiB
round  6, metrics=<broadcast=<>,aggregation=<>,train=<sparse_categorical_accuracy=0.12841254472732544,loss=2.29765248298645>>, broadcasted_bits=3.47GiB, aggregated_bits=3.47GiB
round  7, metrics=<broadcast=<>,aggregation=<>,train=<sparse_categorical_accuracy=0.14023210108280182,loss=2.2977216243743896>>, broadcasted_bits=3.97GiB, aggregated_bits=3.97GiB
round  8, metrics=<broadcast=<>,aggregation=<>,train=<sparse_categorical_accuracy=0.15060241520404816,loss=2.29490327835083>>, broadcasted_bits=4.46GiB, aggregated_bits=4.46GiB
round  9, metrics=<broadcast=<>,aggregation=<>,train=<sparse_categorical_accuracy=0.13088512420654297,loss=2.2942349910736084>>, broadcasted_bits=4.96GiB, aggregated_bits=4.96GiB

Start TensorBoard with the root log directory specified above to display the training metrics. It can take a few seconds for the data to load. Except for Loss and Accuracy, we also output the amount of broadcasted and aggregated data. Broadcasted data refers to tensors the server pushes to each client while aggregated data refers to tensors each client returns to the server.

%tensorboard --logdir /tmp/logs/scalars/ --port=0

Build a custom broadcast and aggregate function

Now let's implement function to use lossy compression algorithms on broadcasted data and aggregated data using the tensor_encoding API.

First, we define two functions:

  • broadcast_encoder_fn which creates an instance of te.core.SimpleEncoder to encode tensors or variables in server to client communication (Broadcast data).
  • mean_encoder_fn which creates an instance of te.core.GatherEncoder to encode tensors or variables in client to server communicaiton (Aggregation data).

It is important to note that we do not apply a compression method to the entire model at once. Instead, we decide how (and whether) to compress each variable of the model independently. The reason is that generally, small variables such as biases are more sensitive to inaccuracy, and being relatively small, the potential communication savings are also relatively small. Hence we do not compress small variables by default. In this example, we apply uniform quantization to 8 bits (256 buckets) to every variable with more than 10000 elements, and only apply identity to other variables.

def broadcast_encoder_fn(value):
  """Function for building encoded broadcast."""
  spec = tf.TensorSpec(value.shape, value.dtype)
  if value.shape.num_elements() > 10000:
    return te.encoders.as_simple_encoder(
        te.encoders.uniform_quantization(bits=8), spec)
    return te.encoders.as_simple_encoder(te.encoders.identity(), spec)

def mean_encoder_fn(value):
  """Function for building encoded mean."""
  spec = tf.TensorSpec(value.shape, value.dtype)
  if value.shape.num_elements() > 10000:
    return te.encoders.as_gather_encoder(
        te.encoders.uniform_quantization(bits=8), spec)
    return te.encoders.as_gather_encoder(te.encoders.identity(), spec)

TFF provides APIs to convert the encoder function into a format that tff.learning.build_federated_averaging_process API can consume. By using the tff.learning.framework.build_encoded_broadcast_from_model and tff.learning.framework.build_encoded_mean_from_model, we can create two functions that can be passed into broadcast_process and aggregation_process agruments of tff.learning.build_federated_averaging_process to create a Federated Averaging algorithms with a lossy compression algorithm.

encoded_broadcast_process = (
        tff_model_fn, broadcast_encoder_fn))
encoded_mean_process = (
    tff_model_fn, mean_encoder_fn))

federated_averaging_with_compression = tff.learning.build_federated_averaging_process(
    client_optimizer_fn=lambda: tf.keras.optimizers.SGD(learning_rate=0.02),
    server_optimizer_fn=lambda: tf.keras.optimizers.SGD(learning_rate=1.0),

Training the model again

Now let's run the new Federated Averaging algorithm.

logdir_for_compression = "/tmp/logs/scalars/compression/"
summary_writer_for_compression = tf.summary.create_file_writer(

round  0, metrics=<broadcast=<>,aggregation=<>,train=<sparse_categorical_accuracy=0.08722109347581863,loss=2.3216357231140137>>, broadcasted_bits=146.46MiB, aggregated_bits=146.46MiB
round  1, metrics=<broadcast=<>,aggregation=<>,train=<sparse_categorical_accuracy=0.08379272371530533,loss=2.3108291625976562>>, broadcasted_bits=292.92MiB, aggregated_bits=292.92MiB
round  2, metrics=<broadcast=<>,aggregation=<>,train=<sparse_categorical_accuracy=0.08834951370954514,loss=2.3074147701263428>>, broadcasted_bits=439.38MiB, aggregated_bits=439.39MiB
round  3, metrics=<broadcast=<>,aggregation=<>,train=<sparse_categorical_accuracy=0.10467479377985,loss=2.305814027786255>>, broadcasted_bits=585.84MiB, aggregated_bits=585.85MiB
round  4, metrics=<broadcast=<>,aggregation=<>,train=<sparse_categorical_accuracy=0.09853658825159073,loss=2.3012874126434326>>, broadcasted_bits=732.30MiB, aggregated_bits=732.31MiB
round  5, metrics=<broadcast=<>,aggregation=<>,train=<sparse_categorical_accuracy=0.14904330670833588,loss=2.3005223274230957>>, broadcasted_bits=878.77MiB, aggregated_bits=878.77MiB
round  6, metrics=<broadcast=<>,aggregation=<>,train=<sparse_categorical_accuracy=0.13152804970741272,loss=2.2985599040985107>>, broadcasted_bits=1.00GiB, aggregated_bits=1.00GiB
round  7, metrics=<broadcast=<>,aggregation=<>,train=<sparse_categorical_accuracy=0.12392637878656387,loss=2.297102451324463>>, broadcasted_bits=1.14GiB, aggregated_bits=1.14GiB
round  8, metrics=<broadcast=<>,aggregation=<>,train=<sparse_categorical_accuracy=0.13289350271224976,loss=2.2944107055664062>>, broadcasted_bits=1.29GiB, aggregated_bits=1.29GiB
round  9, metrics=<broadcast=<>,aggregation=<>,train=<sparse_categorical_accuracy=0.12661737203598022,loss=2.2971296310424805>>, broadcasted_bits=1.43GiB, aggregated_bits=1.43GiB

Start TensorBoard again to compare the training metrics between two runs.

As you can see in Tensorboard, there is a significant reduction between the orginial and compression curves in the broadcasted_bits and aggregated_bits plots while in the loss and sparse_categorical_accuracy plot the two curves are pretty similiar.

In conclusion, we implemented a compression algorithm that can achieve similar performance as the orignial Federated Averaging algorithm while the comminucation cost is significently reduced.

%tensorboard --logdir /tmp/logs/scalars/ --port=0


To implement a custom compression algorithm and apply it to the training loop, you can:

  1. Implement a new compression algorithm as a subclass of EncodingStageInterface or its more general variant, AdaptiveEncodingStageInterface following this example.
  2. Construct your new Encoder and specialize it for model broadcast or model update averaging.
  3. Use those objects to build the entire training computation.

Potentially valuable open research questions include: non-uniform quantization, lossless compression such as huffman coding, and mechanisms for adapting compression based on the information from previous training rounds.

Recommended reading materials: