Implementing checkpointing for classes with Boost Serialization

In order to checkpoint and save/resume simulations, we use the Serialization library from Boost. This page contains some notes on how to use this functionality well in Chaste. Full documentation can be found at

Header files

One important point to note is that only code which needs to create archive objects should include the *archive.hpp headers. This allows the serialization code in our classes to be (largely) independent of the type of archive being written to/read from.

All header files of the form <boost/archive/*archive.hpp> are required to precede the header file <boost/serialization/export.hpp>. It is good practice therefore for tests of archiving to include:

#include "CheckpointArchiveTypes.hpp"

first, then include Chaste classes. See below for details on how to use the export header.

The main header file that classes with serialization methods will need is

#include "ChasteSerialization.hpp"

Other headers are also needed for dealing with abstract and derived classes; see below.

For serializing vectors, add #include <boost/serialization/vector.hpp>. Similar headers exist for other STL collections.

There are cases where Chaste code needs to create archives, for example to provide Save and Load functionality for tissue simulations, or heart simulation checkpointing. The easiest way to handle this is to create a separate helper class (in its own source files) which does this. For examples see source:trunk/cell_based/src/simulation/CellBasedSimulationArchiver.hpp and source:trunk/heart/src/problem/CardiacSimulationArchiver.hpp. This source file then needs to be included before any other Chaste headers (that might include serialization headers).

Trying to have save and load functionality in different places will almost certainly lead to problems such as:

    multiple definition of `boost::archive::detail::guid_initializer<SimpleStimulus>::instance'
    first defined here

The cause of this is multiple definitions of the unique IDs needed to properly serialize derived classes through a pointer (see below). If multiple .cpp files include both an archive header (<boost/archive/*archive.hpp>) and <boost/serialization/export.hpp>, either directly or indirectly, then each corresponding object file (or library) will define the same unique ID, hence the error. It is OK to have archive headers in multiple files, provided that the export header follows in at most one case of files being linked together.

Class hierarchies

Some extra work is needed to deal properly with serializing objects from a class hierarchy.

Abstract classes

While many compilers can automatically detect abstract classes, some do not, and so need them to be indicated explicitly. Since the interface for doing this changed in Boost 1.36, we have written a wrapper interface in source:trunk/global/src/checkpointing/ClassIsAbstract.hpp. When writing an abstract base class (i.e. one with pure virtual methods), include this header (#include "ClassIsAbstract.hpp") and use the macro


after the class definition, to indicate to the serialization library that it should not try to instantiate the class, thus avoiding compiler errors on some systems.

Note that this macro should only be used for classes with pure virtual methods. If they only have virtual methods with implementations, then the class can actually be instantiated, and the macro should not be used. Including the macro unnecessarily can lead to segfaults!

If the abstract class is templated, the above macro will not work. There are convenience macros for common scenarios, or you may have to expand the underlying definition manually. See source:trunk/global/src/checkpointing/ClassIsAbstract.hpp for details.

Derived classes

Derived classes must make sure to serialize their base parts, by including <boost/serialization/base_object.hpp> and using

archive & boost::serialization::base_object<base_class_name>(*this);

as the first instruction in their serialize method. See Boost docs.

If serializing a derived class through a base class pointer or reference, the library will need some help to know which class to instantiate when loading from the archive. This is done by defining a globally unique identifier for the class using the BOOST_CLASS_EXPORT macro from <boost/serialization/export.hpp>. Due to changes in this macro between Boost versions, we provide wrapper macros in source:trunk/global/src/checkpointing/SerializationExportWrapper.hpp and source:trunk/global/src/checkpointing/SerializationExportWrapperForCpp.hpp.

Chaste header files that declare derived classes should include something like the following after the class block in the .hpp file:

#include "SerializationExportWrapper.hpp"

The corresponding .cpp file must include something like the following after any other includes (I suggest putting it at the end of the file for consistency):

#include "SerializationExportWrapperForCpp.hpp"

Note that the name given to CHASTE_CLASS_EXPORT must match that used in the .hpp file.

Note that this macro is not needed for abstract base classes, only the derived classes, since no instances of the base itself will be serialized. See here and here for further information.

With templated classes, this simple invocation doesn't work. A fully general export macro approach seems impossible. The header source:trunk/global/src/checkpointing/SerializationExportWrapper.hpp provides macros for where a derived class is templated over dimension (either a single dimension, or both element and space dimension, or including PROBLEM_DIM). See r2266, r6952, source:trunk/models/src/crypt/killers/RandomCellKiller.hpp@2266#L74 and source:trunk/mesh/src/common/TetrahedralMesh.hpp@6952#L467 for examples of its use.

Avoiding the need for special constructors

It is undesirable to have to write a special constructor for classes just for the use of the archiving code. There are two ways around this.

One is to write separate functions save_construct_data and load_construct_data for the class. These save/load the parameters needed for an existing constructor. See also the official documentation, and source:trunk/cell_based/src/cell/Cell.hpp@26262#L413 for an example.

Note that the example in the documentation seems to suggest that you can directly access private member data from a save_construct_data function. This is incorrect. You'll either need public accessor methods for the data you require, or a public helper method to save the data to the archive.

The other method is to create a private default constructor which does nothing, as is done in source:trunk/heart/src/problem/Electrodes.hpp. All the work can then be done by the serialize method.

Singleton classes

In order for singleton classes to remain singletons, they must be serialized properly. The SerializableSingleton class makes doing so easier, without requiring any special handling for the first serialization of a singleton. Any singleton class which needs to be serialized should inherit from this base, which provides both part of the "singleton-ness" (by inheriting from boost::noncopyable), and also a method GetSerializationWrapper(). Users of the singleton which wish to serialize it should not do so directly. Instead, they should call GetSerializationWrapper and serialize the returned pointer. Doing so will ensure that only a single global instance of the singleton is maintained when loading from an archive. For more information see the class doxygen.

It is also advisable for singleton classes to assert(mpInstance==NULL) in their constructor, in order to trap cases where serialization has not been performed correctly.

Loading archives created by older Chaste versions

As Chaste evolves, classes gain new data members, or members change, disappear, etc. However, ideally each release of Chaste should still be able to load checkpoints created by the previous release. In some cases this may not be possible, e.g. a new object added that doesn't have a sensible default. However, in cases where it is possible, Boost provides the functionality to handle this, via the version parameter passed to serialization methods.

For each class in which the serialization changes, include the header ChasteSerializationVersion.hpp. Within your serialize method, test the version parameter and act accordingly. Finally, use the macro

BOOST_CLASS_VERSION(ClassName, VersionNumber) 

after your class definition to specify the current version number - increase it by 1 each time there is a change in how the class is archived (it defaults to 0 if the macro is not given).

See source:trunk/heart/src/odes/AbstractCardiacCell.hpp and Boost's tutorial for examples.

For templated classes, the macro will not work, and you have to expand its definition yourself. For example,

namespace boost { 
namespace serialization {
 * Specify a version number for archive backwards compatibility.
 * This is how to do BOOST_CLASS_VERSION(AbstractCardiacPde, 1)
 * with a templated class.
template <unsigned ELEMENT_DIM, unsigned SPACE_DIM>
struct version<AbstractCardiacPde<ELEMENT_DIM, SPACE_DIM> >
} // namespace serialization
} // namespace boost

Testing the archiving

Things to note:

  • Always archive via a pointer (well, almost always).
  • Always archive pretending it is the most abstract class possible (this tests that boost is registering classes properly - otherwise your EXPORT commands aren't tested).
  • Write a test for each concrete class that can be archived, checking their unique methods and variables are archived properly.

A good way to test the archiving is along the following lines:

#include "CheckpointArchiveTypes.hpp"
#include "ArchiveLocationInfo.hpp"

void TestArchivingOfConcreteClass() throw(Exception)
    OutputFileHandler handler("archive", false);
    // The next two lines ensure that different processes read/write different archive files when running in parallel
    std::string archive_filename = ArchiveLocationInfo::GetProcessUniqueFilePath("ConcreteClass.arch");

    // Create data structures to store variables to test for equality here

    // Save
        AbstractClass* const p_abstract_class = new ConcreteClass();
        // Create an output file
        std::ofstream ofs(archive_filename.c_str());
        // And create a boost output archive that goes to this file
        boost::archive::text_oarchive output_arch(ofs);

        // Record values to test into data structures
        // If necessary you can use static_cast<ConcreteClass*>(p_abstract_class)
        // (if your abstract class doesn't contain the necessary variables and methods)
        output_arch << p_abstract_class;
        delete p_abstract_class;

    // Load
        AbstractClass* p_abstract_class_2;

        // Read from this input file
        std::ifstream ifs(archive_filename.c_str(), std::ios::binary);
        // And choose a boost input_archive object to translate this file
        boost::archive::text_iarchive input_arch(ifs);

        // restore from the archive
        input_arch >> p_abstract_class_2;

        // Check things in the data structures with TS_ASSERTS here.
        // If necessary you can use static_cast<ConcreteClass*>(p_abstract_class_2)
        // (if your abstract class doesn't contain the necessary variables and methods)

        delete p_abstract_class_2;

Note that all archive files in the repository should be generated using boost 1-40 to ensure compatibility with all of the possible boost versions supported by Chaste. You can generate these by logging on to e.g. chaste@lofty and doing a build with e.g.

scons build=GccOpt_hostconfig,boost=1-40,use-cvode=0 cell_based/test/crypt/TestGenerateSteadyStateCrypt.hpp

Parallel archiving

When checkpointing a parallel simulation, there are two kinds of data that need to be saved: replicated (same for every process) and distributed (different on each process). We wish to write these to separate locations, so that the replicated data is only written to disk once, and to make it easier to re-load on a different number of processes (in which case the distributed data will need to be re-distributed). However, the Boost Serialization library expects to be writing to just one archive.

Two classes are provided to solve this problem: ProcessSpecificArchive and ArchiveOpener. The latter is for opening archives for reading or writing. All that all a user needs to do is create an instance of this class, call GetCommonArchive, and read from/write to the returned archive. When done, just destroy the instance (e.g. by closing the scope).

The ProcessSpecificArchive class is for use by classes that need to save distributed data, and provides access to a secondary archive in which to store it. When opening an archive in a (potentially) parallel setting, using either the ArchiveOpener or CardiacSimulationArchiver, the Set method will be called to specify the secondary archive. Classes which need to save distributed data can then use the Get method to access and write to/read from this archive.

Some classes (e.g. the meshes, LinearSystem, and HeartConfig) don't write their data directly to the archive file, but instead write to separate files in the same folder. They use the ArchiveLocationInfo class to find out where to write to.

Cardiac simulations

The CardiacSimulationArchiver class provides a high-level interface to checkpointing of cardiac simulations, and orchestrates the logic for re-distributing data when loading on a different number of processes. The logic is currently quite difficult to follow, and so I am attempting to document the main points here.

In order to support SVI, and potentially other applications which require loading halo information, all process-specific archives are read by all processes when loading from a checkpoint. The only difference between the migration case (when loading on a different number of processes from that which saved the checkpoint) and the 'normal' case is which process-specific archive is loaded first. If the number of processes matches, each process loads its own process-specific archive while reading the common archive, so that the mesh can maintain the same partitioning. When migrating, each process reads the process-0 archive first, since it is guaranteed to exist. AbstractCardiacProblem::LoadExtraArchive is then called with each additional process-specific archive.

When a DistributedVectorFactory is loaded from any process-specific archive, then the DistributedVectorFactory load_construct_data will set mpOriginalFactory to contain the version in the archive (i.e. using its lo, hi, size, num_procs), and the object created will partition based on PETSc's default for a Vec with problem size mpOriginalFactory->GetProblemSize(). CardiacSimulationArchiver also calls DistributedVectorFactory::SetCheckNumberOfProcessesOnLoad(false) to prevent load_construct_data setting the local size as hi-lo, since these will not always add up to the problem size when loading different process-specific archives.

AbstractTetrahedralMesh::load makes use of the original factory, if present, to partition the loaded mesh. (AbstractMesh::serialize checkpoints the mesh's DistributedVectorFactory to the process-specific archive. This may be NULL in some cases (when we're not a DistributedTetrahedralMesh?).) It unsets the member variable temporarily, saving it to p_factory, and sets p_our_factory to the original factory or NULL. If there is an original factory and the number of processes matches, then SetDistributedVectorFactory is called to force use of the same partition as before; otherwise p_our_factory is set to NULL to allow repartitioning. We then ConstructFromMeshReader. Finally, mpDistributedVectorFactory needs to be changed to point to p_factory so all objects use the same factory, and p_factory updated if it exists and we repartitioned using p_factory->SetFromFactory(this->mpDistributedVectorFactory) (which clears mGlobalLows and sets mLo and mHi).

Other notes

Using binary archives

Binary archives are faster to save and load, and take less disk space. The disadvantages are that they become machine/architecture specific, and you can't just look in the file to see what's changed, or check class names are exported correctly. But if you are implementing archiving for a personal / science project it can be worth using them. The src implementation is unchanged, the tests that write/read the archives just need to use:


instead of


in all of the above example code. This can speed things up considerably, and also reduce archive file sizes (see #2520). It's easy to simply load an ascii archive and re-save in binary, or vice-versa, if you need to.

Compressing the archive

Note that archive compression needs libboost_iostreams adding to the library paths on compilation. You can find the line in your hostconfig that looks like

boost_libs = ['boost_serialization', 'boost_filesystem', 'boost_system']

and add 'boost_iostreams' to the list.

The standard way of using archives now becomes a bit more complicated with an intermediate stream buffer that takes care of translating between boost archiving and the raw filestream. The below code is an altered version of the above standard test/use of archiving.

#include "CheckpointArchiveTypes.hpp"

// For compressing output
#include <boost/iostreams/filtering_stream.hpp>
#include <boost/iostreams/filter/zlib.hpp>

void TestArchivingOfConcreteClass() throw(Exception)
    OutputFileHandler handler("archive",false); 
    std::string archive_filename = handler.GetOutputDirectoryFullPath() + "ConcreteClass.arch";

    // Create data structures to store variables to test for equality here

        AbstractClass* const p_abstract_class = new ConcreteClass();
        // Create an output file
        std::ofstream ofs(archive_filename.c_str());

        // But instead of boost archive directly using this, pass boost archive
        // to a new boost filtered_ostream, and add a compressor to the filtered_ostream.
        boost::iostreams::filtering_ostream out;
        boost::iostreams::zlib_params zp(boost::iostreams::zlib::best_speed);

        // As normal, but boost archive goes via the filtering_ostream instead of directly to the ostream.
        boost::archive::text_oarchive output_arch(out);

        // Record values to test into data structures
        // If necessary you can use static_cast<ConcreteClass*>(p_abstract_class)
        // (if your abstract class doesn't contain the necessary variables and methods)
        output_arch << p_abstract_class;
        delete p_abstract_class;

        AbstractClass* p_abstract_class_2;

        // Read from this input archive
        std::ifstream ifs(archive_filename.c_str(), std::ios::binary);

        // Set up the compressed reader filtering stream
        boost::iostreams::filtering_istream in;
        boost::iostreams::zlib_params zp(boost::iostreams::zlib::best_speed);

        // Copy boost archive input stream reads via the filtered stream, which does uncompression.
        boost::archive::text_iarchive input_arch(in);

        // restore from the archive
        input_arch >> p_abstract_class_2;

        // Check things in the data structures with TS_ASSERTS here.
        // If necessary you can use static_cast<ConcreteClass*>(p_abstract_class_2)
        // (if your abstract class doesn't contain the necessary variables and methods)

        delete p_abstract_class_2;
Last modified 5 years ago Last modified on Apr 19, 2016, 1:31:16 PM