NEP 40 — Legacy datatype implementation in NumPy#


Legacy Datatype Implementation in NumPy


Sebastian Berg








This NEP is first in a series:

  • NEP 40 (this document) explains the shortcomings of NumPy’s dtype implementation.

  • NEP 41 gives an overview of our proposed replacement.

  • NEP 42 describes the new design’s datatype-related APIs.

  • NEP 43 describes the new design’s API for universal functions.


As a preparation to further NumPy enhancement proposals 41, 42, and 43. This NEP details the current status of NumPy datatypes as of NumPy 1.18. It describes some of the technical aspects and concepts that motivated the other proposals. For more general information most readers should begin by reading NEP 41 and use this document only as a reference or for additional details.

Detailed description#

This section describes some central concepts and provides a brief overview of the current implementation of dtypes as well as a discussion. In many cases subsections will be split roughly to first describe the current implementation and then follow with an “Issues and Discussion” section.

Parametric datatypes#

Some datatypes are inherently parametric. All np.flexible scalar types are attached to parametric datatypes (string, bytes, and void). The class np.flexible for scalars is a superclass for the data types of variable length (string, bytes, and void). This distinction is similarly exposed by the C-Macros PyDataType_ISFLEXIBLE and PyTypeNum_ISFLEXIBLE. This flexibility generalizes to the set of values which can be represented inside the array. For instance, "S8" can represent longer strings than "S4". The parametric string datatype thus also limits the values inside the array to a subset (or subtype) of all values which can be represented by string scalars.

The basic numerical datatypes are not flexible (do not inherit from np.flexible). float64, float32, etc. do have a byte order, but the described values are unaffected by it, and it is always possible to cast them to the native, canonical representation without any loss of information.

The concept of flexibility can be generalized to parametric datatypes. For example the private PyArray_AdaptFlexibleDType function also accepts the naive datetime dtype as input to find the correct time unit. The datetime dtype is thus parametric not in the size of its storage, but instead in what the stored value represents. Currently np.can_cast("datetime64[s]", "datetime64[ms]", casting="safe") returns true, although it is unclear that this is desired or generalizes to possible future data types such as physical units.

Thus we have data types (mainly strings) with the properties that:

  1. Casting is not always safe (np.can_cast("S8", "S4"))

  2. Array coercion should be able to discover the exact dtype, such as for np.array(["str1", 12.34], dtype="S") where NumPy discovers the resulting dtype as "S5". (If the dtype argument is omitted the behaviour is currently ill defined [gh-15327].) A form similar to dtype="S" is dtype="datetime64" which can discover the unit: np.array(["2017-02"], dtype="datetime64").

This notion highlights that some datatypes are more complex than the basic numerical ones, which is evident in the complicated output type discovery of universal functions.

Value based casting#

Casting is typically defined between two types: A type is considered to cast safely to a second type when the second type can represent all values of the first without loss of information. NumPy may inspect the actual value to decide whether casting is safe or not.

This is useful for example in expressions such as:

arr = np.array([1, 2, 3], dtype="int8")
result = arr + 5
assert result.dtype == np.dtype("int8")
# If the value is larger, the result will change however:
result = arr + 500
assert result.dtype == np.dtype("int16")

In this expression, the python value (which originally has no datatype) is represented as an int8 or int16 (the smallest possible data type).

NumPy currently does this even for NumPy scalars and zero-dimensional arrays, so that replacing 5 with np.int64(5) or np.array(5, dtype="int64") in the above expression will lead to the same results, and thus ignores the existing datatype. The same logic also applies to floating-point scalars, which are allowed to lose precision. The behavior is not used when both inputs are scalars, so that 5 + np.int8(5) returns the default integer size (32 or 64-bit) and not an np.int8.

While the behaviour is defined in terms of casting and exposed by np.result_type it is mainly important for universal functions (such as np.add in the above examples). Universal functions currently rely on safe casting semantics to decide which loop should be used, and thus what the output datatype will be.

Issues and discussion#

There appears to be some agreement that the current method is not desirable for values that have a datatype, but may be useful for pure python integers or floats as in the first example. However, any change of the datatype system and universal function dispatching must initially fully support the current behavior. A main difficulty is that for example the value 156 can be represented by np.uint8 and np.int16. The result depends on the “minimal” representation in the context of the conversion (for ufuncs the context may depend on the loop order).

The object datatype#

The object datatype currently serves as a generic fallback for any value which is not otherwise representable. However, due to not having a well-defined type, it has some issues, for example when an array is filled with Python sequences:

>>> l = [1, [2]]
>>> np.array(l, dtype=np.object_)
array([1, list([2])], dtype=object)  # a 1d array

>>> a = np.empty((), dtype=np.object_)
>>> a[...] = l
ValueError: assignment to 0-d array  # ???
>>> a[()] = l
>>> a
array(list([1, [2]]), dtype=object)

Without a well-defined type, functions such as isnan() or conjugate() do not necessarily work, but can work for a decimal.Decimal. To improve this situation it seems desirable to make it easy to create object dtypes that represent a specific Python datatype and stores its object inside the array in the form of pointer to python PyObject. Unlike most datatypes, Python objects require garbage collection. This means that additional methods to handle references and visit all objects must be defined. In practice, for most use-cases it is sufficient to limit the creation of such datatypes so that all functionality related to Python C-level references is private to NumPy.

Creating NumPy datatypes that match builtin Python objects also creates a few problems that require more thoughts and discussion. These issues do not need to solved right away:

  • NumPy currently returns scalars even for array input in some cases, in most cases this works seamlessly. However, this is only true because the NumPy scalars behave much like NumPy arrays, a feature that general Python objects do not have.

  • Seamless integration probably requires that np.array(scalar) finds the correct DType automatically since some operations (such as indexing) return the scalar instead of a 0D array. This is problematic if multiple users independently decide to implement for example a DType for decimal.Decimal.

Current dtype implementation#

Currently np.dtype is a Python class with its instances being the np.dtype(">float64"), etc. instances. To set the actual behaviour of these instances, a prototype instance is stored globally and looked up based on the dtype.typenum. The singleton is used where possible. Where required it is copied and modified, for instance to change endianness.

Parametric datatypes (strings, void, datetime, and timedelta) must store additional information such as string lengths, fields, or datetime units – new instances of these types are created instead of relying on a singleton. All current datatypes within NumPy further support setting a metadata field during creation which can be set to an arbitrary dictionary value, but seems rarely used in practice (one recent and prominent user is h5py).

Many datatype-specific functions are defined within a C structure called PyArray_ArrFuncs, which is part of each dtype instance and has a similarity to Python’s PyNumberMethods. For user-defined datatypes this structure is exposed to the user, making ABI-compatible changes impossible. This structure holds important information such as how to copy or cast, and provides space for pointers to functions, such as comparing elements, converting to bool, or sorting. Since some of these functions are vectorized operations, operating on more than one element, they fit the model of ufuncs and do not need to be defined on the datatype in the future. For example the np.clip function was previously implemented using PyArray_ArrFuncs and is now implemented as a ufunc.

Discussion and issues#

A further issue with the current implementation of the functions on the dtype is that, unlike methods, they are not passed an instance of the dtype when called. Instead, in many cases, the array which is being operated on is passed in and typically only used to extract the datatype again. A future API should likely stop passing in the full array object. Since it will be necessary to fall back to the old definitions for backward compatibility, the array object may not be available. However, passing a “fake” array in which mainly the datatype is defined is probably a sufficient workaround (see backward compatibility; alignment information may sometimes also be desired).

Although not extensively used outside of NumPy itself, the currently PyArray_Descr is a public structure. This is especially also true for the PyArray_ArrFuncs structure stored in the f field. Due to compatibility they may need to remain supported for a very long time, with the possibility of replacing them by functions that dispatch to a newer API.

However, in the long run access to these structures will probably have to be deprecated.

NumPy scalars and type hierarchy#

As a side note to the above datatype implementation: unlike the datatypes, the NumPy scalars currently do provide a type hierarchy, consisting of abstract types such as np.inexact (see figure below). In fact, some control flow within NumPy currently uses issubclass(a.dtype.type, np.inexact).


Figure: Hierarchy of NumPy scalar types reproduced from the reference documentation. Some aliases such as np.intp are excluded. Datetime and timedelta are not shown.#

NumPy scalars try to mimic zero-dimensional arrays with a fixed datatype. For the numerical (and unicode) datatypes, they are further limited to native byte order.

Current implementation of casting#

One of the main features which datatypes need to support is casting between one another using arr.astype(new_dtype, casting="unsafe"), or during execution of ufuncs with different types (such as adding integer and floating point numbers).

Casting tables determine whether it is possible to cast from one specific type to another. However, generic casting rules cannot handle the parametric dtypes such as strings. The logic for parametric datatypes is defined mainly in PyArray_CanCastTo and currently cannot be customized for user defined datatypes.

The actual casting has two distinct parts:

  1. copyswap/copyswapn are defined for each dtype and can handle byte-swapping for non-native byte orders as well as unaligned memory.

  2. The generic casting code is provided by C functions which know how to cast aligned and contiguous memory from one dtype to another (both in native byte order). These C-level functions can be registered to cast aligned and contiguous memory from one dtype to another. The function may be provided with both arrays (although the parameter is sometimes NULL for scalars). NumPy will ensure that these functions receive native byte order input. The current implementation stores the functions either in a C-array on the datatype which is cast, or in a dictionary when casting to a user defined datatype.

Generally NumPy will thus perform casting as chain of the three functions in_copyswapn -> castfunc -> out_copyswapn using (small) buffers between these steps.

The above multiple functions are wrapped into a single function (with metadata) that handles the cast and is used for example during the buffered iteration used by ufuncs. This is the mechanism that is always used for user defined datatypes. For most dtypes defined within NumPy itself, more specialized code is used to find a function to do the actual cast (defined by the private PyArray_GetDTypeTransferFunction). This mechanism replaces most of the above mechanism and provides much faster casts for example when the inputs are not contiguous in memory. However, it cannot be extended by user defined datatypes.

Related to casting, we currently have a PyArray_EquivTypes function which indicate that a view is sufficient (and thus no cast is necessary). This function is used multiple places and should probably be part of a redesigned casting API.

DType handling in universal functions#

Universal functions are implemented as instances of the numpy.UFunc class with an ordered-list of datatype-specific (based on the dtype typecode character, not datatype instances) implementations, each with a signature and a function pointer. This list of implementations can be seen with ufunc.types where all implementations are listed with their C-style typecode signatures. For example:

>>> np.add.types

Each of these signatures is associated with a single inner-loop function defined in C, which does the actual calculation, and may be called multiple times.

The main step in finding the correct inner-loop function is to call a PyUFunc_TypeResolutionFunc which retrieves the input dtypes from the provided input arrays and will determine the full type signature (including output dtype) to be executed.

By default the TypeResolver is implemented by searching all of the implementations listed in ufunc.types in order and stopping if all inputs can be safely cast to fit the signature. This means that if long (l) and double (d) arrays are added, numpy will find that the 'dd->d' definition works (long can safely cast to double) and uses that.

In some cases this is not desirable. For example the np.isnat universal function has a TypeResolver which rejects integer inputs instead of allowing them to be cast to float. In principle, downstream projects can currently use their own non-default TypeResolver, since the corresponding C-structure necessary to do this is public. The only project known to do this is Astropy, which is willing to switch to a new API if NumPy were to remove the possibility to replace the TypeResolver.

For user defined datatypes, the dispatching logic is similar, although separately implemented and limited (see discussion below).

Issues and discussion#

It is currently only possible for user defined functions to be found/resolved if any of the inputs (or the outputs) has the user datatype, since it uses the OO->O signature. For example, given that a ufunc loop to implement fraction_divide(int, int) -> Fraction has been implemented, the call fraction_divide(4, 5) (with no specific output dtype) will fail because the loop that includes the user datatype Fraction (as output) can only be found if any of the inputs is already a Fraction. fraction_divide(4, 5, dtype=Fraction) can be made to work, but is inconvenient.

Typically, dispatching is done by finding the first loop that matches. A match is defined as: all inputs (and possibly outputs) can be cast safely to the signature typechars (see also the current implementation section). However, in some cases safe casting is problematic and thus explicitly not allowed. For example the np.isnat function is currently only defined for datetime and timedelta, even though integers are defined to be safely castable to timedelta. If this was not the case, calling np.isnat(np.array("NaT", "timedelta64").astype("int64")) would currently return true, although the integer input array has no notion of “not a time”. If a universal function, such as most functions in scipy.special, is only defined for float32 and float64 it will currently automatically cast a float16 silently to float32 (similarly for any integer input). This ensures successful execution, but may lead to a change in the output dtype when support for new data types is added to a ufunc. When a float16 loop is added, the output datatype will currently change from float32 to float16 without a warning.

In general the order in which loops are registered is important. However, this is only reliable if all loops are added when the ufunc is first defined. Additional loops added when a new user datatypes is imported must not be sensitive to the order in which imports occur.

There are two main approaches to better define the type resolution for user defined types:

  1. Allow for user dtypes to directly influence the loop selection. For example they may provide a function which return/select a loop when there is no exact matching loop available.

  2. Define a total ordering of all implementations/loops, probably based on “safe casting” semantics, or semantics similar to that.

While option 2 may be less complex to reason about it remains to be seen whether it is sufficient for all (or most) use cases.

Adjustment of parametric output DTypes in UFuncs#

A second step necessary for parametric dtypes is currently performed within the TypeResolver: the datetime and timedelta datatypes have to decide on the correct parameter for the operation and output array. This step also needs to double check that all casts can be performed safely, which by default means that they are “same kind” casts.

Issues and discussion#

Fixing the correct output dtype is currently part of the type resolution. However, it is a distinct step and should probably be handled as such after the actual type/loop resolution has occurred.

As such this step may move from the dispatching step (described above) to the implementation-specific code described below.

DType-specific implementation of the UFunc#

Once the correct implementation/loop is found, UFuncs currently call a single inner-loop function which is written in C. This may be called multiple times to do the full calculation and it has little or no information about the current context. It also has a void return value.

Issues and discussion#

Parametric datatypes may require passing additional information to the inner-loop function to decide how to interpret the data. This is the reason why currently no universal functions for string dtypes exist (although technically possible within NumPy itself). Note that it is currently possible to pass in the input array objects (which in turn hold the datatypes when no casting is necessary). However, the full array information should not be required and currently the arrays are passed in before any casting occurs. The feature is unused within NumPy and no known user exists.

Another issue is the error reporting from within the inner-loop function. There exist currently two ways to do this:

  1. by setting a Python exception

  2. using the CPU floating point error flags.

Both of these are checked before returning to the user. However, many integer functions currently can set neither of these errors, so that checking the floating point error flags is unnecessary overhead. On the other hand, there is no way to stop the iteration or pass out error information which does not use the floating point flags or requires to hold the Python global interpreter lock (GIL).

It seems necessary to provide more control to authors of inner loop functions. This means allowing users to pass in and out information from the inner-loop function more easily, while not providing the input array objects. Most likely this will involve:

  • Allowing the execution of additional code before the first and after the last inner-loop call.

  • Returning an integer value from the inner-loop to allow stopping the iteration early and possibly propagate error information.

  • Possibly, to allow specialized inner-loop selections. For example currently matmul and many reductions will execute optimized code for certain inputs. It may make sense to allow selecting such optimized loops beforehand. Allowing this may also help to bring casting (which uses this heavily) and ufunc implementations closer.

The issues surrounding the inner-loop functions have been discussed in some detail in the github issue gh-12518 .

Reductions use an “identity” value. This is currently defined once per ufunc, regardless of the ufunc dtype signature. For example 0 is used for sum, or math.inf for min. This works well for numerical datatypes, but is not always appropriate for other dtypes. In general it should be possible to provide a dtype-specific identity to the ufunc reduction.

Datatype discovery during array coercion#

When calling np.array(...) to coerce a general Python object to a NumPy array, all objects need to be inspected to find the correct dtype. The input to np.array() are potentially nested Python sequences which hold the final elements as generic Python objects. NumPy has to unpack all the nested sequences and then inspect the elements. The final datatype is found by iterating over all elements which will end up in the array and:

  1. discovering the dtype of the single element:

    • from array (or array like) or NumPy scalar using element.dtype

    • using isinstance(..., float) for known Python types (note that these rules mean that subclasses are currently valid).

    • special rule for void datatypes to coerce tuples.

  2. Promoting the current dtype with the next elements dtype using np.promote_types.

  3. If strings are found, the whole process is restarted (see also [gh-15327]), in a similar manner as if dtype="S" was given (see below).

If dtype=... is given, this dtype is used unmodified, unless it is an unspecific parametric dtype instance which means “S0”, “V0”, “U0”, “datetime64”, and “timdelta64”. These are thus flexible datatypes without length 0 – considered to be unsized – and datetimes or timedelta without a unit attached (“generic unit”).

In future DType class hierarchy, these may be represented by the class rather than a special instance, since these special instances should not normally be attached to an array.

If such a parametric dtype instance is provided for example using dtype="S" PyArray_AdaptFlexibleDType is called and effectively inspects all values using DType specific logic. That is:

  • Strings will use str(element) to find the length of most elements

  • Datetime64 is capable of coercing from strings and guessing the correct unit.

Discussion and issues#

It seems probable that during normal discovery, the isinstance should rather be strict type(element) is desired_type checks. Further, the current AdaptFlexibleDType logic should be made available to user DTypes and not be a secondary step, but instead replace, or be part of, the normal discovery.


There have been many discussions about the current state and what a future datatype system may look like. The full list of these discussion is long and some are lost to time, the following provides a subset for more recent ones: