Distributed Training

Distributed training is a type of model training where the computing resources requirements (e.g., CPU, RAM) are distributed among multiple computers. Distributed training allows to train faster and on larger datasets (up to a few billion examples).

Distributed training is also useful for automated hyper-parameter optimization where multiple models are trained in parallel.

In this document you will learn how to:

  • Train a TF-DF model using distributed training.
  • Tune the hyper-parameters of a TF-DF model using distributed training.


As of now, distributed training is supported for:

  • Training Gradient Boosted Trees models with tfdf.keras.DistributedGradientBoostedTreesModel. Distributed Gradient Boosted Trees models are equivalent to their non-distributed counterparts.
  • Hyper-parameter search for any TF-DF model type.

How to enable distributed training

This section list the steps to enabled distributed training. For full examples, see the next section.

ParameterServerStrategy scope

The model and the dataset are defined in a ParameterServerStrategy scope.

strategy = tf.distribute.experimental.ParameterServerStrategy(...)
with strategy.scope():
  model = tfdf.keras.DistributedGradientBoostedTreesModel()
  distributed_train_dataset = strategy.distribute_datasets_from_function(dataset_fn)

Dataset format

Like for non-distributed training, datasets can be provided as

  1. A finite tensorflow distributed dataset, or
  2. a path to the dataset files using one of the compatible dataset formats.

Using sharded files is significantly simpler than using the finite tensorflow distributed dataset approach (1 line vs ~20 lines of code). However, only the tensorflow dataset approach supports TensorFlow pre-processing. If your pipeline does not contain any pre-processing, the sharded dataset option is recommended.

In both cases, the dataset should be sharded into multiple files to distribute dataset reading efficiently.

Setup workers

A chief process is the program running the python code that defines the TensorFlow model. This process is not running any heavy computation. The effective training computation is done by workers. Workers are processes running a TensorFlow Parameter Server.

The chief should be configured with the IP address of the workers. This can be done using the TF_CONFIG environment variable, or by creating a ClusterResolver. See Parameter server training with ParameterServerStrategy for more details.

TensorFlow's ParameterServerStrategy defines two type of workers: "workers" and "parameter server". TensorFlow requires at least one of each type of worker to be instantiated. However, TF-DF only uses "workers". So, one "parameter server" needs to be instantiated but will not be used by TF-DF. For example, the configuration of a TF-DF training might look as follows:

  • 1 Chief
  • 50 Workers
  • 1 Parameter server

The workers require access to TensorFlow Decision Forests' custom training ops. There are two options to enable access:

  1. Use the pre-configured TF-DF C++ Parameter Server //third_party/tensorflow_decision_forests/tensorflow/distribute:tensorflow_std_server.
  2. Create a parameters server by calling tf.distribute.Server(). In this case, TF-DF should be imported import tensorflow_decision_forests.


This section shows full examples of distributed training configurations. For more examples, check the TF-DF unit tests.

Example: Distributed training on dataset path

Divide your dataset into a set of sharded files using one of the compatible dataset formats. It is recommended to names the files as follows: /path/to/dataset/train-<5 digit index>-of-<total files>, for example


For maximum efficiency, the number of files should be at least 10x the number of workers. For example, if you are training with 100 workers, make sure the dataset is divided in at least 1000 files.

The files can then be referenced with a sharding expression such as:

  • /path/to/dataset/train@1000
  • /path/to/dataset/train@*

Distributed training is done as follows. In this example, the dataset is stored as a TFRecord of TensorFlow Examples (defined by the key tfrecord+tfe).

import tensorflow_decision_forests as tfdf
import tensorflow as tf

strategy = tf.distribute.experimental.ParameterServerStrategy(...)

with strategy.scope():
  model = tfdf.keras.DistributedGradientBoostedTreesModel()


print("Trained model")

Example: Distributed training on a finite TensorFlow distributed dataset

TF-DF expects a distributed finite worker-sharded TensorFlow dataset:

  • Distributed : A non-distributed dataset is wrapped in strategy.distribute_datasets_from_function.
  • finite: The dataset should read each example exactly once. The dataset should should not contain any repeat instructions.
  • worker-sharded: Each worker should read a separate part of the dataset.

Here is an example:

import tensorflow_decision_forests as tfdf
import tensorflow as tf

def dataset_fn(context, paths):
  """Create a worker-sharded finite dataset from paths.

  Like for non-distributed training, each example should be visited exactly
  once (and by only one worker) during the training. In addition, for optimal
  training speed, the reading of the examples should be distributed among the
  workers (instead of being read by a single worker, or read and discarded
  multiple times).

  In other words, don't add a "repeat" statement and make sure to shard the
  dataset at the file level and not at the example level.

  # List the dataset files
  ds_path = tf.data.Dataset.from_tensor_slices(paths)

  # Make sure the dataset is used with distributed training.
  assert context is not None

  # Split the among the workers.
  # Note: The "shard" is applied on the file path. The shard should not be
  # applied on the examples directly.
  # Note: You cannot use 'context.num_input_pipelines' with ParameterServerV2.
  current_worker = tfdf.keras.get_worker_idx_and_num_workers(context)
  ds_path = ds_path.shard(

  def read_csv_file(path):
    """Reads a single csv file."""

    numerical = tf.constant([0.0], dtype=tf.float32)
    categorical_string = tf.constant(["NA"], dtype=tf.string)
    csv_columns = [
        numerical,  # feature 1
        categorical_string,  # feature 2
        numerical,  # feature 3
        # ... define the features here.
    return tf.data.experimental.CsvDataset(path, csv_columns, header=True)

  ds_columns = ds_path.interleave(read_csv_file)

  # We assume a binary classification label with the following possible values.
  label_values = ["<=50K", ">50K"]

  # Convert the text labels into integers:
  # "<=50K" => 0
  # ">50K" => 1
  init_label_table = tf.lookup.KeyValueTensorInitializer(
      values=tf.constant(range(label_values), dtype=tf.int64))
  label_table = tf.lookup.StaticVocabularyTable(
      init_label_table, num_oov_buckets=1)

  def extract_label(*columns):
    return columns[0:-1], label_table.lookup(columns[-1])

  ds_dataset = ds_columns.map(extract_label)

  # The batch size has no impact on the quality of the model. However, a larger
  # batch size generally is faster.
  ds_dataset = ds_dataset.batch(500)
  return ds_dataset

strategy = tf.distribute.experimental.ParameterServerStrategy(...)
with strategy.scope():
  model = tfdf.keras.DistributedGradientBoostedTreesModel()

  train_dataset = strategy.distribute_datasets_from_function(
      lambda context: dataset_fn(context, [...list of csv files...])


print("Trained model")

Example: Distributed hyper-parameter tuning on a dataset path

Distributed hyper-parameter tuning on a dataset path is similar to distributed training. The only difference is that this option is compatible with non-distributed models. For example, you can distribute the hyper-parameter tuning of the (non-distributed) Gradient Boosted Trees model.

with strategy.scope():
  tuner = tfdf.tuner.RandomSearch(num_trials=30, use_predefined_hps=True)
  model = tfdf.keras.GradientBoostedTreesModel(tuner=tuner)

training_history = model.fit_on_dataset_path(

logging.info("Trained model:")

Example: Unit testing

To unit test distributed training, you can create mock worker processes. See the method _create_in_process_tf_ps_cluster in TF-DF unit tests for more information.