Demo how to use brms with precompiled model
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brmspack: Using precompiled models in brms

Dieter Menne
Menne Biomed Consulting Tübingen, Germany

Paul Bürkner's package brms is a flexible complement to rstanarm. The latter is more limited and uses prebuild Stan models with many branches, avoiding lengthy recompiles before start. brms generates beautiful Stan code, but running without recompiling only works within a session by default.

This demo package uses the inhaler examples from brms/brm (with venerable BUGS roots) to demonstate how to generate precompiled models that can be used with new data sets in an approach similar to that of rstanarm.


  • To run the examples in this package, you need a version of brms >= 2.1.0.
  • Generate a Stan package skeleton with rstantools/rstan_package_skeleton. It is assumed that you do not know the names of your Stan files yet, so leave the parameter stan_files empty.
  • I assume that you work in RStudio; emacs afficionados don't need tutorials. Make sure that you let roxygen2 build NAMESPACE and .Rd files in your project settings.
  • Create your model template from R code in a directory which you add to .Rbuildignore. I use brms, but the name does not matter. Do not save the code, use save_dso = FALSE; it will be replaced by system-specific code generated during installation.
# Example from brms/generate_stan
# Ordinal regression modeling patient's rating of inhaler instructions 
# category specific effects are estimated for variable 'treat'
stopifnot(file.exists("DESCRIPTION")) # Make sure we start from project directory
modelfile = "src/stan_files/inhaler.stan"
inhaler_model = brm(rating ~ period + carry + cs(treat), 
            save_model = modelfile,
            save_dso = FALSE, # will be replaced by compiled code
            chains = 1,
            iter = 100,
            data = inhaler, family = sratio("cloglog"), 
            prior = set_prior("normal(0,5)"))

saveRDS(inhaler_model, file = "inst/extdata/inhaler.rds")
  • Run your model with at least 1 iteration; brms does not allow for 0 iterations as rstan/stan does.
  • The Stan model must be stored in src/stan_files/ via parameter save_model.
  • Save the result in inst/extdata/inhaler.rda. It will be used to generate an instance of brms_fit at run-time.
  • After installation, this file will be shifted up one level into <package>/extdata. This makes debugging a bit awkward; tell me if you know of a better place. Don't build the package yet, it will fail.
  • Write the user R function. It is important that you add @useDynLib <packagename> in this file or somewhere else in the project; on failure, check that the dynlib has been transferred to the NAMESPACE file.
  • During development, I access stanmodels with :::; you must remove this for the final build, CRAN and friends do not like :::.

Correct skeleton defaults

Now comes the not so amusing part, correcting the inconsistencies of the Stan skeleton; some have been reported by Paul Brückner, things might have improved in versions of rstantools >1.4.0.

  1. The easy one: File license.stan must be copied to subdirectory src/stan_files/pre, from chunks where the skeleton puts it.
  2. In R/zzz.R, change loadModule(m, what = TRUE) to Rcpp::loadModule(m, what = TRUE). Alternatively, you can add @importFrom Rcpp loadModule to one of your R files.
  3. The ugly one: When you have not used stan_files during skeleton creation, or when you have added Stan files to your project, you must manually insert their names to Makevars and to, for example: SOURCES = stan_files/inhaler.stan. In more recent version of the skeleton generator, you must remove the bogus list of stan models (stan_files/bernoulli.stan) before you insert your file name. See issue on github 3a. Alternatively: Ben Goodrich's : By adding SystemRequirements: GNU make in DESCRIPTION you can use SOURCES = $(wildcard stan_files/*.stan) - see branch use-gnumake, but it will produce a NOTE during CRAN build. This is the default now, and the NOTE generated will be tolerated by CRAN.
  4. The slow long-term killer: Stan and Rcpp are moving targets, and to handle changes in compilers requires updates in .cpp, .hpp, StanModels.R and Makevars. When I am flooded with error message after a version change, I generate a new skeleton in an empty directory, and compare the core-files to find out what has changed. See here for details. Some sort of versioning probably would be nice in the future.

I have moved Depends: Rcpp to Imports: Rcpp in DESCRIPTION. There are cases where you might have to move it back.

See also Step by step guide for creating a package that depends on RStan


Priors are hard-wired in brms code and require recompilation when changed by default. In more recent versions you can use parameter stanvars to changes these at run-time (See github issues here and here)