TensorFlow Dataset API tutorial – build high performance data pipelines

TensorFlow Dataset tutorial - MNIST example output
TensorFlow Dataset tutorial - MNIST example output

Consuming data efficiently becomes really paramount to training performance in deep learning. In a previous post I discussed the TensorFlow data queuing framework. However, TensorFlow development is always on the move and they have now created a more streamlined and efficient way of setting up data input pipelines. This TensorFlow Dataset tutorial will show you how to use this Dataset framework to enable you to produce highly efficient input data pipelines. This is an important topic which isn’t covered very well in most TensorFlow tutorials – rather, these tutorials will often use the feed_dict and placeholder method of feeding data into the model. This method of feeding data into your network in TensorFlow is inefficient and will likely slow down your training for large, realistic datasets – see a discussion about this on the TensorFlow website. Why is this framework better than the feed_dict method that is so commonly used? Simply, all of the operations to transform data and feed it into the model which can be performed with the Dataset API i.e. reading the data from arrays and files, transforming it, shuffling it etc. can all be automatically optimized and paralleled to provide efficient consumption of data.

In this TensorFlow Dataset tutorial, I will show you how to use the framework with some simple examples, and finally show you how to consume the scikit-learn MNIST dataset to create an MNIST classifier. As always, the code for this tutorial can be found on this site’s Github repository.


Recommended online course: If you’d like to learn more about TensorFlow I’d recommend the following inexpensive Udemy course: Complete Guide to TensorFlow for Deep Learning with Python

The TensorFlow Dataset framework – main components

The TensorFlow Dataset framework has two main components:

  • The Dataset
  • An associated Iterator

The Dataset is basically where the data resides. This data can be loaded in from a number of sources – existing tensors, numpy arrays and numpy files, the TFRecord format and direct from text files. Once you’ve loaded the data into the Dataset object, you can string together various operations to apply to the data, these include operations such as:

  • batch() – this allows you to consume the data from your TensorFlow Dataset in batches
  • map() – this allows you to transform the data using lambda statements applied to each element
  • zip() – this allows you to zip together different Dataset objects into a new Dataset, in a similar way to the Python zip function
  • filter() – this allows you to remove problematic data-points in your data-set, again based on some lambda function
  • repeat() – this operation restricts the number of times data is consumed from the Dataset before a tf.errors.OutOfRangeError error is thrown
  • shuffle() – this operation shuffles the data in the Dataset

There are many other methods that the Dataset API includes – see here for more details.  The next component in the TensorFlow Dataset framework is the Iterator. This creates operations which can be called during the training, validation and/or testing of your model in TensorFlow. I’ll introduce more of both components in some examples below.

Simple TensorFlow Dataset examples

In the first simple example, we’ll create a dataset out of numpy ranges:

x = np.arange(0, 10)

We can create a TensorFlow Dataset object straight from a numpy array using from_tensor_slices():

# create dataset object from numpy array
dx = tf.data.Dataset.from_tensor_slices(x)

The object dx is now a TensorFlow Dataset object. The next step is to create an Iterator that will extract data from this dataset. In the code below, the iterator is created using the method make_one_shot_iterator().  The iterator arising from this method can only be initialized and run once – it can’t be re-initialized. The importance of being able to re-initialize an iterator will be explained more later.

# create a one-shot iterator
iterator = dx.make_one_shot_iterator()
# extract an element
next_element = iterator.get_next()

After the iterator is created, the next step is to setup a TensorFlow operation which can be called from the training code to extract the next element from the dataset. Finally, the dataset operation can be examined by running the following code:

with tf.Session() as sess:
    for i in range(11):
        val = sess.run(next_element)

This code will print out integers from 0 to 9 but then throw an OutOfRangeError. This is because the code extracted all the data slices from the dataset and it is now out of range or “empty”.

If we want to repeatedly extract data from a dataset, one way we can do it is to make the dataset re-initializable. We can do that by first adjusting the make_one_shot_iterator() line to the following:

iterator = dx.make_initializable_iterator()

Then, within the TensorFlow session, the code looks like this:

with tf.Session() as sess:
    for i in range(15):
        val = sess.run(next_element)
        if i % 9 == 0 and i > 0:

Note that the first operation run is the iterator.initializer operation. This is required to get your iterator ready for action and if you don’t do this before running the next_element operation it will throw an error. The final change is the last two lines: this if statement ensures that when we know that the iterator has run out of data (i.e. i == 9), the iterator is re-initialized by the iterator.initializer operation. Running this new code will produce: 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4. No error this time!

There are also other things that can be done to manipulate the dataset and how it can be used. First, the batch function:

dx = tf.data.Dataset.from_tensor_slices(x).batch(3)

After this change, when the next_element operation is run, a batch of length 3 will be extracted from the data. Running the code below:

with tf.Session() as sess:
    for i in range(15):
        val = sess.run(next_element)
        if (i + 1) % (10 // 3) == 0 and i > 0:

Will produce an output like:

[0 1 2] [3 4 5] [6 7 8] [0 1 2] [3 4 5] [6 7 8]

and so on.

Next, we can zip together datasets. This is useful when pairing up input-output training/validation pairs of data (i.e. input images and matching labels for each image). The code below does this:

def simple_zip_example():
    x = np.arange(0, 10)
    y = np.arange(1, 11)
    # create dataset objects from the arrays
    dx = tf.data.Dataset.from_tensor_slices(x)
    dy = tf.data.Dataset.from_tensor_slices(y)
    # zip the two datasets together
    dcomb = tf.data.Dataset.zip((dx, dy)).batch(3)
    iterator = dcomb.make_initializable_iterator()
    # extract an element
    next_element = iterator.get_next()
    with tf.Session() as sess:
        for i in range(15):
            val = sess.run(next_element)
            if (i + 1) % (10 // 3) == 0 and i > 0:

The zip combination of the two datasets (dx, dy) can be seen in the line where dcomb is created. Note the chaining together of multiple operations – first the zip method, then the batching operation. The rest of the code is the same. This code will produce an output like the following:

(array([0, 1, 2]), array([1, 2, 3]))
(array([3, 4, 5]), array([4, 5, 6]))
(array([6, 7, 8]), array([7, 8, 9]))
(array([0, 1, 2]), array([1, 2, 3]))

and so on. As you can observe, the batching takes place appropriately within the zipped together datasets i.e. 3 items from dx, 3 items from dy. As stated above, this is handy for combining input data and matching labels.

Note, the re-initialization if statement on the last two lines is a bit unwieldy, we can actually get rid of it by replacing the dcomb dataset creation line with the following:

dcomb = tf.data.Dataset.zip((dx, dy)).repeat().batch(3)

Note the addition of the repeat() method to the operation list. When this method is applied to the dataset with no argument, it means that the dataset can be repeated indefinitely without throwing an OutOfRangeError. This will be shown in the next more detailed example – using the sci-kit learn MNIST dataset to create a hand-written digits classifier.

TensorFlow Dataset MNIST example

In this section, I’ll show how to create an MNIST hand-written digit classifier which will consume the MNIST image and label data from the simplified MNIST dataset supplied from the Python scikit-learn package (a must-have package for practical machine learning enthusiasts). I’ll step through the code slowly below.

First, we have to load the data from the package and split it into train and validation datasets. This can be performed with the following code:

# load the data
digits = load_digits(return_X_y=True)
# split into train and validation sets
train_images = digits[0][:int(len(digits[0]) * 0.8)]
train_labels = digits[1][:int(len(digits[0]) * 0.8)]
valid_images = digits[0][int(len(digits[0]) * 0.8):]
valid_labels = digits[1][int(len(digits[0]) * 0.8):]

The load_digits method will extract the data from the relevant location in the scikit-learn package, and the code above splits the first 80% of the data into the training arrays, and the remaining 20% into the validation arrays.

Next, the TensorFlow Datasets of the training data are created:

# create the training datasets
dx_train = tf.data.Dataset.from_tensor_slices(train_images)
# apply a one-hot transformation to each label for use in the neural network
dy_train = tf.data.Dataset.from_tensor_slices(train_labels).map(lambda z: tf.one_hot(z, 10))
# zip the x and y training data together and shuffle, batch etc.
train_dataset = tf.data.Dataset.zip((dx_train, dy_train)).shuffle(500).repeat().batch(30)

The dx_train statement is straightforward, however there is an extra element that has been added in the dy_train statement. Note the use of the map() method. The labels in the MNIST dataset are integers between 0 and 9 corresponding to the hand-written digit in the image. This integer data must be transformed into one-hot format, i.e. the integer label 4 transformed into the vector [0, 0, 0, 0, 1, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0]. To do this, the lambda statement is used, where every row (expressed as z in the above) in the label dataset is transformed into one-hot data format using the TensorFlow one_hot function. If you’d like to learn more about one hot data structures and neural networks, see my neural network tutorial.

Finally, the training x and y data is zipped together in the full train_dataset. Chained along together with this zip method is first the shuffle() dataset method. This method randomly shuffles the data, using a buffer of data specified in the argument – 500 in this case. Next, the repeat() method is used, to allow the iterator to continuously extract data from this dataset, finally the data is batched with a batch size of 30.

The same steps are used to create the validation dataset:

# do the same operations for the validation set
dx_valid = tf.data.Dataset.from_tensor_slices(valid_images)
dy_valid = tf.data.Dataset.from_tensor_slices(valid_labels).map(lambda z: tf.one_hot(z, 10))
valid_dataset = tf.data.Dataset.zip((dx_valid, dy_valid)).shuffle(500).repeat().batch(30)

Now, we want to be able to extract data from either the train_dataset or the valid_dataset seamlessly. This is important, as we don’t want to have to change how data flows through the neural network structure when all we want to do is just change the dataset the model is consuming. To do this, we can use another way of creating the Iterator object – the from_structure() method. This method creates a generic iterator object – all it needs is the data types of the data it will be outputting and the output data size/shape in order to be created. The code below uses this methodology:

# create general iterator
iterator = tf.data.Iterator.from_structure(train_dataset.output_types,
next_element = iterator.get_next()

The second line of the above creates a standard get_next() iterator operation which can be called to extract data from this generic iterator structure. Next, we need some operations which can be called during training or validating to initialize this generic iterator and “point it” to the desired dataset. These are as follows:

# make datasets that we can initialize separately, but using the same structure via the common iterator
training_init_op = iterator.make_initializer(train_dataset)
validation_init_op = iterator.make_initializer(valid_dataset)

These operations can be run to “switch over” the iterator from one dataset to another. This “switching over” will be demonstrated in code below.

Next, the neural network model is created – this is standard TensorFlow usage and in this case I will be utilizing the TensorFlow layers API to create a simple fully connected or dense neural network, with dropout and a first layer of batch normalization to effectively scale the input data. If you’d like to learn some of the basics of TensorFlow, check out my Python TensorFlow tutorial. The TensorFlow model is defined as follows:

def nn_model(in_data):
    bn = tf.layers.batch_normalization(in_data)
    fc1 = tf.layers.dense(bn, 50)
    fc2 = tf.layers.dense(fc1, 50)
    fc2 = tf.layers.dropout(fc2)
    fc3 = tf.layers.dense(fc2, 10)
    return fc3

To call this model creation function, the code below can be used:

# create the neural network model
logits = nn_model(next_element[0])

Note that the next_element operation is handled directly in the model – in other words, it doesn’t need to be called explicitly during the training loop as will be seen below. Rather, whenever any of the operations following this point in the graph are called (i.e. the loss operation, the optimization operation etc.) the TensorFlow graph structure will know to run the next_element operation and extract the data from whichever dataset has been initialized into the iterator. The next_element operation, because it is operating on the generic iterator which is defined by the shape of the train_dataset, is a tuple – the first element ([0]) will contain the MNIST images, while the second element ([1]) will contain the corresponding labels. Therefore, next_element[0] will extract the image data batch and send it into the neural network model (nn_model) as the input data.

Next are some standard TensorFlow operations to calculate the loss function, the optimization step and prediction accuracy (again, for more details see this tutorial or this one):

# add the optimizer and loss
loss = tf.reduce_sum(tf.nn.softmax_cross_entropy_with_logits_v2(labels=next_element[1], logits=logits))
optimizer = tf.train.AdamOptimizer().minimize(loss)
# get accuracy
prediction = tf.argmax(logits, 1)
equality = tf.equal(prediction, tf.argmax(next_element[1], 1))
accuracy = tf.reduce_mean(tf.cast(equality, tf.float32))
init_op = tf.global_variables_initializer()

Now we can run the training loop:

# run the training
epochs = 600
with tf.Session() as sess:
    for i in range(epochs):
        l, _, acc = sess.run([loss, optimizer, accuracy])
        if i % 50 == 0:
            print("Epoch: {}, loss: {:.3f}, training accuracy: {:.2f}%".format(i, l, acc * 100))
    # now setup the validation run
    valid_iters = 100
    # re-initialize the iterator, but this time with validation data
    avg_acc = 0
    for i in range(valid_iters):
        acc = sess.run([accuracy])
        avg_acc += acc[0]
    print("Average validation set accuracy over {} iterations is {:.2f}%".format(valid_iters,                                                                              (avg_acc / valid_iters) * 100))

As can be observed, before the main training loop is entered into, the session executes the training_init_op operation, which initializes the generic iterator to extract data from train_dataset. After running epochs iterations to train the model, we then want to check how the trained model performs on the validation dataset (valid_dataset). To do this, we can simply run the validation_init_op operation in the session to point the generic iterator to valid_dataset. Then we run the accuracy operation as per normal, knowing that the operation will be calculating the model accuracy based on the validation data, rather than the training data. Running this code will produce an output that will look something like:

TensorFlow Dataset tutorial - MNIST example output
TensorFlow Dataset tutorial – MNIST example output

Obviously not a create validation set accuracy for MNIST – but this is just an example model to demonstrate how to use the TensorFlow Dataset framework. For more accurate ways of performing image classification, check out my Convolutional Neural Network Tutorial in TensorFlow.

So there you have it – hopefully you are now in a position to use this new, streamlined data input pipeline API in TensorFlow. Enjoy your newly optimized TensorFlow code.

Recommended online course: If you’d like to learn more about TensorFlow I’d recommend the following inexpensive Udemy course: Complete Guide to TensorFlow for Deep Learning with Python


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