Train models with billions of parameters using FSDP

Use Fully Sharded Data Parallel (FSDP) to train large models with billions of parameters efficiently on multiple GPUs and across multiple machines.


This is an experimental feature.

Today, large models with billions of parameters are trained with many GPUs across several machines in parallel. Even a single H100 GPU with 80 GB of VRAM (the biggest today) is not enough to train just a 30B parameter model (even with batch size 1 and 16-bit precision). The memory consumption for training is generally made up of

  1. the model parameters,

  2. the layer activations (forward),

  3. the gradients (backward) and

  4. the optimizer states (e.g., Adam has two additional exponential averages per parameter).

When the sum of these memory components exceed the VRAM of a single GPU, regular data-parallel training (DDP) can no longer be employed. One of the methods that can alleviate this limitation is called model-parallel training, and known as FSDP in PyTorch, and in this guide, you will learn how to effectively scale large models with it.

Checklist: When to use FSDP

✅ I have multiple GPUs

✅ I have tried regular DDP training with batch size 1 but I run out of memory

✅ I have PyTorch 2.0 or newer installed

Enable FSDP in Trainer

To enable model-parallel training with FSDP in a single-line change, set strategy="fsdp":

trainer = L.Trainer(accelerator="cuda", devices=2, strategy="fsdp")

As we will see in the next sections, there are many settings we can tune to optimize memory usage and throughput, scaling to massively large models. This is equivalent to the above, but will let us configure additional settings later:

from lightning.pytorch.strategies import FSDPStrategy

trainer = L.Trainer(accelerator="cuda", devices=2, strategy=FSDPStrategy())

Here is a full code example:

import torch
import torch.nn as nn
import torch.nn.functional as F
from import DataLoader

import lightning as L
from lightning.pytorch.strategies import FSDPStrategy
from lightning.pytorch.demos import Transformer, WikiText2

class LanguageModel(L.LightningModule):
    def __init__(self, vocab_size):
        self.model = Transformer(  # 1B parameters

    def training_step(self, batch):
        input, target = batch
        output = self.model(input, target)
        loss = F.nll_loss(output, target.view(-1))
        self.log("train_loss", loss, prog_bar=True)
        return loss

    def configure_optimizers(self):
        return torch.optim.Adam(self.parameters(), lr=0.1)


# Data
dataset = WikiText2()
train_dataloader = DataLoader(dataset)

# Model
model = LanguageModel(vocab_size=dataset.vocab_size)

# Trainer
trainer = L.Trainer(accelerator="cuda", devices=2, strategy=FSDPStrategy()), train_dataloader)

We will reuse this Transformer example throughout the guide, optimize speed and memory usage, and compare it to regular DDP training.

Identify large layers

Models that have many large layers like linear layers in LLMs, ViTs, etc. with >100M parameters will benefit the most from FSDP because the memory they consume through parameters, activations and corresponding optimizer states can be evenly split across all GPUs. However, one should avoid splitting small layers that have a few thousand parameters because communication overhead would dominate and slow the training down. We can specify a list of layer classes in the wrapping policy to inform FSDP which parameters it should wrap:

# 1. Define a set of layers that FSDP should manage
#    Here we are choosing the large encoder and decoder layers
policy = {nn.TransformerEncoderLayer, nn.TransformerDecoderLayer}

# 2. Pass the policy to the FSDPStrategy object
strategy = FSDPStrategy(auto_wrap_policy=policy)

trainer = L.Trainer(..., strategy=strategy)
Alternative ways to define the policy (Lightning < 2.1)

The auto_wrap_policy argument also accepts the old-style function-policies. For example:

from functools import partial

# 1. Import a suiting wrapping policy from PyTorch
from torch.distributed.fsdp.wrap import size_based_auto_wrap_policy

# 2. Configure the policy
policy = partial(size_based_auto_wrap_policy, min_num_params=10000)

# 3. Pass it to the FSDPStrategy object
strategy = FSDPStrategy(auto_wrap_policy=policy)

PyTorch provides several of these functional policies under torch.distributed.fsdp.wrap.

Verify that FSDP works with your model by comparing the peak memory usage printed in the CUDA memory summary (see example above) with regular DDP training. You should see a decrease in allocated memory and a slight increase in iteration time:

Numbers were produced with A100 40GB GPUs, Lightning 2.1 and PyTorch 2.1.



Memory (MB)



Iterations per second



Speed up model initialization

The standard practice in PyTorch is to put all model parameters into CPU memory first and then in a second step move them to the GPU device. However, the larger the model the longer these two steps take. If you create the large model layers inside the configure_model() hook, you can initialize very large models quickly and reduce memory peaks.


# Slow: Places the model on CPU first
class LanguageModel(L.LightningModule):
    def __init__(self, vocab_size):
        # 1B parameters
        self.model = Transformer(vocab_size=vocab_size, nlayers=32, nhid=4096, ninp=1024, nhead=64)


# Fast: Delays the model creation until Trainer can place it on GPU
class LanguageModel(L.LightningModule):
    def __init__(self, vocab_size):
        self.vocab_size = vocab_size
        self.model = None

    def configure_model(self):
        if self.model is not None:
        self.model = Transformer(  # 1B parameters

It is best practice to make the code in configure_model() idempotent as shown here. Learn more about efficient initialization of models in Lightning.

Optimize the sharding strategy

By default, FSDP will automatically shard 1) the model weights 2) the gradients during backward and 3) the optimizer states across all GPUs of the corresponding layers selected by the auto-wrap-policy. You can configure the following options to trade-off memory for speed:

strategy = FSDPStrategy(
    # Default: Shard weights, gradients, optimizer state (1 + 2 + 3)
    # Shard gradients, optimizer state (2 + 3)
    # Full-shard within a machine, replicate across machines
    # Don't shard anything (similar to DDP)
trainer = L.Trainer(..., strategy=strategy)

Recipe for choosing a sharding strategy:

  1. Try the default settings first (FULL_SHARD). This is the slowest but will save you the most memory.

  2. Try SHARD_GRAD_OP. If you run out of memory, revert back to the default (FULL_SHARD). Otherwise you should expect to see an increase in iteration speed.

  3. If you are training across many machines, try HYBRID_SHARD.

Here is the memory and speed impact for each option when configured in our example code:

Numbers were produced with A100 40GB GPUs, Lightning 2.1 and PyTorch 2.1.





Memory (MB)





Iterations per second





Trade-off speed for memory

If you are short on GPU memory because you are training large models with 10+ billion parameters or require extreme batch sizes, consider trading off speed for more memory by enabling activation checkpointing or CPU offload.

Activation checkpointing

Activations, the intermediate outputs of layers, are stored during the forward pass and needed during the backward pass to compute the gradients. By enabling activation checkpointing, we can choose to discard and recompute selected layer activations dynamically during the backward pass when they are required, instead of storing them throughout the forward pass. While this approach may slightly reduce training speed, it significantly reduces memory consumption. The freed-up memory can then be allocated to increase the model’s capacity or accommodate larger batch sizes, resulting in potential performance improvements.

To enable activation checkpointing, pass in the list of layers to checkpoint. This is typically your transformer block (including attention + feed-forward):

strategy = FSDPStrategy(
    # Enable activation checkpointing on these layers
trainer = L.Trainer(..., strategy=strategy)

As in our example, it is typical to set the activation_checkpointing_policy the same as auto_wrap_policy.

Offload parameters to CPU

The most drastic GPU memory savings can be achieved by offloading parameters to the CPU:

# Set `cpu_offload=True`
strategy = FSDPStrategy(..., cpu_offload=True)
trainer = L.Trainer(..., strategy=strategy)

The drawback is a much slower training speed due to the added communication between CPU and GPU for transferring parameters in every forward pass. You should use this only if you have enough CPU memory and other scaling methods don’t give you enough memory savings. In our example, we see a 3.5x memory saving, but a significant increase in iteration time:

Numbers were produced with A100 40GB GPUs, Lightning 2.1 and PyTorch 2.1.



FSDP + CPU offload

Memory (MB)




Iterations per second




Save a checkpoint

Since training large models can be very expensive, it is best practice to checkpoint the training state periodically in case it gets interrupted unexpectedly. Lightning saves a checkpoint every epoch by default, and there are several settings to configure the checkpointing behavior in detail.

# Default: Saves a checkpoint every epoch
trainer = L.Trainer()

# You can also manually trigger a checkpoint at any time

# DON'T do this (inefficient):
#"path/to/checkpoint/file", model.state_dict())

For single-machine training this typically works fine, but for larger models saving a checkpoint can become slow (minutes not seconds) or overflow CPU memory (OOM) depending on the system. To reduce memory peaks and speed up the saving to disk, set state_dict_type="sharded":

# Default: Save a single, consolidated checkpoint file
strategy = FSDPStrategy(state_dict_type="full")

# Save individual files with state from each process
strategy = FSDPStrategy(state_dict_type="sharded")

With this, each process/GPU will save its own file into a folder at the given path by default. The resulting checkpoint folder will have this structure:

├── .metadata
├── __0_0.distcp
├── __1_0.distcp

The “sharded” checkpoint format is the most efficient to save and load in Lightning.

Which checkpoint format should I use?

  • state_dict_type="sharded": Use for pre-training very large models. It is fast and uses less memory, but it is less portable. An extra step is needed to convert the sharded checkpoint into a regular checkpoint file.

  • state_dict_type="full": Use when pre-training small to moderately large models (less than 10B parameters), when fine-tuning, and when portability is required.

Load a checkpoint

You can easily load checkpoints saved by Lightning to resume training:

trainer = L.Trainer(...)

# Restore the training progress, weights, and optimizer state, ckpt_path="path/to/checkpoint/file")

The Trainer will automatically recognize whether the provided path contains a checkpoint saved with state_dict_type="full" or state_dict_type="sharded". Checkpoints saved with state_dict_type="full" can be loaded by all strategies, but sharded checkpoints can only be loaded by FSDP. Read the checkpoints guide to explore more features.

Advanced performance optimizations

If you’ve reached a good understanding of how the different FSDP settings impact the memory usage and speed of your model, here are a few more to squeeze out the last bit of performance. These settings really depend on the specific use cases, so you will have to turn them on and off to see the impact on your model.

Disable foreach in the optimizer

The commonly used optimizers in PyTorch have a setting foreach=True|False that speeds up the parameter and state updates when enabled. However, you might see a slight memory peak and the larger the model is, the more noticeable it can be. Consider disabling the foreach option if undesired memory patterns occur:

optimizer = torch.optim.AdamW(model.parameters(), foreach=False)

See the full list of optimizers that support this.

Limit all-gathers

If you are running training close to the max. GPU memory limit, you might be getting so-called CUDA malloc retries. This is essentially the GPU running out of memory but before crashing completely, it tries to find some unused or cached memory it can free. When they happen frequently, these retries can have a significant impact on speed. Normally, you would decrease the batch size slightly to avoid it. With FSDP, you have one more knob you can tweak to combat the issue, by setting limit_all_gathers=True:

strategy = FSDPStrategy(
    # Default: The CPU will schedule the transfer of weights between GPUs
    # at will, sometimes too aggressively
    # Enable this if you are close to the max. GPU memory usage
trainer = L.Trainer(..., strategy=strategy)

You can monitor CUDA malloc retries in the output of torch.cuda.memory_summary() for example, or through the PyTorch profiler.

Manual wrapping

Manual wrapping can be useful to explore complex sharding strategies by applying wrap selectively to some parts of the model. To activate parameter sharding with manual wrapping, you can wrap your model using the wrap function. Internally in Lightning, we enable a context manager around the configure_model() hook to make sure the wrap parameters are passed correctly.

Here is an example that uses wrap to create a model:

import torch
import torch.nn as nn
import lightning as L

from torch.distributed.fsdp.wrap import wrap

class MyModel(L.LightningModule):
    def configure_model(self):
        self.linear_layer = nn.Linear(32, 32)
        self.block = nn.Sequential(nn.Linear(32, 32), nn.Linear(32, 32))

        # Modules get sharded across processes as soon as they are wrapped with `wrap`.
        linear_layer = wrap(self.linear_layer)

        for i, layer in enumerate(self.block):
            self.block[i] = wrap(layer)

        self.model = nn.Sequential(linear_layer, nn.ReLU(), self.block)

    def configure_optimizers(self):
        return torch.optim.AdamW(self.model.parameters())

model = MyModel()
trainer = L.Trainer(accelerator="cuda", devices=4, strategy="fsdp", precision=16)

When not using FSDP, these wrap calls are a no-op. This means once the changes have been made, there is no need to remove the changes for other strategies. In this case, Lightning will not re-wrap your model, so you don’t need to set FSDPStrategy(auto_wrap_policy=...). Check out this tutorial to learn more about it.