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Distributed Training in TensorFlow

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tf.distribute.Strategy is a TensorFlow API to distribute training across multiple GPUs, multiple machines or TPUs. Using this API, users can distribute their existing models and training code with minimal code changes.

tf.distribute.Strategy has been designed with these key goals in mind: * Easy to use and support multiple user segments, including researchers, ML engineers, etc. * Provide good performance out of the box. * Easy switching between strategies.

tf.distribute.Strategy can be used with TensorFlow's high level APIs, tf.keras and tf.estimator, with just a couple of lines of code change. It also provides an API that can be used to distribute custom training loops (and in general any computation using TensorFlow). In TensorFlow 2.0, users can execute their programs eagerly, or in a graph using tf.function. tf.distribute.Strategy intends to support both these modes of execution. Note that we may talk about training most of the time in this guide, but this API can also be used for distributing evaluation and prediction on different platforms.

As you will see in a bit, very few changes are needed to use tf.distribute.Strategy with your code. This is because we have changed the underlying components of TensorFlow to become strategy-aware. This includes variables, layers, models, optimizers, metrics, summaries, and checkpoints.

In this guide, we will talk about various types of strategies and how one can use them in a different situations.

# Import TensorFlow
from __future__ import absolute_import, division, print_function
!pip install -q tensorflow==2.0.0-alpha0
import tensorflow as tf

Types of strategies

tf.distribute.Strategy intends to cover a number of use cases along different axes. Some of these combinations are currently supported and others will be added in the future. Some of these axes are: * Syncronous vs asynchronous training: These are two common ways of distributing training with data parallelism. In sync training, all workers train over different slices of input data in sync, and aggregating gradients at each step. In async training, all workers are independently training over the input data and updating variables asynchronously. Typically sync training is supported via all-reduce and async through parameter server architecture. * Hardware platform: Users may want to scale their training onto multiple GPUs on one machine, or multiple machines in a network (with 0 or more GPUs each), or on Cloud TPUs.

In order to support these use cases, we have 4 strategies available. In the next section we will talk about which of these are supported in which scenarios in TF 2.0-alpha at this time.


tf.distribute.MirroredStrategy support synchronous distributed training on multiple GPUs on one machine. It creates one replica per GPU device. Each variable in the model is mirrored across all the replicas. Together, these variables form a single conceptual variable called MirroredVariable. These variables are kept in sync with each other by applying identical updates.

Efficient all-reduce algorithms are used to communicate the variable updates across the devices. All-reduce aggregates tensors across all the devices by adding them up, and makes them available on each device. It’s a fused algorithm that is very efficient and can reduce the overhead of synchronization significantly. There are many all-reduce algorithms and implementations available, depending on the type of communication available between devices. By default, it uses NVIDIA NCCL as the all-reduce implementation. The user can also choose between a few other options we provide, or write their own.

Here is the simplest way of creating MirroredStrategy:

mirrored_strategy = tf.distribute.MirroredStrategy()
WARNING: Logging before flag parsing goes to stderr.
W0307 18:06:27.818398 139925123892992] Not all devices in `tf.distribute.Strategy` are visible to TensorFlow.

This will create a MirroredStrategy instance which will use all the GPUs that are visible to TensorFlow, and use NCCL as the cross device communication.

If you wish to use only some of the GPUs on your machine, you can do so like this:

mirrored_strategy = tf.distribute.MirroredStrategy(devices=["/gpu:0", "/gpu:1"])
W0307 18:06:27.835354 139925123892992] Not all devices in `tf.distribute.Strategy` are visible to TensorFlow.

If you wish to override the cross device communication, you can do so using the cross_device_ops argument by supplying an instance of tf.distribute.CrossDeviceOps. Currently we provide tf.distribute.HierarchicalCopyAllReduce and tf.distribute.ReductionToOneDevice as 2 other options other than tf.distribute.NcclAllReduce which is the default.

mirrored_strategy = tf.distribute.MirroredStrategy(
W0307 18:06:27.850420 139925123892992] Not all devices in `tf.distribute.Strategy` are visible to TensorFlow.


tf.distribute.experimental.MultiWorkerMirroredStrategy is very similar to MirroredStrategy. It implements synchronous distributed training across multiple workers, each with potentially multiple GPUs. Similar to MirroredStrategy, it creates copies of all variables in the model on each device across all workers.

It uses CollectiveOps as the multi-worker all-reduce communication method used to keep variables in sync. A collective op is a single op in the TensorFlow graph which can automatically choose an all-reduce algorithm in the TensorFlow runtime according to hardware, network topology and tensor sizes.

It also implements additional performance optimizations. For example, it includes a static optimization that converts multiple all-reductions on small tensors into fewer all-reductions on larger tensors. In addition, we are designing it to have a plugin architecture - so that in the future, users will be able to plugin algorithms that are better tuned for their hardware. Note that collective ops also implement other collective operations such as broadcast and all-gather.

Here is the simplest way of creating MultiWorkerMirroredStrategy:

multiworker_strategy = tf.distribute.experimental.MultiWorkerMirroredStrategy()
W0307 18:06:27.865478 139925123892992] Not all devices in `tf.distribute.Strategy` are visible to TensorFlow.

MultiWorkerMirroredStrategy currently allows you to choose between two different implementations of collective ops. CollectiveCommunication.RING implements ring-based collectives using gRPC as the communication layer. CollectiveCommunication.NCCL uses Nvidia's NCCL to implement collectives. CollectiveCommunication.AUTO defers the choice to the runtime. The best choice of collective implementation depends upon the number and kind of GPUs, and the network interconnect in the cluster. You can specify them like so:

multiworker_strategy = tf.distribute.experimental.MultiWorkerMirroredStrategy(
W0307 18:06:27.882048 139925123892992] Not all devices in `tf.distribute.Strategy` are visible to TensorFlow.

One of the key differences to get multi worker training going, as compared to multi-GPU training, is the multi-worker setup. "TF_CONFIG" environment variable is the standard way in TensorFlow to specify the cluster configuration to each worker that is part of the cluster. See section on "TF_CONFIG" below for more details on how this can be done.


tf.distribute.experimental.TPUStrategy lets users run their TensorFlow training on Tensor Processing Units (TPUs). TPUs are Google's specialized ASICs designed to dramatically accelerate machine learning workloads. They are available on Google Colab, the TensorFlow Research Cloud and Google Compute Engine.

In terms of distributed training architecture, TPUStrategy is the same MirroredStrategy - it implements synchronous distributed training. TPUs provide their own implementation of efficient all-reduce and other collective operations across multiple TPU cores, which are used in TPUStrategy.

Here is how you would instantiate TPUStrategy. Note: To run this code in Colab, you should select TPU as the Colab runtime. See Using TPUs guide for a runnable version.

resolver = tf.distribute.cluster_resolver.TPUClusterResolver()
tpu_strategy = tf.distribute.experimental.TPUStrategy(resolver)

TPUClusterResolver instance helps locate the TPUs. In Colab, you don't need to specify any arguments to it. If you want to use this for Cloud TPUs, you will need to specify the name of your TPU resource in tpu argument. We also need to initialize the tpu system explicitly at the start of the program. This is required before TPUs can be used for computation and should ideally be done at the beginning because it also wipes out the TPU memory so all state will be lost.


tf.distribute.experimental.ParameterServerStrategy supports parameter servers training. It can be used either for multi-GPU synchronous local training or asynchronous multi-machine training. When used to train locally on one machine, variables are not mirrored, instead they are placed on the CPU and operations are replicated across all local GPUs. In a multi-machine setting, some machines are designated as workers and some as parameter servers. Each variable of the model is placed on one parameter server. Computation is replicated across all GPUs of the all the workers.

In terms of code, it looks similar to other strategies:

ps_strategy = tf.distribute.experimental.ParameterServerStrategy()

For multi worker training, "TF_CONFIG" needs to specify the configuration of parameter servers and workers in your cluster, which you can read more about in "TF_CONFIG" below below.

So far we've talked about what are the different stategies available and how you can instantiate them. In the next few sections, we will talk about the different ways in which you can use them to distribute your training. We will show short code snippets in this guide and link off to full tutorials which you can run end to end.

Using tf.distribute.Strategy with Keras

We've integrated tf.distribute.Strategy into tf.keras which is TensorFlow's implementation of the Keras API specification. tf.keras is a high-level API to build and train models. By integrating into tf.keras backend, we've made it seamless for Keras users to distribute their training written in the Keras training framework. The only things that need to change in a user's program are: (1) Create an instance of the appropriate tf.distribute.Strategy and (2) Move the creation and compiling of Keras model inside strategy.scope.

Here is a snippet of code to do this for a very simple Keras model with one dense layer:

mirrored_strategy = tf.distribute.MirroredStrategy()
with mirrored_strategy.scope():
  model = tf.keras.Sequential([tf.keras.layers.Dense(1, input_shape=(1,))])
  model.compile(loss='mse', optimizer='sgd')
W0307 18:06:27.907308 139925123892992] Not all devices in `tf.distribute.Strategy` are visible to TensorFlow.

In this example we used MirroredStrategy so we can run this on a machine with multiple GPUs. strategy.scope() indicated which parts of the code to run distributed. Creating a model inside this scope allows us to create mirrored variables instead of regular variables. Compiling under the scope allows us to know that the user intends to train this model using this strategy. Once this is setup, you can fit your model like you would normally. MirroredStrategy takes care of replicating the model's training on the available GPUs, aggregating gradients etc.

dataset =[1.], [1.])).repeat(100).batch(10), epochs=2)
W0307 18:06:28.070022 139925123892992] Expected a shuffled dataset but input dataset `x` is not shuffled. Please invoke `shuffle()` on input dataset.

Epoch 1/2
10/10 [==============================] - 0s 7ms/step - loss: 2.1846
Epoch 2/2
10/10 [==============================] - 0s 2ms/step - loss: 2.0163
10/10 [==============================] - 0s 5ms/step - loss: 1.9289


Here we used a to provide the training and eval input. You can also use numpy arrays:

import numpy as np
inputs, targets = np.ones((100, 1)), np.ones((100, 1)), targets, epochs=2, batch_size=10)
Epoch 1/2
10/10 [==============================] - 0s 2ms/step - loss: 1.8610
Epoch 2/2
10/10 [==============================] - 0s 2ms/step - loss: 1.7176

<tensorflow.python.keras.callbacks.History at 0x7f4274ade400>

In both cases (dataset or numpy), each batch of the given input is divided equally among the multiple replicas. For instance, if using MirroredStrategy with 2 GPUs, each batch of size 10 will get divided among the 2 GPUs, with each receiving 5 input examples in each step. Each epoch will then train faster as you add more GPUs. Typically, you would want to increase your batch size as you add more accelerators so as to make effective use of the extra computing power. You will also need to re-tune your learning rate, depending on the model. You can use strategy.num_replicas_in_sync to get the number of replicas.

# Compute global batch size using number of replicas.
global_batch_size = (BATCH_SIZE_PER_REPLICA * 
dataset =[1.], [1.])).repeat(100)
dataset = dataset.batch(global_batch_size)

LEARNING_RATES_BY_BATCH_SIZE = {5: 0.1, 10: 0.15}
learning_rate = LEARNING_RATES_BY_BATCH_SIZE[global_batch_size]

What's supported now?

In TF 2.0 alpha release, we support training with Keras using MirroredStrategy, as well as one machine parameter server using ParameterServerStrategy. Support for other strategies will be coming soon. The API and how to use will be exactly the same as above. If you wish to use the other strategies like TPUStrategy or MultiWorkerMirorredStrategy in Keras in TF 2.0, you can currently do so by disabling eager execution (tf.compat.v1.disable_eager_execution()). Another thing to note is that when using MultiWorkerMirorredStrategy for multiple workers with Keras, currently the user will have to explicitly shard or shuffle the data for different workers, but we will change this in the future to automatically shard the input data intelligently.

Examples and Tutorials

Here is a list of tutorials and examples that illustrate the above integration end to end with Keras: 1. Tutorial to train MNIST with MirroredStrategy. 2. Tutorial to train Fashion MNIST with TPUStrategy (currently uses disable_eager_execution) 3. Official ResNet50 training with ImageNet data using MirroredStrategy. 4. ResNet50 trained with Imagenet data on Cloud TPus with TPUStrategy. Note that this example only works with TensorFlow 1.x currently.

Using tf.distribute.Strategy with Estimator

tf.estimator is a distributed training TensorFlow API that originally supported the async parameter server approach. Like with Keras, we've integrated tf.distribute.Strategy into tf.Estimator so that a user who is using Estimator for their training can easily change their training is distributed with very few changes to your their code. With this, estimator users can now do synchronous distributed training on multiple GPUs and multiple workers, as well as use TPUs.

The usage of tf.distribute.Strategy with Estimator is slightly different than the Keras case. Instead of using strategy.scope, now we pass the strategy object into the RunConfig for the Estimator.

Here is a snippet of code that shows this with a premade estimator LinearRegressor and MirroredStrategy:

mirrored_strategy = tf.distribute.MirroredStrategy()
config = tf.estimator.RunConfig(
    train_distribute=mirrored_strategy, eval_distribute=mirrored_strategy)
regressor = tf.estimator.LinearRegressor(
W0307 18:06:33.035279 139925123892992] Not all devices in `tf.distribute.Strategy` are visible to TensorFlow.
W0307 18:06:33.037824 139925123892992] Using temporary folder as model directory: /tmp/tmp9yy5cqbb

We use a premade Estimator here, but the same code works with a custom Estimator as well. train_evaluate determines how training will be distributed, and eval_distribute determines how evaluation will be distributed. This is another difference from Keras where we use the same strategy for both training and eval.

Now we can train and evaluate this Estimator with an input function:

def input_fn():
  dataset ={"feats":[1.]}, [1.]))
  return dataset.repeat(1000).batch(10)
regressor.train(input_fn=input_fn, steps=10)
regressor.evaluate(input_fn=input_fn, steps=10)
W0307 18:06:33.136213 139916847593216] Partitioned variables are disabled when using current tf.distribute.Strategy.
W0307 18:06:33.151402 139916847593216] From /usr/local/lib/python3.5/dist-packages/tensorflow/python/feature_column/ to_float (from tensorflow.python.ops.math_ops) is deprecated and will be removed in a future version.
Instructions for updating:
Use `tf.cast` instead.
W0307 18:06:34.565543 139925123892992] From /usr/local/lib/python3.5/dist-packages/tensorflow/python/training/ checkpoint_exists (from is deprecated and will be removed in a future version.
Instructions for updating:
Use standard file APIs to check for files with this prefix.

{'average_loss': 1.4210855e-14,
 'global_step': 10,
 'label/mean': 1.0,
 'loss': 1.4210855e-14,
 'prediction/mean': 0.99999994}

Another difference to highlight here between Estimator and Keras is the input handling. In Keras, we mentioned that each batch of the dataset is split across the multiple replicas. In Estimator, however, the user provides an input_fn and have full control over how they want their data to be distributed across workers and devices. We do not do automatic splitting of batch, nor automatically shard the data across different workers. The provided input_fn is called once per worker, thus giving one dataset per worker. Then one batch from that dataset is fed to one replica on that worker, thereby consuming N batches for N replicas on 1 worker. In other words, the dataset returned by the input_fn should provide batches of size PER_REPLICA_BATCH_SIZE. And the global batch size for a step can be obtained as PER_REPLICA_BATCH_SIZE * strategy.num_replicas_in_sync. When doing multi worker training, users will also want to either split their data across the workers, or shuffle with a random seed on each. You can see an example of how to do this in the multi-worker tutorial.

We showed an example of using MirroredStrategy with Estimator. You can also use TPUStrategy with Estimator as well, in the exact same way:

config = tf.estimator.RunConfig(
    train_distribute=tpu_strategy, eval_distribute=tpu_strategy)

And similarly, you can use multi worker and parameter server strategies as well. The code remains the same, but you need to use tf.estimator.train_and_evaluate, and set "TF_CONFIG" environment variables for each binary running in your cluster.

What's supported now?

In TF 2.0 alpha release, we support training with Estimator using all strategies.

Examples and Tutorials

Here are some examples that show end to end usage of various strategies with Estimator:

  1. [Tutorial]((../tutorials/distribute/multi_worker) to train MNIST with multiple workers using MultiWorkerMirroredStrategy.
  2. End to end example for multi worker training in tensorflow/ecosystem using Kuberentes templates. This example starts with a Keras model and converts it to an Estimator using the tf.keras.estimator.model_to_estimator API.
  3. Official ResNet50 model, which can be trained using either MirroredStrategy or MultiWorkerMirroredStrategy.
  4. ResNet50 example with TPUStrategy.

Using tf.distribute.Strategy with custom training loops

As you've seen, using tf.distrbute.Strategy with high level APIs is only a couple lines of code change. With a little more effort, tf.distrbute.Strategy can also be used by other users who are not using these frameworks.

TensorFlow is used for a wide variety of use cases and some users (such as researchers) require more flexibility and control over their training loops. This makes it hard for them to use the high level frameworks such as Estimator or Keras. For instance, someone using a GAN may want to take a different number of generator or discriminator steps each round. Similarly, the high level frameworks are not very suitable for Reinforcement Learning training. So these users will usually write their own training loops.

For these users, we provide a core set of methods through the tf.distrbute.Strategy classes. Using these may require minor restructuring of the code initially, but once that is done, the user should be able to switch between GPUs / TPUs / multiple machines by just changing the strategy instance.

Here we will show a brief snippet illustrating this use case for a simple training example using the same Keras model as before. Note: These APIs are still experimental and we are improving them to make them more user friendly in TensorFlow 2.0.

First, we create the model and optimizer inside the strategy's scope. This ensures that any variables created with the model and optimizer are mirrored variables.

with mirrored_strategy.scope():
  model = tf.keras.Sequential([tf.keras.layers.Dense(1, input_shape=(1,))])
  optimizer = tf.keras.optimizers.SGD()

Next, we create the input dataset and call make_dataset_iterator to distribute the dataset based on the strategy. This API is expected to change in the near future.

with mirrored_strategy.scope():
  dataset =[1.], [1.])).repeat(1000).batch(
  input_iterator = mirrored_strategy.make_dataset_iterator(dataset)

Then, we define one step of the training. We will use tf.GradientTape to compute gradients and optimizer to apply those gradients to update our model's variables. To distribute this training step, we put in in a function step_fn and pass it to strategy.experimental_run along with the iterator created before:

def train_step():
  def step_fn(inputs):
    features, labels = inputs

    with tf.GradientTape() as tape:
      logits = model(features)
      cross_entropy = tf.nn.softmax_cross_entropy_with_logits(
          logits=logits, labels=labels)  
      loss = tf.reduce_sum(cross_entropy) * (1.0 / global_batch_size)

    grads = tape.gradient(loss, model.trainable_variables)
    optimizer.apply_gradients(list(zip(grads, model.trainable_variables)))
    return loss

  per_replica_losses = mirrored_strategy.experimental_run(
      step_fn, input_iterator)
  mean_loss = mirrored_strategy.reduce(
      tf.distribute.ReduceOp.MEAN, per_replica_losses)
  return mean_loss

A few other things to note in the code above: 1. We used tf.nn.softmax_cross_entropy_with_logits to compute the loss. And then we scaled the total loss by the global batch size. This is important because all the replicas are training in sync and number of examples in each step of training is the global batch. If you're using TensorFlow's standard losses from tf.losses or tf.keras.losses, they are distribution aware and will take care of the scaling by number of replicas whenever a strategy is in scope. 2. We used the strategy.reduce API to aggregate the results returned by experimental_run. experimental_run returns results from each local replica in the strategy, and there are multiple ways to consume this result. You can reduce them to get an aggregated value. You can also do strategy.unwrap(results)* to get the list of values contained in the result, one per local replica.

*expected to change

Finally, once we have defined the training step, we can initialize the iterator and run the training in a loop:

with mirrored_strategy.scope():
  for _ in range(10):
tf.Tensor(0.0, shape=(), dtype=float32)
tf.Tensor(0.0, shape=(), dtype=float32)
tf.Tensor(0.0, shape=(), dtype=float32)
tf.Tensor(0.0, shape=(), dtype=float32)
tf.Tensor(0.0, shape=(), dtype=float32)
tf.Tensor(0.0, shape=(), dtype=float32)
tf.Tensor(0.0, shape=(), dtype=float32)
tf.Tensor(0.0, shape=(), dtype=float32)
tf.Tensor(0.0, shape=(), dtype=float32)
tf.Tensor(0.0, shape=(), dtype=float32)

In the example above, we used make_dataset_iterator to provide input to your training. We also provide two additional APIs: make_input_fn_iterator and make_experimental_numpy_iterator to support other kinds of inputs. See their documentation in tf.distribute.Strategy and how they differ from make_dataset_iterator.

This covers the simplest case of using tf.distribute.Strategy API to do distribute custom training loops. We are in the process of improving these APIs. Since this use case requres more work on the part of the user, we will be publishing a separate detailed guide for this use case in the future.

What's supported now?

In TF 2.0 alpha release, we support training with custom training loops using MirroredStrategy as shown above. Support for other strategies will be coming in soon. If you wish to use the other strategies like TPUStrategy in TF 2.0 with a custom training loop, you can currently do so by disabling eager execution (tf.compat.v1.disable_eager_execution()). The code will remain similar, except you will need to use TF 1.x graph and sessions to run the training. MultiWorkerMirorredStrategy support will be coming in the future.

Examples and Tutorials

Here are some examples for using distribution strategy with custom training loops: 1. Tutorial to train MNIST using MirroredStrategy. 2. DenseNet example using MirroredStrategy.

Other topics

In this section, we will cover some topics that are relevant to multiple use cases.

Setting up TF_CONFIG environment variable

For multi-worker training, as mentioned before, you need to us set "TF_CONFIG" environment variable for each binary running in your cluster. The "TF_CONFIG" environment variable is a JSON string which specifies what tasks constitute a cluster, their addresses and each task's role in the cluster. We provide a Kubernetes template in the tensorflow/ecosystem repo which sets "TF_CONFIG" for your training tasks.

One example of "TF_CONFIG" is:

os.environ["TF_CONFIG"] = json.dumps({
    "cluster": {
        "worker": ["host1:port", "host2:port", "host3:port"],
        "ps": ["host4:port", "host5:port"]
   "task": {"type": "worker", "index": 1}

This "TF_CONFIG" specifies that there are three workers and two ps tasks in the cluster along with their hosts and ports. The "task" part specifies that the role of the current task in the cluster, worker 1 (the second worker). Valid roles in a cluster is "chief", "worker", "ps" and "evaluator". There should be no "ps" job except when using tf.distribute.experimental.ParameterServerStrategy.

What's next?

tf.distribute.Strategy is actively under development. We welcome you to try it out and provide and your feedback via issues on GitHub.