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Tips for Loading an nn.Module from a Checkpoint

Author: Mikayla Gawarecki

If you’re loading a checkpoint and want to reduce compute and memory as much as possible, this tutorial shares some recommended practices. In particular, we will discuss

  1. The mmap keyword argument on torch.load

  2. The torch.device() context manager

  3. The assign keyword argument on nn.Module.load_state_dict()


This recipe requires PyTorch 2.1.0 or later.

Let us consider a simple nn.Module that contains a list of Linear layers:

import torch
from torch import nn
import time

class SomeModule(torch.nn.Module):
    def __init__(self, size):
        self.linears = nn.ModuleList([nn.Linear(size, size) for i in range(10)])

    def forward(self, x):
        return self.linears(x)

m = SomeModule(1000)
torch.save(m.state_dict(), 'checkpoint.pth')

The following snippet demonstrates the use of the the mmap keyword argument to torch.load, the torch.device() context manager and the assign keyword argument to nn.Module.load_state_dict().

state_dict = torch.load('checkpoint.pth', mmap=True)
with torch.device('meta'):
  meta_m = SomeModule(1000)
meta_m.load_state_dict(state_dict, assign=True)
<All keys matched successfully>

Compare the snippet below to the one above:

state_dict = torch.load('checkpoint.pth')
m = SomeModule(1000)
<All keys matched successfully>

The second example does not use any of the features listed above and will be less compute and memory efficient for loading a checkpoint. In the following sections, we will discuss each of the features in further detail.

Using torch.load(mmap=True)

First, let us consider what happens when we load the checkpoint with torch.load. When we save a checkpoint with torch.save, tensor storages are tagged with the device they are saved on. With torch.load, tensor storages will be loaded to the device they were tagged with (unless this behavior is overridden using the map_location flag). For ease of explanation, let us assume that the tensors were saved on CPU. This means that on the first line all tensor storages will be loaded into CPU RAM, which can be undesirable when:

  • CPU RAM is smaller than the size of the checkpoint.

  • Waiting for the entire checkpoint to be loaded into RAM before performing, for example, some per-tensor processing.

start_time = time.time()
state_dict = torch.load('checkpoint.pth')
end_time = time.time()
print(f"loading time without mmap={end_time - start_time}")
loading time without mmap=0.014171123504638672

The mmap keyword argument to torch.load attempts to solve the above two problems. As its name implies, the mmap keyword argument to torch.load makes use of an mmap call which maps a file on disk into virtual memory and lets the OS handle loading and unloading into physical memory automatically. When this flag is passed, tensor storages will be memory-mapped.

start_time = time.time()
state_dict = torch.load('checkpoint.pth', mmap=True)
end_time = time.time()
print(f"loading time with mmap={end_time - start_time}")
loading time with mmap=0.0015861988067626953

As mentioned above, one can use this argument to do per-tensor processing on a checkpoint without loading all tensor storages into CPU memory upfront. For example:

def my_special_routine(t, device):
    # this could be a much fancier operation
    return t.to(dtype=torch.bfloat16, device=device)

def my_processing_function(key, device):
    t = state_dict[key]
    processed_t = my_special_routine(t, device)
    del t
    state_dict[key] = processed_t

for key in state_dict.keys():
    device = torch.device('cuda')
    my_processing_function(key, device)

Using torch.device('meta')

Next, let’s consider the creation of the module.

m = SomeModule(1000)

This allocates memory for all parameters/buffers and initializes them per the default initialization schemes defined in SomeModule.__init__(), which is wasteful when we want to load a checkpoint for the following reasons:

  • The result of the initialization kernels will be overwritten by load_state_dict() without ever being used, so initialization is wasteful.

  • We are allocating memory for these parameters/buffers in RAM while torch.load of the saved state dictionary also allocates memory in RAM for the parameters/buffers in the checkpoint.

In order to solve these two problems, we can use the torch.device() context manager with device='meta' when we instantiate the nn.Module().

The torch.device() context manager makes sure that factory calls will be performed as if they were passed the specified device as an argument. Tensors on torch.device('meta') do not carry data. However, they possess all other metadata a tensor carries such as .size(), .stride(), .requires_grad, and others.

with torch.device('meta'):
  new_m = SomeModule(1000)

Using load_state_dict(assign=True)

Next, we consider the loading of the state dictionary.

<All keys matched successfully>

nn.Module.load_state_dict() is usually implemented via an in-place param_in_model.copy_(param_in_state_dict). This means that the parameter/buffer with the corresponding key in the state dictionary is copied into the parameter/buffer in the nn.Module.

However, an in-place copy into a tensor on the meta device is a no-op. In order to avoid this, we can pass the assign=True keyword argument to load_state_dict().

A caveat here is that since optimizers hold a reference to nn.Module.parameters(), the optimizer must be initialized after the module is loaded from state dict if assign=True is passed.

# As of PyTorch 2.3.0, one can use ``torch.__future__.set_swap_module_params_on_conversion`` to
# avoid this caveat. This `recipe <https://pytorch.org/tutorials/recipes/recipes/swap_tensors.html>`_
# provides more details.

new_m.load_state_dict(state_dict, assign=True)
# Before 2.3.0, this MUST be done AFTER the load_state_dict with assign.
# In versions >= 2.3.0, one can consider setting ``torch.__future__.set_swap_module_params_on_conversion``
opt = torch.optim.SGD(new_m.parameters(), lr=1e-3)


To recap, in this tutorial we learned about torch.load(mmap=True), the torch.device() context manager with device=meta, and nn.Module.load_state_dict(assign=True) as well as how these tools could be used to aid when loading a model from a checkpoint.

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