Julia’s SubArray type is a container encoding a “view” of a parent AbstractArray. This page documents some of the design principles and implementation of SubArrays.

Indexing: cartesian vs. linear indexing

Broadly speaking, there are two main ways to access data in an array. The first, often called cartesian indexing, uses N indexes for an N -dimensional AbstractArray. For example, a matrix A (2-dimensional) can be indexed in cartesian style as A[i,j]. The second indexing method, referred to as linear indexing, uses a single index even for higher-dimensional objects. For example, if A = reshape(1:12, 3, 4), then the expression A[5] returns the value 5. Julia allows you to combine these styles of indexing: for example, a 3d array A3 can be indexed as A3[i,j], in which case i is interpreted as a cartesian index for the first dimension, and j is a linear index over dimensions 2 and 3.

For Arrays, linear indexing appeals to the underlying storage format: an array is laid out as a contiguous block of memory, and hence the linear index is just the offset (+1) of the corresponding entry relative to the beginning of the array. However, this is not true for many other AbstractArray types: examples include SparseMatrixCSC, arrays that require some kind of computation (such as interpolation), and the type under discussion here, SubArray. For these types, the underlying information is more naturally described in terms of cartesian indexes.

You can manually convert from a cartesian index to a linear index with sub2ind, and vice versa using ind2sub. getindex and setindex! functions for AbstractArray types may include similar operations.

While converting from a cartesian index to a linear index is fast (it’s just multiplication and addition), converting from a linear index to a cartesian index is very slow: it relies on the div operation, which is one of the slowest low-level operations you can perform with a CPU. For this reason, any code that deals with AbstractArray types is best designed in terms of cartesian, rather than linear, indexing.

Index replacement

Consider making 2d slices of a 3d array:

S1 = slice(A, :, 5, 2:6)
S2 = slice(A, 5, :, 2:6)

slice drops “singleton” dimensions (ones that are specified by an Int), so both S1 and S2 are two-dimensional SubArrays. Consequently, the natural way to index these is with S1[i,j]. To extract the value from the parent array A, the natural approach is to replace S1[i,j] with A[i,5,(2:6)[j]] and S2[i,j] with A[5,i,(2:6)[j]].

The key feature of the design of SubArrays is that this index replacement can be performed without any runtime overhead.

SubArray design

Type parameters and fields

The strategy adopted is first and foremost expressed in the definition of the type:

type SubArray{T,N,P<:AbstractArray,I<:(ViewIndex...),LD} <: AbstractArray{T,N}
    first_index::Int   # for linear indexing and pointer
    stride1::Int       # used only for linear indexing

SubArray has 5 type parameters. The first two are the standard element type and dimensionality. The next is the type of the parent AbstractArray. The most heavily-used is the fourth parameter, a tuple of the types of the indexes for each dimension. The final one, LD, is used only in special circumstances, to implement efficient linear indexing for those types that can support it.

If in our example above A is a Array{Float64, 3}, our S1 case above would be a SubArray{Float64,2,Array{Float64,3},(Colon,Int64,UnitRange{Int64}),2}. Note in particular the tuple parameter, which stores the types of the indexes used to create S1. Likewise,

julia> S1.indexes

Storing these values allows index replacement, and having the types encoded as parameters allows one to dispatch to efficient algorithms.

An Int index is used to represent a parent dimension that should be dropped. The distinction between the sub and slice commands is that sub converts interior Int indices into ranges at the time of construction. For example:

S3 = sub(A, :, 5, 2:6)

julia> S3.indexes

Because of this conversion, S3 is three-dimensional.

getindex and setindex! (index translation)

Performing index translation requires that you do different things for different concrete SubArray types. For example, for S1, one needs to apply the i,j indexes to the first and third dimensions of the parent array, whereas for S2 one needs to apply them to the second and third. The simplest approach to indexing would be to do the type-analysis at runtime:

parentindexes = Array{Any}(0)
for i = 1:ndims(S.parent)
    if isa(thisindex, Int)
        # Don't consume one of the input indexes
        push!(parentindexes, thisindex)
        # Consume an input index
        push!(parentindexes, thisindex[inputindex[j]])
        j += 1

Unfortunately, this would be disastrous in terms of performance: each element access would allocate memory, and involves the running of a lot of poorly-typed code.

The better approach is to dispatch to specific methods to handle each type of input. Note, however, that the number of distinct methods needed grows exponentially in the number of dimensions, and since Julia supports arrays of any dimension the number of methods required is in fact infinite. Fortunately, @generated functions allow one to generate the necessary methods quite straightforwardly. The resulting code looks quite a lot like the runtime approach above, but all of the type analysis is performed at the time of method instantiation. For a SubArray of the type of S1, the method executed at runtime is literally

getindex(S::<type of S1>, i, j) = S.parent[i, S.indexes[2], S.indexes[3][j]]

Linear indexing

Linear indexing can be implemented efficiently when the entire array has a single stride that separates successive elements. For SubArray types, the availability of efficient linear indexing is based purely on the types of the indexes, and does not depend on values like the size of the array. It therefore can miss some cases in which the stride happens to be uniform:

julia> A = reshape(1:4*2, 4, 2)
4×2 Array{Int64,2}:
 1  5
 2  6
 3  7
 4  8

julia> diff(A[2:2:4,:][:])
3-element Array{Int64,1}:

A view constructed as sub(A, 2:2:4, :) happens to have uniform stride, and therefore linear indexing indeed could be performed efficiently. However, success in this case depends on the size of the array: if the first dimension instead were odd,

julia> A = reshape(1:5*2, 5, 2)
5×2 Array{Int64,2}:
 1   6
 2   7
 3   8
 4   9
 5  10

julia> diff(A[2:2:4,:][:])
3-element Array{Int64,1}:

then A[2:2:4,:] does not have uniform stride, so we cannot guarantee efficient linear indexing. Since we have to base this decision based purely on types encoded in the parameters of the SubArray, S = sub(A, 2:2:4, :) cannot implement efficient linear indexing.

The last parameter of SubArray, LD, encodes the highest dimension up to which elements are guaranteed to have uniform stride. When LD == length(I), the length of the indexes tuple, efficient linear indexing becomes possible.

An example might help clarify what this means:

  • For S1 above, the Colon along the first dimension is uniformly spaced (all elements are displaced by 1 from the previous value), so this dimension does not “break” linear indexing. Consequently LD has a value of at least 1.
  • The second dimension of the parent, sliced out as 5, does not not by itself break linear indexing: if all of the remaining indexes were Int, the entire SubArray would have efficient linear indexing. Consequently, LD is at least 2.
  • The last dimension is a Range. This would by itself break linear indexing (even though it is a UnitRange, the fact that it might not start at 1 means that there might be gaps). Additionally, given the preceding indexes any choice other than Int would also have truncated LD at 2.

Consequently, as a whole S1 does not have efficient linear indexing.

However, if we were to later say S1a = slice(S1, 2:2:7, 3), S1a would have an LD of 3 (its indexes tuple has type (Colon, Int, Int)) and would have efficient linear indexing. This ability to re-slice is the main motivation to use an integer LD rather than a boolean flag to encode the applicability of linear indexing.

The main reason LD cannot always be inferred from the indexes tuple is because sub converts internal Int indexes into UnitRanges. Consequently it is important to encode “safe” dimensions of size 1 prior to conversion. Up to the LDth entry, we can be sure that any UnitRange was, in fact, an Integer prior to conversion.

A few details

  • Hopefully by now it’s fairly clear that supporting slices means that the dimensionality, given by the parameter N, is not necessarily equal to the dimensionality of the parent array or the length of the indexes tuple. Neither do user-supplied indexes necessarily line up with entries in the indexes tuple (e.g., the second user-supplied index might correspond to the third dimension of the parent array, and the third element in the indexes tuple).

    What might be less obvious is that the dimensionality of the parent array may not be equal to the length of the indexes tuple. Some examples:

    A = reshape(1:35, 5, 7) # A 2d parent Array
    S = sub(A, 2:7)         # A 1d view created by linear indexing
    S = sub(A, :, :, 1)     # Appending extra indexes is supported
    S = sub(A, :, :, 1:1)

    Consequently, internal SubArray code needs to be fairly careful about which of these three notions of dimensionality is relevant in each circumstance.

  • Because the processing needed to implement all of the @generated expressions isn’t readily available at the time subarray.jl appears in the bootstrap process, SubArray functionality is split into two files, the second being subarray2.jl.

  • Bounds-checking has currently not been tackled. There are two relevant notions of bounds-checking, one at construction time and one during element access. This is an important outstanding issue.