Numerical Behaviour of Tensor Cores
For many years, the arithmetic operations available on most hardware were . More recently ( years ago) the FMA (fused multiply-add) operation also became prevalent in general purpose devices such as CPUs and GPUs. Software builds on top of these operations, for example compilers use a series of these and other hardware instructions to implement more complex functions and algorithms such as the exponential function, matrix multiply, or the algorithms for pseudo random number generation. These arithmetic operations have been standardized by the IEEE 754 floating-point standard since 1985 and most current systems are compliant with it.
Recently, because of the increasing adoption of machine learning, general purpose devices started to include inner product or matrix multiply-accumulate (MMA) operations in hardware. This is a generalization of a scalar FMA to vectors and matrices. Since it is performed in hardware, the expected speedup is achieved due to parallelism — instead of using a few FMA hardware units sequentially to multiply matrices as is the case in software, all of the elements of a matrix of some size are computed in parallel. Using the inner product and matrix multiply-accumulate operations in hardware, compute-bound applications that have high-intensity usage of them are sped up significantly.
NVIDIA GPUs are widely used for machine learning and other applications. In the latest TOP500 supercomputer list published in June 2020 , 112 computers are equipped with NVIDIA graphics cards. The main feature of the recent NVIDIA GPUs is hundreds of arithmetic units for performing the MMA operation — NVIDIA calls these tensor cores. Various applications outside machine learning are being explored in order to utilize very high arithmetic throughput that can be achieved when using MMAs in hardware . Table 1 lists three recent NVIDIA architectures as well as other hardware devices with an MMA operation on chip. The NVIDIA V100 has the first version and the T4 has the second version of tensor cores; in these devices tensor cores work on matrices of size in mixed-precision of fp16 and fp32, as shown in Figure 1. The most recent revision of tensor cores in the A100 updated both the precisions available and the dimensions of input/output matrices. See the NVIDIA V100 and NVIDIA A100 whitepapers for more details.
The MMA operation is not standardized by the IEEE 754, therefore various numerical features of tensor cores are not clear. Knowing such features as the support for subnormal numbers, order of operations, and rounding modes and normalization of significands in various parts of the MMA computation can be important, for example when doing error analysis of algorithms that utilize MMAs in order to derive error bounds . As the application space utilizing tensor cores is growing beyond machine learning, understanding of the numerical behaviour of tensor cores will become increasingly useful. Even before such hardware is put to use in some applications, one might want to simulate the behaviour of tensor cores in order to develop numerical codes targeted to tensor cores, on a conventional hardware. Furthermore, there is also a question of differences in numerical behaviour between tensor cores and software MMA using the standard FMA hardware calls, for example differences that would appear when transitioning the existent software to use tensor cores.
Motivated by this, in our recent preprint  we investigate an experimental testing methodology of the tensor cores. The method consists of the following steps.
- Identify a numerical feature that needs to be tested, for example, the rounding mode in the 5-operand adders that accumulate products in MMA.
- Identify possible implementations, for example round to nearest or round toward zero.
- Find floating-point inputs that would result in different outputs for each possible hardware behaviour in 2.
- Observe outputs and make a conclusion based on expected outputs for each possible behaviour in 2.
Using this approach, we identified the following list of numerical features of the NVIDIA tensor cores.
- Subnormal floating-point numbers are fully supported, both on the inputs and outputs.
- 5-operand adders accumulate 5 addends (4 products from and a value from ) starting from the largest in magnitude.
- Round toward zero, rather than round to nearest (default in IEEE 754-compliant arithmetic), in the 5-operand adders is implemented.
- Different normalization behaviour from the MMA implemented in software (tensor cores normalize the answer of the whole 5-element dot product at the end rather than after each addition of products).
- Inner products without intermediate normalization are shown to be non-monotonic in rare cases (this result is more general than tensor cores, since to the best of our knowledge, most hardware implementations do not normalize on every addition due to lower hardware costs).
Our conclusion is that in the current version, the tensor cores on V100 and T4 (the A100 is not yet available to us) do not replicate the behaviour of the MMA implemented with IEEE 754 compliant FMA hardware operations. These numerical behaviours are expected in a hardware MMA optimized for reducing hardware cost and most likely is motivated by a fact that machine learning applications usually are claimed to not need all the IEEE 754 features and high precision in general. These results provide the parameters that can be used in rounding error analysis of tensor cores  which can be useful when developing numerical software.
Our CUDA code to test numerical features of tensor cores is available here.
 A. Abdelfattah et al. A Survey of Numerical Methods Utilizing Mixed Precision Arithmetic. July 2020. Published online.
 P. Blanchard, N. J. Higham , F. Lopez, T. Mary, and S. Pranesh. Mixed Precision Block Fused Multiply-Add: Error Analysis and Application to GPU Tensor Cores. SIAM J. Sci. Comput. May 2020.
 M. Fasi, N. J. Higham, M. Mikaitis, and S. Pranesh. Numerical Behavior of NVIDIA Tensor Cores. July 2020; revised October 2020. MIMS Eprint, published online.
- What Is IEEE Standard Arithmetic? by Nicholas J. Higham
- What Is Floating-Point Arithmetic? by Nicholas J. Higham
- What Is Rounding? by Nicholas J. Higham