QuTiP data layer and the end of Google Summer of Code 2020

This post is the final permalink for the work I’ve done for QuTiP in the Google Summer of Code 2020. My mentors have been Alex Pitchford, Eric Giguère and Nathan Shammah, and QuTiP is under the numFOCUS umbrella.

The main aim of the project was to make Qobj, the primary data type in QuTiP, able to use both sparse and dense representations of matrices and have them interoperate seamlessly. This was a huge undertaking that had far-reaching implications all across the library, but we have now succeeded. There is still plenty of work to be done in additional development documentation and on sanding out the edges to improve the UX, but we are moving towards a public beta of a major version update next year.


The primary class in QuTiP is Qobj, which represents all quantum objects. Historically, Qobj has always used a compressed-sparse-row (CSR) format to store its backing data, a design decision stemming from the library’s original aim of being a drop-in Python replacement for the Quantum Optics Toolbox for MATLAB (GitHub source mirror). Sparse matrices are typically an excellent choice for quantum optics, which frequently deals with large systems with very few allowed transitions, but incur significant computational and memory overheads when dealing with small systems, or very dense matrices such as propagators.

As QuTiP has evolved, and as quantum computation and the circuit model have become more prevalent with the scientific community moving into the NISQ era, the cases where dense matrices are preferred have become much more common. Ideally, we want to be able to use the best matrix representation for every different object, and have this be completely seamless to the user within normal execution.

In Julia, QuantumOptics.jl does something similar using Julia’s built-in multiple-dispatch capabilities and type traits, but the main bulk of its support stems from stronger interoperability between the Matrix and SparseMatrix standard-library types in that language. In Python, scipy.sparse arrays and numpy.ndarray do interoperate well for the most part, but due to how generic it is required to be scipy.sparse.csr_matrix is too slow for our use-case. The backing data store of Qobj was replaced in late 2016 by Paul Nation, one of the original developers, with a modified version of csr_matrix which elided a lot of run-time checks that caused most of the slowdown (see: qutip#577, qutip#595 and qutip#609).

As the library has developed, more and more low-level quantum-specific functions have been written in Cython, always assuming the backing data store is the new fast_csr_matrix type, along with all its type checks. The more of these functions we have in the library, the harder it is to introduce a new data type; as soon as we strayed away from pure NumPy and SciPy functions, we lost the “free” interoperability between dense and sparse representations, and to add a new type we would have had to contend with exponential scaling of the number of functions we would have to write to support everything.

The aim of this project was to introduce full interoperability of different matrix representations, not necessarily limited to a dense matrix and just one sparse format, without tripling the size of the library and requiring every new function to have several versions.

You can also read my first blog post introducing the topic, and my original GSoC proposal in PDF format. All my intermediary blog posts can be found on this site under the GSoC tag, most of which are design drafts and the first passes at a lot of documentation.

Project pull requests

The main bulk of my project is done now, separated across a few different pull requests.

Isolating qutip.core (#1282)

I isolated the core functionality of QuTiP into qutip.core, a physical split in the file storage, but mostly one which is completely transparent to the user. This was mostly for our internal organisation, and to help break us out of a huge circular dependency issue.

This was where I gained a lot of knowledge on packaging and distribution Cython extension modules along with Python code, and a few things I’d rather not have needed to learn about getting OpenMP working on macOS.

Adding the Dense and CSR types (#1296)

This put in a lot of the implementation of these types, although CSR had more attention, as a lot of code could be ported from the old versions.

We made a decision not to use numpy.ndarray or scipy.sparse.csr_matrix as the backing stores for Qobj; csr_matrix had already been replaced by the custom fast_csr_matrix which was not ideal due to its use of private SciPy functions whose API is not stable, and with the amount of Python–C interchange that needed to happen, it was much more efficient to have the data types be C extension types defined in Cython. These “first-class” data types are Dense and CSR, though we also allow user-defined types which may be pure Python.

I especially like the idea behind the test generation for the mathematical operations although I am not sure I pulled it off as neatly as it could have been done. See in particular the test_mathematics.py file.

When writing these types, I made the type they use to represent indices a typedef at the top layer of the code. In theory, this allows the user to select at compile-time (assuming they are compiling it for themselves rather than using a pre-built package) the size of integer they want to use internally, fulfilling one of the minor project aims.

Replacing fast_csr_matrix with CSR in Qobj (#1332)

This was by far the most fiddly and longest part of the project, despite being technically very simple. The aim was simply to switch over to the new CSR type from the old fast_csr_matrix, and using this opportunity to find every place in the code where we depended on the type specifically being the SciPy-like type.

It turns out that there were a lot of places which assumed that Qobj.data was in this format, and it took a lot of work to migrate everything to the new system, particularly in the “solvers” (e.g. of the Schrödinger equation sesolve, the Lindbladian master equation mesolve and so on) which are naturally very low level.

As part of the switch-over, I made fairly heavy optimisations to the Qobj constructor, including ensuring that all library code passed it all the information that they knew at the time of the call, rather than letting it infer it later. This had large speed implications; the runtime for matrix multiplication of two simple qubits went down from about 100µs to 5µs.

The algorithm for multiplying CSR matrices with dense vectors in QuTiP has been written in C++ for some time now, to take advantage of SIMD vectorisations that compilers typically would not apply as part of the build process. This posed a problem for the variable-width index type used in CSR, as the C++ was not aware of the typedef made in the Cython code. I solved this by templating out the C++ code so that function was always generated with the correct integer width.

Creating the multiple-dispatch mechanism (#1338)

This was the most technical aspect of the project. We needed a way to have simple mathematical functions which could take any data-layer object and perform the requested operation on them, without requiring us as the maintainers to have to write an exponential number of specialisations to support every possible combination of inputs and output type.

I achieved this with two flagship objects which together primarily make up the “data layer”. These are data.to and data.Dispatcher; the short version is that the dispatcher binds the inputs, extracts the data-layer types present, and then chooses the “closest” specialisation of its function. If there is no exact specialisation, then it uses the conversion function data.to to convert the input into a matching type, so it can perform the operation. There is far more information in the pull request itself.

data.to provides conversions between all data types which make up the data layer. Registering a type with data.to is sufficient to add it to the data layer, where it can then be used all across QuTiP in every operation. Conversion functions are specified here with the type signature 'A -> 'B, where 'A and 'B are generic data-layer types. We then consider the types themselves to form the vertices of a graph, while the conversion specialisations are the directed edges. The problem of converting 'F -> 'G for arbitrary known types is now a graph traversal one; at initialisation (and at specialisation or type addition) we build an entire lookup table with the shortest path from every node to every other node, sacrificing memory for run-time speed. We allow users to define weights for different conversions, effectively specifying their preferred types.

data.Dispatcher has a Cython reimplementation of the Python parameter resolution process, which intercepts the arguments that need to be dispatched on. It then uses a hash-table lookup to find the “closest” specialisation for the given function that it actually knows. For example, matmul has specialisations for (CSR, CSR) -> CSR, (Dense, Dense) -> Dense and (CSR, Dense) -> Dense, but not for the other five possible combinations of these two types. If such a specialisation is required, Dispatcher uses data.to to convert the arguments to the nearest match (where the conversion weight and possible specialisation weight make up the “distance”). Since this is done by hash-table lookup, this is an O(n)\mathcal O(n) lookup, where nn is the number of arguments to be dispatched on. There is no computational dependence on the number of known types at run-time, although there is when we build the table.

Activating the dispatch across QuTiP (#1351)

Finally, the last step was simply to activate the dispatchers all across QuTiP. After the heavy lifting was done breaking the dependence on scipy in #1332, this was a simple process. The end result is that Qobj can now use any backing data store known by data.to.

There is still quite a lot of roughness at this stage that I intend to keep working on well after the summer of code is ended, but formally this PR completed all the aims of my original proposal.

Other work on QuTiP

At the same time, I have been quite involved in other aspects of QuTiP, including helping out users in the discussion boards.

In July, I was involved in the release of QuTiP 4.5.2. This was mostly triggered by the release of SciPy 1.5; without the new data-layer types that I worked on, the 4.x branch relied in part on private scipy functions that were renamed in the 1.5 release. I wrote PRs 1298, 1301 and 1302 so we could make a new release (since all 4.x QuTiP releases were incompatible with SciPy 1.5).

I have also been taking on more work to do with tidying up the distribution, building and testing processes (1303, 1312 and 1347), something I had already been partially involved in before beginning the summer of code. I have also sped up several algorithms and handled edge cases better in a few places (1306, 1307 and 1352), mostly where testing the new data layer turned up possible problems that were present in the 4.x branch.

Still to do

I still have an list of things I want to achieve before we release QuTiP 5.0 to the public. There are several sparse algorithms that I identified as places for improvement (add_csr and matmul_csr being two major ones), and there are more tests that need to be written. We have historically been less than perfect with regards to our testing in QuTiP, which is something I would like to change.

Most relevant to the project, there are also several UX concerns that I would prefer to address before the release. Currently it is simple to require certain output types, but it is complicated to force the Dispatcher to use a particular specialisation. In various algorithms, this is a notable omission; for example in especially large sparse matrices, it may not be possible to use a dense eigenvalue solver, even though in regular usage the dense method is preferred. At present, we have not fully worked out the details of what this API will look like.

Final thoughts

I really have enjoyed working full time as a software engineer as part of the summer of code programme. I didn’t know whether I would enjoy my hobby when working on it as a job, so I am glad to have this experience before the end of my PhD.

My two primary mentors (Eric Giguère and Alex Pitchford) have been excellent; very responsive, eager to talk about technical details and offer advice on API design and user experience. Nathan Shammah organised several “outreach”-type meetings with the rest of the QuTiP team to keep us all working together, and aware of what each other was doing, which was also lovely.

I am fairly sure I will keep working in open source, and on QuTiP in particular going forwards; I actually started before I was aware of Google Summer of Code, so I am very hopeful that I will continue through the 5.0 release cycle and beyond!

Thank you to everyone involved!