The AI landscape is continuously evolving, with large language models (LLMs) at the forefront of this revolution. Deploying these models in production-grade applications requires significant computing resources, emphasizing redundancy, scalability, and reliability.

Historically, this level of computational power was thought to be exclusive to GPUs. However, recent advancements have shown that CPUs, particularly those in general computing platforms like Intel’s 4th and 5th-generation CPUs, are more than capable of handling LLM inference tasks, thanks in part to techniques like model quantization. This article, dives into the profound impact of model compression techniques on LLM inference performance on CPUs.

Understanding inference latency

In the realm of LLM-based applications, latency is a critical metric, often measured in tokens/second. The application’s design heavily influences the required latency, with factors such as user sessions per hour, transactions per user session, tokens generated per transaction, and more playing a significant role. Achieving the necessary latency thresholds without incurring additional compute infrastructure costs is challenging, prompting the exploration of model compression as a viable solution.

Model compression

Model compression is not a singular technique but a collection of methods designed to reduce the size of machine learning models and their computational demands, without significantly sacrificing accuracy or performance. This delicate balance is crucial for deploying sophisticated AI models, like LLMs, in resource-constrained environments or to achieve lower latency in real-time applications.

The primary goal of model compression is to streamline neural networks, making them leaner, faster, and more cost-effective to run. As AI models grow in complexity and size, the urgency for efficient model compression techniques becomes increasingly prominent, paving the way for innovative solutions like model quantization, distillation, and pruning.

Model quantization

Model quantization stands out among compression techniques for its direct impact on reducing the computational footprint of neural networks. By lowering the precision of the weights and activations within a model—from floating-point representations (like FP32) to lower-bit formats (such as INT8 or BF16)—quantization significantly diminishes the required computational resources. This reduction not only accelerates inference times but also decreases the model’s memory footprint, enabling more models to be deployed simultaneously on the same hardware.

However, quantization is not without challenges. The transition to lower-bit representations can introduce quantization noise, potentially degrading model accuracy. This necessitates careful strategy and implementation to ensure the benefits of reduced computational complexity do not come at the cost of model performance.

Pruning and distillation

While quantization effectively reduces model size and accelerates inference, other techniques like pruning and distillation offer complementary avenues to model compression.

  • Pruning focuses on eliminating redundant or less important weights from a neural network. By doing so, it reduces the network’s complexity and hence its computational demands. There are various pruning techniques, including structured and unstructured pruning, each with its benefits and use cases. The art of pruning lies in identifying and removing the right weights without harming the overall model performance.
  • Distillation takes a different approach by training a smaller, more efficient model (the “student”) to replicate the behavior of a larger, pre-trained model (the “teacher”). Through this process, the student model learns to achieve comparable performance but with a fraction of the computational cost. Distillation is particularly useful when deploying models to devices with limited computational power, like mobile phones or embedded systems.

Mixed-precision quantization

Mixed-precision quantization represents a powerful strategy within the sphere of model compression, striking an optimal balance between computational efficiency and model accuracy. This technique, by selectively applying different precision levels to various parts of the neural network, opens up new dimensions in optimizing large language models (LLMs) for faster inference on CPU architectures. Here, we extend our investigation into the nuanced world of mixed-precision quantization, its benefits, challenges, and best practices in deployment.

The principle of mixed-precision quantization

At its core, mixed-precision quantization involves using different bit widths for different parts of the neural network. For instance, it might employ lower precision (e.g., BF16 or INT8) for certain layers or weights that are less sensitive to quantization noise, while retaining higher precision (e.g., FP32) for more critical parts of the model. The intent is to leverage the computational and memory efficiency of lower precision arithmetic, without a significant loss in the overall model’s performance or accuracy.

This nuanced approach acknowledges the heterogeneous sensitivity across a neural network’s architecture—some components can tolerate quantization well, while others need the fidelity of higher bit-width computations to maintain the model’s integrity.


  • Optimized Performance: By reducing the precision of certain model components, mixed-precision quantization can substantially decrease the computational resources required for inference, translating into faster processing speeds, which is especially beneficial on CPUs.
  • Reduced Memory Footprint: Lower bit-widths mean less memory is required to store model weights and activations, allowing for more efficient memory usage and enabling the deployment of larger models on constrained hardware.
  • Flexible Accuracy Trade-offs: Mixed-precision offers a controllable knob for balancing performance gains against accuracy losses, allowing developers to fine-tune their models based on specific requirements or constraints.

Implementation challenges and strategies

While mixed-precision quantization holds significant promise, its implementation comes with challenges that must be navigated carefully:

  • Model sensitivity: Identifying which parts of the model can be quantized without compromising too much on accuracy requires a deep understanding of the model’s architecture and operation. Tools and techniques such as sensitivity analysis can aid in making these determinations.
  • Hardware support: The benefits of mixed-precision quantization are heavily dependent on the underlying hardware’s ability to efficiently handle multiple precisions. As such, deploying on hardware that lacks optimized support for lower precision arithmetic might not yield the expected performance gains.
  • Tooling and workflow integration: Integrating mixed-precision into the existing model development and deployment workflow can be complex, requiring support from specialized tools and libraries (e.g., Intel’s IPEX for PyTorch). Familiarity with these tools and understanding their compatibility with different hardware platforms is crucial.

Best practices

To maximize the benefits of mixed-precision quantization, several best practices should be followed:

  • Incremental approach: Start with a model in full precision, gradually applying quantization to less-sensitive areas, and monitor the impact on accuracy. This iterative process helps in finding the optimal balance.
  • Leverage specialized libraries: Utilize libraries designed for mixed-precision quantization, such as Intel’s IPEX for PyTorch, which simplify the process and ensure optimal compatibility with the target hardware.
  • Comprehensive testing: Before deploying, conduct thorough testing to evaluate the quantized model’s performance under real-world conditions. This includes assessing not just inference speed but also memory usage and accuracy across a variety of datasets.

SmoothQuant (INT8)

SmoothQuant distinguishes itself by adeptly handling large-magnitude outliers in activation channels— a common issue in traditional quantization methods that often leads to significant degradation in model performance. It achieves this through a novel joint mathematical transformation applied to both the weights and activations within the model. This transformation balances the disparity between outlier and non-outlier values for activations, making the model more resilient to the reduction in precision inherent to the INT8 format.

The technique involves two primary steps:

  1. Smoothing: The first step is to apply a scaling operation to the activations, aiming to reduce the variance introduced by outliers. This process makes the subsequent quantization step more uniform and less disruptive to the model’s performance.
  2. Quantization: Following smoothing, the transition to INT8 quantization is executed. This step significantly reduces the model’s computational demands, enabling more efficient inference without sacrificing quality.

Advantages of SmoothQuant

  • Compatibility with transformer architectures: SmoothQuant is explicitly designed considering the unique demands of transformer-based models, ensuring that LLMs can be quantized effectively without a loss in their nuanced language understanding capabilities.
  • Efficiency boost: By moving to an INT8 precision level, there’s a marked decrease in both the computational resources required and the memory footprint of the model, enabling faster inference times and the capability to deploy larger models on resource-constrained hardware.
  • Quality preservation: Perhaps most crucially, SmoothQuant manages to maintain the quality of the model’s outputs, a feat achieved by mitigating the impact of quantization on the model’s internal representation of language.

Challenges of SmoothQuant

Implementing SmoothQuant comes with its unique set of challenges, primarily revolving around the preparation and calibration process required to effectively apply this technique:

  • Calibration dataset preparation: SmoothQuant requires a representative dataset for calibration, to fine-tune the smoothing and quantization steps according to the specific characteristics of the data the model will process. Preparing this dataset can be a time-consuming process, requiring careful selection to ensure that it captures the variance and complexity of real-world data.
  • Quantization configuration: SmoothQuant’s efficacy relies heavily on the right quantization configuration, which dictates how the smoothing operation is applied. Determining the optimal configuration demands a deep understanding of the model and can involve extensive experimentation.
  • Accuracy trade-offs: While SmoothQuant aims to preserve model quality, slight variations in performance can still occur. Developers must balance the desired efficiency gains against these potential shifts in output quality.

Best practices for implementing SmoothQuant

To leverage SmoothQuant effectively, developers should consider the following guidelines:

  • Iterative testing: Apply SmoothQuant incrementally, testing various configurations and comparing the model’s performance with each modification. This approach enables fine-tuning to achieve the best balance between efficiency and output quality.
  • Leverage framework support: Utilize AI frameworks that support SmoothQuant directly, saving development time and ensuring that the quantization process is as streamlined as possible. Libraries like Intel’s IPEX offer built-in support for such techniques, simplifying their integration.
  • Performance benchmarking: Before finalizing the quantization process, benchmark the model’s performance extensively across different datasets and tasks. This ensures that the quantized model meets the necessary standards for deployment.

Weight-only quantization

Weight-Only Quantization (WOQ) emerges as a specialized technique within the realm of model compression, focusing exclusively on the quantization of model weights while leaving activations at their original precision. This method offers a strategic balance between preserving model accuracy and reducing computational overhead, particularly pertinent for deploying large language models (LLMs) on CPU platforms. Below, we delve into the complexities, advantages, and nuanced considerations of employing Weight-Only Quantization, enriching our understanding of its potential and application.

Principles of weight-only quantization

The premise of WOQ is predicated on the observation that weights, once learned during the training process, remain static during inference. By quantizing these weights to lower precision formats (INT8 or even INT4), the memory footprint and computational load can be significantly reduced. This reduction facilitates faster data movement and computation, crucial for enhancing inference speeds. However, unlike full quantization techniques, WOQ conserves the activation precision, striking a balance between computational efficiency and the retention of model quality.

Advantages of weight-only quantization

  • Memory efficiency: WOQ achieves remarkable reductions in model size, enabling more efficient memory usage. This efficiency is especially beneficial for deploying LLMs on hardware with limited memory resources.
  • Inference speedup: By reducing the precision of model weights, WOQ lessens the computational demands associated with matrix operations, leading to quicker inference times without necessitating additional computational resources.
  • Accuracy preservation: Maintaining activation precision helps to safeguard the model’s performance from the adverse effects of quantization noise, ensuring that the quality of outputs remains high.

Challenges in the landscape of WOQ

While WOQ offers distinct benefits, its application comes with challenges that necessitate careful navigation:

  • Hardware compatibility: The performance gains from WOQ heavily rely on the underlying hardware’s support for mixed-precision computation. Optimal results are observed on CPUs and accelerators designed to exploit lower precision weights effectively.
  • Quantization strategy: The decision on which weights to quantize and to what precision requires a nuanced understanding of the model architecture and the critical paths within it. Missteps here can lead to disproportionate losses in accuracy.
  • Computational overheads: For formats like INT4, the process requires dequantizing to higher precision formats (BF16/FP16) for computation, introducing an overhead that must be carefully managed to ensure net performance gains.

Best practices

Maximizing the benefits of Weight-Only Quantization mandates adherence to several best practices:

  • Embrace advanced tooling: Leverage specialized libraries and tools that support WOQ, such as Intel’s IPEX for PyTorch. These tools often provide optimized paths and routines for efficient weight quantization and subsequent computations.
  • Iterative optimization: Apply WOQ gradually, starting from a baseline full-precision model. Incrementally adjust the quantization depth and scope, closely monitoring the impacts on inference performance and model accuracy.
  • Benchmarking and evaluation: Rigorously test the quantized model across a range of scenarios and datasets to ensure that the expected performance benefits are realized without compromising output quality. This step is vital for validating the appropriateness of WOQ for specific use cases.


The exploration of model quantization techniques underscores the potential of CPUs to efficiently handle LLM inference tasks, challenging the preconceived notion of GPUs’ superiority in this domain. IPEX emerges as a robust tool in this endeavor, offering a straightforward path to harnessing the performance benefits of mixed-precision, SmoothQuant, and weight-only quantization techniques. As the AI field continues to advance, the role of model compression in optimizing compute resources becomes increasingly pivotal, promising to shape the future landscape of LLM deployment and application development.

In essence, model quantization not only democratizes access to high-performance computing for LLM inference but also presents a pragmatic approach to leveraging existing CPU infrastructures. Whether embarking on a journey with mixed-precision, delving into the nuanced realm of SmoothQuant, or exploring the balanced world of weight-only quantization, the opportunities for enhancing LLM inference speeds on CPUs are both vast and varied, warranting exploration by AI practitioners across the spectrum.