SciPy’s new LowLevelCallable is a game-changer

… and combines rather well with that other game-changing library I like, Numba.

I’ve lamented before that function calls are expensive in Python, and that this severely hampers many functions that should be insanely useful, such as SciPy’s ndimage.generic_filter.

To illustrate this, let’s look at image erosion, which is the replacement of each pixel in an image by the minimum of its neighbourhood. ndimage has a fast C implementation, which serves as a perfect benchmark against the generic version, using a generic filter with min as the operator. Let’s start with a 2048 x 2048 random image:

>>> import numpy as np
>>> image = np.random.random((2048, 2048))

and a neighbourhood “footprint” that picks out the pixels to the left and right, and above and below, the centre pixel:

>>> footprint = np.array([[0, 1, 0],
...                       [1, 1, 1],
...                       [0, 1, 0]], dtype=bool)

Now, we measure the speed of grey_erosion and generic_filter. Spoiler alert: it’s not pretty.

>>> from scipy import ndimage as ndi
>>> %timeit ndi.grey_erosion(image, footprint=footprint)
10 loops, best of 3: 118 ms per loop
>>> %timeit ndi.generic_filter(image, np.min, footprint=footprint)
1 loop, best of 3: 27 s per loop

As you can see, with Python functions, generic_filter is unusable for anything but the tiniest of images.

A few months ago, I was trying to get around this by using Numba-compiled functions, but the way to feed C functions to SciPy was different depending on which part of the library you were using. scipy.integrate used ctypes, while scipy.ndimage used PyCObjects or PyCapsules, depending on your Python version, and Numba only supported the former method at the time. (Plus, this topic starts to stretch my understanding of low-level Python, so I felt there wasn’t much I could do about it.)

Enter this pull request to SciPy from Pauli Virtanen, which is live in the most recent SciPy version, 0.19. It unifies all C-function interfaces within SciPy, and Numba already supports this format. It takes a bit of gymnastics, but it works! It really works!

(By the way, the release is full of little gold nuggets. If you use SciPy at all, the release notes are well worth a read.)

First, we need to define a C function of the appropriate signature. Now, you might think this is the same as the Python signature, taking in an array of values and returning a single value, but that would be too easy! Instead, we have to go back to some C-style programming with pointers and array sizes. From the generic_filter documentation:

This function also accepts low-level callback functions with one of the following signatures and wrapped in scipy.LowLevelCallable:

int callback(double *buffer, npy_intp filter_size, 
             double *return_value, void *user_data)
int callback(double *buffer, intptr_t filter_size, 
             double *return_value, void *user_data)

The calling function iterates over the elements of the input and output arrays, calling the callback function at each element. The elements within the footprint of the filter at the current element are passed through the buffer parameter, and the number of elements within the footprint through filter_size. The calculated value is returned in return_value. user_data is the data pointer provided to scipy.LowLevelCallable as-is.

The callback function must return an integer error status that is zero if something went wrong and one otherwise.

(Let’s leave aside that crazy reversal of Unix convention of the past 50 years in the last paragraph, except to note that our function must return 1 or it will be killed.)

So, we need a Numba cfunc that takes in:

  • a double pointer pointing to the values within the footprint,
  • a pointer-sized integer that specifies the number of values in the footprint,
  • a double pointer for the result, and
  • a void pointer, which could point to additional parameters, but which we can ignore for now.

The Numba type names are listed in this page. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, there’s no mention of how to make pointers there, but finding such a reference was not too hard. (Incidentally, it would make a good contribution to Numba’s documentation to add CPointer to the Numba types page.)

So, armed with all that documentation, and after much trial and error, I was finally ready to write that C callable:

>>> from numba import cfunc, carray
>>> from numba.types import intc, intp, float64, voidptr
>>> from numba.types import CPointer
>>> 
>>> 
>>> @cfunc(intc(CPointer(float64), intp,
...             CPointer(float64), voidptr))
... def nbmin(values_ptr, len_values, result, data):
...     values = carray(values_ptr, (len_values,), dtype=float64)
...     result[0] = np.inf
...     for v in values:
...         if v < result[0]:
...             result[0] = v
...     return 1

The only other tricky bits I had to watch out for while writing that function were as follows:

  • remembering that there’s two ways to de-reference a pointer in C: *ptr, which is not valid Python and thus not valid Numba, and ptr[0]. So, to place the result at the given double pointer, we use the latter syntax. (If you prefer to use Cython, the same rule applies.)
  • Creating an array out of the values_ptr and len_values variables, as shown here. That’s what enables the for v in values Python-style access to the array.

Ok, so now what you’ve been waiting for. How did we do? First, to recap, the original benchmarks:

>>> %timeit ndi.grey_erosion(image, footprint=footprint)
10 loops, best of 3: 118 ms per loop
>>> %timeit ndi.generic_filter(image, np.min, footprint=footprint)
1 loop, best of 3: 27 s per loop

And now, with our new Numba cfunc:

>>> %timeit ndi.generic_filter(image, LowLevelCallable(nbmin.ctypes), footprint=footprint)
10 loops, best of 3: 113 ms per loop

That’s right: it’s even marginally faster than the pure C version! I almost cried when I ran that.


Higher-order functions, ie functions that take other functions as input, enable powerful, concise, elegant expressions of various algorithms. Unfortunately, these have been hampered in Python for large-scale data processing because of Python’s function call overhead. SciPy’s latest update goes a long way towards redressing this.

6 thoughts on “SciPy’s new LowLevelCallable is a game-changer

  1. thanks for this communication
    i just updated my scipy to test it in a jupyter-notebook and it works as you say
    i was interested in this to use the low-level version of integrate.quad
    also after some tinkering a managed to get this nice paradoxical error
    “TypeError: ‘LowLevelCallable’ object is not callable”
    I guess he means the ‘LowLevelCallable’ is not ‘[HighLevel]Callable’

    1. Hi!
      I found your follow-up post today.
      What I need is an efficient way to write a simple llc-able function in python, like, for example
      Energy(position,hardcoresize,softcoresize,potentialwell,temperature)
      and then generate a closure like
      Energy_at_fixed_parameters(position)
      and then send that 1dimensional integrand to integrate.quad

      Now, if I don’t change temperature/parameters too often compared to the time it takes to integrate (e.g. interactive work), I could recompile the closure on every change. But I’m afraid if I need to change temperature/parameters too often, then I will need to compile the higher order function together with some structure to hold the environment variables, and I might not be able to do this latter option from python and scipy/numba tools.

      I’ll be glad to submit a PR if anything useful comes out of my own tinkering

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