Crossposted from the AI Alignment Forum. May contain more technical jargon than usual.


  1. Classic settings, i.e. deep networks with convolutional layers and large batch sizes, almost always have backward-forward FLOP ratios close to 2:1.
  2. Depending on the following criteria we can encounter ratios between 1:1 and 3:1
    1. Type of layer: Passes through linear layers have as many FLOP as they use to do weight updates. Convolutional layers have many more FLOP for passes than for weight updates. Therefore, in CNNs, FLOP for weight updates basically play no role.
    2. Batch size: Weights are updated after the gradients of the batch have been aggregated. Thus, FLOP for passes increase with batch size but stay constant for weight updates.
    3. Depth: The first layer has a backward-forward ratio of 1:1 while all others have 2:1. Therefore, the overall ratio is influenced by the fraction of FLOP in first vs. FLOP in other layers.
  3. We assume the network is being optimized by stochastic gradient descent (w += ɑ⋅dw) and count the weight update as part of the backward pass. Other optimizers would imply different FLOP counts and could create ratios even larger than 3:1 for niche settings (see appendix B). However, the ratio of 2:1 in the classic setting (see point 1) should still hold even when you use momentum or Adam.

Compute-intensity of the weight update

Most compute-intensive layers

Backward-forward ratio

Large batch size OR compute-intensive convolutional layer

First layer


Other layers


Small batch size AND no compute-intensive convolutional layers

First layer

Other layers



How many more floating-point operations (FLOP) does it take to compute a backward pass than a forward pass in a neural network? We call this the backward-forward FLOP ratio. 

This ratio is useful to estimate the total amount of training compute from the forward compute; something we are interested in the context of our study of Parameter, Compute and Data Trends in Machine Learning.

In this post, we first provide a theoretical analysis of the ratio, and we then corroborate our findings empirically.


To understand where the differences in ratios come from, we need to look at the classical equations of backpropagation

Let’s start with a simple example---a neural network with 2 hidden layers.

In this example, we have the following computations for forward and backward pass assuming linear layers with ReLU activations. The “@”-symbols denote matrix multiplications. 



FLOP forward


FLOP backward

InputA1=W1@X2*#input*#hidden1*#batchdL/dW1 = δ1@X2*#input*#hidden1*#batch
ReLUA1R=ReLU(A1)#hidden1*#batchδ1 = dδ1R/dA1#hidden1*#batch






ReLUA2R=ReLU(A2)#hidden2*#batchδ2 = dδ2R/dA2#hidden2*#batch
Derivative  δ2R=dL/dA3 =W3@δ32*#hidden2*#output*#batch
Hidden2A3=W3@A2R2*#hidden2*#output*#batchdL/dW3 =δ3@A2R2*#hidden2*#output*#batch
ReLUA3R=ReLU(A3)#output*#batchδ3 = dδ3R/dA3#output*#batch
LossL=loss(A3R,Y)#output*#batchδ3R = dL/dA3R#output*#batch
Update  W+=lr*δW2*#weights

 We separate the weight update from the individual layers since the update is done after aggregation, i.e. we first add all gradients coming from different batches and then multiply with the learning rate. 

From this table we see

  1. ReLUs and the loss function contribute a negligible amount of FLOP compared to layers.
  2. For the first layer, the backward-forward FLOP ratio is 1:1
  3. For all other layers, the backward-forward FLOP ratio is 2:1 (ignoring ReLUs)

In equation form, the formula for the backward-forward FLOP ratio is:

backward / forward = 


There are two considerations to see which terms dominate in this equation:

  1. How much of the computation happens in the first layer?
  2. How many operations does the weight update take compared to the computation in the layers? If the batch size is large or many parameters are shared, this term can be dismissed. Otherwise, it can be approximated as WEIGHT UPDATE ≈ FIRST LAYER FORWARD FLOP + OTHER LAYERS FORWARD FLOP.

This leads us to four possible cases:


Big weight update

Small weight update

First layer dominant



Other layers dominant



 The norm in modern Machine Learning is deep networks with large batch sizes, where our analysis predicts a ratio close to 2:1.

In short, our theoretical analysis predicts that the backward-forward FLOP ratio will be between 1:1 and 3:1, with 2:1 being the typical case.

Empirical results:

To corroborate our analysis we use NVIDIA’s pyprof profiler to audit the amount of FLOP in each layer during the backward and forward pass.

In this section we will explore:

  • The difference between the backward-forward ratio in the first and the rest of the layers.
  • The difference between the weight update in convolutional and linear layers.
  • The effect of a large batch size on the weight update.
  • The effect of depth on the backward-forward ratio.
  • The combined effects of batch-size, convolutional layers and depth.

In short, our empirical results confirm our theoretical findings

In a previous post, we tried to estimate utilization rates. As detailed in the previous post, the profiler does under- and overcounting. Thus, we believe some of the estimates are slightly off. 

We have tried to correct them as much as possible. In particular, we eliminate some operations which we believe are double-counted, and we add the operations corresponding to multiplication by the learning rate which we believe are not counted in stochastic gradient descent.

Backward and forward FLOP in the first and the rest of the layers:

We can investigate this empirically by looking at a simple linear network (code in appendix).

It results in the following FLOP counts:

We can see that the first layer (red) has the same flop count for forward and backward pass while the other layers (blue, green) have a ratio of 2:1. The final weight update (yellow) is 2x the number of parameters of the network. 

Type of layer:

The number of FLOP is different for different types of layers.

 As we can see, the number of FLOP for linear layers is 2x their number of parameters. For CNNs the number of FLOP is much higher than the number of parameters. This means that the final weight update is basically negligible for CNNs but relevant for linear networks. 

To show this empirically, we look at the profiler FLOP counts of a small CNN (code in appendix). 

Similar to the linear network, we can confirm that the backward-forward ratio for the first layer is 1:1 and that of all others 2:1. However, the number of FLOP in layers (red, blue, green) is much larger than for the weight update (yellow).

Batch size:

Gradients are aggregated before the weight update. Thus, the FLOP for weight updates stays the same for different batch sizes (yellow) while the FLOP for all other operations scales with the batch size (blue, green, red). As a consequence, larger batch sizes make the FLOP from weight updates negligibly small. 


Depth, i.e. the number of layers only has an indirect influence. This stems from the fact that the first layer has a ratio of 1:1 while further layers have a ratio of 2:1. Thus, the true influence comes from FLOP in the first layer vs. every other layer.

To show this effect, we define a CNN with different numbers of intermediate conv layers (code in appendix). 

We find that the backward-forward starts significantly below 2:1 for 0 intermediate layers and converges towards 2:1 when increasing the number of intermediate layers. 

Most common deep learning CNN architectures are deep enough that the first layer shouldn’t have a strong effect on the overall number of FLOP and thus the ratio should be close to 2:1. We have empirically tested this for multiple different types of resnets and batch sizes. We observe some diverge from the expected 2:1 ratio but we think that this is a result of the profiler undercounting certain operations. We have described problems with the profiler in the previous post.

Backward-forward FLOP ratio in different architectures. Read the labels as architecture_batchsize.

Combining all above:

There are interdependencies of batch size, type of layer and depth which we want to explore in the following. We compare the small CNN and the linear network that were already used before with a network we call OneNet (code in appendix). OneNet has only one input neuron and a larger second and third layer. Thus, the ratio between the first and other layers is very small and we can see that the theoretical maximum for the backward-forward ratio of 3:1 can be observed in practice. 

Furthermore, we look at exponentially increasing batch sizes for all three architectures. In the case of linear networks, i.e. LinearNet and OneNet, the ratio decreases with increasing batch size since the influence of the weight update is reduced. In the case of the CNN, the FLOP count is completely dominated by layers and the weight update is negligible. This effect is so strong that no change can be observed in the figure.

We see that LinearNet converges to a backward-forward ratio of 1:1 for larger batch sizes while OneNet converges to 2:1. This is because nearly all weights of LinearNet are in the first layer and nearly all weights of OneNet in the other layers.


We have reasoned that the backward-forward FLOP ratio in Neural Networks will typically be between 1:1 and 3:1, and most often close to 2:1.

The ratio depends on the batch size, how much computation happens in the first layer versus the others, the degree of parameter sharing and the batch size.

We have confirmed this in practice. However, we have used a profiler with some problems, so we cannot completely rule out a mistake.


The experiments have been conducted by Marius Hobbhahn. The text was written by MH and Jaime Sevilla.

Lennart Heim helped greatly with discussion and support. We also thank Danny Hernandez and Girish Sastry for discussion.

Appendix A: Code for all networks

### linear network with large first layer and small later layers
class LinearNet(nn.Module):
    def __init__(self):
        self.fc1 = nn.Linear(224*224*3, 4096)
        self.fc2 = nn.Linear(4096, 128)
        self.fc3 = nn.Linear(128, 10)

    def forward(self, x):
        x = torch.flatten(x, 1) # flatten all dimensions except batch
        x = F.relu(self.fc1(x))
        x = F.relu(self.fc2(x))
        x = self.fc3(x)
        return x

### linear network with just one input but larger intermediate layers
class OneNet(nn.Module):
    def __init__(self):
        self.fc1 = nn.Linear(1, 4096)
        self.fc2 = nn.Linear(4096, 128)
        self.fc3 = nn.Linear(128, 10)

    def forward(self, x):
        x = torch.flatten(x, 1) # flatten all dimensions except batch
        x = F.relu(self.fc1(x))
        x = F.relu(self.fc2(x))
        x = self.fc3(x)
        return x

### small conv net
class ConvNet(nn.Module):

    def __init__(self):
        super(ConvNet, self).__init__()
        self.conv1 = nn.Conv2d(3, 32, kernel_size=7, stride=2, padding=3, bias=False)
        self.relu = nn.ReLU(inplace=True)
        self.maxpool = nn.MaxPool2d(kernel_size=3, stride=2, padding=1)
        self.conv2 = nn.Conv2d(32, 64, kernel_size=7, stride=2, padding=3, bias=False)
        self.avgpool = nn.AdaptiveAvgPool2d((1, 1))
        self.fc1 = nn.Linear(64, 10)

    def forward(self, x):
        x = self.maxpool(self.relu(self.conv1(x)))
        x = self.maxpool(self.relu(self.conv2(x)))
        x = self.avgpool(x)
        x = torch.flatten(x, 1) # flatten all dimensions except batch
        x = self.fc1(x)
        return x

### conv net with different sizes for intermediate layers
class DeeperConvNet(nn.Module):

    def __init__(self):
        super(DeeperConvNet, self).__init__()
        self.first_layer = nn.Sequential(
            nn.Conv2d(3, 32, kernel_size=7, stride=2, padding=3, bias=False),
            nn.MaxPool2d(kernel_size=3, stride=2)
        self.conv_layer = nn.Sequential(
            nn.Conv2d(32, 32, kernel_size=3, stride=1, padding=1, bias=False),
        self.relu = nn.ReLU(inplace=True)
        self.maxpool = nn.MaxPool2d(kernel_size=3, stride=2, padding=1)
        self.convN = nn.Conv2d(32, 64, kernel_size=7, stride=2, padding=3, bias=False)
        self.avgpool = nn.AdaptiveAvgPool2d((1, 1))
        self.fc1 = nn.Linear(64, 10)

    def forward(self, x):
        x = self.first_layer(x)
        for i in range(100):
            x = self.conv_layer(x)
        x = self.relu(self.convN(x))
        x = self.avgpool(x)
        x = torch.flatten(x, 1) # flatten all dimensions except batch
        x = self.fc1(x)
        return x

Appendix B: Using other optimizers

Through this post we have assumed stochastic gradient descent (SGD) for the weight update. SGD involves multiplying the gradient by a learning rate and adding the result to the current weights. That is, it requires 2 FLOP per parameter.

Other optimizers require some extra work. For example, consider adaptive moment estimation (Adam). Adam’s parameter update is given by:

For a total of ~3 + 4 + 3 + 3 + 5 = 18 FLOP per parameter.

In any case, the choice of optimizer affects only the weight update and the amount of FLOP is proportional to the number of parameters. Since batch sizes are typically large, the difference will be small and won’t affect the backward-forward ratio much.


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Regardless of architecture, at the end of the day the dominant costs are all per connection:

  • one flop per connection (not param) in the forward pass
  • one flop per connection in the back gradient pass (symmetric inverse of forward)
  • one flop per connection in the weight gradient calc (symmetry of the gradient of multiplication)


So it should always be 3:1 in the limit, at least for dense networks.  For systems exploiting sparsity it's much more complex.

For networks using sparsity, I wonder if you could argue that a well-optimized sparse network will approach from above a 3:1 as well as throughput/training is optimized? Human brains may not activate every area equally frequently on average, but we can't choose to pseudo-experience arbitrary subsets of data to train on, either.

Consider a MoE: a well-balanced MoE could optimize each expert in parallel efficiently, as the gradients will not interfere with each other, they learn different things about different subsets of the data; if you let a bunch of experts sit idle, unused, not being dispatched any work, then you are letting GPUs sit idle, and you are probably putting too much work onto the 'hotspot' experts, letting them bottleneck training. The hotspots should be broken up into additional experts, which can then run/train separately. Data points should be picked based on activating underused experts: if a datapoint is frequent, then it is probably already 'solved' as it'll get and experiencing severe diminishing returns, and you will get more value from training on a rarer datapoint whose expert is still learning. So, as you increasingly scale up your MoE and dataset, your GPUs will all be equally busy computing their experts in parallel - 'common' tasks will be split up (eg weights copied into two new experts which then compete over the data it used to be assigned) until they are rebalanced, and 'common' data will be undersampled and the slot given to oversampling 'rare' data. And then each expert is internally just a dense model to which the 3:1 applies.

For networks using sparsity, I wonder if you could argue that a well-optimized sparse network will approach from above a 3:1 as well as throughput/training is optimized?


"Systems exploiting sparsity" opens the pandora's box of more complex algorithms that can spend  differentialy with arbitrary flexibility on forward vs backward updates. For example standard SGD with it's 3:1 rule is a somewhat specific arbitrary (but sensible schelling point) in the vast space of approximate bayesian backprop algorithms.  There are some that spend a bit more compute in the activation/sparsity step of the forward pass to find better sparse approximations (for compression and downstream compute savings and improved orthgonality/curvature for faster convergence), and then exploit that known activation sparsity more in the backpass. And/or others that spend on more general inversion inference in the backpass which can jump to new configs in the energy landscape for faster inference/learning rather than making tiny incremental gradient steps. And then there are algorithms that track variance/precision dynamically across swaths of parameter space and decide dynamically where and when to invest in updating, avoiding spending energy updating parameters that already have sufficiently high precision and have little to gain from the current evidence update. 3:1 is clearly not some fundamental optimal ratio from physics.

Human brains may not activate every area equally frequently on average, but we can't choose to pseudo-experience arbitrary subsets of data to train on, either.

Hmm I'd argue we sort of can: daydreaming, imagining, memory, hippocampal replay during sleep - all of those are forms of active learning picking valuable episodes (training data subsets) to pseudo-experience.  And the pseudo-experience really does look very similar to experience, region by region, neural activity wise.  But also similar to imitation imagination - ie when watching someone do some activity, the brain can translate that into an imaginary experience with neural activity similar to doing it, and try to learn on that.


Consider a MoE:

I think your analysis decomposition technique here is interesting but even putting aside the potential MoE specificity it's assuming that 1st order bprop is the only game in town, and that it is always optimal to update on all the same paths that were active in the forward pass. I'd just summarize it as "In an MoE system where each MoE is a dense model using some standard 1st order bprop such that 3:1 applies, then even with arbitrarily fancy algorithms to decide a sparse active subset of experts, the whole MoE system will also be 3:1". Sure.

MoE's aren't so interesting scaling wise as they don't take advantage of deep factoring. They can make sense for very high level modules that have truly separate function/data domains such that you don't expect much overlap, but that's a very limited gain, and most of the benefits of generalization come from exploiting all the deep commonality.

That should be 2:1, not 3:1 (2 FLOPs per connection for the backward pass to 1 FLOP per connection for the forward pass).

And that is basically right, except for the caveats we point out in the post.

One potential issue: looking at FLOPs here might be misleading. Both my own experience and what I've heard from others suggests that a hand-coded gradient calculation (i.e. writing out the backprop steps by hand) typically has runtime within a factor of ~2-3 of the runtime of the original function (and it computes the original function at the same time). That's right in line with what you'd expect from counting FLOPs. But automated differentiation libraries typically introduce a lot of inefficient overhead; runtimes ~10X the runtime of the original function are typical. Or at least that was the case five years ago; I haven't done as much numerical work with pytorch, but I'd guess that it's similar.

In AI and compute, the authors compare the theoretical estimations (how many computations there ought to be in theory) with the actual GPU running time, and find that they roughly match.

(with the caveat that GPU utilization rate is ~30% of the reported peak performance)

Our team has extended this analysis to other architectures, and we have found similar results ; we will say more about this in an upcoming article.

EDIT: The comparison is available here.

Adding to what Jaime already said: I think there are two things we might care about when thinking about FLOP. 
1. We could care about the theoretical number of FLOP a method might use independent of architecture, exact GPU, etc. This might be useful to compare methods independent of which exact setup is the current flavor of the month. It might also be useful to compare current methods against methods from 5 years ago or 5 years from now. Then the setup we describe in the post seems to be the best fit.
2. We could care about the actual FLOP count that an algorithm uses in the specific setup it is used in, e.g. with a specific GPU, software, and low-level optimizer. This might be useful when comparing different GPUs and their efficiency. Then it is more accurate to use high-level proxies such as GPU-time. 

In the first case, the overhead is a distraction in the second it is part of the thing we care about. 


Late to the party, but thanks for writing this up! I'm confused about two points in this calculation of the Theory section:

  • The FLOP needed to compute the term "δ3@A2R" (and similar)
    • I understand this to be the outer product of two vectors, δ3 with length #output, and A2R with length #hidden2  
    • If that's the case, should this require only #output*#hidden2*#batch FLOP (without the factor two in the table), since it's just the multiplication of each pair of numbers?
  • Do the parameter updates need to be accumulated for each example in the batch?
    • If this is the case, would this mean there's an additional FLOP for each parameter for each example in the batch?

I think these two points end up cancelling out so this still ends up with the 2:1 ratio, as expected. I think these points are also consistent with the explanation here:

I am not sure if the calculation in Appendix B is quite accurate; I would like to ask you for a better explanation if I am not quite right.

In the first line (calculation of 'm'), we can clearly see that there are 4 operations. Now, we could assume that (1-beta1) could be pre-calculated, and hence there are only 3 operations.

If we accept that argument, then in the calculations of 'm_hat' and 'v_hat', should be considered to have only 1 operation each. I do see the transpose there, which is weird to me too; although PyTorch's documentation gives the same set of mathematical equations, the default parameters use scalar values for beta1 and beta2.

I am really trying to make sense of the calculation here, but I really can't. Could you please provide more information on this?

 is not a transpose! It is the timestep . We are raising  to the -th power.

I think the FLOPS for a CNN filter would be (H' x W' x D) x ( 2 x K x K x C). For each pixel in the output feature map of size (H', W', D), we compute the dot product of a (K x K) kernel across C channels. 

Thanks for your great article.