NEP 43 — Enhancing the extensibility of UFuncs#


Enhancing the Extensibility of UFuncs


Sebastian Berg








This NEP is fourth in a series:

  • NEP 40 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 (this document) describes the new design’s API for universal functions.


The previous NEP 42 proposes the creation of new DTypes which can be defined by users outside of NumPy itself. The implementation of NEP 42 will enable users to create arrays with a custom dtype and stored values. This NEP outlines how NumPy will operate on arrays with custom dtypes in the future. The most important functions operating on NumPy arrays are the so called “universal functions” (ufunc) which include all math functions, such as np.add, np.multiply, and even np.matmul. These ufuncs must operate efficiently on multiple arrays with different datatypes.

This NEP proposes to expand the design of ufuncs. It makes a new distinction between the ufunc which can operate on many different dtypes such as floats or integers, and a new ArrayMethod which defines the efficient operation for specific dtypes.


Details of the private and external APIs may change to reflect user comments and implementation constraints. The underlying principles and choices should not change significantly.

Motivation and scope#

The goal of this NEP is to extend universal functions support the new DType system detailed in NEPs 41 and 42. While the main motivation is enabling new user-defined DTypes, this will also significantly simplify defining universal functions for NumPy strings or structured DTypes. Until now, these DTypes are not supported by any of NumPy’s functions (such as np.add or np.equal), due to difficulties arising from their parametric nature (compare NEP 41 and 42), e.g. the string length.

Functions on arrays must handle a number of distinct steps which are described in more detail in section “Steps involved in a UFunc call”. The most important ones are:

  • Organizing all functionality required to define a ufunc call for specific DTypes. This is often called the “inner-loop”.

  • Deal with input for which no exact matching implementation is found. For example when int32 and float64 are added, the int32 is cast to float64. This requires a distinct “promotion” step.

After organizing and defining these, we need to:

  • Define the user API for customizing both of the above points.

  • Allow convenient reuse of existing functionality. For example a DType representing physical units, such as meters, should be able to fall back to NumPy’s existing math implementations.

This NEP details how these requirements will be achieved in NumPy:

  • All DTyper-specific functionality currently part of the ufunc definition will be defined as part of a new ArrayMethod object. This ArrayMethod object will be the new, preferred, way to describe any function operating on arrays.

  • Ufuncs will dispatch to the ArrayMethod and potentially use promotion to find the correct ArrayMethod to use. This will be described in the Promotion and dispatching section.

A new C-API will be outlined in each section. A future Python API is expected to be very similar and the C-API is presented in terms of Python code for readability.

The NEP proposes a large, but necessary, refactor of the NumPy ufunc internals. This modernization will not affect end users directly and is not only a necessary step for new DTypes, but in itself a maintenance effort which is expected to help with future improvements to the ufunc machinery.

While the most important restructure proposed is the new ArrayMethod object, the largest long-term consideration is the API choice for promotion and dispatching.

Backwards compatibility#

The general backwards compatibility issues have also been listed previously in NEP 41.

The vast majority of users should not see any changes beyond those typical for NumPy releases. There are three main users or use-cases impacted by the proposed changes:

  1. The Numba package uses direct access to the NumPy C-loops and modifies the NumPy ufunc struct directly for its own purposes.

  2. Astropy uses its own “type resolver”, meaning that a default switch over from the existing type resolution to a new default Promoter requires care.

  3. It is currently possible to register loops for dtype instances. This is theoretically useful for structured dtypes and is a resolution step happening after the DType resolution step proposed here.

This NEP will try hard to maintain backward compatibility as much as possible. However, both of these projects have signaled willingness to adapt to breaking changes.

The main reason why NumPy will be able to provide backward compatibility is that:

  • Existing inner-loops can be wrapped, adding an indirection to the call but maintaining full backwards compatibility. The get_loop function can, in this case, search the existing inner-loop functions (which are stored on the ufunc directly) in order to maintain full compatibility even with potential direct structure access.

  • Legacy type resolvers can be called as a fallback (potentially caching the result). The resolver may need to be called twice (once for the DType resolution and once for the resolve_descriptor implementation).

  • The fallback to the legacy type resolver should in most cases handle loops defined for such structured dtype instances. This is because if there is no other np.Void implementation, the legacy fallback will retain the old behaviour at least initially.

The masked type resolvers specifically will not remain supported, but has no known users (including NumPy itself, which only uses the default version).

Further, no compatibility attempt will be made for calling as opposed to providing either the normal or the masked type resolver. As NumPy will use it only as a fallback. There are no known users of this (undocumented) possibility.

While the above changes potentially break some workflows, we believe that the long-term improvements vastly outweigh this. Further, packages such as astropy and Numba are capable of adapting so that end-users may need to update their libraries but not their code.

Usage and impact#

This NEP restructures how operations on NumPy arrays are defined both within NumPy and for external implementers. The NEP mainly concerns those who either extend ufuncs for custom DTypes or create custom ufuncs. It does not aim to finalize all potential use-cases, but rather restructure NumPy to be extensible and allow addressing new issues or feature requests as they arise.

Overview and end user API#

To give an overview of how this NEP proposes to structure ufuncs, the following describes the potential exposure of the proposed restructure to the end user.

Universal functions are much like a Python method defined on the DType of the array when considering a ufunc with only a single input:

res = np.positive(arr)

could be implemented (conceptually) as:

positive_impl = arr.dtype.positive
res = positive_impl(arr)

However, unlike methods, positive_impl is not stored on the dtype itself. It is rather the implementation of np.positive for a specific DType. Current NumPy partially exposes this “choice of implementation” using the dtype (or more exact signature) attribute in universal functions, although these are rarely used:

np.positive(arr, dtype=np.float64)

forces NumPy to use the positive_impl written specifically for the Float64 DType.

This NEP makes the distinction more explicit, by creating a new object to represent positive_impl:

positive_impl = np.positive.resolve_impl((type(arr.dtype), None))
# The `None` represents the output DType which is automatically chosen.

While the creation of a positive_impl object and the resolve_impl method is part of this NEP, the following code:

res = positive_impl(arr)

may not be implemented initially and is not central to the redesign.

In general NumPy universal functions can take many inputs. This requires looking up the implementation by considering all of them and makes ufuncs “multi-methods” with respect to the input DTypes:

add_impl = np.add.resolve_impl((type(arr1.dtype), type(arr2.dtype), None))

This NEP defines how positive_impl and add_impl will be represented as a new ArrayMethod which can be implemented outside of NumPy. Further, it defines how resolve_impl will implement and solve dispatching and promotion.

The reasons for this split may be more clear after reviewing the Steps involved in a UFunc call section.

Defining a new ufunc implementation#

The following is a mock-up of how a new implementation, in this case to define string equality, will be added to a ufunc.

class StringEquality(BoundArrayMethod):
    nin = 1
    nout = 1
    # DTypes are stored on the BoundArrayMethod and not on the internal
    # ArrayMethod, to reference cyles.
    DTypes = (String, String, Bool)

    def resolve_descriptors(self: ArrayMethod, DTypes, given_descrs):
        """The strided loop supports all input string dtype instances
        and always returns a boolean. (String is always native byte order.)

        Defining this function is not necessary, since NumPy can provide
        it by default.

        The `self` argument here refers to the unbound array method, so
        that DTypes are passed in explicitly.
        assert isinstance(given_descrs[0], DTypes[0])
        assert isinstance(given_descrs[1], DTypes[1])
        assert given_descrs[2] is None or isinstance(given_descrs[2], DTypes[2])

        out_descr = given_descrs[2]  # preserve input (e.g. metadata)
        if given_descrs[2] is None:
            out_descr = DTypes[2]()

        # The operation is always "no" casting (most ufuncs are)
        return (given_descrs[0], given_descrs[1], out_descr), "no"

    def strided_loop(context, dimensions, data, strides, innerloop_data):
        """The 1-D strided loop, similar to those used in current ufuncs"""
        # dimensions: Number of loop items and core dimensions
        # data: Pointers to the array data.
        # strides: strides to iterate all elements
        n = dimensions[0]  # number of items to loop over
        num_chars1 = context.descriptors[0].itemsize
        num_chars2 = context.descriptors[1].itemsize

        # C code using the above information to compare the strings in
        # both arrays.  In particular, this loop requires the `num_chars1`
        # and `num_chars2`.  Information which is currently not easily
        # available.

del StringEquality  # may be deleted.

This definition will be sufficient to create a new loop, and the structure allows for expansion in the future; something that is already required to implement casting within NumPy itself. We use BoundArrayMethod and a context structure here. These are described and motivated in details later. Briefly:

  • context is a generalization of the self that Python passes to its methods.

  • BoundArrayMethod is equivalent to the Python distinction that class.method is a method, while class().method returns a “bound” method.

Customizing dispatching and Promotion#

Finding the correct implementation when np.positive.resolve_impl() is called is largely an implementation detail. But, in some cases it may be necessary to influence this process when no implementation matches the requested DTypes exactly:

np.multiple.resolve_impl((Timedelta64, Int8, None))

will not have an exact match, because NumPy only has an implementation for multiplying Timedelta64 with Int64. In simple cases, NumPy will use a default promotion step to attempt to find the correct implementation, but to implement the above step, we will allow the following:

def promote_timedelta_integer(ufunc, dtypes):
    new_dtypes = (Timdelta64, Int64, dtypes[-1])
    # Resolve again, using Int64:
    return ufunc.resolve_impl(new_dtypes)

    (Timedelta64, Integer, None), promote_timedelta_integer)

Where Integer is an abstract DType (compare NEP 42).

Steps involved in a UFunc call#

Before going into more detailed API choices, it is helpful to review the steps involved in a call to a universal function in NumPy.

A UFunc call is split into the following steps:

  1. Handle __array_ufunc__ protocol:

  2. Promotion and dispatching

    • Given the DTypes of all inputs, find the correct implementation. E.g. an implementation for float64, int64 or a user-defined DType.

    • When no exact implementation exists, promotion has to be performed. For example, adding a float32 and a float64 is implemented by first casting the float32 to float64.

  3. Parametric dtype resolution:

    • In general, whenever an output DType is parametric the parameters have to be found (resolved).

    • For example, if a loop adds two strings, it is necessary to define the correct output (and possibly input) dtypes. S5 + S4 -> S9, while an upper function has the signature S5 -> S5.

    • When they are not parametric, a default implementation is provided which fills in the default dtype instances (ensuring for example native byte order).

  4. Preparing the iteration:

    • This step is largely handled by NpyIter internally (the iterator).

    • Allocate all outputs and temporary buffers necessary to perform casts. This requires the dtypes as resolved in step 3.

    • Find the best iteration order, which includes information to efficiently implement broadcasting. For example, adding a single value to an array repeats the same value.

  5. Setup and fetch the C-level function:

    • If necessary, allocate temporary working space.

    • Find the C-implemented, light weight, inner-loop function. Finding the inner-loop function can allow specialized implementations in the future. For example casting currently optimizes contiguous casts and reductions have optimizations that are currently handled inside the inner-loop function itself.

    • Signal whether the inner-loop requires the Python API or whether the GIL may be released (to allow threading).

    • Clear floating point exception flags.

  6. Perform the actual calculation:

    • Run the DType specific inner-loop function.

    • The inner-loop may require access to additional data, such as dtypes or additional data set in the previous step.

    • The inner-loop function may be called an undefined number of times.

  7. Finalize:

    • Free any temporary working space allocated in step 5.

    • Check for floating point exception flags.

    • Return the result.

The ArrayMethod provides a concept to group steps 3 to 6 and partially 7. However, implementers of a new ufunc or ArrayMethod usually do not need to customize the behaviour in steps 4 or 6 which NumPy can and does provide. For the ArrayMethod implementer, the central steps to customize are step 3 and step 5. These provide the custom inner-loop function and potentially inner-loop specific setup. Further customization is possible and anticipated as future extensions.

Step 2. is promotion and dispatching and will be restructured with new API to allow customization of the process where necessary.

Step 1 is listed for completeness and is unaffected by this NEP.

The following sketch provides an overview of step 2 to 6 with an emphasize of how dtypes are handled and which parts are customizable (“Registered”) and which are handled by NumPy:



A central proposal of this NEP is the creation of the ArrayMethod as an object describing each implementation specific to a given set of DTypes. We use the class syntax to describe the information required to create a new ArrayMethod object:

class ArrayMethod:
    name: str  # Name, mainly useful for debugging

    # Casting safety information (almost always "safe", necessary to
    # unify casting and universal functions)
    casting: Casting = "no"

    # More general flags:
    flags: int

    def resolve_descriptors(self,
            Tuple[DTypeMeta], Tuple[DType|None]: given_descrs) -> Casting, Tuple[DType]:
        """Returns the safety of the operation (casting safety) and the
        # A default implementation can be provided for non-parametric
        # output dtypes.
        raise NotImplementedError

    def get_loop(Context : context, strides, ...) -> strided_loop_function, flags:
        """Returns the low-level C (strided inner-loop) function which
        performs the actual operation.

        This method may initially private, users will be able to provide
        a set of optimized inner-loop functions instead:

        * `strided_inner_loop`
        * `contiguous_inner_loop`
        * `unaligned_strided_loop`
        * ...
        raise NotImplementedError

    def strided_inner_loop(
            Context : context, data, dimensions, strides, innerloop_data):
        """The inner-loop (equivalent to the current ufunc loop)
        which is returned by the default `get_loop()` implementation."""
        raise NotImplementedError

With Context providing mostly static information about the function call:

class Context:
    # The ArrayMethod object itself:
    ArrayMethod : method

    # Information about the caller, e.g. the ufunc, such as `np.add`:
    callable : caller = None
    # The number of input arguments:
    int : nin = 1
    # The number of output arguments:
    int : nout = 1
    # The actual dtypes instances the inner-loop operates on:
    Tuple[DType] : descriptors

    # Any additional information required. In the future, this will
    # generalize or duplicate things currently stored on the ufunc:
    #  - The ufunc signature of generalized ufuncs
    #  - The identity used for reductions

And flags stored properties, for whether:

  • the ArrayMethod supports unaligned input and output arrays

  • the inner-loop function requires the Python API (GIL)

  • NumPy has to check the floating point error CPU flags.

Note: More information is expected to be added as necessary.

The call Context#

The “context” object is analogous to Python’s self that is passed to all methods. To understand why the “context” object is necessary and its internal structure, it is helpful to remember that a Python method can be written in the following way (see also the documentation of __get__):

class BoundMethod:
    def __init__(self, instance, method):
        self.instance = instance
        self.method = method

    def __call__(self, *args, **kwargs):
        return self.method.function(self.instance, *args, **kwargs)

class Method:
    def __init__(self, function):
        self.function = function

    def __get__(self, instance, owner=None):
        assert instance is not None  # unsupported here
        return BoundMethod(instance, self)

With which the following method1 and method2 below, behave identically:

def function(self):

class MyClass:
    def method1(self):

    method2 = Method(function)

And both will print the same result:

>>> myinstance = MyClass()
>>> myinstance.method1()
<__main__.MyClass object at 0x7eff65436d00>
>>> myinstance.method2()
<__main__.MyClass object at 0x7eff65436d00>

Here self.instance would be all information passed on by Context. The Context is a generalization and has to pass additional information:

  • Unlike a method which operates on a single class instance, the ArrayMethod operates on many input arrays and thus multiple dtypes.

  • The __call__ of the BoundMethod above contains only a single call to a function. But an ArrayMethod has to call resolve_descriptors and later pass on that information to the inner-loop function.

  • A Python function has no state except that defined by its outer scope. Within C, Context is able to provide additional state if necessary.

Just as Python requires the distinction of a method and a bound method, NumPy will have a BoundArrayMethod. This stores all of the constant information that is part of the Context, such as:

Fortunately, most users and even ufunc implementers will not have to worry about these internal details; just like few Python users need to know about the __get__ dunder method. The Context object or C-structure provides all necessary data to the fast C-functions and NumPy API creates the new ArrayMethod or BoundArrayMethod as required.

ArrayMethod specifications#

These specifications provide a minimal initial C-API, which shall be expanded in the future, for example to allow specialized inner-loops.

Briefly, NumPy currently relies on strided inner-loops and this will be the only allowed method of defining a ufunc initially. We expect the addition of a setup function or exposure of get_loop in the future.

UFuncs require the same information as casting, giving the following definitions (see also NEP 42 CastingImpl):

  • A new structure to be passed to the resolve function and inner-loop:

    typedef struct {
        PyObject *caller;  /* The ufunc object */
        PyArrayMethodObject *method;
        int nin, nout;
        PyArray_DTypeMeta **dtypes;
        /* Operand descriptors, filled in by resolve_desciptors */
        PyArray_Descr **descriptors;
        void *reserved;  // For Potential in threading (Interpreter state)
    } PyArrayMethod_Context

    This structure may be appended to include additional information in future versions of NumPy and includes all constant loop metadata.

    We could version this structure, although it may be simpler to version the ArrayMethod itself.

  • Similar to casting, ufuncs may need to find the correct loop dtype or indicate that a loop is only capable of handling certain instances of the involved DTypes (e.g. only native byteorder). This is handled by a resolve_descriptors function (identical to the resolve_descriptors of CastingImpl):

            PyArrayMethodObject *self,
            PyArray_DTypeMeta *dtypes,
            PyArray_Descr *given_dtypes[nin+nout],
            PyArray_Descr *loop_dtypes[nin+nout]);

    The function fills loop_dtypes based on the given given_dtypes. This requires filling in the descriptor of the output(s). Often also the input descriptor(s) have to be found, e.g. to ensure native byteorder when needed by the inner-loop.

    In most cases an ArrayMethod will have non-parametric output DTypes so that a default implementation can be provided.

  • An additional void *user_data will usually be typed to extend the existing NpyAuxData * struct:

    struct {
        NpyAuxData_FreeFunc *free;
        NpyAuxData_CloneFunc *clone;
        /* To allow for a bit of expansion without breaking the ABI */
       void *reserved[2];
    } NpyAuxData;

    This struct is currently mainly used for the NumPy internal casting machinery and as of now both free and clone must be provided, although this could be relaxed.

    Unlike NumPy casts, the vast majority of ufuncs currently do not require this additional scratch-space, but may need simple flagging capability for example for implementing warnings (see Error and Warning Handling below). To simplify this NumPy will pass a single zero initialized npy_intp * when user_data is not set. Note that it would be possible to pass this as part of Context.

  • The optional get_loop function will not be public initially, to avoid finalizing the API which requires design choices also with casting:

    innerloop *
        PyArrayMethod_Context *context,
        int aligned, int move_references,
        npy_intp *strides,
        PyArray_StridedUnaryOp **out_loop,
        NpyAuxData **innerloop_data,
        NPY_ARRAYMETHOD_FLAGS *flags);

    NPY_ARRAYMETHOD_FLAGS can indicate whether the Python API is required and floating point errors must be checked. move_references is used internally for NumPy casting at this time.

  • The inner-loop function:

    int inner_loop(PyArrayMethod_Context *context, ..., void *innerloop_data);

    Will have the identical signature to current inner-loops with the following changes:

    • A return value to indicate an error when returning -1 instead of 0. When returning -1 a Python error must be set.

    • The new first argument PyArrayMethod_Context * is used to pass in potentially required information about the ufunc or descriptors in a convenient way.

    • The void *innerloop_data will be the NpyAuxData **innerloop_data as set by get_loop. If get_loop does not set innerloop_data an npy_intp * is passed instead (see Error Handling below for the motivation).

    Note: Since get_loop is expected to be private, the exact implementation of innerloop_data can be modified until final exposure.

Creation of a new BoundArrayMethod will use a PyArrayMethod_FromSpec() function. A shorthand will allow direct registration to a ufunc using PyUFunc_AddImplementationFromSpec(). The specification is expected to contain the following (this may extend in the future):

typedef struct {
    const char *name;  /* Generic name, mainly for debugging */
    int nin, nout;
    NPY_CASTING casting;
    PyArray_DTypeMeta **dtypes;
    PyType_Slot *slots;
} PyArrayMethod_Spec;

Discussion and alternatives#

The above split into an ArrayMethod and Context and the additional requirement of a BoundArrayMethod is a necessary split mirroring the implementation of methods and bound methods in Python.

One reason for this requirement is that it allows storing the ArrayMethod object in many cases without holding references to the DTypes which may be important if DTypes are created (and deleted) dynamically. (This is a complex topic, which does not have a complete solution in current Python, but the approach solves the issue with respect to casting.)

There seem to be no alternatives to this structure. Separating the DType-specific steps from the general ufunc dispatching and promotion is absolutely necessary to allow future extension and flexibility. Furthermore, it allows unifying casting and ufuncs.

Since the structure of ArrayMethod and BoundArrayMethod will be opaque and can be extended, there are few long-term design implications aside from the choice of making them Python objects.


The resolve_descriptors method is possibly the main innovation of this NEP and it is central also in the implementation of casting in NEP 42.

By ensuring that every ArrayMethod provides resolve_descriptors we define a unified, clear API for step 3 in Steps involved in a UFunc call. This step is required to allocate output arrays and has to happen before casting can be prepared.

While the returned casting-safety (NPY_CASTING) will almost always be “no” for universal functions, including it has two big advantages:

  • -1 indicates that an error occurred. If a Python error is set, it will be raised. If no Python error is set this will be considered an “impossible” cast and a custom error will be set. (This distinction is important for the np.can_cast() function, which should raise the first one and return False in the second case, it is not noteworthy for typical ufuncs). This point is under consideration, we may use -1 to indicate a general error, and use a different return value for an impossible cast.

  • Returning the casting safety is central to NEP 42 for casting and allows the unmodified use of ArrayMethod there.

  • There may be a future desire to implement fast but unsafe implementations. For example for int64 + int64 -> int32 which is unsafe from a casting perspective. Currently, this would use int64 + int64 -> int64 and then cast to int32. An implementation that skips the cast would have to signal that it effectively includes the “same-kind” cast and is thus not considered “no”.

get_loop method#

Currently, NumPy ufuncs typically only provide a single strided loop, so that the get_loop method may seem unnecessary. For this reason we plan for get_loop to be a private function initially.

However, get_loop is required for casting where specialized loops are used even beyond strided and contiguous loops. Thus, the get_loop function must be a full replacement for the internal PyArray_GetDTypeTransferFunction.

In the future, get_loop may be made public or a new setup function be exposed to allow more control, for example to allow allocating working memory. Further, we could expand get_loop and allow the ArrayMethod implementer to also control the outer iteration and not only the 1-D inner-loop.

Extending the inner-loop signature#

Extending the inner-loop signature is another central and necessary part of the NEP.

Passing in the Context:

Passing in the Context potentially allows for the future extension of the signature by adding new fields to the context struct. Furthermore it provides direct access to the dtype instances which the inner-loop operates on. This is necessary information for parametric dtypes since for example comparing two strings requires knowing the length of both strings. The Context can also hold potentially useful information such as the original ufunc, which can be helpful when reporting errors.

In principle passing in Context is not necessary, as all information could be included in innerloop_data and set up in the get_loop function. In this NEP we propose passing the struct to simplify creation of loops for parametric DTypes.

Passing in user data:

The current casting implementation uses the existing NpyAuxData * to pass in additional data as defined by get_loop. There are certainly alternatives to the use of this structure, but it provides a simple solution, which is already used in NumPy and public API.

NpyAyxData * is a light weight, allocated structure and since it already exists in NumPy for this purpose, it seems a natural choice. To simplify some use-cases (see “Error Handling” below), we will pass a npy_intp *innerloop_data = 0 instead when innerloop_data is not provided.

Note: Since get_loop is expected to be private initially we can gain experience with innerloop_data before exposing it as public API.

Return value:

The return value to indicate an error is an important, but currently missing feature in NumPy. The error handling is further complicated by the way CPUs signal floating point errors. Both are discussed in the next section.

Error handling#

We expect that future inner-loops will generally set Python errors as soon as an error is found. This is complicated when the inner-loop is run without locking the GIL. In this case the function will have to lock the GIL, set the Python error and return -1 to indicate an error occurred::

inner_loop(PyArrayMethod_Context *context, ..., void *innerloop_data)

    for (npy_intp i = 0; i < N; i++) {
        /* calculation */

        if (error_occurred) {
                "Error occurred inside inner_loop.");
            return -1;
    return 0;

Floating point errors are special, since they require checking the hardware state which is too expensive if done within the inner-loop function itself. Thus, NumPy will handle these if flagged by the ArrayMethod. An ArrayMethod should never cause floating point error flags to be set if it flags that these should not be checked. This could interfere when calling multiple functions; in particular when casting is necessary.

An alternative solution would be to allow setting the error only at the later finalization step when NumPy will also check the floating point error flags.

We decided against this pattern at this time. It seems more complex and generally unnecessary. While safely grabbing the GIL in the loop may require passing in an additional PyThreadState or PyInterpreterState in the future (for subinterpreter support), this is acceptable and can be anticipated. Setting the error at a later point would add complexity: for instance if an operation is paused (which can currently happen for casting in particular), the error check needs to run explicitly ever time this happens.

We expect that setting errors immediately is the easiest and most convenient solution and more complex solution may be possible future extensions.

Handling warnings is slightly more complex: A warning should be given exactly once for each function call (i.e. for the whole array) even if naively it would be given many times. To simplify such a use case, we will pass in npy_intp *innerloop_data = 0 by default which can be used to store flags (or other simple persistent data). For instance, we could imagine an integer multiplication loop which warns when an overflow occurred:

integer_multiply(PyArrayMethod_Context *context, ..., npy_intp *innerloop_data)
    int overflow;

    for (npy_intp i = 0; i < N; i++) {
        *out = multiply_integers(*in1, *in2, &overflow);

        if (overflow && !*innerloop_data) {
            if (PyErr_Warn(PyExc_UserWarning,
                    "Integer overflow detected.") < 0) {
                return -1;
            *innerloop_data = 1;
    return 0;

TODO: The idea of passing an npy_intp scratch space when innerloop_data is not set seems convenient, but I am uncertain about it, since I am not aware of any similar prior art. This “scratch space” could also be part of the context in principle.

Reusing existing loops/implementations#

For many DTypes the above definition for adding additional C-level loops will be sufficient and require no more than a single strided loop implementation and if the loop works with parametric DTypes, the resolve_descriptors function must additionally be provided.

However, in some use-cases it is desirable to call back to an existing implementation. In Python, this could be achieved by simply calling into the original ufunc.

For better performance in C, and for large arrays, it is desirable to reuse an existing ArrayMethod as directly as possible, so that its inner-loop function can be used directly without additional overhead. We will thus allow to create a new, wrapping, ArrayMethod from an existing ArrayMethod.

This wrapped ArrayMethod will have two additional methods:

  • view_inputs(Tuple[DType]: input_descr) -> Tuple[DType] replacing the user input descriptors with descriptors matching the wrapped loop. It must be possible to view the inputs as the output. For example for Unit[Float64]("m") + Unit[Float32]("km") this will return float64 + int32. The original resolve_descriptors will convert this to float64 + float64.

  • wrap_outputs(Tuple[DType]: input_descr) -> Tuple[DType] replacing the resolved descriptors with the desired actual loop descriptors. The original resolve_descriptors function will be called between these two calls, so that the output descriptors may not be set in the first call. In the above example it will use the float64 as returned (which might have changed the byte-order), and further resolve the physical unit making the final signature:

    Unit[Float64]("m") + Unit[Float64]("m") -> Unit[Float64]("m")

    the UFunc machinery will take care of casting the “km” input to “m”.

The view_inputs method allows passing the correct inputs into the original resolve_descriptors function, while wrap_outputs ensures the correct descriptors are used for output allocation and input buffering casts.

An important use-case for this is that of an abstract Unit DType with subclasses for each numeric dtype (which could be dynamically created):

# with Unit[Float64] being the concrete DType:
isinstance(Unit[Float64], Unit)  # is True

Such a Unit[Float64]("m") instance has a well-defined signature with respect to type promotion. The author of the Unit DType can implement most necessary logic by wrapping the existing math functions and using the two additional methods above. Using the promotion step, this will allow to create a register a single promoter for the abstract Unit DType with the ufunc. The promoter can then add the wrapped concrete ArrayMethod dynamically at promotion time, and NumPy can cache (or store it) after the first call.

Alternative use-case:

A different use-case is that of a Unit(float64, "m") DType, where the numerical type is part of the DType parameter. This approach is possible, but will require a custom ArrayMethod which wraps existing loops. It must also always require two steps of dispatching (one to the Unit DType and a second one for the numerical type).

Furthermore, the efficient implementation will require the ability to fetch and reuse the inner-loop function from another ArrayMethod. (Which is probably necessary for users like Numba, but it is uncertain whether it should be a common pattern and it cannot be accessible from Python itself.)

Promotion and dispatching#

NumPy ufuncs are multi-methods in the sense that they operate on (or with) multiple DTypes at once. While the input (and output) dtypes are attached to NumPy arrays, the ndarray type itself does not carry the information of which function to apply to the data.

For example, given the input:

int_arr = np.array([1, 2, 3], dtype=np.int64)
float_arr = np.array([1, 2, 3], dtype=np.float64)
np.add(int_arr, float_arr)

has to find the correct ArrayMethod to perform the operation. Ideally, there is an exact match defined, e.g. for np.add(int_arr, int_arr) the ArrayMethod[Int64, Int64, out=Int64] matches exactly and can be used. However, for np.add(int_arr, float_arr) there is no direct match, requiring a promotion step.

Promotion and dispatching process#

In general the ArrayMethod is found by searching for an exact match of all input DTypes. The output dtypes should not affect calculation, but if multiple registered ArrayMethods match exactly, the output DType will be used to find the better match. This will allow the current distinction for np.equal loops which define both Object, Object -> Bool (default) and Object, Object -> Object.

Initially, an ArrayMethod will be defined for concrete DTypes only and since these cannot be subclassed an exact match is guaranteed. In the future we expect that ArrayMethods can also be defined for abstract DTypes. In which case the best match is found as detailed below.


If a matching ArrayMethod exists, dispatching is straight forward. However, when it does not, additional definitions are required to implement this “promotion”:

  • By default any UFunc has a promotion which uses the common DType of all inputs and dispatches a second time. This is well-defined for most mathematical functions, but can be disabled or customized if necessary. For instances int32 + float64 tries again using float64 + float64 which is the common DType.

  • Users can register new Promoters just as they can register a new ArrayMethod. These will use abstract DTypes to allow matching a large variety of signatures. The return value of a promotion function shall be a new ArrayMethod or NotImplemented. It must be consistent over multiple calls with the same input to allow caching of the result.

The signature of a promotion function would be:

promoter(np.ufunc: ufunc, Tuple[DTypeMeta]: DTypes): -> Union[ArrayMethod, NotImplemented]

Note that DTypes may include the output’s DType, however, normally the output DType will not affect which ArrayMethod is chosen.

In most cases, it should not be necessary to add a custom promotion function. An example which requires this is multiplication with a unit: in NumPy timedelta64 can be multiplied with most integers, but NumPy only defines a loop (ArrayMethod) for timedelta64 * int64 so that multiplying with int32 would fail.

To allow this, the following promoter can be registered for (Timedelta64, Integral, None):

def promote(ufunc, DTypes):
    res = list(DTypes)
        res[1] = np.common_dtype(DTypes[1], Int64)
    except TypeError:
        return NotImplemented

    # Could check that res[1] is actually Int64
    return ufunc.resolve_impl(tuple(res))

In this case, just as a Timedelta64 * int64 and int64 * timedelta64 ArrayMethod is necessary, a second promoter will have to be registered to handle the case where the integer is passed first.

Dispatching rules for ArrayMethod and Promoters:

Promoter and ArrayMethod are discovered by finding the best match as defined by the DType class hierarchy. The best match is defined if:

  • The signature matches for all input DTypes, so that issubclass(input_DType, registered_DType) returns true.

  • No other promoter or ArrayMethod is more precise in any input: issubclass(other_DType, this_DType) is true (this may include if both are identical).

  • This promoter or ArrayMethod is more precise in at least one input or output DType.

It will be an error if NotImplemented is returned or if two promoters match the input equally well. When an existing promoter is not precise enough for new functionality, a new promoter has to be added. To ensure that this promoter takes precedence it may be necessary to define new abstract DTypes as more precise subclasses of existing ones.

The above rules enable specialization if an output is supplied or the full loop is specified. This should not typically be necessary, but allows resolving np.logic_or, etc. which have both Object, Object -> Bool and Object, Object -> Object loops (using the first by default).

Discussion and alternatives#

Instead of resolving and returning a new implementation, we could also return a new set of DTypes to use for dispatching. This works, however, it has the disadvantage that it is impossible to dispatch to a loop defined on a different ufunc or to dynamically create a new ArrayMethod.

Rejected Alternatives:

In the above the promoters use a multiple dispatching style type resolution while the current UFunc machinery uses the first “safe” loop (see also NEP 40) in an ordered hierarchy.

While the “safe” casting rule is not restrictive enough, we could imagine using a new “promote” casting rule, or the common-DType logic to find the best matching loop by upcasting the inputs as necessary.

One downside to this approach is that upcasting alone allows upcasting the result beyond what is expected by users: Currently (which will remain supported as a fallback) any ufunc which defines only a float64 loop will also work for float16 and float32 by upcasting:

>>> from scipy.special import erf
>>> erf(np.array([4.], dtype=np.float16))  # float16
array([1.], dtype=float32)

with a float32 result. It is impossible to change the erf function to return a float16 result without changing the result of following code. In general, we argue that automatic upcasting should not occur in cases where a less precise loop can be defined, unless the ufunc author does this intentionally using a promotion.

This consideration means that upcasting has to be limited by some additional method.

Alternative 1:

Assuming general upcasting is not intended, a rule must be defined to limit upcasting the input from float16 -> float32 either using generic logic on the DTypes or the UFunc itself (or a combination of both). The UFunc cannot do this easily on its own, since it cannot know all possible DTypes which register loops. Consider the two examples:

First (should be rejected):

  • Input: float16 * float16

  • Existing loop: float32 * float32

Second (should be accepted):

  • Input: timedelta64 * int32

  • Existing loop: timedelta64 * int16

This requires either:

  1. The timedelta64 to somehow signal that the int64 upcast is always supported if it is involved in the operation.

  2. The float32 * float32 loop to reject upcasting.

Implementing the first approach requires signaling that upcasts are acceptable in the specific context. This would require additional hooks and may not be simple for complex DTypes.

For the second approach in most cases a simple np.common_dtype rule will work for initial dispatching, however, even this is only clearly the case for homogeneous loops. This option will require adding a function to check whether the input is a valid upcast to each loop individually, which seems problematic. In many cases a default could be provided (homogeneous signature).

Alternative 2:

An alternative “promotion” step is to ensure that the output DType matches with the loop after first finding the correct output DType. If the output DTypes are known, finding a safe loop becomes easy. In the majority of cases this works, the correct output dtype is just:


or some fixed DType (e.g. Bool for logical functions).

However, it fails for example in the timedelta64 * int32 case above since there is a-priori no way to know that the “expected” result type of this output is indeed timedelta64 (np.common_dtype(Datetime64, Int32) fails). This requires some additional knowledge of the timedelta64 precision being int64. Since a ufunc can have an arbitrary number of (relevant) inputs it would thus at least require an additional __promoted_dtypes__ method on Datetime64 (and all DTypes).

A further limitation is shown by masked DTypes. Logical functions do not have a boolean result when masked are involved, which would thus require the original ufunc author to anticipate masked DTypes in this scheme. Similarly, some functions defined for complex values will return real numbers while others return complex numbers. If the original author did not anticipate complex numbers, the promotion may be incorrect for a later added complex loop.

We believe that promoters, while allowing for an huge theoretical complexity, are the best solution:

  1. Promotion allows for dynamically adding new loops. E.g. it is possible to define an abstract Unit DType, which dynamically creates classes to wrap other existing DTypes. Using a single promoter, this DType can dynamically wrap existing ArrayMethod enabling it to find the correct loop in a single lookup instead of two.

  2. The promotion logic will usually err on the safe side: A newly-added loop cannot be misused unless a promoter is added as well.

  3. They put the burden of carefully thinking of whether the logic is correct on the programmer adding new loops to a UFunc. (Compared to Alternative 2)

  4. In case of incorrect existing promotion, writing a promoter to restrict or refine a generic rule is possible. In general a promotion rule should never return an incorrect promotion, but if it the existing promotion logic fails or is incorrect for a newly-added loop, the loop can add a new promoter to refine the logic.

The option of having each loop verify that no upcast occurred is probably the best alternative, but does not include the ability to dynamically adding new loops.

The main downsides of general promoters is that they allow a possible very large complexity. A third-party library could add incorrect promotions to NumPy, however, this is already possible by adding new incorrect loops. In general we believe we can rely on downstream projects to use this power and complexity carefully and responsibly.

User guidelines#

In general adding a promoter to a UFunc must be done very carefully. A promoter should never affect loops which can be reasonably defined by other datatypes. Defining a hypothetical erf(UnitFloat16) loop must not lead to erf(float16). In general a promoter should fulfill the following requirements:

  • Be conservative when defining a new promotion rule. An incorrect result is a much more dangerous error than an unexpected error.

  • One of the (abstract) DTypes added should typically match specifically with a DType (or family of DTypes) defined by your project. Never add promotion rules which go beyond normal common DType rules! It is not reasonable to add a loop for int16 + uint16 -> int24 if you write an int24 dtype. The result of this operation was already defined previously as int32 and will be used with this assumption.

  • A promoter (or loop) should never affect existing loop results. This includes adding faster but less precise loops/promoters to replace existing ones.

  • Try to stay within a clear, linear hierarchy for all promotion (and casting) related logic. NumPy itself breaks this logic for integers and floats (they are not strictly linear, since int64 cannot promote to float32).

  • Loops and promoters can be added by any project, which could be:

    • The project defining the ufunc

    • The project defining the DType

    • A third-party project

    Try to find out which is the best project to add the loop. If neither the project defining the ufunc nor the project defining the DType add the loop, issues with multiple definitions (which are rejected) may arise and care should be taken that the loop behaviour is always more desirable than an error.

In some cases exceptions to these rules may make sense, however, in general we ask you to use extreme caution and when in doubt create a new UFunc instead. This clearly notifies the users of differing rules. When in doubt, ask on the NumPy mailing list or issue tracker!


Implementation of this NEP will entail a large refactor and restructuring of the current ufunc machinery (as well as casting).

The implementation unfortunately will require large maintenance of the UFunc machinery, since both the actual UFunc loop calls, as well as the initial dispatching steps have to be modified.

In general, the correct ArrayMethod, also those returned by a promoter, will be cached (or stored) inside a hashtable for efficient lookup.


There is a large space of possible implementations with many discussions in various places, as well as initial thoughts and design documents. These are listed in the discussion of NEP 40 and not repeated here for brevity.

A long discussion which touches many of these points and points towards similar solutions can be found in the github issue 12518 “What should be the calling convention for ufunc inner loop signatures?”


Please see NEP 40 and 41 for more discussion and references.