A first look at federated learning with TensorFlow

Privacy & Security TensorFlow/Keras

The term “federated learning” was coined to describe a form of distributed model training where the data remains on client devices, i.e., is never shipped to the coordinating server. In this post, we introduce central concepts and run first experiments with TensorFlow Federated, using R.

Sigrid Keydana (RStudio)https://www.rstudio.com/

Here, stereotypically, is the process of applied deep learning: Gather/get data; iteratively train and evaluate; deploy. Repeat (or have it all automated as a continuous workflow). We often discuss training and evaluation; deployment matters to varying degrees, depending on the circumstances. But the data often is just assumed to be there: All together, in one place (on your laptop; on a central server; in some cluster in the cloud.) In real life though, data could be all over the world: on smartphones for example, or on IoT devices. There are a lot of reasons why we don’t want to ship all that data to some central location: Privacy, of course (why should some third party get to know about what you texted your friend?); but also, sheer mass (and this latter aspect is bound to become more influential all the time).

A solution is that data on client devices stays on client devices, yet participates in training a global model. How? In so-called federated learning(McMahan et al. 2016), there is a central coordinator (“server”), as well as a potentially huge number of clients (e.g., phones) who participate in learning on an “as-fits” basis: e.g., if plugged in and on a high-speed connection. Whenever they’re ready to train, clients are passed the current model weights, and perform some number of training iterations on their own data. They then send back gradient information to the server (more on that soon), whose job is to update the weights accordingly. Federated learning is not the only conceivable protocol to jointly train a deep learning model while keeping the data private: A fully decentralized alternative could be gossip learning (Blot et al. 2016), following the gossip protocol . As of today, however, I am not aware of existing implementations in any of the major deep learning frameworks.

In fact, even TensorFlow Federated (TFF), the library used in this post, was officially introduced just about a year ago. Meaning, all this is pretty new technology, somewhere inbetween proof-of-concept state and production readiness. So, let’s set expectations as to what you might get out of this post.

What to expect from this post

We start with quick glance at federated learning in the context of privacy overall. Subsequently, we introduce, by example, some of TFF’s basic building blocks. Finally, we show a complete image classification example using Keras – from R.

While this sounds like “business as usual,” it’s not – or not quite. With no R package existing, as of this writing, that would wrap TFF, we’re accessing its functionality using $-syntax – not in itself a big problem. But there’s something else.

TFF, while providing a Python API, itself is not written in Python. Instead, it is an internal language designed specifically for serializability and distributed computation. One of the consequences is that TensorFlow (that is: TF as opposed to TFF) code has to be wrapped in calls to tf.function, triggering static-graph construction. However, as I write this, the TFF documentation cautions: “Currently, TensorFlow does not fully support serializing and deserializing eager-mode TensorFlow.” Now when we call TFF from R, we add another layer of complexity, and are more likely to run into corner cases.

Therefore, at the current stage, when using TFF from R it’s advisable to play around with high-level functionality – using Keras models – instead of, e.g., translating to R the low-level functionality shown in the second TFF Core tutorial.

One final remark before we get started: As of this writing, there is no documentation on how to actually run federated training on “real clients.” There is, however, a document that describes how to run TFF on Google Kubernetes Engine, and deployment-related documentation is visibly and steadily growing.)

That said, now how does federated learning relate to privacy, and how does it look in TFF?

Federated learning in context

In federated learning, client data never leaves the device. So in an immediate sense, computations are private. However, gradient updates are sent to a central server, and this is where privacy guarantees may be violated. In some cases, it may be easy to reconstruct the actual data from the gradients – in an NLP task, for example, when the vocabulary is known on the server, and gradient updates are sent for small pieces of text.

This may sound like a special case, but general methods have been demonstrated that work regardless of circumstances. For example, Zhu et al. (Zhu, Liu, and Han 2019) use a “generative” approach, with the server starting from randomly generated fake data (resulting in fake gradients) and then, iteratively updating that data to obtain gradients more and more like the real ones – at which point the real data has been reconstructed.

Comparable attacks would not be feasible were gradients not sent in clear text. However, the server needs to actually use them to update the model – so it must be able to “see” them, right? As hopeless as this sounds, there are ways out of the dilemma. For example, homomorphic encryption, a technique that enables computation on encrypted data. Or secure multi-party aggregation, often achieved through secret sharing, where individual pieces of data (e.g.: individual salaries) are split up into “shares,” exchanged and combined with random data in various ways, until finally the desired global result (e.g.: mean salary) is computed. (These are extremely fascinating topics that unfortunately, by far surpass the scope of this post.)

Now, with the server prevented from actually “seeing” the gradients, a problem still remains. The model – especially a high-capacity one, with many parameters – could still memorize individual training data. Here is where differential privacy comes into play. In differential privacy, noise is added to the gradients to decouple them from actual training examples. (This post gives an introduction to differential privacy with TensorFlow, from R.)

As of this writing, TFF’s federal averaging mechanism (McMahan et al. 2016) does not yet include these additional privacy-preserving techniques. But research papers exist that outline algorithms for integrating both secure aggregation (Bonawitz et al. 2016) and differential privacy (McMahan et al. 2017) .

Client-side and server-side computations

Like we said above, at this point it is advisable to mainly stick with high-level computations using TFF from R. (Presumably that is what we’d be interested in in many cases, anyway.) But it’s instructive to look at a few building blocks from a high-level, functional point of view.

In federated learning, model training happens on the clients. Clients each compute their local gradients, as well as local metrics. The server, on the other hand, calculates global gradient updates, as well as global metrics.

Let’s say the metric is accuracy. Then clients and server both compute averages: local averages and a global average, respectively. All the server will need to know to determine the global averages are the local ones and the respective sample sizes.

Let’s see how TFF would calculate a simple average.

The code in this post was run with the current TensorFlow release 2.1 and TFF version 0.13.1. We use reticulate to install and import TFF.



tff <- import("tensorflow_federated")

First, we need every client to be able to compute their own local averages.

Here is a function that reduces a list of values to their sum and count, both at the same time, and then returns their quotient.

The function contains only TensorFlow operations, not computations described in R directly; if there were any, they would have to be wrapped in calls to tf_function, calling for construction of a static graph. (The same would apply to raw (non-TF) Python code.)

Now, this function will still have to be wrapped (we’re getting to that in an instant), as TFF expects functions that make use of TF operations to be decorated by calls to tff$tf_computation. Before we do that, one comment on the use of dataset_reduce: Inside tff$tf_computation, the data that is passed in behaves like a dataset, so we can perform tfdatasets operations like dataset_map, dataset_filter etc. on it.

get_local_temperature_average <- function(local_temperatures) {
  sum_and_count <- local_temperatures %>% 
    dataset_reduce(tuple(0, 0), function(x, y) tuple(x[[1]] + y, x[[2]] + 1))
  sum_and_count[[1]] / tf$cast(sum_and_count[[2]], tf$float32)

Next is the call to tff$tf_computation we already alluded to, wrapping get_local_temperature_average. We also need to indicate the argument’s TFF-level type. (In the context of this post, TFF datatypes are definitely out-of-scope, but the TFF documentation has lots of detailed information in that regard. All we need to know right now is that we will be able to pass the data as a list.)

get_local_temperature_average <- tff$tf_computation(get_local_temperature_average, tff$SequenceType(tf$float32))

Let’s test this function:

get_local_temperature_average(list(1, 2, 3))
[1] 2

So that’s a local average, but we originally set out to compute a global one. Time to move on to server side (code-wise).

Non-local computations are called federated (not too surprisingly). Individual operations start with federated_; and these have to be wrapped in tff$federated_computation:

get_global_temperature_average <- function(sensor_readings) {
  tff$federated_mean(tff$federated_map(get_local_temperature_average, sensor_readings))

get_global_temperature_average <- tff$federated_computation(
  get_global_temperature_average, tff$FederatedType(tff$SequenceType(tf$float32), tff$CLIENTS))

Calling this on a list of lists – each sub-list presumedly representing client data – will display the global (non-weighted) average:

get_global_temperature_average(list(list(1, 1, 1), list(13)))
[1] 7

Now that we’ve gotten a bit of a feeling for “low-level TFF,” let’s train a Keras model the federated way.

Federated Keras

The setup for this example looks a bit more Pythonian1 than usual. We need the collections module from Python to make use of OrderedDicts, and we want them to be passed to Python without intermediate conversion to R – that’s why we import the module with convert set to FALSE.


tff <- import("tensorflow_federated")
collections <- import("collections", convert = FALSE)
np <- import("numpy")

For this example, we use Kuzushiji-MNIST (Clanuwat et al. 2018), which may conveniently be obtained through tfds, the R wrapper for TensorFlow Datasets.

The 10 classes of Kuzushiji-MNIST, with the first column showing each character's modern hiragana counterpart. From: https://github.com/rois-codh/kmnist

TensorFlow datasets come as – well – datasets, which normally would be just fine; here however, we want to simulate different clients each with their own data. The following code splits up the dataset into ten arbitrary – sequential, for convenience – ranges and, for each range (that is: client), creates a list of OrderedDicts that have the images as their x, and the labels as their y component:

n_train <- 60000
n_test <- 10000

s <- seq(0, 90, by = 10)
train_ranges <- paste0("train[", s, "%:", s + 10, "%]") %>% as.list()
train_splits <- purrr::map(train_ranges, function(r) tfds_load("kmnist", split = r))

test_ranges <- paste0("test[", s, "%:", s + 10, "%]") %>% as.list()
test_splits <- purrr::map(test_ranges, function(r) tfds_load("kmnist", split = r))

batch_size <- 100

create_client_dataset <- function(source, n_total, batch_size) {
  iter <- as_iterator(source %>% dataset_batch(batch_size))
  output_sequence <- vector(mode = "list", length = n_total/10/batch_size)
  i <- 1
  while (TRUE) {
    item <- iter_next(iter)
    if (is.null(item)) break
    x <- tf$reshape(tf$cast(item$image, tf$float32), list(100L,784L))/255
    y <- item$label
    output_sequence[[i]] <-
      collections$OrderedDict("x" = np_array(x$numpy(), np$float32), "y" = y$numpy())
     i <- i + 1

federated_train_data <- purrr::map(
  train_splits, function(split) create_client_dataset(split, n_train, batch_size))

As a quick check, the following are the labels for the first batch of images for client 5:

> [0. 9. 8. 3. 1. 6. 2. 8. 8. 2. 5. 7. 1. 6. 1. 0. 3. 8. 5. 0. 5. 6. 6. 5.
 2. 9. 5. 0. 3. 1. 0. 0. 6. 3. 6. 8. 2. 8. 9. 8. 5. 2. 9. 0. 2. 8. 7. 9.
 2. 5. 1. 7. 1. 9. 1. 6. 0. 8. 6. 0. 5. 1. 3. 5. 4. 5. 3. 1. 3. 5. 3. 1.
 0. 2. 7. 9. 6. 2. 8. 8. 4. 9. 4. 2. 9. 5. 7. 6. 5. 2. 0. 3. 4. 7. 8. 1.
 8. 2. 7. 9.]

The model is a simple, one-layer sequential Keras model. For TFF to have full control over graph construction, it has to be defined inside a function. The blueprint for creation is passed to tff$learning$from_keras_model, together with a “dummy” batch that exemplifies how the training data will look:

sample_batch = federated_train_data[[5]][[1]]

create_keras_model <- function() {
  keras_model_sequential() %>%
    layer_dense(input_shape = 784,
                units = 10,
                kernel_initializer = "zeros",
                activation = "softmax") 

model_fn <- function() {
  keras_model <- create_keras_model()
    dummy_batch = sample_batch,
    loss = tf$keras$losses$SparseCategoricalCrossentropy(),
    metrics = list(tf$keras$metrics$SparseCategoricalAccuracy()))

Training is a stateful process that keeps updating model weights (and if applicable, optimizer states). It is created via tff$learning$build_federated_averaging_process

iterative_process <- tff$learning$build_federated_averaging_process(
  client_optimizer_fn = function() tf$keras$optimizers$SGD(learning_rate = 0.02),
  server_optimizer_fn = function() tf$keras$optimizers$SGD(learning_rate = 1.0))

… and on initialization, produces a starting state:

state <- iterative_process$initialize()
<model=<trainable=<[[0. 0. 0. ... 0. 0. 0.]
 [0. 0. 0. ... 0. 0. 0.]
 [0. 0. 0. ... 0. 0. 0.]
 [0. 0. 0. ... 0. 0. 0.]
 [0. 0. 0. ... 0. 0. 0.]
 [0. 0. 0. ... 0. 0. 0.]],[0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0.]>,non_trainable=<>>,optimizer_state=<0>,delta_aggregate_state=<>,model_broadcast_state=<>>

Thus before training, all the state does is reflect our zero-initialized model weights.

Now, state transitions are accomplished via calls to next(). After one round of training, the state then comprises the “state proper” (weights, optimizer parameters …) as well as the current training metrics:

state_and_metrics <- iterative_process$`next`(state, federated_train_data)

state <- state_and_metrics[0]
<model=<trainable=<[[ 9.9695253e-06 -8.5083229e-05 -8.9266898e-05 ... -7.7834651e-05
  -9.4819807e-05  3.4227365e-04]
 [-5.4778640e-05 -1.5390900e-04 -1.7912561e-04 ... -1.4122366e-04
  -2.4614178e-04  7.7663612e-04]
 [-1.9177950e-04 -9.0706220e-05 -2.9841764e-04 ... -2.2249141e-04
  -4.1685964e-04  1.1348884e-03]
 [-1.3832574e-03 -5.3664664e-04 -3.6622395e-04 ... -9.0854493e-04
   4.9618416e-04  2.6899918e-03]
 [-7.7253254e-04 -2.4583895e-04 -8.3220737e-05 ... -4.5274393e-04
   2.6396243e-04  1.7454443e-03]
 [-2.4157032e-04 -1.3836231e-05  5.0371520e-05 ... -1.0652864e-04
   1.5947431e-04  4.5250656e-04]],[-0.01264258  0.00974309  0.00814162  0.00846065 -0.0162328   0.01627758
 -0.00445857 -0.01607843  0.00563046  0.00115899]>,non_trainable=<>>,optimizer_state=<1>,delta_aggregate_state=<>,model_broadcast_state=<>>
metrics <- state_and_metrics[1]

Let’s train for a few more epochs, keeping track of accuracy:

num_rounds <- 20

for (round_num in (2:num_rounds)) {
  state_and_metrics <- iterative_process$`next`(state, federated_train_data)
  state <- state_and_metrics[0]
  metrics <- state_and_metrics[1]
  cat("round: ", round_num, "  accuracy: ", round(metrics$sparse_categorical_accuracy, 4), "\n")
round:  2    accuracy:  0.6949 
round:  3    accuracy:  0.7132 
round:  4    accuracy:  0.7231 
round:  5    accuracy:  0.7319 
round:  6    accuracy:  0.7404 
round:  7    accuracy:  0.7484 
round:  8    accuracy:  0.7557 
round:  9    accuracy:  0.7617 
round:  10   accuracy:  0.7661 
round:  11   accuracy:  0.7695 
round:  12   accuracy:  0.7728 
round:  13   accuracy:  0.7764 
round:  14   accuracy:  0.7788 
round:  15   accuracy:  0.7814 
round:  16   accuracy:  0.7836 
round:  17   accuracy:  0.7855 
round:  18   accuracy:  0.7872 
round:  19   accuracy:  0.7885 
round:  20   accuracy:  0.7902 

Training accuracy is increasing continuously. These values represent averages of local accuracy measurements, so in the real world, they might well be overly optimistic (with each client overfitting on their respective data). So supplementing federated training, a federated evaluation process would need to be built in order to get a realistic view on performance. This is a topic to come back to when more related TFF documentation is available.


We hope you’ve enjoyed this first introduction to TFF using R. Certainly at this time, it is too early for use in production; and for application in research (e.g., adversarial attacks on federated learning) familiarity with “lowish”-level implementation code is required – regardless whether you use R or Python.

However, judging from activity on GitHub, TFF is under very active development right now (including new documentation being added!), so we’re looking forward to what’s to come. In the meantime, it’s never too early to start learning the concepts…

Thanks for reading!

Blot, Michael, David Picard, Matthieu Cord, and Nicolas Thome. 2016. “Gossip Training for Deep Learning.” CoRR abs/1611.09726. http://arxiv.org/abs/1611.09726.
Bonawitz, Keith, Vladimir Ivanov, Ben Kreuter, Antonio Marcedone, H. Brendan McMahan, Sarvar Patel, Daniel Ramage, Aaron Segal, and Karn Seth. 2016. “Practical Secure Aggregation for Federated Learning on User-Held Data.” CoRR abs/1611.04482. http://arxiv.org/abs/1611.04482.
Clanuwat, Tarin, Mikel Bober-Irizar, Asanobu Kitamoto, Alex Lamb, Kazuaki Yamamoto, and David Ha. 2018. “Deep Learning for Classical Japanese Literature.” December 3, 2018. https://arxiv.org/abs/cs.CV/1812.01718.
McMahan, H. Brendan, Eider Moore, Daniel Ramage, and Blaise Agüera y Arcas. 2016. “Federated Learning of Deep Networks Using Model Averaging.” CoRR abs/1602.05629. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.05629.
McMahan, H. Brendan, Daniel Ramage, Kunal Talwar, and Li Zhang. 2017. “Learning Differentially Private Language Models Without Losing Accuracy.” CoRR abs/1710.06963. http://arxiv.org/abs/1710.06963.
Zhu, Ligeng, Zhijian Liu, and Song Han. 2019. “Deep Leakage from Gradients.” CoRR abs/1906.08935. http://arxiv.org/abs/1906.08935.

  1. not Pythonic :-)↩︎



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For attribution, please cite this work as

Keydana (2020, April 8). Posit AI Blog: A first look at federated learning with TensorFlow. Retrieved from https://blogs.rstudio.com/tensorflow/posts/2020-04-08-tf-federated-intro/

BibTeX citation

  author = {Keydana, Sigrid},
  title = {Posit AI Blog: A first look at federated learning with TensorFlow},
  url = {https://blogs.rstudio.com/tensorflow/posts/2020-04-08-tf-federated-intro/},
  year = {2020}