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Inference is the process of running a trained neural network to process new inputs and make predictions. Training is usually performed offline in a data center or a server farm. Inference can be performed in a variety of environments depending on the use case. Intel® FPGAs provide a low power, high throughput solution for running inference. In this blog, we look at using the Intel® Programmable Acceleration Card (PAC) with Intel® Arria® 10GX FPGA for running inference on a Convolutional Neural Network (CNN) model trained for identifying thoracic pathologies.


Advantages of using Intel® FPGAs

  1. System Acceleration

Intel® FPGAs accelerate and aid the compute and connectivity required to collect and process the massive quantities of information around us by controlling the data path. In addition to FPGAs being used as compute offload, they can also directly receive data and process it inline without going through the host system. This frees the processor to manage other system events and enables higher real time system performance.

    2. Power Efficiency

Intel® FPGAs have over 8 TB/s of on-die memory bandwidth. Therefore, solutions tend to keep the data on the device tightly coupled with the next computation. This minimizes the need to access external memory and results in a more efficient circuit implementation in the FPGA where data can be paralleled, pipelined, and processed on every clock cycle. These circuits can be run at significantly lower clock frequencies than traditional general-purpose processors and results in very powerful and efficient solutions.

    3. Future Proofing

In addition to system acceleration and power efficiency, Intel® FPGAs help future proof systems. With such a dynamic technology as machine learning, which is evolving and changing constantly, Intel® FPGAs provide flexibility unavailable in fixed devices. As precisions drop from 32-bit to 8-bit and even binary/ternary networks, an FPGA has the flexibility to support those changes instantly. As next generation architectures and methodologies are developed, FPGAs will be there to implement them.


Model and software

The model is a Resnet-50 CNN trained on the NIH chest x-ray dataset. The dataset contains over 100,000 chest x-rays, each labelled with one or more pathologies. The model was trained on 512 Intel® Xeon® Scalable Gold 6148 processors in 11.25 minutes on the Zenith cluster at DellEMC.

The model is trained using Tensorflow 1.6. We use the Intel® OpenVINO™ R3 toolkit to deploy the model on the FPGA. The Intel® OpenVINO™ toolkit is a collection of software tools to facilitate the deployment of deep learning models. This OpenVINO blog post details the procedure to convert a Tensorflow model to a format that can be run on the FPGA.



In this section, we look at the power consumption and throughput numbers on the Dell EMC PowerEdge R740 and R640 servers.

   1. Using the Dell EMC PowerEdge R740 with 2x Intel® Xeon® Scalable Gold 6136 (300W) and 4x Intel® PACs.

Figure 1 and 2 show the power consumption and throughput numbers for running the model on Intel® PACs, and in combination with Intel® Xeon® Scalable Gold 6136. We observe that the addition of a single Intel® PAC adds only 43W to the system power while providing the ability to inference over 100 chest X-rays per second. The additional power and inference performance scales linearly with the addition of more Intel® PACs. At a system level, wee see a 2.3x improvement in throughput and 116% improvement in efficiency (images per sec per Watt) when using 4x Intel® PACs with 2x Intel® Xeon® Scalable Gold 6136.


Figure 1: Inference performance tests using ResNet-50 topology. FP11 precision. Image size is 224x224x3. Power measured via racadm.



Figure 2 Performance per watt tests using ResNet-50 topology. FP11 precision. Image size is 224x224x3. Power measured via racadm.


    2. Using the Dell EMC PowerEdge R640 with 2x Intel® Xeon® Scalable Gold 5118 (210W) and 2x Intel® PACs

We also used a server with lower idle power. We see a 2.6x improvement in system performance in this case. As before, each Intel® PAC linearly adds performance to the system, adding more than 100 inferences per second for 43W (2.44 images/sec/W).



Figure 3 Inference performance tests using ResNet-50 topology. FP11 precision. Image size is 224x224x3. Power measured via racadm.



Figure 4 Performance per watt tests using ResNet-50 topology. FP11 precision. Image size is 224x224x3. Power measured via racadm.



Intel® FPGAs coupled with Intel® OpenVINO™ provide a complete solution for deploying deep learning models in production. FPGAs offer low power and flexibility that make them very suitable as an accelerator device for deep learning workloads.

Deploying trained neural network models for inference on different platforms is a challenging task. The inference environment is usually different than the training environment which is typically a data center or a server farm. The inference platform may be power constrained and limited from a software perspective. The model might be trained using one of the many available deep learning frameworks such as Tensorflow, PyTorch, Keras, Caffe, MXNet, etc. Intel® OpenVINO™ provides tools to convert trained models into a framework agnostic representation, including tools to reduce the memory footprint of the model using quantization and graph optimization. It also provides dedicated inference APIs that are optimized for specific hardware platforms, such as Intel® Programmable Acceleration Cards, and Intel® Movidius™ Vision Processing Units.



   The Intel® OpenVINO™ toolkit




  1. Model Optimizer

The Model Optimizer is a cross-platform command-line tool that facilitates the transition between the training and deployment environment, performs static model analysis, and adjusts deep learning models for optimal execution on end-point target devices. It is a Python script which takes as input a trained Tensorflow/Caffe model and produces an Intermediate Representation (IR) which consists of a .xml file containing the model definition and a .bin file containing the model weights.


     2. Inference Engine

The Inference Engine is a C++ library with a set of C++ classes to infer input data (images) and get a result. The C++ library provides an API to read the Intermediate Representation, set the input and output formats, and execute the model on devices. Each supported target device has a plugin which is a DLL/shared library. It also has support for heterogenous execution to distribute workload across devices. It supports implementing custom layers on a CPU while executing the rest of the model on a accelerator device.




  1. Using the Model Optimizer, convert a trained model to produce an optimized Intermediate Representation (IR) of the model based on the trained network topology, weights, and bias values.
  2. Test the model in the Intermediate Representation format using the Inference Engine in the target environment with the validation application or the sample applications.
  3. Integrate the Inference Engine into your application to deploy the model in the target environment.


Using the Model Optimizer to convert a Keras model to IR


The model optimizer doesn’t natively support Keras model files. However, because Keras uses Tensorflow as its backend, a Keras model can be saved as a Tensorflow checkpoint which can be loaded into the model optimizer. A Keras model can be converted to an IR using the following steps

  1. Save the Keras model as a Tensorflow checkpoint. Make sure the learning phase is set to 0. Get the name of the output node.

import tensorflow as tf 
from keras.applications import Resnet50 
from keras import backend as K 
from keras.models import Sequential, Model

K.set_learning_phase(0)   # Set the learning phase to 0

model = ResNet50(weights='imagenet', input_shape=(256, 256, 3))  
config = model.get_config()                                            
weights = model.get_weights()
model = Sequential.from_config(config)

output_node =':')[0]  # We need this in the next step
graph_file =
ckpt_file =
saver = tf.train.Saver(sharded=True)
'', graph_file), ckpt_file)


     2. Run the Tensorflow freeze_graph program to generate a frozen graph from the saved checkpoint.

tensorflow/bazel-bin/tensorflow/python/tools/freeze_graph --input_graph=./resnet50_graph.pb --input_checkpoint=./resnet50.ckpt --output_node_names=Softmax --output_graph=resnet_frozen.pb     


     3. Use the script and the frozen graph to generate the IR. The model weights can be quantized to FP16.

     python --input_model=resnet50_frozen.pb --output_dir=./ --input_shape=[1,224,224,3] --           data_type=FP16            




The C++ library provides utilities to read an IR, select a plugin depending on the target device, and run the model.

  1. Read the Intermediate Representation - Using the InferenceEngine::CNNNetReader class, read an Intermediate Representation file into a CNNNetwork class. This class represents the network in host memory.
  2. Prepare inputs and outputs format - After loading the network, specify input and output precision, and the layout on the network. For these specification, use the CNNNetwork::getInputInfo() and CNNNetwork::getOutputInfo()
  3. Select Plugin - Select the plugin on which to load your network. Create the plugin with the InferenceEngine::PluginDispatcher load helper class. Pass per device loading configurations specific to this device and register extensions to this device.
  4. Compile and Load - Use the plugin interface wrapper class InferenceEngine::InferencePlugin to call the LoadNetwork() API to compile and load the network on the device. Pass in the per-target load configuration for this compilation and load operation.
  5. Set input data - With the network loaded, you have an ExecutableNetwork object. Use this object to create an InferRequest in which you signal the input buffers to use for input and output. Specify a device-allocated memory and copy it into the device memory directly, or tell the device to use your application memory to save a copy.
  6. Execute - With the input and output memory now defined, choose your execution mode:
    • Synchronously - Infer() method. Blocks until inference finishes.
    • Asynchronously - StartAsync() method. Check status with the wait() method (0 timeout), wait, or specify a completion callback.
  7. Get the output - After inference is completed, get the output memory or read the memory you provided earlier. Do this with the InferRequest GetBlob API.


The classification_sample and classification_sample_async programs perform inference using the steps mentioned above. We use these samples in the next section to perform inference on an Intel® FPGA.



Using the Intel® Programmable Acceleration Card with Intel® Arria® 10GX FPGA for inference


The OpenVINO toolkit supports using the PAC as a target device for running low power inference. The steps for setting up the card are detailed here. The pre-processing and post-processing is performed on the host while the execution of the model is performed on the card. The toolkit contains bitstreams for different topologies.

  1. Programming the bitstream

     aocl program <device_id> <open_vino_install_directory>/a10_dcp_bitstreams/2-0-1_RC_FP16_ResNet50-101.aocx                                                                                     

    2. The Hetero plugin can be used with CPU as the fallback device for layers that are not supported by the FPGA. The -pc flag prints            performance details for each layer

     ./classification_sample_async -d HETERO:FPGA,CPU -i <path/to/input/image.png> -m <path/to/ir>/resnet50_frozen.xml                                                                                         




Intel® OpenVINO™ toolkit is a great way to quickly integrate trained models into applications and deploy them in different production environments. The complete documentation for the toolkit can be found at



The process of training a deep neural network is akin to finding the minimum of a function in a very high-dimensional space. Deep neural networks are usually trained using stochastic gradient descent (or one of its variants). A small batch (usually 16-512), randomly sampled from the training set, is used to approximate the gradients of the loss function (the optimization objective) with respect to the weights. The computed gradient is essentially an average of the gradients for each data-point in the batch. The natural way to parallelize the training across multiple nodes/workers is to increase the batch size and have each node compute the gradients on a different chunk of the batch. Distributed deep learning differs from traditional HPC workloads where scaling out only affects how the computation is distributed but not the outcome.


Challenges of large-batch training

It has been consistently observed that the use of large batches leads to poor generalization performance, meaning that models trained with large batches perform poorly on test data. One of the primary reason for this is that large batches tend to converge to sharp minima of the training function, which tend to generalize less well. Small batches tend to favor flat minima that result in better generalization [1]. The stochasticity afforded by small batches encourages the weights to escape the basins of attraction of sharp minima. Also, models trained with small batches are shown to converge farther away from the starting point. Large batches tend to be attracted to the minimum closest to the starting point and lack the explorative properties of small batches.

The number of gradient updates per pass of the data is reduced when using large batches. This is sometimes compensated by scaling the learning rate with the batch size. But simply using a higher learning rate can destabilize the training. Another approach is to just train the model longer, but this can lead to overfitting. Thus, there’s much more to distributed training than just scaling out to multiple nodes.


An illustration showing how sharp minima lead to poor generalization. The sharp minimum of the training function corresponds to a maximum of the testing function which hurts the model's performance on test data. [1]

How can we make large batches work?

There has been a lot of interesting research recently in making large-batch training more feasible. The training time for ImageNet has now been reduced from weeks to minutes by using batches as large as 32K without sacrificing accuracy. The following methods are known to alleviate some of the problems described above:


  1. Scaling the learning rate [2]
    The learning rate is multiplied by k, when the batch size is multiplied by k. However, this rule does not hold in the first few epochs of the training since the weights are changing rapidly. This can be alleviated by using a warm-up phase. The idea is to start with a small value of the learning rate and gradually ramp up to the linearly scaled value.

  2. Layer-wise adaptive rate scaling [3]
    A different learning rate is used for each layer. A global learning rate is chosen and it is scaled for each layer by the ratio of the Euclidean norm of the weights to Euclidean norm of the gradients for that layer.

  3. Using regular SGD with momentum rather than Adam
    Adam is known to make convergence faster and more stable. It is usually the default optimizer choice when training deep models. However, Adam seems to settle to less optimal minima, especially when using large batches. Using regular SGD with momentum, although more noisy than Adam, has shown improved generalization.

  4. Topologies also make a difference
    In a previous blog post, my colleague Luke showed how using VGG16 instead of DenseNet121 considerably sped up the training for a model that identified thoracic pathologies from chest x-rays while improving area under ROC in multiple categories. Shallow models are usually easier to train, especially when using large batches.



Large-batch distributed training can significantly reduce training time but it comes with its own challenges. Improving generalization when using large batches is an active area of research, and as new methods are developed, the time to train a model will keep going down.


  1. On large-batch training for deep learning: Generalization gap and sharp minima. Nitish Shirish Keskar, Dheevatsa Mudigere, Jorge Nocedal, Mikhail Smelyanskiy, and Ping Tak Peter. 2016. arXiv preprint arXiv:1609.04836.
  2. Accurate, large minibatch SGD: Training imagenet. Priya Goyal, Piotr Dollar, Ross Girshick, Pieter Noordhuis, Lukasz Wesolowski, Aapo Kyrola, Andrew Tulloch, Yangqing Jia, and Kaiming He. 2017. arXiv preprint arXiv:1706.02677.
  3. Large Batch Training of Convolutional Networks . Yang You, Igor Gitman, Boris Ginsburg. 2017. arXiv preprint arXiv:1708.03888.