Better TensorFlow performance comes out-of-the-box by using the high-level APIs. The sections below detail the high-level APIs to use as well a few tips for debugging, a little history, and a few instances where manual tuning is beneficial. It covers best practices that are relevant to a variety of hardware and models.

Input pipeline

The input pipeline extracts data from a location, transforms it, and loads it onto an accelerator for processing. As accelerators become faster, it is important that the input pipeline keeps up with the demand. The API is designed with flexibility, ease of use, and performance in mind. For using and maximizing performance with the API, see the data input pipeline guide.

Reading large numbers of small files significantly impacts I/O performance. One approach to get maximum I/O throughput is to preprocess input data into larger (~100MB) TFRecord files. For smaller data sets (200MB-1GB), the best approach is often to load the entire data set into memory. The document Downloading and converting to TFRecord format includes information and scripts for creating TFRecords, and this script converts the CIFAR-10 dataset into TFRecords.

While feeding data using a feed_dict offers a high level of flexibility, in general, feed_dict does not provide a scalable solution. Avoid using feed_dict for all but trivial examples.

# feed_dict often results in suboptimal performance., feed_dict={x: batch_xs, y_: batch_ys})

RNN Performance

There are many ways to specify an RNN computation in TensorFlow and they have trade-offs with respect to model flexibility and performance. The tf.nn.rnn_cell.BasicLSTMCell should be considered a reference implementation and used only as a last resort when no other options will work.

When using one of the cells, rather than the fully fused RNN layers, you have a choice of whether to use tf.nn.static_rnn or tf.nn.dynamic_rnn. There shouldn't generally be a performance difference at runtime, but large unroll amounts can increase the graph size of the tf.nn.static_rnn and cause long compile times. An additional advantage of tf.nn.dynamic_rnn is that it can optionally swap memory from the GPU to the CPU to enable training of very long sequences. Depending on the model and hardware configuration, this can come at a performance cost. It is also possible to run multiple iterations of tf.nn.dynamic_rnn and the underlying tf.while_loop construct in parallel, although this is rarely useful with RNN models as they are inherently sequential.

On NVIDIA GPUs, the use of tf.contrib.cudnn_rnn should always be preferred unless you want layer normalization, which it doesn't support. It is often at least an order of magnitude faster than tf.contrib.rnn.BasicLSTMCell and tf.contrib.rnn.LSTMBlockCell and uses 3-4x less memory than tf.contrib.rnn.BasicLSTMCell.

If you need to run one step of the RNN at a time, as might be the case in reinforcement learning with a recurrent policy, then you should use the tf.contrib.rnn.LSTMBlockCell with your own environment interaction loop inside a tf.while_loop construct. Running one step of the RNN at a time and returning to Python is possible, but it will be slower.

On CPUs, mobile devices, and if tf.contrib.cudnn_rnn is not available on your GPU, the fastest and most memory efficient option is tf.contrib.rnn.LSTMBlockFusedCell.

For all of the less common cell types like tf.contrib.rnn.NASCell, tf.contrib.rnn.PhasedLSTMCell, tf.contrib.rnn.UGRNNCell, tf.contrib.rnn.GLSTMCell, tf.contrib.rnn.Conv1DLSTMCell, tf.contrib.rnn.Conv2DLSTMCell, tf.contrib.rnn.LayerNormBasicLSTMCell, etc., be aware that they are implemented in the graph like tf.contrib.rnn.BasicLSTMCell and will suffer from the same poor performance and high memory usage. Consider whether or not those trade-offs are worth it before using these cells. For example, while layer normalization can speed up convergence, because cuDNN is 20x faster, the fastest wall clock time to convergence is usually obtained without it.

Manual tuning

Optimizing for CPU

CPUs, which includes Intel® Xeon Phi™, achieve optimal performance when TensorFlow is built from source with all of the instructions supported by the target CPU.

Beyond using the latest instruction sets, Intel® has added support for the Intel® Math Kernel Library for Deep Neural Networks (Intel® MKL-DNN) to TensorFlow. While the name is not completely accurate, these optimizations are often simply referred to as MKL or TensorFlow with MKL. TensorFlow with Intel® MKL-DNN contains details about the MKL optimizations.

The two configurations listed below are used to optimize CPU performance by adjusting the thread pools.

  • intra_op_parallelism_threads: Nodes that can use multiple threads to parallelize their execution will schedule the individual pieces into this pool.
  • inter_op_parallelism_threads: All ready nodes are scheduled in this pool.

These configurations are set using the tf.ConfigProto and passed to tf.Session in the config attribute as shown in the snippet below. For both configuration options, if they are unset or set to 0, will default to the number of logical CPU cores. Testing has shown that the default is effective for systems ranging from one CPU with 4 cores to multiple CPUs with 70+ combined logical cores. A common alternative optimization is to set the number of threads in both pools equal to the number of physical cores rather than logical cores.

config = tf.ConfigProto()
config.intra_op_parallelism_threads = 44
config.inter_op_parallelism_threads = 44

The comparing compiler optimizations section contains the results of tests that used different compiler optimizations.

TensorFlow with Intel® MKL DNN

Intel® has added optimizations to TensorFlow for Intel® Xeon® and Intel® Xeon Phi™ through the use of the Intel® Math Kernel Library for Deep Neural Networks (Intel® MKL-DNN) optimized primitives. The optimizations also provide speedups for the consumer line of processors, e.g. i5 and i7 Intel processors. The Intel published paper TensorFlow* Optimizations on Modern Intel® Architecture contains additional details on the implementation.

In addition to providing significant performance improvements for training CNN based models, compiling with the MKL creates a binary that is optimized for AVX and AVX2. The result is a single binary that is optimized and compatible with most modern (post-2011) processors.

TensorFlow can be compiled with the MKL optimizations using the following commands that depending on the version of the TensorFlow source used.

For TensorFlow source versions after 1.3.0:

# Pick the desired options
bazel build --config=mkl --config=opt //tensorflow/tools/pip_package:build_pip_package

For TensorFlow versions 1.2.0 through 1.3.0:

Do you wish to build TensorFlow with MKL support? [y/N] Y
Do you wish to download MKL LIB from the web? [Y/n] Y
# Select the defaults for the rest of the options.

bazel build --config=mkl --copt="-DEIGEN_USE_VML" -c opt //tensorflow/tools/pip_package:build_pip_package

Tuning MKL for the best performance

This section details the different configurations and environment variables that can be used to tune the MKL to get optimal performance. Before tweaking various environment variables make sure the model is using the NCHW (channels_first) data format. The MKL is optimized for NCHW and Intel is working to get near performance parity when using NHWC.

MKL uses the following environment variables to tune performance:

  • KMP_BLOCKTIME - Sets the time, in milliseconds, that a thread should wait, after completing the execution of a parallel region, before sleeping.
  • KMP_AFFINITY - Enables the run-time library to bind threads to physical processing units.
  • KMP_SETTINGS - Enables (true) or disables (false) the printing of OpenMP* run-time library environment variables during program execution.
  • OMP_NUM_THREADS - Specifies the number of threads to use.

More details on the KMP variables are on Intel's site and the OMP variables on

While there can be substantial gains from adjusting the environment variables, which is discussed below, the simplified advice is to set the inter_op_parallelism_threads equal to the number of physical CPUs and to set the following environment variables:

  • KMP_AFFINITY=granularity=fine,verbose,compact,1,0

Example setting MKL variables with command-line arguments:

KMP_BLOCKTIME=0 KMP_AFFINITY=granularity=fine,verbose,compact,1,0 \

Example setting MKL variables with python os.environ:

os.environ["KMP_BLOCKTIME"] = str(FLAGS.kmp_blocktime)
os.environ["KMP_SETTINGS"] = str(FLAGS.kmp_settings)
os.environ["KMP_AFFINITY"]= FLAGS.kmp_affinity
if FLAGS.num_intra_threads > 0:
  os.environ["OMP_NUM_THREADS"]= str(FLAGS.num_intra_threads)

There are models and hardware platforms that benefit from different settings. Each variable that impacts performance is discussed below.

  • KMP_BLOCKTIME: The MKL default is 200ms, which was not optimal in our testing. 0 (0ms) was a good default for CNN based models that were tested. The best performance for AlexNex was achieved at 30ms and both GoogleNet and VGG11 performed best set at 1ms.
  • KMP_AFFINITY: The recommended setting is granularity=fine,verbose,compact,1,0.
  • OMP_NUM_THREADS: This defaults to the number of physical cores. Adjusting this parameter beyond matching the number of cores can have an impact when using Intel® Xeon Phi™ (Knights Landing) for some models. See TensorFlow* Optimizations on Modern Intel® Architecture for optimal settings.
  • intra_op_parallelism_threads: Setting this equal to the number of physical cores is recommended. Setting the value to 0, which is the default, results in the value being set to the number of logical cores - this is an alternate option to try for some architectures. This value and OMP_NUM_THREADS should be equal.
  • inter_op_parallelism_threads: Setting this equal to the number of sockets is recommended. Setting the value to 0, which is the default, results in the value being set to the number of logical cores.

Building and installing from source

The default TensorFlow binaries target the broadest range of hardware to make TensorFlow accessible to everyone. If using CPUs for training or inference, it is recommended to compile TensorFlow with all of the optimizations available for the CPU in use. Speedups for training and inference on CPU are documented below in Comparing compiler optimizations.

To install the most optimized version of TensorFlow, build and install from source. If there is a need to build TensorFlow on a platform that has different hardware than the target, then cross-compile with the highest optimizations for the target platform. The following command is an example of using bazel to compile for a specific platform:

# This command optimizes for Intel’s Broadwell processor
bazel build -c opt --copt=-march="broadwell" --config=cuda //tensorflow/tools/pip_package:build_pip_package

Environment, build, and install tips

  • ./configure asks which compute capability to include in the build. This does not impact overall performance but does impact initial startup. After running TensorFlow once, the compiled kernels are cached by CUDA. If using a docker container, the data is not cached and the penalty is paid each time TensorFlow starts. The best practice is to include the compute capabilities of the GPUs that will be used, e.g. P100: 6.0, Titan X (Pascal): 6.1, Titan X (Maxwell): 5.2, and K80: 3.7.
  • Use a version of gcc that supports all of the optimizations of the target CPU. The recommended minimum gcc version is 4.8.3. On OS X, upgrade to the latest Xcode version and use the version of clang that comes with Xcode.
  • Install the latest stable CUDA platform and cuDNN libraries supported by TensorFlow.


Data formats

Data formats refers to the structure of the Tensor passed to a given op. The discussion below is specifically about 4D Tensors representing images. In TensorFlow the parts of the 4D tensor are often referred to by the following letters:

  • N refers to the number of images in a batch.
  • H refers to the number of pixels in the vertical (height) dimension.
  • W refers to the number of pixels in the horizontal (width) dimension.
  • C refers to the channels. For example, 1 for black and white or grayscale and 3 for RGB.

Within TensorFlow there are two naming conventions representing the two most common data formats:

  • NCHW or channels_first
  • NHWC or channels_last

NHWC is the TensorFlow default and NCHW is the optimal format to use when training on NVIDIA GPUs using cuDNN.

The best practice is to build models that work with both data formats. This simplifies training on GPUs and then running inference on CPUs. If TensorFlow is compiled with the Intel MKL optimizations, many operations, especially those related to CNN based models, will be optimized and support NCHW. If not using the MKL, some operations are not supported on CPU when using NCHW.

The brief history of these two formats is that TensorFlow started by using NHWC because it was a little faster on CPUs. In the long term, we are working on tools to auto rewrite graphs to make switching between the formats transparent and take advantages of micro optimizations where a GPU op may be faster using NHWC than the normally most efficient NCHW.


Debug input pipeline optimization

Typical models retrieve data from disk and preprocess it before sending the data through the network. For example, models that process JPEG images will follow this flow: load image from disk, decode JPEG into a tensor, crop and pad, possibly flip and distort, and then batch. This flow is referred to as the input pipeline. As GPUs and other hardware accelerators get faster, preprocessing of data can be a bottleneck.

Determining if the input pipeline is the bottleneck can be complicated. One of the most straightforward methods is to reduce the model to a single operation (trivial model) after the input pipeline and measure the examples per second. If the difference in examples per second for the full model and the trivial model is minimal then the input pipeline is likely a bottleneck. Below are some other approaches to identifying issues:

  • Check if a GPU is underutilized by running nvidia-smi -l 2. If GPU utilization is not approaching 80-100%, then the input pipeline may be the bottleneck.
  • Generate a timeline and look for large blocks of white space (waiting). An example of generating a timeline exists as part of the XLA jit tutorial.
  • Check CPU usage. It is possible to have an optimized input pipeline and lack the CPU cycles to process the pipeline.
  • Estimate the throughput needed and verify the disk used is capable of that level of throughput. Some cloud solutions have network attached disks that start as low as 50 MB/sec, which is slower than spinning disks (150 MB/sec), SATA SSDs (500 MB/sec), and PCIe SSDs (2,000+ MB/sec).

Preprocessing on the CPU

Placing input pipeline operations on the CPU can significantly improve performance. Utilizing the CPU for the input pipeline frees the GPU to focus on training. To ensure preprocessing is on the CPU, wrap the preprocessing operations as shown below:

with tf.device('/cpu:0'):
  # function to get and process images or data.
  distorted_inputs = load_and_distort_images()

If using tf.estimator.Estimator the input function is automatically placed on the CPU.