Using TPUs

This document walks through the principal TensorFlow APIs necessary to make effective use of a Cloud TPU, and highlights the differences between regular TensorFlow usage, and usage on a TPU.

This doc is aimed at users who:

  • Are familiar with TensorFlow's Estimator and Dataset APIs
  • Have maybe tried out a Cloud TPU using an existing model.
  • Have, perhaps, skimmed the code of an example TPU model [1] [2].
  • Are interested in porting an existing Estimator model to run on Cloud TPUs


Estimators are TensorFlow's model-level abstraction. Standard Estimators can drive models on CPU and GPUs. You must use tf.contrib.tpu.TPUEstimator to drive a model on TPUs.

Refer to TensorFlow's Getting Started section for an introduction to the basics of using a pre-made Estimator, and custom Estimators.

The TPUEstimator class differs somewhat from the Estimator class.

The simplest way to maintain a model that can be run both on CPU/GPU or on a Cloud TPU is to define the model's inference phase (from inputs to predictions) outside of the model_fn. Then maintain separate implementations of the Estimator setup and model_fn, both wrapping this inference step. For an example of this pattern compare the and implementation in tensorflow/models.

Running a TPUEstimator locally

To create a standard Estimator you call the constructor, and pass it a model_fn, for example:

my_estimator = tf.estimator.Estimator(

The changes required to use a tf.contrib.tpu.TPUEstimator on your local machine are relatively minor. The constructor requires two additional arguments. You should set the use_tpu argument to False, and pass a tf.contrib.tpu.RunConfig as the config argument, as shown below:

my_tpu_estimator = tf.contrib.tpu.TPUEstimator(

Just this simple change will allow you to run a TPUEstimator locally. The majority of example TPU models can be run in this local mode, by setting the command line flags as follows:

$> python --use_tpu=false --master=''

Building a tpu.RunConfig

While the default RunConfig is sufficient for local training, these settings cannot be ignored in real usage.

A more typical setup for a RunConfig, that can be switched to use a Cloud TPU, might be as follows:

import tempfile
import subprocess

class FLAGS(object):
  # Use a local temporary path for the `model_dir`
  model_dir = tempfile.mkdtemp()
  # Number of training steps to run on the Cloud TPU before returning control.
  iterations = 50
  # A single Cloud TPU has 8 shards.
  num_shards = 8

if FLAGS.use_tpu:
    my_project_name = subprocess.check_output([
    my_zone = subprocess.check_output([
    cluster_resolver = tf.contrib.cluster_resolver.TPUClusterResolver(
    master = tpu_cluster_resolver.get_master()
    master = ''

my_tpu_run_config = tf.contrib.tpu.RunConfig(
        allow_soft_placement=True, log_device_placement=True),

Then you must pass the tf.contrib.tpu.RunConfig to the constructor:

my_tpu_estimator = tf.contrib.tpu.TPUEstimator(
    config = my_tpu_run_config,

Typically the FLAGS would be set by command line arguments. To switch from training locally to training on a cloud TPU you would need to:

1) Set FLAGS.use_tpu to True 1) Set FLAGS.tpu_name so the tf.contrib.cluster_resolver.TPUClusterResolver can find it 1) Set FLAGS.model_dir to a Google Cloud Storage bucket url (gs://).


When training on a cloud TPU you must wrap the optimizer in a tf.contrib.tpu.CrossShardOptimizer, which uses an allreduce to aggregate gradients and broadcast the result to each shard (each TPU core).

The CrossShardOptimizer is not compatible with local training. So, to have the same code run both locally and on a Cloud TPU, add lines like the following:

optimizer = tf.train.GradientDescentOptimizer(learning_rate=learning_rate)
if FLAGS.use_tpu:
  optimizer = tf.contrib.tpu.CrossShardOptimizer(optimizer)

If you prefer to avoid a global FLAGS variable in your model code, one approach is to set the optimizer as one of the Estimator's params, as follows:

my_tpu_estimator = tf.contrib.tpu.TPUEstimator(
    config = my_tpu_run_config,

Model Function

This section details the changes you must make to the model function (model_fn()) to make it TPUEstimator compatible.

Static shapes

During regular usage TensorFlow attempts to determine the shapes of each tf.Tensor during graph construction. During execution any unknown shape dimensions are determined dynamically, see Tensor Shapes for more details.

To run on Cloud TPUs TensorFlow models are compiled using XLA. XLA uses a similar system for determining shapes at compile time. XLA requires that all tensor dimensions be statically defined at compile time. All shapes must evaluate to a constant, and not depend on external data, or stateful operations like variables or a random number generator.


Remove any use of tf.summary from your model.

TensorBoard summaries are a great way see inside your model. A minimal set of basic summaries are automatically recorded by the TPUEstimator, to event files in the model_dir. Custom summaries, however, are currently unsupported when training on a Cloud TPU. So while the TPUEstimator will still run locally with summaries, it will fail if used on a TPU.


Build your evaluation metrics dictionary in a stand-alone metric_fn.

Evaluation metrics are an essential part of training a model. These are fully supported on Cloud TPUs, but with a slightly different syntax.

A standard tf.metrics returns two tensors. The first returns the running average of the metric value, while the second updates the running average and returns the value for this batch:

running_average, current_batch = tf.metrics.accuracy(labels, predictions)

In a standard Estimator you create a dictionary of these pairs, and return it as part of the EstimatorSpec.

my_metrics = {'accuracy': tf.metrics.accuracy(labels, predictions)}

return tf.estimator.EstimatorSpec(

In a TPUEstimator you instead pass a function (which returns a metrics dictionary) and a list of argument tensors, as shown below:

def my_metric_fn(labels, predictions):
   return {'accuracy': tf.metrics.accuracy(labels, predictions)}

return tf.contrib.tpu.TPUEstimatorSpec(
  eval_metrics=(my_metric_fn, [labels, predictions])

Use TPUEstimatorSpec

TPUEstimatorSpec do not support hooks, and require function wrappers for some fields.

An Estimator's model_fn must return an EstimatorSpec. An EstimatorSpec is a simple structure of named fields containing all the tf.Tensors of the model that the Estimator may need to interact with.

TPUEstimators use a tf.contrib.tpu.TPUEstimatorSpec. There are a few differences between it and a standard tf.estimator.EstimatorSpec:

  • The eval_metric_ops must be wrapped into a metrics_fn, this field is renamed eval_metrics (see above).
  • The hooks are unsupported, so these fields are omitted.
  • The scaffold, if used, must also be wrapped in a function. This field is renamed to scaffold_fn.

Scaffold and Hooks are for advanced usage, and can typically be omitted.

Input functions

Input functions work mainly unchanged as they run on the host computer, not the Cloud TPU itself. This section explains the two necessary adjustments.

Params argument

The input_fn for a standard Estimator can include a params argument; the input_fn for a TPUEstimator must include a params argument. This is necessary to allow the estimator to set the batch size for each replica of the input stream. So the minimum signature for an input_fn for a TPUEstimator is:

def my_input_fn(params):

Where params['batch-size'] will contain the batch size.

Static shapes and batch size

The input pipeline generated by your input_fn is run on CPU. So it is mostly free strict static shape requirements imposed by the XLA/TPU environment. The one requirement is that the batches of data fed from your input pipeline to the TPU have a static shape, as determined by the standard TensorFlow shape inference algorithm. Intermediate tensors are free to have a dynamic shapes. If shape inference has failed, but the shape is known it is possible to impose the correct shape using tf.set_shape().

In the example below the shape inference algorithm fails, but it is corrected using set_shape:

>>> x = tf.zeros(tf.constant([1,2,3])+1)
>>> x.shape

TensorShape([Dimension(None), Dimension(None), Dimension(None)])

>>> x.set_shape([2,3,4])

In many cases the batch size is the only unknown dimension.

A typical input pipeline, using, will usually produce batches of a fixed size. The last batch of a finite Dataset, however, is typically smaller, containing just the remaining elements. Since a Dataset does not know its own length or finiteness, the standard batch method cannot determine if all batches will have a fixed size batch on its own:

>>> params = {'batch_size':32}
>>> ds =[0, 1, 2])
>>> ds = ds.repeat().batch(params['batch-size'])
>>> ds

<BatchDataset shapes: (?, 3), types: tf.int32>

The most straightforward fix is to apply as follows:

>>> params = {'batch_size':32}
>>> ds =[0, 1, 2])
>>> ds = ds.repeat().apply(
>>> ds

 <_RestructuredDataset shapes: (32, 3), types: tf.int32>

The one downside to this approach is that, as the name implies, this batching method throws out any fractional batch at the end of the dataset. This is fine for an infinitely repeating dataset being used for training, but could be a problem if you want to train for an exact number of epochs.

To do an exact 1-epoch of evaluation you can work around this by manually padding the length of the batches, and setting the padding entries to have zero weight when creating your tf.metrics.


Efficient use of the API is critical when using a Cloud TPU, as it is impossible to use the Cloud TPU's unless you can feed it data quickly enough. See Input Pipeline Performance Guide for details on dataset performance.

For all but the simplest experimentation (using or other in-graph data) you will need to store all data files read by the TPUEstimator's Dataset in Google Cloud Storage Buckets.

For most use-cases, we recommend converting your data into TFRecord format and using a to read it. This, however, is not a hard requirement and you can use other dataset readers (FixedLengthRecordDataset or TextLineDataset) if you prefer.

Small datasets can be loaded entirely into memory using

Regardless of the data format used, it is strongly recommended that you use large files, on the order of 100MB. This is especially important in this networked setting as the overhead of opening a file is significantly higher.

It is also important, regardless of the type of reader used, to enable buffering using the buffer_size argument to the constructor. This argument is specified in bytes. A minimum of a few MB (buffer_size=8*1024*1024) is recommended so that data is available when needed.

The TPU-demos repo includes a script for downloading the imagenet dataset and converting it to an appropriate format. This together with the imagenet models included in the repo demonstrate all of these best-practices.

What Next

For details on how to actually set up and run a Cloud TPU see:

This document is by no means exhaustive. The best source of more detail on how to make a Cloud TPU compatible model are the example models published in:

For more information about tuning TensorFlow code for performance see: