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NumPy Follow Up

Hi everyone. Since yesterday's blog post we got a ton of feedback, so we want to clarify a few things, as well as share some of the progress we've made, in only the 24 hours since the post.

Reusing the original NumPy

First, a lot of people have asked why we cannot just reuse the original NumPy through cpyext, our CPython C-API compatibility layer. We believe this is not the best approach, for a few reasons:

  1. cpyext is slow, and always will be slow. It has to emulate far too many details of the CPython object model that don't exist on PyPy (e.g., reference counting). Since people are using NumPy primarily for speed this would mean that even if we could have a working NumPy, no one would want to use it. Also, as soon as the execution crosses the cpyext boundary, it becomes invisible to the JIT, which means the JIT has to assume the worst and deoptimize stuff away.
  2. NumPy uses many obscure documented and undocumented details of the CPython C-API. Emulating these is often difficult or impossible (e.g. we can't fix accessing a struct field, as there's no function call for us to intercept).
  3. It's not much fun. Frankly, working on cpyext, debugging the crashes, and everything else that goes with it is not terribly fun, especially when you know that the end result will be slow. We've demonstrated we can build a much faster NumPy, in a way that's more fun, and given that the people working on this are volunteers, it's important to keep us motivated.

Finally, we are not proposing to rewrite the entirety of NumPy or, god forbid, BLAST, or any of the low level stuff that operates on C-level arrays, only the parts that interface with Python code directly.

C bindings vs. CPython C-API

There are two issues on C code, one has a very nice story, and the other not so much. First is the case of arbitrary C-code that isn't Python related, things like libsqlite, libbz2, or any random C shared library on your system. PyPy will quite happily call into these, and bindings can be developed either at the RPython level (using rffi) or in pure Python, using ctypes. Writing bindings with ctypes has the advantage that they can run on every alternative Python implementation, such as Jython and IronPython. Moreover, once we merge the jittypes2 branch ctypes calls will even be smoking fast.

On the other hand there is the CPython C-extension API. This is a very specific API which CPython exposes, and PyPy tries to emulate. It will never be fast, because there is far too much overhead in all the emulation that needs to be done.

One of the reasons people write C extensions is for speed. Often, with PyPy you can just forget about C, write everything in pure python and let the JIT to do its magic.

In case the PyPy JIT alone isn't fast enough, or you just want to use existing C code then it might make sense to split your C-extension into 2 parts, one which doesn't touch the CPython C-API and thus can be loaded with ctypes and called from PyPy, and another which does the interfacing with Python for CPython (where it will be faster).

There are also libraries written in C to interface with existing C codebases, but for whom performance is not the largest goal, for these the right solution is to try using CPyExt, and if it works that's great, but if it fails the solution will be to rewrite using ctypes, where it will work on all Python VMs, not just CPython.

And finally there are rare cases where rewriting in RPython makes more sense, NumPy is one of the few examples of these because we need to be able to give the JIT hints on how to appropriately vectorize all of the operations on an array. In general writing in RPython is not necessary for almost any libraries, NumPy is something of a special case because it is so ubiquitous that every ounce of speed is valuableq, and makes the way people use it leads to code structure where the JIT benefits enormously from extra hints and the ability to manipulate memory directly, which is not possible from Python.

Progress

On a more positive note, after we published the last post, several new people came and contributed improvements to the numpy-exp branch. We would like to thank all of them:

  • nightless_night contributed: An implementation of __len__, fixed bounds checks on __getitem__ and __setitem__.
  • brentp contributed: Subtraction and division on NumPy arrays.
  • MostAwesomeDude contributed: Multiplication on NumPy arrays.
  • hodgestar contributed: Binary operations between floats and NumPy arrays.

Those last two were technically an outstanding branch we finally merged, but hopefully you get the picture. In addition there was some exciting work done by regular PyPy contributors. I hope it's clear that there's a place to jump in for people with any level of PyPy familiarity. If you're interested in contributing please stop by #pypy on irc.freenode.net, the pypy-dev mailing list, or send us pull requests on bitbucket.

Alex