The Two-Pass Softmax Algorithm

The softmax (also called softargmax) function is widely used in machine learning models to normalize real-valued scores into a probability distribution. To avoid floating-point overflow, the softmax function is conventionally implemented in three passes: the first pass to compute the normalization constant, and two other passes to compute outputs from normalized inputs. We analyze two variants of the Three-Pass algorithm and demonstrate that in a well-optimized implementation on HPC-class processors performance of all three passes is limited by memory bandwidth. We then present a novel algorithm for softmax computation in just two passes. The proposed Two-Pass algorithm avoids both numerical overflow and the extra normalization pass by employing an exotic representation for intermediate values, where each value is represented as a pair of floating-point numbers: one representing the "mantissa" and another representing the "exponent". Performance evaluation demonstrates that on out-of-cache inputs on an Intel Skylake-X processor the new Two-Pass algorithm outperforms the traditional Three-Pass algorithm by up to 28% in AVX512 implementation, and by up to 18% in AVX2 implementation. The proposed Two-Pass algorithm also outperforms the traditional Three-Pass algorithm on Intel Broadwell and AMD Zen 2 processors. To foster reproducibility, we released an open-source implementation of the new Two-Pass Softmax algorithm and other experiments in this paper as a part of XNNPACK library at

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