Analyzing tf.function to discover AutoGraph strengths and subtleties - part 2

In part 1 we learned how to convert a 1.x code to its eager version, the eager version to its graph representation and faced the problems that arise when working with functions that create a state.

In this second part, we’ll analyze what happens when instead of a tf.Variable we pass a tf.Tensor or a Python native type as input to a tf.function decorated function. Are we sure everything is going to be converted to the Graph representation we expect?

tf.function uses AutoGraph

For sake of clarity, below is reported the complete signature of the tf.function function:

def function(func=None,

The default value of the autograph parameter is True, hence this means that tf.function uses AutoGraph. The documentation describes what happens when autograph is True or False.

Quoting the documentation:

  • When autograph is True, all Python code that depends on Tensor values is staged into a TensorFlow graph.
  • When autograph is False, the function is traced and control flow is not allowed to depend on data.

Thus, by default tf.function uses AutoGraph and we are going to analyze how it behaves by changing the input types and the function structure.

Changing tf.Tensor input type

Let’s start by defining our test Python function. The function parameters type is of fundamental importance since is used to create a graph, that is a statically typed object, and to assign it an ID (for a complete and informal explanation of what’s going on when calling the function for the first time, see tf.function: layman explanation).

def f(x):
    print("Python execution: ", x)
    tf.print("Graph execution: ", x)
    return x

Here’s the brief function description:

  • Line 1: the function accepts a Python variable x that can be literally everything.
  • Line 2: the print function is executed once, only during the function creation.
  • Line 3: the tf.print function is executed every time the graph is evaluated.
  • Line 4: x is returned.

Let’s see if everything goes as we expect by running some test.

print("##### float32 test #####")
a = tf.constant(1, dtype=tf.float32)
print("first call")
a = tf.constant(1.1, dtype=tf.float32)
print("second call")

print("##### uint8 test #####")

b = tf.constant(2, dtype=tf.uint8)
print("first call")
b = tf.constant(3, dtype=tf.uint8)
print("second call")

Everything goes as we expect:

##### float32 test #####
first call
Python execution:  Tensor("x:0", shape=(), dtype=float32)
Graph execution:  1
second call
Graph execution:  1.1
##### uint8 test #####
first call
Python execution:  Tensor("x:0", shape=(), dtype=uint8)
Graph execution:  2
second call
Graph execution:  3

A graph is created for every different input type of the tf.Tensor object passed. We can have a look at the graph version of the function f by using the tf.autograph module.


returns a string that represents the graph code of the python function f.

def tf__f(x):
    with ag__.function_scope('f'):
      do_return = False
      retval_ = None
      with ag__.utils.control_dependency_on_returns(ag__.converted_call(print, None, ag__.ConversionOptions(recursive=True, force_conversion=False, optional_features=ag__.Feature.ALL, internal_convert_user_code=True), ('Python execution: ', x), {})):
        tf_1, x_1 = ag__.utils.alias_tensors(tf, x)
        with ag__.utils.control_dependency_on_returns(ag__.converted_call('print', tf_1, ag__.ConversionOptions(recursive=True, force_conversion=False, optional_features=ag__.Feature.ALL, internal_convert_user_code=True), ('Graph execution: ', x_1), {})):
          x_2 = ag__.utils.alias_tensors(x_1)
          do_return = True
          retval_ = x_1
          return retval_

The code is machine generated and therefore hard to read. However, we can notice something interesting: in the Graph code, we can still find some reference to the Python code that’s executed only on the first-call.

(rewritten and formatted for clarity)

with ag__.utils.control_dependency_on_returns(
            print, None, ag__.ConversionOptions(
            ('Python execution: ', x), {})

We can see that ag__.utils.control_dependency_on_returns creates a tf.control_dependency context manager when the function created by converted_call returns. This allows preserving the execution order in graph mode, forcing the execution of the nodes to be sequential.

The converted_call function compiles a function call. This function has all the information required to convert and execute a function call (print in this case) as we can see analyzing its signature. That is (f, owner, options, args, kwargs) where:

  • f is the function we are interested in calling. In this case print, in the next call (graph execution) the string 'print'.
  • owner is the function package or its owner. In this case is None since print is the standard Python print function, in the next call instead is tf_1 that is an alias for the tf package.
  • options are the conversion options.
  • args are the function f (print) positional arguments.
  • kwargs are the function f (print) named arguments.

Question Time:

Begin a graph, why is there a reference to the Python code that it should be executed only on the first call when tracing the function execution?


My guess is that while tracing the function execution on the first-call there is no easy way to understand if a Python function produces some side effect that will change the graph behavior and for this reason (and to be sure to preserve the execution order) every python function invoked on the first-call is traced and added to the graph.

If during the execution of the function (in this case a print, but it could be any arbitrary complex function) a side effect is detected (a call to a tf. method) then the graph code is updated; otherwise, as in this case, the operation is converted to a tf.no_op by the converted_call.

This is my guess since we don’t see any output or side effect generated by the print converted call, while we do see them when using the tf.print function (now, node).

Since this behavior is not clear, and I’m only guessing what’s going on, I asked on the Tensorflow Developers Group an explanation; if you are curious about this behavior please subscribe to the mailing list and monitor that thread!

Using a Python native type

The function input is not constrained to be a tf.Tensor object; AutoGraph understands the input type and creates a new Graph accordingly. Let’s see if there is something different between using a tf.Tensor object (that has a dtype parameter and thus has a well-defined type) and a Python native type.

Since in Python there are only three distinct numeric types (integers, floating point numbers, and complex numbers) we’ll test how tf.function behaves with all of them.

def printinfo(x):
  print("Type: ", type(x), " value: ", x)

print("##### int test #####")
print("first call")
a = 1
print("second call")
b = 2

print("##### float test #####")
print("first call")
a = 1.0
print("second call")
b = 2.0

print("##### complex test #####")
print("first call")
a = complex(1.0, 2.0)
print("second call")
b = complex(2.0, 1.0)

Differently from the tf.Tensor input case, the behavior is different from the expected:

##### int test #####
first call
Type:  <class 'int'>  value:  1
Python execution:  1
Graph execution:  1

second call
Type:  <class 'int'>  value:  2
Python execution:  2
Graph execution:  2

##### float test #####
first call
Type:  <class 'float'>  value:  1.0
Graph execution:  1
second call
Type:  <class 'float'>  value:  2.0
Graph execution:  2

##### complex test #####
first call
Type:  <class 'complex'>  value:  (1+2j)
Python execution:  (1+2j)
Graph execution:  (1+2j)
second call
Type:  <class 'complex'>  value:  (2+1j)
Python execution:  (2+1j)
Graph execution:  (2+1j)

We expect a Graph for type, but instead, if we look carefully we have a different graph per input value. In fact:

  1. The first call f(1) executes the Python code, traces its execution, creates a Graph and executes it.
  2. The second call f(2) executes the Python code again, traces its execution, creates a Graph and executes it.
  3. The first call `f(1.0) does not execute the python code, therefore is using an already existing Graph.
  4. The second call f(2.0) does not execute the python code, therefore behaves like 3.
  5. The first call f(1 + 2j) behaves like 1.
  6. The first call f(2 + 1j) behaves like 2.

This is weird.

Are we sure that tf.function is creating a different Graph for every input value? Let’s check it.

The function f returns the input parameter x passed as input, thus we can check if the input type returned matches the one passed. Since we defined first the graph for the integer values 1 and 2, let’s see if the call f(1.0) and f(2.0) return, as we expect, the integer value or not.

ret = f(1.0)
if tf.float32 == ret.dtype:
    print("f(1.0) returns float")
    print("f(1.0) return ", ret)

The output is

Graph execution:  1
f(1.0) return  tf.Tensor(1, shape=(), dtype=int32)

We can conclude that the ID associated with the graph is built using the input parameters value when using Python native types (1.0 == 1) causing this weird behavior.

Warning: this is highly inefficient since every time a tf.function decorated function is called with a different input value, both the Python execution + tracing and Graph creation must be executed, making the Graph conversion useless.

Performance measurement

The following code is a simple benchmark to check if the previous reasoning is correct.

def g(x):
  return x

start = time.time()
for i in tf.range(1000):
end = time.time()

print("tf.Tensor time elapsed: ", (end-start))

start = time.time()
for i in range(1000):
end = time.time()

print("Native type time elapsed: ", (end-start))

The g function, decorated with tf.function, is executed the first time in a loop of tf.Tensor objects, all created with the same dtype tf.int32 by the tf.range call, while the second time it is executed in a loop of Python integers.

The benchmark confirms the hypothesis:

tf.Tensor time elapsed:  0.41594886779785156
Native type time elapsed:  5.189513444900513

Conclusion: do use tf.Tensor everywhere.

AutoGraph is highly optimized and works well when the input is a tf.Tensor object, while it creates a new graph for every different input parameter value with a huge drop in performance.

Is tf.function really using AutoGraph?

The signature of tf.function clearly states that autograph=True, therefore we expect that the function is converted by using tracing + autograph; let’s check if it is true.

Experimenting I found out that there are functions (like functions without a return value) that tf.autograph.to_code can’t convert, but that work correctly if decorated with tf.function and called.

Let’s just update the function f removing the return statement.

def f(x):
    print("Python execution: ", x)
    tf.print("Graph execution: ", x)

If called twice it works correctly (f(1) followed by f(1)): it executes the print function only on the first call. On every non-first call, it prints only the tf.print output.

This is the behavior we expect when a function is traced first, then graph converted, then an ID is assigned to the graph and the graph is being re-used.

Something weird happens if we try to look at the code, as we did it before, generated by the autograph to_code method; in fact


raises the following exception:

ValueError during conversion: Unable to insert statement into the computation flow: it is not followed by any computation which the statement could gate.

Question time

So the question is: shouln’t tf.function use tf.autograph.to_code/tf.autograph.to_graph under the hood? How is the graph being built if to_code fails?


It seems that tf.function builds and stores a graph correctly since on every non-first call we got only the tf.print output. However, tf.autograph.to_code fails raising a ValueError; if tf.function uses tf.autograph internally, probably this exception is caught inside the tf.function body and handled somehow in order to simulate the graph execution.

This is just a guess and in the previously linked thread, I’ve asked for an additional explanation of this behavior; as for the previous question, if you are curious about this behavior please subscribe to the mailing list and monitor that thread!


In this article we analyzed the behavior of tf.function when AutoGraph is used and discovered that a @tf.function decorated function:

  • behaves as we expect if we use a tf.Tensor as input type (please use tf.Tensor everywhere!),
  • creates a new graph (or it behaves like is creating it) if the input is a Python native type; in this case, the graph seems created by looking at the parameters’ value (please use tf.Tensor everywhere!)²,
  • reuses the first graph created for a Python native type comparing the parameters input values (not the type, thus 1.0 == 1),
  • contains still a reference to the Python code executed only once in the graph-converted code.

In addition, we found out that certain functions work with tf.function but the autograph module can’t convert them; how is this possible?

This second part was thought to be the last one, but due to the overwhelming list of peculiarities to know and analyze, the behavior of tf.function and AutoGraph when the function body is more complex than a print function invocation haven’t been analyzed yet; so stay tuned for the part 3!

If you find this article useful, feel free to share it using the buttons below!

Update: link to part 3.

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