Reading from Disk inside the TensorFlow Graph

Wednesday April 12, 2017

As I've noted, the TensorFlow input pipeline misleadingly described as "reading from files" is far more complicated than many people need or want to deal with. Indeed, TensorFlow developers realize this and are thinking about adding alternative interfaces for getting data in to TensorFlow programs.

You can still use any method you like for loading data in Python and then put it in your TensorFlow graph via the feed_dict method. But say you do want to do your file reading with ops that live inside the TensorFlow graph. How does it work?

TensorFlow does have tf.read_file and tf.write_file, which let you read and write whole files at once, something like regular Python and file.write(). But you likely want something a little more helpful.

In Python, you can read lines from a file like this:

>>> reader = open('filename.txt'):
>>> for line in reader:
>>>    print(line)

TensorFlow has readers that generalize this idea of getting multiple things, like lines, from files. The immediate example is the tf.TextLineReader. There are also readers that read records from TFRecords files, or just fixed number of bytes at a time from arbitrary files. Reading a whole file at a time is sort of degenerate case.

Instead of taking a filename, however, TensorFlow readers take a queue of filenames. This can be useful:

It's a little awkward to use a queue when you just want to read from one file, but that's how TensorFlow works.

TensorFlow's file reading gets tangled up with its threading QueueRunner because they're often shown together, but this is not necessary. We can set up a quick and dirty one-item queue like this:

>>> import tensorflow as tf
>>> filename_queue = tf.FIFOQueue(capacity=1, dtypes=[tf.string])
>>> session = tf.Session()

We make a reader and tell it to read from files in the queue. There are two outputs that update every time you evaluate either of them:

>>> reader = tf.TextLineReader()
>>> key, value =
>>>[key, value])
['limerick.txt:1', 'This limerick goes in reverse']
>>>[key, value])
['limerick.txt:2', "Unless I'm remiss"]
>>>[key, value])
['limerick.txt:3', 'The neat thing is this:']
>>>[key, value])
['limerick.txt:4', 'If you start from the bottom-most verse']
>>>[key, value])
['limerick.txt:5', "This limerick's not any worse"]
>>>[key, value])
# raises `OutOfRangeError`

The limerick is due to Zach Weinersmith.

If we hadn't closed the filename queue, that last would block, waiting for somebody to add another filename to the filename queue.

If we had added more filenames to the filename queue, the reader would continue happily reading from the next, and the next.

The records here are lines of simple ASCII text, so we can immediately see them clearly in the REPL. But for many types of data you'll need a decoder.

To read CSV files, you would read text lines just as above, and then use the tf.decode_csv decoder on value. The tf.decode_raw decoder turns raw bytes into standard TensorFlow datatypes. And you can parse TFRecords examples.

Boom! Reading files inside the graph!

I'm working on Building TensorFlow systems from components, a workshop at OSCON 2017.