Federated learning (FL) is an emerging, privacy-preserving machine learning paradigm, drawing tremendous attention in both academia and industry. A unique characteristic of FL is heterogeneity, which resides in the various hardware specifications and dynamic states across the participating devices. Theoretically, heterogeneity can exert a huge influence on the FL training process, e.g., causing a device unavailable for training or unable to upload its model updates. Unfortunately, such impacts have never been systematically studied and quantified in existing FL literature. In this paper, we carry out the first empirical study to characterize the impacts of heterogeneity in FL. We collect large-scale data from 136k smartphones that can faithfully reflect heterogeneity in real-world settings. We also build a heterogeneity-aware FL platform that complies with the standard FL protocol but with heterogeneity consideration. Based on the data and platform, we conduct extensive experiments to compare the performance of state-of-the-art FL algorithms under heterogeneity-aware and heterogeneity-unaware settings. Results show that heterogeneity causes non-trivial performance degradation in FL, including up to 9.2% accuracy drop, 2.32x lengthened training time, and undermined fairness. Furthermore, we perform a cause analysis and find that device failure and participation bias are two potential root causes for performance degradation. Our study has insightful implications for FL practitioners. On one hand, our findings suggest FL algorithm designers consider necessary heterogeneity during the evaluation. On the other hand, our findings urge system providers to design specific mechanisms to mitigate the impacts of heterogeneity.

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