TensorRT-LLM Architecture

TensorRT-LLM is a toolkit to assemble optimized solutions to perform Large Language Model (LLM) inference. It offers a Python API to define models and compile efficient TensorRT engines for NVIDIA GPUs. It also contains Python and C++ components to build runtimes to execute those engines as well as backends for the Triton Inference Server to easily create web-based services for LLMs. TensorRT-LLM supports multi-GPU and multi-node configurations (through MPI).

As a user, the very first step to create an inference solution is to either define your own model or select a pre-defined network architecture (see here for the list of models supported by TensorRT-LLM). Once defined, that model must be trained using a training framework (training is outside of the scope of TensorRT-LLM). For pre-defined models, checkpoints can be downloaded from various providers. To illustrate that point, a lot of examples in TensorRT-LLM use model weights obtained from the HuggingFace hub and trained using NVIDIA Nemo or PyTorch.

Equipped with the model definition and the weights, a user must use TensorRT-LLM’s Python API to recreate the model in a way that can be compiled by TensorRT into an efficient engine. For ease of use, TensorRT-LLM already supports a handful of standard models.

Together with the Python API to describe models, TensorRT-LLM provides users with components to create a runtime that executes the efficient TensorRT engine. Runtime components offer beam-search, along with extensive sampling functionalities such as top-K and top-P sampling. The exhaustive list can be found in the documentation of the Runtime. The C++ runtime is the recommended runtime.

TensorRT-LLM also includes Python and C++ backends for NVIDIA Triton Inference Server to assemble solutions for LLM online serving. The C++ backend implements in-flight batching as explained in the Batch Manager documentation and is the recommended backend.

Model Definition

As mentioned above, TensorRT-LLM has a Python API that can be used to define Large Language Models. This API is built on top of the powerful TensorRT Python API to create graph representations of deep neural networks in TensorRT. To become familiar with the core concepts of the TensorRT API, refer to the Core Concepts section of the TensorRT documentation before proceeding further.

In TensorRT-LLM, the tensorrt_llm.Builder class contains a tensorrt.Builder object. That instance is used in the tensorrt_llm.Builder.create_network method to create an instance of the tensorrt.INetworkDefinition class. The INetworkDefinition object can then be populated using the free functions defined in the tensorrt_llm.functional.

A simple example of such a free function is tensorrt_llm.activation that inserts a tensorrt.IActivationLayer node in the graph of the model:

# In tensorrt_llm.functional:

def activation(input: Tensor, act_type: trt.ActivationType) -> Tensor:
    layer = default_trtnet().add_activation(input.trt_tensor, act_type)   # default_trtnet() -> INetworkDefinition
    return _create_tensor(layer.get_output(0), layer)

To make it even easier for users, a few of the most standard activation functions found in LLMs are derived from that function:

# In tensorrt_llm.functional:

relu    = partial(activation, act_type=trt.ActivationType.RELU)
sigmoid = partial(activation, act_type=trt.ActivationType.SIGMOID)

Specialized activation functions can be used to assemble more advanced functions such as the silu activation:

# In tensorrt_llm.functional:

def silu(input: Tensor) -> Tensor:
    return input * sigmoid(input)

When the TensorRT-LLM’s Python API is utilized, a graph of the network is assembled. The graph can later be traversed or transformed using the graph traversal API exposed by the tensorrt.ILayer class. That graph will also be optimized by TensorRT during the compilation of the engine, as explained in the next section.

Compilation

Once populated, the instance of the tensorrt.INetworkDefinition, can be compiled into an efficient engine by the tensorrt.Builder In TensorRT-LLM, it is done through the build_engine member function of the tensorrt_llm.Builder class that calls the build_serialized_network method of the tensorrt.Builder object. That call, if everything works as expected, produces an instance of the tensorrt.IHostMemory class. That object is an optimized TensorRT engine that can be stored as a binary file.

Weight Bindings

TensorRT engines embed the network weights, that must be known for compilation. For that reason, the weights must be bound to parameters in the model definition before calling tensorrt_llm.Builder.build_engine. It leads to code like:

# The Linear operator exposes two parameters (see tensorrt_llm/layers/linear.py):
class Linear(Module):
    def __init__(self, ...):
        self.weight = Parameter(shape=(self.out_features, self.in_features), dtype=dtype)
        self.bias   = Parameter(shape=(self.out_features, ), dtype=dtype)

# The parameters are bound to the weights before compiling the model. See examples/gpt/weight.py:
tensorrt_llm_gpt.layers[i].mlp.fc.weight.value = fromfile(...)
tensorrt_llm_gpt.layers[i].mlp.fc.bias.value   = fromfile(...)

Note that TensorRT can also refit engines to update the weights after compilation. This feature is available to TensorRT-LLM users through the refit_engine method in the tensorrt_llm.Builder class.

Pattern-Matching and Fusion

One of the key steps performed by TensorRT when it compiles the network graph is the fusion of operations. Fusion is a well-known technique to improve the efficiency when executing LLMs. It helps reduce the amount of data transferred between the memory (DRAM) and the compute cores (CUDA cores as well as Tensor Cores located on the Streaming Multiprocessors of a GPU). It also removes kernel launch overhead (each time a kernel is launched on the GPU, there is a small additional CPU cost that is called the launch overhead). A classical example is the fusion of the activation function with the matrix multiplication (matmul) that usually precedes it in the network.

In TensorRT-LLM, when defining the model, such a sequence can be written as:

c = tensorrt_llm.functional.matmul(a, b)
c = tensorrt_llm.functional.relu(c)

During inference, if the above sequence is executed without fusion, the c tensor has to be written to global memory at the end of the matmul, read from that same memory in relu and written again after relu. If no other operation uses the intermediate values between matmul and relu, it is suboptimal. That is why, during compilation, TensorRT will identify that pattern and automatically produce a GPU kernel that applies relu at the end of matmul without an intermediate step through global memory. With that optimization, the c tensor is written only once (after relu) instead of twice, and is not read between the two operations.

The process of identifying the sequences of operations that can be fused is called pattern-matching. TensorRT has a powerful pattern-matching algorithm that can identify a lot of possible fusions. All the identified patterns are converted into more efficient kernels by an advanced kernel compiler.

Plugins

The number of possible fusions is almost infinite and some useful fusions involve very advanced modifications of the graph. A well-known example is the Flash-Attention technique to optimize the Multihead-Attention block found in many LLMs. Flash-Attention requires modifications to the arithmetic performed in the sequence BMM-Softmax-BMM (where BMM stands for Batched Matrix-Matrix product) and the interleaving of the for-loops of the two batched matrix products. That’s non-trivial and not necessarily something you can expect a compiler to “discover” on its own (or it might require the support for a polyhedral model).

As a result, even if TensorRT has a powerful pattern-matching algorithm and supports a lot of possible fusions, there is always the risk that it cannot identify uncommon and/or very advanced patterns. To overcome that inevitable limitation, TensorRT offers a powerful mechanism known as plugins.

The plugins are nodes inserted in the network graph definition that map to user-defined GPU kernels. TensorRT-LLM uses a number of such plugins. They can be found in the cpp/tensorrt_llm/plugins directory.

Plugins are written in C++ and follow a well-defined interface described in the Extending TensorRT with Custom Layers section of the TensorRT Developer Guide. When executed within a TensorRT engine, plugins trigger the execution of their encapsulated GPU kernels. A fairly simple example of plugins is the QuantizeTensorPlugin that triggers a CUDA kernel in the QuantizeTensorPlugin::enqueue member function:

// In cpp/tensorrt_llm/plugins/quantizeTensorPlugin/quantizeTensorPlugin.cpp:

int QuantizeTensorPlugin::enqueue(...) {
    if (inputDesc[0].type == DataType::kFLOAT) {
        invokeQuantization<float>(...);
    } else {
        invokeQuantization<half>(...);
    }
    return 0;
}

// In cpp/tensorrt_llm/kernels/quantization.cu:

template <typename T>
void invokeQuantization(...) {
    // The standard <<< >>> construct to launch CUDA kernels
    quantizedKernel<<<grid, block, 0, stream>>>(...);
}

For more details on how TensorRT-LLM implements the GPT Attention operator, see the Multi-head, Multi-query and Group-query Attention document.

Runtime

TensorRT-LLM includes an API to implement Python and C++ runtimes. The role of the runtime components is to load the TensorRT engines and drive their execution. Typically, for an auto-regressive model like GPT, the runtime is in charge of loading the engine that implements both the processing of the input sequence as well as the body of the generation loop. See the GPT C++ Runtime document for details on the C++ Runtime.

Multi-GPU and Multi-Node Support

Even if TensorRT is designed for single-GPU systems, TensorRT-LLM adds the support for systems with multiple GPUs and nodes. It is enabled using TensorRT plugins that wrap communication primitives from the NCCL library as well as a custom plugin that optimize the All-Reduce primitive in the presence of All-to-all connections between GPUs (through NVSwitch in DGX systems).

The communication plugins can be found in cpp/tensorrt_llm/plugins/ncclPlugin and the multi-GPU functions are exposed in the TensorRT-LLM Python API as:

# In tensorrt_llm/functional.py:

# Collectives.
def allreduce(tensor: Tensor, group: List[int]) -> Tensor
def allgather(tensor: Tensor, group: List[int], gather_dim: int = 0) -> Tensor

# Point-to-point communication primitives.
def send(tensor: Tensor, tgt: int) -> Tensor
def recv(tensor: Tensor, src: int) -> Tensor

The multi-GPU support can be enabled through two different modes of model parallelism: Tensor Parallelism and Pipeline Parallelism. The former mode splits the different layers of a model across the GPUs. Each GPU runs the entire network and synchronizes with its siblings when needed. The Pipeline Parallelism distributes the different layers to the GPUs. Each GPU runs a subset of the entire model and communications happen at the boundary of those subsets of layers. Tensor Parallelism usually leads to more balanced executions but requires more memory bandwidth between the GPUs. Pipeline Parallelism reduces the need for high-bandwidth communication but may incur load-balancing issues and may be less efficient in terms of GPU utilization.

In-flight Batching

TensorRT-LLM supports in-flight batching of requests (also known as continuous batching or iteration-level batching) for higher serving throughput. See the Batch Manager document for more details.