Intel’s new DL Boost for DL AI inferencing

I was at a TechFieldDay Extra with Intel Data Centric Innovation Conference last week in San Francisco. It was a lavish affair with many industry analysts in attendance besides the TFDx crew.

At the event Intel announced a number of new products including the availability of their next generation scaleable Xeon processor chips, new Optane DC PM (DIMM) and software, new Ethernet (800) NIC cards, new FPGA line (10nm) and DL (deep learning inferencing) boost functionality.

I was most interested in the DL Boost and Optane DC PM solutions. For this post I focus on DL Boost.

DL Boost for DL inferencing on Xeon

Intel’s DL Boost technology provides a new integer 8 bit precision (INT 8) matrix multiply & summation instruction which can be used to speed up DL inferencing operations. As those who have been following along with my AI-DL-machine learning (ML) blog posts (latest being Learning Machine Learning part 3), probably know, deep learning machine learning that processes data to create a neural network made up with a number of layers and a number of nodes each of which represents a floating point weight used to transform inputs into outputs.

All DL AI projects involve at least two phases: model training and model inferencing (prediction, classification, AI result, etc.). Although both of these activities involve matrix calculations, model training involves a lot more of these compute intensive operations than inferencing. In fact, while training typically is done on GPUs or other special purpose compute hardware (TPU, IPUs, etc.) inferencing can typically be done on standard off the shelf CPUs.

Historically. inferencing used floating point matrix multiplication and summation functionality ,taking input from sensors, logs, photos, etc. and performing the model logic to create an output.

Intel believes (with industry analyst agreement) that over time, 50% or more of the DL AI workload is going to involve inferencing. Hence, the focus on this end of the AI workload, at least for now.

For example, although speech recognition AI can take a long time to process audio recordings and use reinforcement learning to train a recognition model. But, once trained, you could use that recognition AI model in anything from smart speakers, to speech to text dictation machines, to voice response systems, etc. In all of these the recognition model is passed a voice recording (or voice in real time) and processes these to create a text version of the speech.

But all of this has historically been done in floating point (FP) 32 (bit precision) or FP 16. Google’s TPU is capable of doing this with less precision, but to my knowledge, up to this point, it’s always been floating point.

What is DL Boost

What Intel has done with DL Boost is to create a new X86 instruction which can perform an integer (INT) 8 (bit precision) matrix multiplication and summation with less cycles than what it took before. Intel believes if customers were to modify their trained AI neural network models to move from FP 32 (or 16) to INT 8, they could perform inferencing much faster on Xeon Cascade Lake CPUs, than they could before and not have to rely on GPUs for this activity at all.

Yes, this does require hand optimization of trained AI neural network. Some of this may be automated, but not all. Intel claims the precision loss, if done properly, is less than a few percent and it’s impact on AI inferencing correctness is negligible at best.

At the moment, for all the DL modeling I have done, i have never looked at the trained model’s weights leaving this to TensorFlow/Keras to manage for me. But I’m not creating production level DL AI systems (yet). So, I don’t know what it would take to modify my AI models to use INT 8 nor what level of degradation in correctness would ensue. But I also don’t have Cascade Lake Xeon CPUs available.

Some potential problems here:

  1. Manual activity to hand tune the INT 8 neural network is not going to be that popular, except for those organizations where inferencing requires GPUs.
  2. Most production DL AI models, undergo some form of personalization for a user or implementation instance which would require a further FP to INT conversion for each user/implementation.
  3. Most production DL AI models also undergo periodic retraining to fine tune the model with the latest data that has been accumulated. This would also require further FP to INT conversion after each training cycle.

In the end, there’s an advantage for production AI inferencing, for models that don’t require substantial retraining/personalization as they don’t change that often. And there’s a definite cost advantage to using DL Boost INT 8, for those AI inferencing that must use GPUs today to perform in real time or under other performance constraints.

But hand converting neural networks, reminds me of creating assembly code for modules that can impact performance. This is normally reserved for only a select modules or functionality that executud a lot. However, DL models are much more monolithic and by definition, less modular. Identifying which models (or model layers) within a production DL AI solution that are performance sensitive and hand optimizing them to work on CPUs rather than GPUs, seems like a hard task.

It would be better from my perspective to create a single FP 16 matrix multiplication instruction. Alternatively, create some software that would automatically convert any DL AI model (or model layer) from FP to INT 8. That way DL Boost optimization would be just another step in the model training process and could be automatically generated to see if A) it loses too much sensitivity and B) if it’s worthwhile using CPU inferencing.

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