Performance and Scalability: How To Fit a Bigger Model and Train It Faster

For now the software sections of this document are mainly Pytorch-specific, but the guide can be extended to other frameworks in the future.

Quick notes

This section gives brief ideas on how to make training faster and support bigger models. Later sections will expand, demonstrate and elucidate each of these.

Faster Training


  • fast connectivity between GPUs

    • intra-node: NVLink

    • inter-node: Infiniband / Intel OPA


  • Data Parallel / Distributed Data Parallel

  • fp16 (autocast caching)

Bigger Models


  • bigger GPUs

  • more GPUs

  • more CPU and NVMe (offloaded to by DeepSpeed)


  • Deepspeed ZeRO

  • Deepspeed ZeRO-Offload

  • Megatron-LM 3D Parallelism

  • Pipeline Parallelism

  • Tensor Parallelism

  • Low-memory Optimizers

  • fp16/bf16 (smaller data)

  • Gradient checkpointing


Multi-GPU Connectivity

If you use multiple GPUs the way cards are inter-connected can have a huge impact on the total training time.

If the GPUs are on the same physical node, you can run:

nvidia-smi topo -m

and it will tell you how the GPUs are inter-connected.

On a machine with dual-GPU and which are connected with NVLink, you will most likely see something like:

        GPU0    GPU1    CPU Affinity    NUMA Affinity
GPU0     X      NV2     0-23            N/A
GPU1    NV2      X      0-23            N/A

on a different machine w/o NVLink we may see:

        GPU0    GPU1    CPU Affinity    NUMA Affinity
GPU0     X      PHB     0-11            N/A
GPU1    PHB      X      0-11            N/A

The report includes this legend:

  X    = Self
  SYS  = Connection traversing PCIe as well as the SMP interconnect between NUMA nodes (e.g., QPI/UPI)
  NODE = Connection traversing PCIe as well as the interconnect between PCIe Host Bridges within a NUMA node
  PHB  = Connection traversing PCIe as well as a PCIe Host Bridge (typically the CPU)
  PXB  = Connection traversing multiple PCIe bridges (without traversing the PCIe Host Bridge)
  PIX  = Connection traversing at most a single PCIe bridge
  NV#  = Connection traversing a bonded set of # NVLinks

So the first report NV2 tells us the GPUs are interconnected with 2 NVLinks, and the second report PHB we have a typical consumer-level PCIe+Bridge setup.

Check what type of connectivity you have on your setup. Some of these will make the communication between cards faster (e.g. NVLink), others slower (e.g. PHB).

Depending on the type of scalability solution used, the connectivity speed could have a major or a minor impact. If the GPUs need to sync rarely, as in DDP, the impact of a slower connection will be less significant. If the GPUs need to send messages to each other often, as in ZeRO-DP, then faster connectivity becomes super important to achieve faster training.


Anatomy of Model’s Memory

The components on GPU memory are the following:

  • the model weights

  • the forward activations saved for gradient computation

  • the gradients

  • the optimizer state

forward vs backward Execution Speed

For convolutions and linear layers there are 2x flops in the backward compared to the forward, which generally translates into ~2x slower (sometimes more, because sizes in the backward tend to be more awkward). Activations are usually bandwidth-limited, and it’s typical for an activation to have to read more data in the backward than in the forward (e.g. activation forward reads once, writes once, activation backward reads twice, gradOutput and output of the forward, and writes once, gradInput).


AMP = Automatic Mixed Precision

If we look at what’s happening with FP16 training (mixed precision) we have:

  • the model has two copies in memory: one in half-precision for the forward/backward computations and one in full precision - no memory saved here

  • the forward activations saved for gradient computation are in half-precision - memory is saved here

  • the gradients are computed in half-precision but converted to full-precision for the update, no saving there

  • the optimizer states are in full precision as all the updates are done in full-precision

So the savings only happen for the forward activations saved for the backward computation, and there is a slight overhead because the model weights are stored both in half- and full-precision.

Now let’s look at a simple text-classification fine-tuning on 2 GPUs (I’m giving the command for reference):

export BS=16
python -m torch.distributed.launch \
    --nproc_per_node 2 examples/pytorch/text-classification/ \
    --model_name_or_path bert-base-cased \
    --task_name mrpc \
    --do_train \
    --do_eval \
    --max_seq_length 128 \
    --per_device_train_batch_size $BS \
    --learning_rate 2e-5 \
    --num_train_epochs 3.0 \
    --output_dir /tmp/mrpc \
    --overwrite_output_dir \

Since the only savings we get are in the model activations saved for the backward passed, it’s logical that the bigger those activations are, the bigger the saving will be. If we try different batch sizes, I indeed get (this is with nvidia-smi so not completely reliable as said above but it will be a fair comparison):

batch size w/o --fp16 w/ --fp16 savings
8 4247 4163 84
16 4971 4793 178
32 6827 6207 620
64 10037 8061 1976

So there is only a real memory saving if we train at a high batch size (and it’s not half) and at batch sizes lower than 8, you actually get a bigger memory footprint (because of the overhead mentioned above). The gain for FP16 training is that in each of those cases, the training with the flag --fp16 is twice as fast, which does require every tensor to have every dimension be a multiple of 8 (examples pad the tensors to a sequence length that is a multiple of 8).

Summary: FP16 with apex or AMP will only give you some memory savings with a reasonably high batch size.

Additionally, under mixed precision when possible, it’s important that the batch size is a multiple of 8 to efficiently use tensor cores.

Some amazing tutorials to read on mixed precision:

fp16 caching

pytorch autocast which performs AMP include a caching feature, which speed things up by caching fp16-converted values. Here is the full description from this comment:

Autocast maintains a cache of the FP16 casts of model params (leaves). This helps streamline parameter reuse: if the same FP32 param is used in several different FP16list ops, like several matmuls, instead of re-casting the param to FP16 on entering each matmul, the cast will occur on the first matmul, the casted FP16 copy will be cached, and for all later matmuls the FP16 copy will be reused. The cache is maintained only within a particular outermost autocast context. When you exit the autocast context the cache is dropped. For recommended usage, in which autocast wraps the forward pass, and then you exit the context before calling backward(), this means the cache only lasts the duration of the forward pass each iteration, and will be rebuilt next iteration. (The cache of FP16-casted copies MUST be rebuilt each iteration. The FP32 params get updated by the optimizer, so the FP16 copies must be recreated, otherwise the FP16 values will be stale.)

Gradient Checkpointing

One way to use significantly less GPU memory is to enabled “Gradient Checkpointing” (also known as “activation checkpointing”). When enabled, a lot of memory can be freed at the cost of small decrease in the training speed due to recomputing parts of the graph during back-propagation.

This technique was first shared in the paper: Training Deep Nets with Sublinear Memory Cost. The paper will also give you the exact details on the savings, but it’s in the ballpark of O(sqrt(n)), where n is the number of feed-forward layers.

To activate this feature in 🤗 Transformers for models that support it, use:


or add --gradient_checkpointing to the Trainer arguments.

Batch sizes

One gets the most efficient performance when batch sizes and input/output neuron counts are divisible by a certain number, which typically starts at 8, but can be much higher as well. That number varies a lot depending on the specific hardware being used and the dtype of the model.

For example for fully connected layers (which correspond to GEMMs), NVIDIA provides recommendations for input/output neuron counts and batch size.

Tensor Core Requirements define the multiplier based on the dtype and the hardware. For example, for fp16 a multiple of 8 is recommended, but on A100 it’s 64!

For parameters that are small, there is also Dimension Quantization Effects to consider, this is where tiling happens and the right multiplier can have a significant speedup.


DistributedDataParallel (DDP) is typically faster than DataParallel (DP), but it is not always the case:

  • while DP is python threads-based, DDP is multiprocess-based - and as such it has no python threads limitations, such as GIL

  • on the other hand a slow inter-connectivity between the GPU cards could lead to an actual slower outcome with DDP

Here are the main differences in the inter-GPU communication overhead between the two modes:


  • At the start time the main process replicates the model once from gpu 0 to the rest of gpus

  • Then for each batch:

    1. each gpu consumes each own mini-batch of data directly

    2. during backward, once the local gradients are ready, they are then averaged across all processes


For each batch:

  1. gpu 0 reads the batch of data and then sends a mini-batch to each gpu

  2. replicates the up-to-date model from gpu 0 to each gpu

  3. runs forward and sends output from each gpu to gpu 0, computes loss

  4. scatters loss from gpu 0 to all gpus, runs backward

  5. sends gradients from each gpu to gpu 0 and averages those

The only communication DDP performs per batch is sending gradients, whereas DP does 5 different data exchanges per batch.

DP copies data within the process via python threads, whereas DDP copies data via torch.distributed.

Under DP gpu 0 performs a lot more work than the rest of the gpus, thus resulting in under-utilization of gpus.

You can use DDP across multiple machines, but this is not the case with DP.

There are other differences between DP and DDP but they aren’t relevant to this discussion.

If you want to go really deep into understanding these 2 modes, this article is highly recommended, as it has great diagrams, includes multiple benchmarks and profiler outputs on various hardware, explains all the nuances that you may need to know.

Let’s look at an actual benchmark:

Type NVlink Time
2:DP Y 110s
2:DDP Y 101s
2:DDP N 131s


Here DP is ~10% slower than DDP w/ NVlink, but ~15% faster than DDP w/o NVlink

The real difference will depend on how much data each GPU needs to sync with the others - the more there is to sync, the more a slow link will slow down the total runtime.

Here is the full benchmark code and outputs:

NCCL_P2P_DISABLE=1 was used to disable the NVLink feature on the corresponding benchmark.

# DP
rm -r /tmp/test-clm; CUDA_VISIBLE_DEVICES=0,1 \
python examples/pytorch/language-modeling/ \
--model_name_or_path gpt2 --dataset_name wikitext --dataset_config_name wikitext-2-raw-v1 \
--do_train --output_dir /tmp/test-clm --per_device_train_batch_size 4 --max_steps 200

{'train_runtime': 110.5948, 'train_samples_per_second': 1.808, 'epoch': 0.69}

# DDP w/ NVlink
rm -r /tmp/test-clm; CUDA_VISIBLE_DEVICES=0,1 \
python -m torch.distributed.launch --nproc_per_node 2 examples/pytorch/language-modeling/ \
--model_name_or_path gpt2 --dataset_name wikitext --dataset_config_name wikitext-2-raw-v1 \
--do_train --output_dir /tmp/test-clm --per_device_train_batch_size 4 --max_steps 200

{'train_runtime': 101.9003, 'train_samples_per_second': 1.963, 'epoch': 0.69}

# DDP w/o NVlink
rm -r /tmp/test-clm; NCCL_P2P_DISABLE=1 CUDA_VISIBLE_DEVICES=0,1 \
python -m torch.distributed.launch --nproc_per_node 2 examples/pytorch/language-modeling/ \
--model_name_or_path gpt2 --dataset_name wikitext --dataset_config_name wikitext-2-raw-v1 \
--do_train --output_dir /tmp/test-clm --per_device_train_batch_size 4 --max_steps 200

{'train_runtime': 131.4367, 'train_samples_per_second': 1.522, 'epoch': 0.69}

Hardware: 2x TITAN RTX 24GB each + NVlink with 2 NVLinks (NV2 in nvidia-smi topo -m) Software: pytorch-1.8-to-be + cuda-11.0 / transformers==4.3.0.dev0


One of the important requirements to reach great training speed is the ability to feed the GPU at the maximum speed it can handle. By default everything happens in the main process and it might not be able to read the data from disk fast enough, and thus create a bottleneck, leading to GPU under-utilization.

  • DataLoader(pin_memory=True, ...) which ensures that the data gets preloaded into the pinned memory on CPU and typically leads to much faster transfers from CPU to GPU memory.

  • DataLoader(num_workers=4, ...) - spawn several workers to pre-load data faster - during training watch the GPU utilization stats and if it’s far from 100% experiment with raising the number of workers. Of course, the problem could be elsewhere so a very big number of workers won’t necessarily lead to a better performance.

Faster optimizer

pytorch-nightly introduced torch.optim._multi_tensor which should significantly speed up the optimizers for situations with lots of small feature tensors. It should eventually become the default, but if you want to experiment with it sooner and don’t mind using the bleed-edge, see:


This document is far from being complete and a lot more needs to be added, so if you have additions or corrections to make please don’t hesitate to open a PR or if you aren’t sure start an Issue and we can discuss the details there.

When making contributions that A is better than B, please try to include a reproducible benchmark and/or a link to the source of that information (unless it comes directly from you).