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Polymorphic dispatching

Functions compiled using jit() or vectorize() are open-ended: they can be called with many different input types and have to select (possibly compile on-the-fly) the right low-level specialization. We hereby explain how this mechanism is implemented.


JIT-compiled functions can take several arguments and each of them is taken into account when selecting a specialization. Thus it is a form of multiple dispatch, more complex than single dispatch.

Each argument weighs in the selection based on its Numba type. Numba types are often more granular than Python types: for example, Numba types Numpy arrays differently depending on their dimensionality and their layout (C-contiguous, etc.).

Once a Numba type is inferred for each argument, a specialization must be chosen amongst the available ones; or, if not suitable specialization is found, a new one must be compiled. This is not a trivial decision: there can be multiple specializations compatible with a given concrete signature (for example, say a two-argument function has compiled specializations for (float64, float64) and (complex64, complex64), and it is called with (float32, float32)).

Therefore, there are two crucial steps in the dispatch mechanism:

  1. infer the Numba types of the concrete arguments

  2. select the best available specialization (or choose to compile a new one) for the inferred Numba types

Compile-time vs. run-time

This document discusses dispatching when it is done at runtime, i.e. when a JIT-compiled function is called from pure Python. In that context, performance is important. To stay in the realm of normal function call overhead in Python, the overhead of dispatching should stay under a microsecond. Of course, the faster the better

When a JIT-compiled function is called from another JIT-compiled function (in nopython mode), the polymorphism is resolved at compile-time, using a non-performance critical mechanism, bearing zero runtime performance overhead.


In practice, the performance-critical parts described here are coded in C.

Type resolution

The first step is therefore to infer, at call-time, a Numba type for each of the function’s concrete arguments. Given the finer granularity of Numba types compared to Python types, one cannot simply lookup an object’s class and key a dictionary with it to obtain the corresponding Numba type.

Instead, there is a machinery to inspect the object and, based on its Python type, query various properties to infer the appropriate Numba type. This can be more or less complex: for example, a Python int argument will always infer to a Numba intp (a pointer-sized integer), but a Python tuple argument can infer to multiple Numba types (depending on the tuple’s size and the concrete type of each of its elements).

The Numba type system is high-level and written in pure Python; there is a pure Python machinery, based on a generic function, to do said inference (in numba.typing.typeof). That machinery is used for compile-time inference, e.g. on constants. Unfortunately, it is too slow for run-time value-based dispatching. It is only used as a fallback for rarely used (or difficult to infer) types, and exhibits multiple-microsecond overhead.


The Numba type system is really too high-level to be manipulated efficiently from C code. Therefore, the C dispatching layer uses another representation based on integer typecodes. Each Numba type gets a unique integer typecode when constructed; also, an interning system ensure no two instances of same type are created. The dispatching layer is therefore able to eschew the overhead of the Numba type system by working with simple integer typecodes, amenable to well-known optimizations (fast hash tables, etc.).

The goal of the type resolution step becomes: infer a Numba typecode for each of the function’s concrete arguments. Ideally, it doesn’t deal with Numba types anymore…

Hard-coded fast paths

While eschewing the abstraction and object-orientation overhead of the type system, the integer typecodes still have the same conceptual complexity. Therefore, an important technique to speed up inference is to first go through checks for the most important types, and hard-code a fast resolution for each of them.

Several types benefit from such an optimization, notably:

  • basic Python scalars (bool, int, float, complex);

  • basic Numpy scalars (the various kinds of integer, floating-point, complex numbers);

  • Numpy arrays of certain dimensionalities and basic element types.

Each of those fast paths ideally uses a hard-coded result value or a direct table lookup after a few simple checks.

However, we can’t apply that technique to all argument types; there would be an explosion of ad-hoc internal caches, and it would become difficult to maintain. Besides, the recursive application of hard-coded fast paths would not necessarily combine into a low overhead (in the nested tuple case, for example).

Fingerprint-based typecode cache

For non-so-trivial types (imagine a tuple, or a Numpy datetime64 array, for example), the hard-coded fast paths don’t match. Another mechanism then kicks in, more generic.

The principle here is to examine each argument value, as the pure Python machinery would do, and to describe its Numba type unambiguously. The difference is that we don’t actually compute a Numba type. Instead, we compute a simple bytestring, a low-level possible denotation of that Numba type: a fingerprint. The fingerprint format is designed to be short and extremely simple to compute from C code (in practice, it has a bytecode-like format).

Once the fingerprint is computed, it is looked up in a cache mapping fingerprints to typecodes. The cache is a hash table, and the lookup is fast thanks to the fingerprints being generally very short (rarely more than 20 bytes).

If the cache lookup fails, the typecode must first be computed using the slow pure Python machinery. Luckily, this would only happen once: on subsequent calls, the cached typecode would be returned for the given fingerprint.

In rare cases, a fingerprint cannot be computed efficiently. This is the case for some types which cannot be easily inspected from C: for example cffi function pointers. Then, the slow Pure Python machinery is invoked at each function call with such an argument.


Two fingerprints may denote a single Numba type. This does not make the mechanism incorrect; it only creates more cache entries.


Type resolution of a function argument involves the following mechanisms in order:

  • Try a few hard-coded fast paths, for common simple types.

  • If the above failed, compute a fingerprint for the argument and lookup its typecode in a cache.

  • If all the above failed, invoke the pure Python machinery which will determine a Numba type for the argument (and look up its typecode).

Specialization selection

At the previous step, an integer typecode has been determined for each concrete argument to the JIT-compiled function. Now it remains to match that concrete signature against each of the available specializations for the function. There can be three outcomes:

  • There is a satisfying best match: the corresponding specialization is then invoked (it will handle argument unboxing and other details).

  • There is a tie between two or more “best matches”: an exception is raised, refusing to solve the ambiguity.

  • There is no satisfying match: a new specialization is compiled tailored for the concrete argument types that were inferred.

The selection works by looping over all available specializations, and computing the compatibility of each concrete argument type with the corresponding type in the specialization’s intended signature. Specifically, we are interested in:

  1. Whether the concrete argument type is allowed to convert implicitly to the specialization’s argument type;

  2. If so, at what semantic (user-visible) cost the conversion comes.

Implicit conversion rules

There are five possible kinds of implicit conversion from a source type to a destination type (note this is an asymmetric relationship):

  1. exact match: the two types are identical; this is the ideal case, since the specialization would behave exactly as intended;

  2. same-kind promotion: the two types belong to the same “kind” (for example int32 and int64 are two integer types), and the source type can be converted losslessly to the destination type (e.g. from int32 to int64, but not the reverse);

  3. safe conversion: the two types belong to different kinds, but the source type can be reasonably converted to the destination type (e.g. from int32 to float64, but not the reverse);

  4. unsafe conversion: a conversion is available from the source type to the destination type, but it may lose precision, magnitude, or another desirable quality.

  5. no conversion: there is no correct or reasonably efficient way to convert between the two types (for example between an int64 and a datetime64, or a C-contiguous array and a Fortran-contiguous array).

When a specialization is examined, the latter two cases eliminate it from the final choice: i.e. when at least one argument has no conversion or only an unsafe conversion to the signature’s argument type.


However, if the function is compiled with explicit signatures in the jit() call (and therefore it is not allowed to compile new specializations), unsafe conversion is allowed.

Candidates and best match

If a specialization is not eliminated by the rule above, it enters the list of candidates for the final choice. Those candidates are ranked by an ordered 4-uple of integers: (number of unsafe conversions, number of safe conversions, number of same-kind promotions, number of exact matches) (note the sum of the tuple’s elements is equal to the number of arguments). The best match is then the #1 result in sorted ascending order, thereby preferring exact matches over promotions, promotions over safe conversions, safe conversions over unsafe conversions.


The above-described mechanism works on integer typecodes, not on Numba types. It uses an internal hash table storing the possible conversion kind for each pair of compatible types. The internal hash table is in part built at startup (for built-in trivial types such as int32, int64 etc.), in part filled dynamically (for arbitrarily complex types such as array types: for example to allow using a C-contiguous 2D array where a function expects a non-contiguous 2D array).


Selecting the right specialization involves the following steps:

  • Examine each available specialization and match it against the concrete argument types.

  • Eliminate any specialization where at least one argument doesn’t offer sufficient compatibility.

  • If there are remaining candidates, choose the best one in terms of preserving the types’ semantics.


Some benchmarks of dispatch performance exist in the Numba benchmarks repository.

Some unit tests of specific aspects of the machinery are available in numba.tests.test_typeinfer and numba.tests.test_typeof. Higher-level dispatching tests are in numba.tests.test_dispatcher.