Compiling typed Python

June 19, 2023

It’s been nine whole years since PEP 484 landed and brought us types from on high. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move1. Since then, people on the internet have been clamoring to find out: does this mean we can now compile Python to native code for more speed? It’s a totally reasonable question. It was one of my first questions when I first started working on Python compilers. So can we do it?

No. But also, kind of, yes. I’ll explain. I’ll explain in the context of “ahead-of-time” compiling within or adjacent to CPython, the predominant implementation of the Python language. Just-in-time (JIT) compilers are a different beast, and are described more below. None of the information in this post is novel; I hope only to clarify a bunch of existing academic and industry knowledge.

The core thesis is: types are very broad hints and they are sometimes lies.

It’s not what you think

A lot of people enjoy walking into discussions and saying things like “We have a 100% Mypy/Pyright/Pytype/Pyre typed codebase. I would simply use the types in compilation to generate better code.” That was the original title of this article, even. “I would simply use the types in the compiler.” But it doesn’t really work like that2. I’ll show a couple examples that demonstrate why. The point is not to browbeat you with example after example; the point is to get people to stop saying “just” and “simply”.

For example, look at this lovely little Python function. It’s short, typed, and obviously just adds integers. Easy: compiles right down to two machine instructions. Right?

def add(x: int, y: int) -> int:
    return x + y

add(3, 4)  # => 7

Unfortunately, no. Type annotations of the type x: T mean “x is an instance of T or an instance of a subclass of T.”3 This is pretty common in programming languages, and, thanks to Barbara Liskov, makes semantic sense most of the time. But it doesn’t help performance here. The dispatch for binary operators in Python is famously not simple because of subclasses. This means that there is a lot of code to be executed if x and y could be any subclasses of int.

class C(int):
    def __add__(self, other):
        send_a_nasty_email()  # sigh
        return 42

If this sounds familiar, you might have read the Ben-Asher and Rotem paper, Falcon paper, or Barany paper, all of which discuss how everything in Python basically boils down to a function call and that makes it hard to statically analyze. This post is subtly different because we now have types, and people assume those make the analysis easier.

Arbitrary code execution aside, it’s also not obvious how the appropriate __add__ function is selected in operator dispatch. You don’t need to understand or really even read the big blob that explains it below. You just need to say “ooh” and “aah” and “wow, so many if-statements.”

_MISSING = object()

def sub(lhs: Any, rhs: Any, /) -> Any:
        # lhs.__sub__
        lhs_type = type(lhs)
            lhs_method = debuiltins._mro_getattr(lhs_type, "__sub__")
        except AttributeError:
            lhs_method = _MISSING

        # lhs.__rsub__ (for knowing if rhs.__rsub__ should be called first)
            lhs_rmethod = debuiltins._mro_getattr(lhs_type, "__rsub__")
        except AttributeError:
            lhs_rmethod = _MISSING

        # rhs.__rsub__
        rhs_type = type(rhs)
            rhs_method = debuiltins._mro_getattr(rhs_type, "__rsub__")
        except AttributeError:
            rhs_method = _MISSING

        call_lhs = lhs, lhs_method, rhs
        call_rhs = rhs, rhs_method, lhs

        if (
            rhs_type is not _MISSING  # Do we care?
            and rhs_type is not lhs_type  # Could RHS be a subclass?
            and issubclass(rhs_type, lhs_type)  # RHS is a subclass!
            and lhs_rmethod is not rhs_method  # Is __r*__ actually different?
            calls = call_rhs, call_lhs
        elif lhs_type is not rhs_type:
            calls = call_lhs, call_rhs
            calls = (call_lhs,)

        for first_obj, meth, second_obj in calls:
            if meth is _MISSING:
            value = meth(first_obj, second_obj)
            if value is not NotImplemented:
                return value
            raise TypeError(
                f"unsupported operand type(s) for -: {lhs_type!r} and {rhs_type!r}"

This enormous code snippet is from Brett Cannon’s linked post above. It demonstrates in Python “pseudocode” what happens in C under the hood when doing lhs - rhs in Python.

But let’s ignore this problem and pretend that it’s not possible to subclass int. Problem solved, right? High performance math?

Unfortunately, no. While we would have fast dispatch on binary operators and other methods, integers in Python are heap-allocated big integer objects. This means that every operation on them is a function call to PyLong_Add or similar. While these functions have been optimized for speed over the years, they are still slower than machine integers. But let’s assume that a sufficiently smart compiler can auto-unbox small-enough big integers into machine words at the beginning of a function. We can do fast math with those. If we really want, we can even do fast floating point math, too. Problem solved? Hopefully?

# You can have fun making enormous numbers! This is part of the Python
# language.
def big_pow(x: int) -> int:
    # Even if you unbox `x` here, the result might still be enormous.
    return 2**x

Unfortunately, no. Most math kernels are not just using built-in functions and operators. They call out to external C libraries like NumPy or SciPy, and those functions expect heap-allocated PyLongObjects. The C-API is simply not ready to expose the underlying functions that operate on machine integers, and it is also not ready for tagged pointers. This would be a huge breaking change in the API and ABI. But okay, let’s assume for the sake of blog post that the compiler team has a magic wand and can do all of this.

// Store 63-bit integers inside the pointer itself.
static const long kSmallIntTagBits = 1;
static const long kBits = 64 - kSmallIntTagBits;
static const long kMaxValue = (long{1} << (kBits - 1)) - 1;

PyObject* PyLong_FromLong(long x) {
    if (x < kMaxValue) {
        return (PyObject*)((unsigned long)value << kSmallIntTagBits);
    return MakeABigInt(x);

PyObject* PyLong_Add(PyObject* left, PyObject* right) {
    if (IsSmallInt(left) && IsSmallInt(right)) {
        long result = Untag(left) + Untag(right);
        return PyLong_FromLong(result);
    return BigIntAdd(left, right);

Then we’re set, right?

Unfortunately, there are still some other loose ends to tie up. While you may have a nice and neatly typed numeric kernel of Python code, it has to interact with the outside world. And the outside world is often not so well typed. Thank you to Jeremy Siek and Walid Taha for giving us gradual typing—this is the reason anything gets typed at all in Python—but you can’t do type-driven compilation of untyped code and expect it to be fast.

This means that at the entry to your typed functions, you have to check the types of the input objects. Maybe you can engineer a system such that a function can have multiple entry points—one for untyped calls, one for typed calls, and maybe even one for unboxed calls—but this hypothetical system’s complexity is growing, and fast. And there are a whole host of other complications and bits of dynamic behavior that I haven’t even mentioned.

def typed_function_unboxed(x: int64, y: int64) -> int64:
    return int64_add(x, y)

def typed_function(x: int, y: int) -> int:
    return typed_function_unboxed(unbox(x), unbox(y))

def typed_function_shell(x, y):
    if not isinstance(x, int):
        raise TypeError("...")
    if not isinstance(y, int):
        raise TypeError("...")
    return typed_function(cast(x, int), cast(y, int))

f = make_typed_function(typed_function_shell, typed_function, typed_function_unboxed)
f(3, 4)  # The dispatch gets hairy

And it’s not just about types, either! For example, variable binding, especially global variable binding, is a performance impediment. Globals, even builtins, are almost always overwritable by any random Python code.

“But Max,” you say, “Python compiler libraries like Numba clearly work just fine. Just-in-time compilers have been doing this for years. What’s the deal?”

Just-in-time compilers can be so effective because they can speculate on things that are not compile-time constants. Then, if the assumption is no longer true, they can fall back on a (slower) interpreter. This is how PyPy, the successor of Psyco, does its amazing work specializing data structures; the JIT does not have to handle every case. This interpreter deoptimization is part of what makes JITs hard to understand and does not much help with compiling code ahead-of-time.

This is what a PyPy trace might look like, taken from the 2011 paper Runtime Feedback in a Meta-Tracing JIT for Efficient Dynamic Languages. Every guard is a potential exit from JITed code to the interpreter:

# inst1.getattr("a")
map1 =
guard(map1 == 0xb74af4a8)
index1 = Map.getindex(map1, "a")
guard(index1 != -1)
storage1 =
result1 = storage1[index1]

And the other thing is, unlike PyPy, Numba doesn’t exactly compile Python


Numba is great! I cannot emphasize enough how much I am not trying to pick on Numba here. The team put in a lot of hard work and solid engineering and built a compiler that produces very fast numerical code.

It’s possible to do this because Numba compiles a superficially similar language that is much less dynamic and is focused on numerics. For people who work with data analytics and machine learning, this is incredible! Unfortunately, it doesn’t generalize to arbitrary Python code.

This is also true of many other type-driven compiler projects that optimize “Python” code:

and in particular to optimize numerics:

and probably more that I forgot about or could not find (please feel free to submit a PR).

It does raise an interesting question, though: what if you intentionally and explicitly eschew the more dynamic features? Can you get performance in return? It turns out, yes. Absolutely yes.

Stronger guarantees

As people have continually rediscovered over the years, Python is hard to optimize statically. Functions like the following, which “only” do an attribute load, have no hope whatsoever of being optimized out of context:

def get_an_attr(o):
    return o.value

This is because o could be any object, types can define custom attribute resolution by defining a __getattr__ function, and therefore attribute loads are equivalent to running opaque blobs of user code.

Even if the function is typed, you still run into the subclass problem described earlier. You also have issues like instance attributes, deleting attributes, descriptor shadowing, and so on.

class C:
    def __init__(self):
        self.value = 5

def get_an_attr(o: C):
    return o.value

However, if you intentionally opt out of a lot of that dynamism, things start getting interesting. The Static Python compiler, for example, is part of the Cinder project, and lets you trade dynamism for speed. If a module is marked static with import __static__, Cinder will swap out the standard bytecode compiler for the Static Python bytecode compiler, which compiles a different language!

By way of example, the SP compiler will automatically slotify all of the classes in a SP module and prohibit a __dict__ slot. This means that features that used to work—dynamically creating and deleting attributes, etc—no longer do. But it also means that attribute loads from static classes are actually only three machine instructions now. This tradeoff makes the compiler transform sound. Most people like this tradeoff.

import __static__

class C:
    def __init__(self):
        self.value: int = 5

def get_an_attr(o: C):
    return o.value
# ...
# mov rax,QWORD PTR [rsi+0x10]  # Load the field
# test rax,rax                  # Check if null
# je 0x7f823ba17283             # Maybe raise an exception
# ...

Static Python does this just with existing Python annotations. It has some more constraints than Mypy does (you can’t ignore your type errors away, for example), but it does not change the syntax of Python. But it’s important to know that this does not just immediately follow from a type-directed translation. It requires opting into stricter checking and different behavior for an entire typed core of a codebase—potentially gradually (SP can call untyped Python and vice versa). It requires changing the runtime representation of objects from header+dictionary to header+array of slots. For this reason it is (currently) implemented as a custom compiler, custom bytecode interpreter, and with support in the Cinder JIT. To learn more, check out the Static Python team’s paper collaboration with Brown, which explains a bit more about the gradual typing bits and soundness.

I would be remiss if I did not also mention Mypyc (the optimizer and code generator for Mypy). Mypyc is very similar to Static Python in that it takes something that looks like Python with types and generates type-optimized code. It is different in that it generates C extensions and does tagged pointers for integers by default. Depending on your use case—in particular, your deployment story—it may be the compiler that you want to use! The Black formatter, for example, has had great success using Mypyc4.

I mentioned earlier that Static Python has some additional rules for typing that Mypy does not, and that Mypyc is based on Mypy. They both try to be correct compilers and optimizers, so how do they work around users lying to the type checker with type: ignore?

def foo(x: int) -> int:
    return x

foo("hello")  # type: ignore

In this example,

All of these are reasonable behaviors because each project has different goals.

In addition to the normal types available, both Static Python and Mypyc allow typing parameters and other variables as primitive ints like int8 so you can get the unboxed arithmetic that people tend to expect on first reading of the first code snippet in this post5.

Other projects take this further. The Mojo project, for example, aims to create a much bigger and more visibly different new language that is a proper superset of Python6. The Python code it runs should continue to work as advertised, but modules can opt into less dynamism by iteratively converting their Python code to something that looks a little different. They also do a bunch of other neat stuff, but that’s outside the scope of this blog post.

See for example this snippet defining a struct (a new feature) that reads like a Python class but has some stronger mutability and binding guarantees:

struct MyPair:
    var first: Int
    var second: Int
    def __lt__(self, rhs: MyPair) -> Bool:
        return self.first < rhs.first or
              (self.first == rhs.first and
               self.second < rhs.second)

It even looks like the @value decorator gives you value semantics.

Per the Mojo docs,

Mojo structs are static: they are bound at compile-time (you cannot add methods at runtime). Structs allow you to trade flexibility for performance while being safe and easy to use.


In Mojo, the structure and contents of a “struct” are set in advance and can’t be changed while the program is running. Unlike in Python, where you can add, remove, or change attributes of an object on the fly, Mojo doesn’t allow that for structs. This means you can’t use del to remove a method or change its value in the middle of running the program.

Seems neat. We’ll see what it looks like more when it’s open sourced.

And finally, even if you are not trying to do optimized code generation, packaging up all the code at app bundle time can help save big on runtime startup. If you don’t need to hit the disk at least once per imported module, you get some big wins in time and code locality. ngoldbaum on notes that PyOxidizer can bundle your code into the data segment of an executable.

This already happens with the frozen built-in modules (was just importlib before 3.11) and has been tried before with entire applications (one, two, three (productionized here), and maybe others) with varying upstreaming success.

Other approaches

Nuitka (not mentioned above) is a whole-program compiler from Python to C. As far as I can tell, it does not use your type annotations in the compilation process. Instead it uses its own optimization pipeline, including function inlining, etc, to discover types. Please correct me if I am wrong!

The Oils project includes a shell written in Python that is accelerated by a Python-to-C++ compiler called mycpp. This is not a general-purpose compiler; Andy’s perspective on this is that they only ever intend to be able to compile and run one codebase. This lets them completely ignore very dynamic Python semantics (which the Oil shell does not use) as long as the singular end-user program has the same visible behavior.

In other languages

If you don’t like this whole “typed kernel” idea, other compilers like Graal’s SubstrateVM do some advanced wizardry to analyze your whole program.

SubstrateVM is an ahead-of-time compiler for Java that looks at your entire codebase as a unit. It does some intense inter-procedural static analysis to prove things about your code that can help with performance. It also subtly changes the language, though. In order to do this analysis, it prohibits arbitrary loading of classes at runtime. It also limits the amount of reflection to some known feature subset.

What this means for the average Python programmer

If you are working on a science thing or machine learning project, you most likely have a bunch of glue around some fast core of hardcore math. If you add types and use one of the excellent compilers listed above, you will probably get some performance benefits.

If you are working on some other project, though, you may not have such a clear performance hotspot. Furthermore, you may not be working with objects that have fast primitive representations, like int. You probably have a bunch of data structures, etc. In that case, some of the projects above like Mypyc and Static Python and Nuitka can probably help you. But you will need to add types, probably fix some type errors, and then change how you build and run your application.

Unfortunately for everybody who writes Python, a huge portion of code that needs to be fast is written as C extensions because of historical reasons. This means that you can optimize the Python portion of your application all you like, but the C extension will remain an opaque blob (unless your compiler understands it like Numba understands NumPy, that is). This means that you may need to eventually re-write your C code as Python to fully reap all the performance benefits. Or at least type the boundary.

What this means for other dynamic languages

These questions about and issues with straightforward type-driven compilation are not unique to Python. The Sorbet team had to do a lot of work to make this possible for Ruby. People ask the same thing about typed JavaScript (like TypeScript) and probably other languages, too. People will have to work out similar solutions. I am looking forward to Tzvetan Mikov’s talk on Static Hermes at React Native EU 2023 (slides are here and blog post is here).

There is also Manuel Serrano’s whole-program AOT compiler (PDF) for JS, called Hopc. It will ignore your type annotations and do its own analysis, though. Serrano notes:

Hint types are unsound as they do not denote super sets of all the possible values variables can hold at runtime, neither they abstract all possible correct program executions.


Type information alone is not enough to generate fast code. For that, the compilation chain has to include all sorts of optimizations such as inline property caches, closure allocation, function inlining, data-flow analysis, register allocation, etc.

Seems about right.

Wrapping up

Types are not ironclad guarantees of data layout. Changing the language you are compiling to prohibit certain kinds of dynamism can help you with performance. Several projects already do this and it seems to be growing in popularity.

If nothing else, I hope you have more of an understanding of what types mean from a correctness perspective, from a performance perspective, and how they do not always overlap.

I also hope you don’t come away from this post feeling sad. I actually hope you feel hopeful! Tons of brilliant engineers are working tirelessly to make your code run faster.

Further reading

After publishing this post I came across Optimizing and Evaluating Transient Gradual Typing which adds type checks to CPython and erases redundant ones, and then realized that this was also cited in the Brown paper. The whole series of papers is really interesting. And apparently I was coworkers with Michael Vitousek for over four years. Neat!

  1. According to Douglas Adams, anyway. 

  2. I’m not even going to address fancy type-level metaprogramming stuff, because I don’t think people ever intended to use that for performance anyway. There are lots of uses for Python type annotations. We’ll just look at very simple bog-standard x: SomeTypeName annotations. 

  3. The Static Python project sort of has an internal Exact type that can be used like x: Exact[int] to disallow subclasses, but it’s not exposed. This is, as Carl Meyer explained to me, because Mypy, Pyre, and other type checkers don’t have a good way to check this type; the Python type system does not support this. 

  4. Dialects often have subtle and unexpected differences. The differences are not always necessarily related to type checks; sometimes they change how variables are bound. For example, Mypyc changes the behavior of imports and global variables. Consider these three files:

    def foo():
      return 123
    def override():
      return 456
    foo = override
    from a import foo
    def bar():
      return foo()
    from b import bar

    First run with python3 Then try running python3 -m mypyc (I have mypy 1.4.0 (compiled: yes)) and then python3 again.

    In normal Python semantics, the result printed is 456. However, with Mypyc, the result is 123. Something about global variable binding for functions in Mypyc-Mypyc imports is different; with just two files (one Mypyc compiled, the other a main), the behavior is as expected.

    Maybe this is intended or at least documented behavior on the part of the Mypyc authors, and maybe it is not. Either way, faithfully reproducing the full Python semantics is very difficult. 

  5. Implicit here is that these primitive int types are final, which means that annotations like a: int8 can be trusted. There is no subclass of int8 so we can optimize! 

  6. Thank you to Chris Gregory for pushing me to look more at it!