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The Grand Illusion: The Myth of Software Portability and Implications for ML Progress.

Fraser Mince · Dzung Dinh · Jonas Kgomo · Neil Thompson · Sara Hooker

Great Hall & Hall B1+B2 (level 1) #1501
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Tue 12 Dec 3:15 p.m. PST — 5:15 p.m. PST


Pushing the boundaries of machine learning often requires exploring different hardware and software combinations. However, this ability to experiment with different systems can be at odds with the drive for efficiency, which has produced increasingly specialized AI hardware and incentivized consolidation around a narrow set of ML frameworks. Exploratory research can be further restricted if software and hardware are co-evolving, making it even harder to stray away from a given tooling stack. While this friction increasingly impacts the rate of innovation in machine learning, to our knowledge the lack of portability in tooling has not been quantified. In this work we ask: How portable are popular ML software frameworks? We conduct a large scale study of the portability of mainstream ML frameworks across different hardware types. Our findings paint an uncomfortable picture -- frameworks can lose more than 40% of their key functions when ported to other hardware. Worse, even when functions are portable, the slowdown in their performance can be extreme. Collectively, our results reveal how costly straying from a narrow set of hardware-software combinations can be - and thus how specialization incurs an exploration cost that can impede innovation in machine learning research.

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