How to alleviate the memory bottleneck in batch normalization

Batch normalization is an important component of Convolutional Neural Networks (CNN). The various improvements it brings, in particular speed and easiness of training, have made the technique widespread. In contrast with convolution operations, that have a high arithmetic intensity (ratio between number of arithmetic operations and data required), batch normalization has a pretty low arithmetic intensity.
This makes batch normalization appear as a non-negligible fraction of the time spent in CNN inference despite the relatively low arithmetic operation count.
It is well known to people concerned with performance in particular in the computer hardware and high performance computing (HPC) communities that memory bandwidth and latency are an important bottleneck in existing computing system (the memory wall). The 3 or 4 level cache hierarchy and associated hardware complexity and power requirements in current processors would have no reason to exist if the main  memory could achieve the same level of performance of the caches. It’s interesting to look at the typical latency of operations that are thought to be expensive and compare those with memory accesses that miss the cache.

In the subconscious mind of many programmers floating point operations have high cost while memory operations are virtually free. Nothing is more far from reality. As an example we can look at the latency in clock cycles needed to compute a square root, an operation for which very clever and famous approximate implementations have been produced for game engines. Let’s look at this amazing  document : For example SQRTSS on an AMD Bulldozer takes 14-15 clock cycles, while latency to access memory is of the order of ~100 ns or more which at 3GHz translates to ~300 cycles. This is a whopping 20 times the cost of a costly square root.

This observation should immediately make us think about how our program moves and uses data. Writing fast code is primarily about maximizing the amount of useful work done with the data we have loaded into the caches.

In order to manipulate arrays it is common practice to use high level functions that execute very simple operations like element-wise sum, multiply or multiply an array by a scalar, instead of using loops. While this is a good approach in interpreted languages like python (in which a loop can be expensive and it’s preferred to call a function implemented in native code) it might not be always the best option at the C/C++ level.

As an example let’s take a simple sequence of operations we want to do on a few arrays. I will assume the vectors are big and do not fit into the small cache available.

\(A \leftarrow A+B\times d + C\times e \)

where \(A, B \) and \(C\) are arrays and \(d, e\) are scalars.

in pseudo-code a typical implementation might look like:

tmp1 = array_scale(B, d)
tmp2 = array_scale(C, e)
tmp3 = array_sum(tmp1, tmp2)
A = array_sum(A, tmp3)

“Not too bad!” you would think,  since array_scale and array_sum are highly optimized functions written by experts. While it is certainly true that array_sum and array_scale are well optimized, and very likely reach the maximum performance obtainable on the system, this alone does not guarantee that the implementation above cannot be improved. Actually it can be greatly improved.
At line 1 we read 1 array and we write out 1 array, for a total of 2 arrays moved. At line 2 the same happens while at line 3 we have 2 array reads and 1 array write, at line 4 we have 2 array reads and 1 array write. If we sum all the movements we get a grand total of 10 array moves between main memory and the execution units. We have also 3 temporary arrays. This is a bit strange isn’t it? In our expression we only have 3 arrays on the right and 1 on the left, which gives 4. How can we get a more efficient implementation? The answer is simple! Let’s use a good old-fashioned loop!

for(i=0;i<n;i++) {
  A[i] = A[i] + B[i]*d + C[i]*e; 

What have we gained? Now the computation is on 1 line, it’s clear to read, no temporary arrays are needed and we have moved 4 arrays, as necessary for our expression, not more.
It’s extremely likely that this implementation is faster than the previous one even if we have not used carefully tuned functions. This is because our computation is memory-bandwidth bound on all modern architectures. The simple loop implementation above is likely to reach the maximum bandwidth available to a core on an typical out-of-order processor with a good hardware prefetcher. The compiler is also likely to optimize well the loop if we are careful enough to make clear that the arrays A, B and C are disjoint. The same maximum bandwidth will be reached by the highly optimized functions called in the first implementation but in that case we have moved 10 arrays! So the speedup \( s \) of the “loop” implementation compared to the “function call” is approximately:

s \approx \frac{10}{4} = 2.5 .
Let’s have a look at batch normalization now! From the original paper, we look at the expression defining batch norm:

\( \hat{x}_i = \frac{x_i – \mu_B}{\sqrt{\sigma^2_B + \epsilon}} \)

where \( \mu_B \) is the mean and \( \sigma^2_B \) is the variance of the inputs.
They also add a scale and shift operation:

y_i = \gamma \cdot \hat{x}_i + \beta

The authors, to shine more light on the math, clearly express in the paper that:

Since the means and variances are fixed during inference,
the normalization is simply a linear transform applied to
each activation. It may further be composed with the scaling
by γ and shift by β, to yield a single linear transform

Let’s now “compress” the entire batch norm to a very simple linear transform as claimed and derive the parameters:

y_i = \gamma \cdot \frac{x_i – \mu_B}{\sqrt{\sigma^2_B + \epsilon}} + \beta

Since \( \gamma \), \( \mu_B \), \( \sigma^2_B \), and \( \epsilon \) are constants known ahead of running inference, we can simplify the expression and get:

y_i = \eta x_i + \omega

With \( \eta = \frac{\gamma}{\sqrt{\sigma^2_B + \epsilon}} \) and \( \omega = –
\frac{\gamma\mu_B}{\sqrt{\sigma^2_B + \epsilon}} + \beta \).

How do we implement batch normalization for inference then?
A loop can do the job very well. In this case also a BLAS function called AXPY together with a couple of other calls might do the job. Since AXPY will destroy the input data replacing it with the output it is not a perfect fit for our operation. We can quickly code the straightforward loop:

for(i=0;i<n;i++) {
  output[i] = input[i]*eta + omega; 

I had a look at the batch norm implementation in a couple of frameworks, Caffe and clDNN from Intel. Caffe does not distinguish well between training and inference time so it does not take real advantage of the situation. While clDNN does a great job, it still does calculations and data movements that can be avoided at inference time.
\( \eta \) and \( \omega \) can be computed at model loading ahead of time so the only calculation that needs to be done at every inference is the simple loop above.

In my simple inference engine the batch norm implementation (Caffe-compatible) is merged with ReLU activation to further reduce memory traffic. The unoptimized, but already well performing kernel looks like:

static inline void bn_arrays(float * __restrict__ data_in, float * __restrict__ data_out, size_t n, float nrm, float mn_nrm, bool relu)
    if(relu) {
        for(size_t k=0;k<n;k++) {
            data_out[k] = max(data_in[k]*nrm - mn_nrm, 0.0f);
    } else {
        for(size_t k=0;k<n;k++) {
            data_out[k] = data_in[k]*nrm - mn_nrm;

We see that in order to reduce memory traffic, we have to give up some code modularity and group operations while looping on data. We might not find in a library the function that does exactly what we need such that we can avoid having a naked loop in our code. Even if we could find it, if the performance is an important factor, the right approach is to measure the performance of different approaches and choose the best one. The way to come up with efficient code is to think in terms of data movement and remember that there is a memory bottleneck.
Code generality and aiming at code reuse are very good principles, but when performance is an important requirement it is not always obvious how to satisfy these often incompatible constraints.
My preference goes to performance, in this case the function is very simple, the logic is straightforward, and I find it more clear than the function-call based implementations.

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