Block coordinate descent (BCD) methods are widely-used for large-scale numerical optimization because of their cheap iteration costs, low memory requirements, amenability to parallelization, and ability to exploit problem structure. Three main algorithmic choices influence the performance of BCD methods: the block partitioning strategy, the block selection rule, and the block update rule. In this paper we explore all three of these building blocks and propose variations for each that can lead to significantly faster BCD methods. We (i) propose new greedy block-selection strategies that guarantee more progress per iteration than the Gauss-Southwell rule; (ii) explore practical issues like how to implement the new rules when using "variable" blocks; (iii) explore the use of message-passing to compute matrix or Newton updates efficiently on huge blocks for problems with a sparse dependency between variables; and (iv) consider optimal active manifold identification, which leads to bounds on the "active-set complexity" of BCD methods and leads to superlinear convergence for certain problems with sparse solutions (and in some cases finite termination at an optimal solution). We support all of our findings with numerical results for the classic machine learning problems of least squares, logistic regression, multi-class logistic regression, label propagation, and L1-regularization.
preprint, December 2017