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User Interface Guidelines for Developers

riddell-stan edited this page Jul 5, 2018 · 43 revisions

This page has recommendations on how users will use Stan to compile programs and draw samples. These recommendations are being implemented in "RStan 3" and "PyStan 3". This page is intended for developers of any user interfaces to Stan.

Significant Changes

  1. New user-facing API (see below for examples)
  2. Standardize on CmdStan parameter names. For example, use num_chains (CmdStan) everywhere rather than the current split (PyStan and RStan use chains).
  3. permuted does not exist
  4. Replace sampling with sample verb, optimizing with verb maximize
  5. Remove generic vb method, replace with experimental_advi_meanfield and experimental_advi_fullrank

Major Unresolved issues

  • Should the function/method previously known as optimize be renamed to be maximize? Whatever decision is made, the renaming should take place in all interfaces (including CmdStan). (AR and BG agree on maximize) (yes, discussed 2018-07-05)
  • Should the function/method previously known as vb be called via experimental_advi_meanfield and experimental_advi_fullrank (mirroring the C++ services names)? (yes, discussed on 2018-07-05)
  • To what extent should the steps in the interfaces mirror those of the C++ / CmdStan? (User-facing API shown below is OK.)
  • What should be stand-alone functions and what should be methods, as in build(config) vs. config$build()? (No separate compile / build step.)
  • Do we need a separate class that only exposes the algorithms in the C++ library or is it better to for the class to expose both algorithms and lower-level functions like log_prob? (No separate classes. Advanced users will have workarounds.)
  • How granular should the estimation functions be, as in $hmc_nuts_diag_e_adapt() vs. $hmc(adapt = TRUE, diag = TRUE, metric = "Euclidean") (Decided by the C++ API refactor. 99% of users will just call the sample method.)


  • Eliminate stan function? (PyStan has removed it.)

Other Changes and Notes

  1. Store draws internally with draws/chains in last dimension (num_params, num_draws, num_chains) with an eye to ragged array support and/or adding additional draws.
  2. To the extent possible, RStan and PyStan should use the same names for internal operations and internal class attributes.

Typical User Sessions

Typical R session

We plan to use ReferenceClasses throughout. See the examples section of this for a canonical R example.

Typical PyStan session

import pystan
posterior =, data=schools_data)
fit = posterior.sample(num_chains=1, num_samples=2000)
alpha = fit["alpha"]  # shape (param_stan_dimensions, num_draws * num_chains) NEW!

fit.to_frame()  # shape (num_chains * num_draws, num_flat_params)

estimates = fit.maximize()
estimates = fit.hmc_nuts_diag_e_adapt(delta=0.9)  # advanced users, unlikely to use

Typical CmdStan session

TBD but Julia and MATLAB just call CmdStan and thus would be similar.

Typical StataStan session

TBD but StataStan also calls CmdStan but would probably have some quirks

Methods provided by the Stan library to all interfaces

The class would expose the following methods from the abstract base class (that needs to be implemented):

  • scalar log_prob(unconstrained_params)
  • vector grad(unconstrained_params)
  • tuple log_prob_grad(unconstrained_params)
  • matrix hessian(unconstrained_params)
  • tuple log_prob_grad_hessian(unconstrained_params)
  • scalar laplace_approx(unconstrained_params)
  • vector constrain_params(unconstrained_params = )
  • vector unconstrain_params(constrained_params = )
  • tuple params_info() would return
    • parameter names
    • lower and upper bounds, if any
    • parameter dimensions
    • declared type (cov_matrix, etc.)
    • which were declared in the parameters, transformed parameters, and generated quantities blocks

MCMC output containers


The VarWriter would fill an Rcpp::NumericVector with appropriate dimensions. Then there would be a new (S4) class that is basically an array to hold MCMC output for a particular parameter, which hinges on the params_info() method. The (array slot of a) StanType has dimensions equal to the original dimensions plus two additional trailing dimensions, namely chains and iterations. Thus,

  • if the parameter is originally a scalar, on the interface side it acts like a 3D array that is 1 x chains x iterations
  • if the parameter is originally a (row) K-vector, on the interface side it acts like a 3D array that is K x chains x iterations
  • if the parameter is originally a matrix, on the interface side it acts like like a 4D array that is rows x cols x chains x iterations
  • if the parameter is originally a std::vector of type foo, on the interface side it acts like a multidimensional array with dimensions equal to the union of the std::vector dimensions, the foo dimensions, chains, and iterations

The advantages of having such a class hierarchy are

  • can do customized summaries; i.e. a cov_matrix would not have its upper triangle summarized because that is redundant with the lower triangle and we can separate the variances from the covariances and a cholesky_factor_cov would not have its upper triangle summarized because its elements are fixed zeros
  • can easily call unconstrain methods (in C++) for one unknown rather than having to do it for all unknowns
  • can implement probabalistic programming; i.e. if beta is a estimated vector in Stan, then in R mu <- X %*% beta is N x chains x iterations and if variance is a scalar then sigma <- sqrt(variance) is a can be summarized appropriately (including n_eff, etc.)


TBD. Allen is ambivalent about doing something like a StanType class hierarchy


Everything gets written to a flat CSV file

MCMC output bundle

StanFitMCMC class in R


StanFitMCMC class in PyStan

instance fields

  • param_draws : This needs to be [ params x chains x iterations ] : double in contiguous memory or similar if the C++ API for split_rhat is going to be called directly and fast.
  • param_names params : string
  • num_warmup 1 : long
  • timestamps: timestamp (long) for each iteration (possibly roll into param_draws)
  • mass matrix : NULL | params | params x params : double
  • diagnostic draws: diagnostic params x chains x iterations
  • diagnostic names: diagnostic params : string

Optimize output bundle


note: computation of the hessian is optional at optimization time instance fields

  • param values
  • param names
  • value (value of function)
  • (optinal) hessian
  • (optional) diagnostic param values: diagnostic params x iterations
  • diagnostic param names: diagnostic params : string
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