• Tutorials >
  • Introduction to Distributed Pipeline Parallelism

Introduction to Distributed Pipeline Parallelism

Authors: Howard Huang


edit View and edit this tutorial in github.

This tutorial uses a gpt-style transformer model to demonstrate implementing distributed pipeline parallelism with torch.distributed.pipelining APIs.

What you will learn
  • How to use torch.distributed.pipelining APIs

  • How to apply pipeline parallelism to a transformer model

  • How to utilize different schedules on a set of microbatches



With torch.distributed.pipelining we will be partitioning the execution of a model and scheduling computation on micro-batches. We will be using a simplified version of a transformer decoder model. The model architecture is for educational purposes and has multiple transformer decoder layers as we want to demonstrate how to split the model into different chunks. First, let us define the model:

import torch
import torch.nn as nn
from dataclasses import dataclass

class ModelArgs:
   dim: int = 512
   n_layers: int = 8
   n_heads: int = 8
   vocab_size: int = 10000

class Transformer(nn.Module):
   def __init__(self, model_args: ModelArgs):

      self.tok_embeddings = nn.Embedding(model_args.vocab_size, model_args.dim)

      # Using a ModuleDict lets us delete layers witout affecting names,
      # ensuring checkpoints will correctly save and load.
      self.layers = torch.nn.ModuleDict()
      for layer_id in range(model_args.n_layers):
            self.layers[str(layer_id)] = nn.TransformerDecoderLayer(model_args.dim, model_args.n_heads)

      self.norm = nn.LayerNorm(model_args.dim)
      self.output = nn.Linear(model_args.dim, model_args.vocab_size)

   def forward(self, tokens: torch.Tensor):
      # Handling layers being 'None' at runtime enables easy pipeline splitting
      h = self.tok_embeddings(tokens) if self.tok_embeddings else tokens

      for layer in self.layers.values():
            h = layer(h, h)

      h = self.norm(h) if self.norm else h
      output = self.output(h).float() if self.output else h
      return output

Then, we need to import the necessary libraries in our script and initialize the distributed training process. In this case, we are defining some global variables to use later in the script:

import os
import torch.distributed as dist
from torch.distributed.pipelining import pipeline, SplitPoint, PipelineStage, ScheduleGPipe

global rank, device, pp_group, stage_index, num_stages
def init_distributed():
   global rank, device, pp_group, stage_index, num_stages
   rank = int(os.environ["LOCAL_RANK"])
   world_size = int(os.environ["WORLD_SIZE"])
   device = torch.device(f"cuda:{rank}") if torch.cuda.is_available() else torch.device("cpu")

   # This group can be a sub-group in the N-D parallel case
   pp_group = dist.new_group()
   stage_index = rank
   num_stages = world_size

The rank, world_size, and init_process_group() code should seem familiar to you as those are commonly used in all distributed programs. The globals specific to pipeline parallelism include pp_group which is the process group that will be used for send/recv communications, stage_index which, in this example, is a single rank per stage so the index is equivalent to the rank, and num_stages which is equivalent to world_size.

The num_stages is used to set the number of stages that will be used in the pipeline parallelism schedule. For example, for num_stages=4, a microbatch will need to go through 4 forwards and 4 backwards before it is completed. The stage_index is necessary for the framework to know how to communicate between stages. For example, for the first stage (stage_index=0), it will use data from the dataloader and does not need to receive data from any previous peers to perform its computation.

Step 1: Partition the Transformer Model

There are two different ways of partitioning the model:

First is the manual mode in which we can manually create two instances of the model by deleting portions of attributes of the model. In this example for a 2 stage (2 ranks) the model is cut in half.

def manual_model_split(model, example_input_microbatch, model_args) -> PipelineStage:
   if stage_index == 0:
      # prepare the first stage model
      for i in range(4, 8):
            del model.layers[str(i)]
      model.norm = None
      model.output = None
      stage_input_microbatch = example_input_microbatch

   elif stage_index == 1:
      # prepare the second stage model
      for i in range(4):
            del model.layers[str(i)]
      model.tok_embeddings = None
      stage_input_microbatch = torch.randn(example_input_microbatch.shape[0], example_input_microbatch.shape[1], model_args.dim)

   stage = PipelineStage(
   return stage

As we can see the first stage does not have the layer norm or the output layer, and it only includes the first four transformer blocks. The second stage does not have the input embedding layers, but includes the output layers and the final four transformer blocks. The function then returns the PipelineStage for the current rank.

The second method is the tracer-based mode which automatically splits the model based on a split_spec argument. Using the pipeline specification, we can instruct torch.distributed.pipelining where to split the model. In the following code block, we are splitting before the before 4th transformer decoder layer, mirroring the manual split described above. Similarly, we can retrieve a PipelineStage by calling build_stage after this splitting is done.

Step 2: Define The Main Execution

In the main function we will create a particular pipeline schedule that the stages should follow. torch.distributed.pipelining supports multiple schedules including supports multiple schedules, including single-stage-per-rank schedules GPipe and 1F1B, as well as multiple-stage-per-rank schedules such as Interleaved1F1B and LoopedBFS.

if __name__ == "__main__":
   num_microbatches = 4
   model_args = ModelArgs()
   model = Transformer(model_args)

   # Dummy data
   x = torch.ones(32, 500, dtype=torch.long)
   y = torch.randint(0, model_args.vocab_size, (32, 500), dtype=torch.long)
   example_input_microbatch = x.chunk(num_microbatches)[0]

   # Option 1: Manual model splitting
   stage = manual_model_split(model, example_input_microbatch, model_args)

   # Option 2: Tracer model splitting
   # stage = tracer_model_split(model, example_input_microbatch)

   x = x.to(device)
   y = y.to(device)

   def tokenwise_loss_fn(outputs, targets):
      loss_fn = nn.CrossEntropyLoss()
      outputs = outputs.view(-1, model_args.vocab_size)
      targets = targets.view(-1)
      return loss_fn(outputs, targets)

   schedule = ScheduleGPipe(stage, n_microbatches=num_microbatches, loss_fn=tokenwise_loss_fn)

   if rank == 0:
   elif rank == 1:
      losses = []
      output = schedule.step(target=y, losses=losses)

In the example above, we are using the manual method to split the model, but the code can be uncommented to also try the tracer-based model splitting function. In our schedule, we need to pass in the number of microbatches and the loss function used to evaluate the targets.

The .step() function processes the entire minibatch and automatically splits it into microbatches based on the n_microbatches passed previously. The microbatches are then operated on according to the schedule class. In the example above, we are using GPipe, which follows a simple all-forwards and then all-backwards schedule. The output returned from rank 1 will be the same as if the model was on a single GPU and run with the entire batch. Similarly, we can pass in a losses container to store the corresponding losses for each microbatch.

Step 3: Launch the Distributed Processes

Finally, we are ready to run the script. We will use torchrun to create a single host, 2-process job. Our script is already written in a way rank 0 that performs the required logic for pipeline stage 0, and rank 1 performs the logic for pipeline stage 1.

torchrun --nnodes 1 --nproc_per_node 2 pipelining_tutorial.py


In this tutorial, we have learned how to implement distributed pipeline parallelism using PyTorch’s torch.distributed.pipelining APIs. We explored setting up the environment, defining a transformer model, and partitioning it for distributed training. We discussed two methods of model partitioning, manual and tracer-based, and demonstrated how to schedule computations on micro-batches across different stages. Finally, we covered the execution of the pipeline schedule and the launch of distributed processes using torchrun.

For a production ready usage of pipeline parallelism as well as composition with other distributed techniques, see also TorchTitan end to end example of 3D parallelism.


Access comprehensive developer documentation for PyTorch

View Docs


Get in-depth tutorials for beginners and advanced developers

View Tutorials


Find development resources and get your questions answered

View Resources