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The Triton-C Programming Language

Table of Contents

  1. Motivations
  2. Vector Addition
    1. Differences with CUDA
    2. Advantages over CUDA
      1. Vectorization
      2. Parameterization
      3. Auto-Tuning
  3. Matrix Transposition
    1. Compute Kernel
    2. The __multipleof Attribute
    3. Conditional Dereferencing
  4. Matrix Multiplication
    1. Compute Kernel
    2. Optimizations
      1. Pre-Fetching
      2. Rematerialization
    3. Fused Transpositions and Auto-Tuning


In C and C++, arrays and pointers have similar semantics. Indeed, there is no native way to manipulate statically shaped multi-dimensional arrays (beyond initialization) as a whole:

// C99
float x[16][8] = {3.14};
float y[16][8] = {5.17};
// z = x + y
float z[16][8];
#pragma unroll
for(int i = 0; i < 16; i++)
  #pragma unroll
  for(int j = 0; j < 8; j++)
    z[i][j] = x[i][j] + y[i][j];

While it does not seem like a big deal at first sight, there are two issues with this:

  • Ergonomics: Of course, it is possible to simplify the above code using functions in C
float z[16][8];
add(z, x, y, 16, 8);

but this would be semantically different as the loops can no longer be unrolled due to their bounds being now dynamic arguments of the add function. This can be mitigated using templates metaprogramming (and operator overloads) in C++:

// C++
template<typename T, int M, int N> 
class matrix;

matrix<float, 16, 8> x = {3.14};
matrix<float, 16, 8> y = {5.17};
matrix<float, 16, 8> z = x + y;

While this is better and now equivalent to our initial code snippet, the syntax is not quite as ergonomically satisfying as what native syntactic support could provide:

// Triton-C
float x[16, 8] = 3.14;
float y[16, 8] = 5.17;
// float z[8, 8] = x + y; // doesn't compile -- incompatible shapes!
float z[16, 8] = x + y;
float u[16] = z[:, +]; // sum along the second axis
float v[16, 32] = u[:, newaxis]; // broadcasting along the second axis

which is valid Triton-C.

  • Portability: One other issue with our initial C program is that it is not portable. While it will run well on a single CPU thread, the operation z = x + y would underutilize a GPU Streaming Processor as it would execute on a single thread only. For this reason, it would have to be rewritten in CUDA as follows:
// Launch on a block of 16 x 8 threads
float x = 3.14;
float y = 5.17;
float z = x + y

In Triton-C, the same code can be used across many different platforms (only CPUs and GPUs are supported at the moment). Furthermore, Triton-C is single-threaded, hence easier to write than CUDA.

  • Performance: Another issue with our initial C code snippet is its performance. Although the loops are unrolled, the program does not carry any data-flow information pertaining to array operations. This issue gets more and more problematic as programs get increasingly complex, eventually culminating in matrix multiplication being remarkably hard to optimize.

    This can be worked around using heavy metaprogramming techniques (see CUTLASS), but even then programmers still have to allocate and synchronize shared memory manually and endure prohibitively long compilation procedures not easily amenable to auto-tuning. For these reasons, most Deep-Learning frameworks still rely heavily on highly optimized subroutines (e.g., BLAS), which makes the development of novel custom primitives time-consuming for experts and almost impossible for others.

    Triton addresses this issue by relying on Triton-IR, an LLVM-like IR for array operations, and Triton-JIT, an optimizing compiler for Triton-IR. These two systems are, however, beyond the scope of this tutorial. More information can be found here.

Note: You might be thinking that this is exactly what MLIR was made for... and you're right! You can conceptually think of Triton-IR as a dialect for MLIR, and Triton-C as a frontend for it. I would like to integrate Triton-IR into MLIR in the future; If you're interested in making this a thing, let me know.

Vector Addition

Differences with CUDA

Let's start it off by looking at a simple example. Vector addition, in its most trivial Triton-C implementation, can be written as follows:

// Triton-C
// launched on a grid of (N / 32) programs of 1 thread each
__global__  void add(int N, float *a, float *b, float* c) {
	int id = get_program_id(0);
	int off[32] = id * 32 + (0 ... 32)
	*(c + off) = *(a + off) + *(b + off);

For reference, here is an equivalent CUDA kernel (NVCC will generate the same PTX code as Triton-JIT on the above code):

// launched on a grid of (N / 32) programs of 32 threads each
__global__ void add(int N, float *a, float *b, float *c) {
    int off = blockIdx.x * 32 + threadIdx.x;
    c[off] = a[off] + b[off];

As you can see, there are three main differences between our Triton-C kernel and the equivalent CUDA:

  • The programming model is different. While Triton-C and CUDA both use a Single-Program, Multiple-Data (SPMD) programming model, each Triton-C kernel is single-threaded. Therefore, get_program_id({0, 1, 2}) is equivalent to blockIdx.{x, y, z}, but there is no such thing as blockDim and threadIdx.

  • The semantics of arrays is different In the above Triton-C kernel, off is an array of 32 consecutive integers: int off[32] = {id * 32 + 0, id * 32 + 1, ..., id * 32 + 31}. As a result, the statement: c + off implicitly broadcast c and creates an array of 32 pointers. This could also be done explicitly as follows:

float* c_broadcast[32] = c;
float* c_ptr[32] = c_broadcast + off; // c_ptr = c + off
  • The semantics of the subscript operator is different. n C/CUDA, subscripting can be used to offset and dereference a pointer, but in Triton-C it can only be used to index and broadcast an array (think NumPy).

Advantages over CUDA

At this point, the advantages of Triton-C over CUDA may not be obvious. But they should become clearer and clearer as this tutorial progresses. First and foremost, the purpose of this subsection is to show how Triton can be used to optimize vector additions by automatically taking care of load/store vectorization, code parameterization and auto-tuning -- all of which require nontrivial implementation efforts in CUDA.


On some hardware architectures, vectorizing load/store operations can lead to better memory utilization and, in turn, noticeable performance gains. In general, 128-bit memory transactions are favored, leading to the following CUDA kernel:

// launched on a grid of (N / 128) programs of 32 threads each
__global__ void add(int N, float4 *a, float4 *b, float4 *c) {
    int off = blockIdx.x * 32 + threadIdx.x;
    c[off] = a[off] + b[off];

Or, for half-precision inputs:

// launched on a grid of (N / 256) programs of 32 threads each
__global__ void add(int N, half8 *a, half8 *b, half8 *c) {
    int off = blockIdx.x * 32 + threadIdx.x;
    c[off] = a[off] + b[off];

Now this is a bit annoying, because as a programmer you have to keep track of not only the ideal vector size for each data-type (which might change in future GPU architectures), but also of how many elements are processed in each thread-block -- and adjust the grid size of the kernel accordingly! Not to mention that you may want to tune the thread-block size as well.

In Triton-C, this is not a problem as the compiler will figure out automatically when and where vectorization should be used, without any change in the source-code necessary.


Specifically, the Triton compiler would refuse to 4-way vectorize our above compute kernel because it would require the array int off[32] to be distributed over 8 threads, which is less than a warp. Fortunately, it turns out that this problem can be easily solved using preprocessor directrives to parameterize our kernel:

// Triton-C
// launched on a grid of (N / SIZE) programs of 1 thread each
__global__  void add(int N, TYPE* a, TYPE* b, TYPE* c) {
	int id = get_program_id(0);
	int off[SIZE] = id * SIZE + (0 ... SIZE);
	*(c + off) = *(a + off) + *(b + off);
// Not vectorized when compiled with -DSIZE=32 -DTYPE=float
// 4-Vectorized when compiled with -DSIZE=128 -DTYPE=float
// 8-Vectorized when compiled with -DSIZE=256 -DTYPE=half

Now, TYPE and SIZE are preprocessors macros which can be specified at compile-time, thereby giving the Triton compiler enough information to vectorize when beneficial without requiring any additional code modification.


As it turns out, different input vector lengths N may require different values of SIZE to perform optimally. Fortunately, the Triton preprocessor also accepts lists of possible definitions for macros, in which case an auto-tuning procedure will be launched every-time new input sizes are encountered. For example, compiling the above kernel with the option-DSIZE=[32, 64, 128, 256] -DTYPE=float will result in the parameter SIZE being automatically tuned every time a new value of N is encountered.

Note: Tuning our reference CUDA kernel would be much more cumbersome, as template metaprogramming would have to be used to ensure that proper vector types would be used

Matrix Transposition

Transpositions are (relatively) hard to efficiently write in CUDA because naive implementations typically suffer from uncoalesced memory operations when writing back the transposed matrix to DRAM. Of course, this can be fixed by using shared memory as shown here, but this comes at the cost of simplicity and -- more importantly -- interferes with auto-tuning.

Compute Kernel

In Triton, however, kernels are single-threaded and the compiler automatically detects if and when data should be temporarily stashed to shared memory in order to enable shared memory stores/loads. Therefore, an optimal Triton kernel for this operation would look like:

// launched on a grid of (M / TM) x (N / TN) programs of 1 thread each
__global__ void transpose(TYPE * X, TYPE * Y,  int M, int N, int ldx, int ldy) {
// extract program ID
  int pidm = get_program_id(0); //(1)
  int pidn = get_program_id(1); //(2)
  // create 1D range along the two matrix's axes
  int rm[TM] = pidm * TM + 0 ... TM; //(3)
  int rn[TN] = pidn * TN + 0 ... TN; //(4)
  // create 2D array of pointers
  TYPE* px[TM, TN] = X + rm[:, newaxis] + rn[newaxis, :] * ldx; //(5)
  TYPE* py[TN, TM] = Y + rm[newaxis, :] * ldy + rn[:, newaxis]; //(6)
  // write back using the transposition operator '^'
  *py = ^(*px); //(7)

At a high level, this kernel loads a TM x TN tile from the input matrix X, transposes it and writes the resulting TN x TM tile to the output matrix Y. Eventually, transposition of the full input matrix is achieved by launching a grid of (M / TM) x (N / TN) programs decomposed as follows:

  • Statements (1) and (2) extract the coordinates the program in the above 2D launch grid. For example, the program producing the output tile Y[TN:2TN-1, 2TN:3TN-1] holds the values:
pidm = 2
pidn = 1
  • Statements (3) and (4) construct the ranges of indices:
rm = [pidm*TM + 0, pidm*TM + 1, ..., pidm*TM + (TM - 1)]
rn = [pidn*TN + 0, pidn*TN + 1, ..., pidn*TN + (TN - 1)]

which will be used in statements (5) and (6) to construct tiles of pointers

  • Statements (5) constructs the following array of pointers px using numpy-style broadcasting semantics:
│ X + (pidm*TM + 0)       + (pidn*TN + 0)*ldx,  ...,  ...,  X + (pidm*TM + 0)      +  (pidn*TN + TN - 1)*ldx) │
│      ⋮                                                                                       ⋮             │
│      ⋮                                                                                       ⋮             │
│ X + (pidm*TM + TM - 1)  + (pidn*TN + 0)*ldx,  ...,  ...,  X + (pidm*TM + TM - 1) +  (pidn*TN + TN - 1)*ldx) │
  • Statement (6) constructs the following array of pointers py using numpy-style broadcasting semantics:
│ Y + (pidn*TN + 0)       + (pidm*TM + 0)*ldy,  ...,  ...,  Y + (pidn*TN + 0)      +  (pidm*TM + TM - 1)*ldy) │
│      ⋮                                                                                       ⋮             │
│      ⋮                                                                                       ⋮             │
│ Y + (pidn*TN + TN - 1)  + (pidn*TN + 0)*ldy,  ...,  ...,  Y + (pidn*TN + TN - 1) +  (pidm*TM + TM - 1)*ldy) │
  • Statement (7) element-wise dereferences the above array of pointers *px, transposes it using the unary transposition operator ^, and writes it back at the location specified by py.

The __multipleof Attribute

The memory loads and store in our transposition kernel are not vectorizable by default, since X + ldx (and Y + ldy) may be misaligned when ldx (and ldy) are not multiples of e.g., 4. This is unfortunate because tensor dimensions can be easily made into nice powers of two in Deep Learning, due to batch-sizes and layer width being flexible.

For this reason, Triton provides a __multipleof(N) attributes for variables that are guaranteed to always be multiple of N. In the case of Matrix Transpositions, vector loads can be enabled by modifying the function's signature as follows:

__global__ void transpose(TYPE * X, TYPE * Y,  int M, int N, int ldx __multipleof(8), int ldy __multipleof(8)) {
// ...

Conditional Dereferencing

You might have noticed that the above code will fail when M and N are not multiples of TM and TN respectively. Fortunately, the above kernel can be slightly modified to handle thie situation, as shown below:

// launched on a grid of ((M + TM - 1) / TM) x ((N + TN - 1) / TN) programs
__global__ void transpose(TYPE * X, TYPE * Y,  int M, int N, int ldx, int ldy) {
   // ...
   // create bounds-checking mask
   bool checkx[TM, TN] = (rm[:, newaxis] < M) && (rn[newaxis, :] < N); //(7a)
   bool checky[TN, TM] = (rm[newaxis, :] < M) && (rn[:, newaxis] < N); //(7b)
   // conditional write-back using the conditional dereferencing operatior '*?()'
   *?(checky)py = ^(*?(checkx)px); //(7)

Here, statements (7a) creates an array of booleans checkx[TM, TN] such that checkx(i, j) = True if and only if px(i, j) should be dereferenced. Statement (7b) does the same for py. Both px and py are then conditionally dereferenced using Triton-C's conditional dereferencing operator *?(predicate) pointer.

Matrix Multiplication

The purpose of this section is to present a Triton-C implementation of matrix multiplication that achieves performance competitive with the best existing hand-written CUDA kernels (see CUTLASS). We will also see how pre-processors macros can be leveraged to fuse transposition operations as well as to provide support for auto-tuning and FP16 Tensor Cores.

Note: Bounds-checking is ommitted throughout for the sake of clarity. This feature can be easily added into our kernel, but may result in a slight performance hit because LLVM and PTXAS have issues dealing with conditionals and predicates inside loops.

Compute Kernel

Matrix multiplications of the form C = A x B can be implemented in Triton-C fairly concisely, as shown below:

// Triton-C
// launched on a grid of (M / TM) x (N / TN) programs
__global__ void dot(TYPE * A, TYPE * B, TYPE * C,  int M, int N, int K,
        	        int lda __multipleof(8),  int ldb __multipleof(8),  int ldc __multipleof(8)) {
  // prologue
  int pm = get_program_id(0); //(1)
  int pn = get_program_id(1); //(2)
  int rm[TM] = pm * TM + 0 ... TM; //(3)
  int rn[TN] = pn * TN + 0 ... TN; //(4)
  int rk[TK] = 0 ... TK; //(5)
  // initialize accumulator 
  float c[TM, TN] = 0; //(6)
  // pointers to operands
  TYPE* pa[TM, TK] = A + rk[newaxis, :] * 1 + rm[:, newaxis] * lda; //(7)
  TYPE* pb[TK, TN] = B + rk[:, newaxis] * ldb + rn[newaxis, :] * 1; //(8)
  // reduction loop
  for(int k = K; k > 0; k-= TK){
    // fetch operands
    TYPE a[TM, TK] = *pa; //(9) 
    TYPE b[TK, TN] = *pb; //(10)
    // matrix-multiply accumulate
    c += a @ b; //(11)
    // increment pointers
    pa = pa + TK * 1; //(12)
    pb = pb + TK * ldb; //(13)
  // epilogue
  TYPE* pc[TM, TN] = C + rn[newaxis, :] + rm[:, newaxis] * ldc; //(14)
  *pc = c; //(15)

Here, each kernel instance produces a TM x TN tile of the output matrix C as follows:

  • Statements (1) - (2) fetch the id of the current program instance.
  • Statements (3) - (4) construct ranges of indices to process for the vertical and horizontal axes of the output matrix C
  • Statement (5) constructs a range of indices along the reduction axis: rk = [0, 1, ..., TK - 1]
  • Statement (6) initialize a TM x TN array of accumulators to hold the result of A[rm, :] x B[:, rn]
  • Statements (7) - (8) initializes arrays of pointers pa and pb to the operands A and B using logic similar to that of the above transposition kernel
  • Statements (9) - (10) load tiles of operands by dereferencing pa and pb
  • Statement (11) performs updates the accumulator array using Triton-C's matrix multiplication operator '@'
  • Statements (12) - (13) updates pa and pb
  • Statement (14) creates an array of pointers pc to the result matrix C
  • Statement (15) writes back the accumulator to C

Internally, the Triton compiler will perform quite a few optimizations that will ensure good performance for this kernel:

  • Automatic coalescing of load/store operations
  • Automatic vectorization of load/store operations
  • Stashing a and b to shared memory
  • Automatic allocation of shared memory
  • Automatic synchronization of shared memory
  • Automatic padding of shared memory to avoid bank conflicts
  • Automatic usage of tensor cores when TYPE = half and TK % 4 = 0


Nonetheless, there are two important optimizations that the Triton compiler does not do automatically at the moment yet are critical to achieve peak performance: pre-fetching and rematerialization. In this subsection we describe how these optimizations can be done manually by modifying the above source-code.


The purpose of pre-fetching is to overlap the update of the accumulator c with the memory loads for the next tiles that will need to be multiplied. This can be done by modifying the above reduction loop as follows:

// pre-fetch operands
TYPE a[TM, TK] = *pa; //(9) 
TYPE b[TK, TN] = *pb; //(10)
for(int k = K; k > 0; k-= TK){
   c += a @ b;
   pa = pa + TK * 1;
   pb = pb + TK * ldb;
   // don't prefetch last iteration
   bool check = k > TK;
   // pre-fetch operands
   a = check ? *pa : 0;
   b = check ? *pb : 0;

Note that the Triton-C compiler will now also be able to use double-buffering techniques to make sure that the array a can be used and updated at the same time without any memory hazard.


Rematerialization is a compiler optimization which consists in recomputing some values instead of storing and reloading them from (register) memory, so as to decrease register pressure in the compute kernel. Although LLVM does this automatically to some extent, it fails to find good heuristics for the above kernel -- thereby requiring some source code modification to achieve optimal performance. Fortunately, only rm and rn need to be rematerialized, leading to the following epilogue:

// epilogue
int rcm[TM] = pm * TM + 0 ... TM;
int rcn[TN] = pn * TN + 0 ... TN;
TYPE* pc[TM, TN] = C + rcn[newaxis, :] + rcm[:, newaxis] * ldc;
*pc = c; 

Fused Transpositions and Auto-Tuning

It is common for optimized matrix-multiplication implementations (e.g., BLAS) to provide variants in which one or both operands are transposed. This is also what is done in the PyTriton implementation of matrix-multiplication. Fortunately, this can be done by using pre-processors macros for tile shapes and broadcasting directives, leading to the following kernel:

// Triton-C
// launched on a grid of (M / TM) x (N / TN) programs
void dot(TYPE * A, TYPE * B, TYPE * C,
         int M, int N, int K,
         int lda __multipleof(8),  int ldb __multipleof(8),  int ldc __multipleof(8)) {
  // prologue
  int pm = get_program_id(0);
  int pn = get_program_id(1);
  int rm[TM] = pm * TM + 0 ... TM;
  int rn[TN] = pn * TN + 0 ... TN;
  int rk[TK] = 0 ... TK;
  float c[TM, TN] = 0;
  // pointers to operands
  // prefetches operands
  TYPE a[SHAPE_A] = (*pa);
  TYPE b[SHAPE_B] = (*pb);
  // reduction loop
  for(int k = K; k > 0; k-= TK){
    c += USE_A @ USE_B;
    pa = pa + TK * STRIDE_AK;
    pb = pb + TK * STRIDE_BK;
    a = *pa;
    b = *pb;
  // epilogue
  int rcm[TM] =  pm * TM + 0 ... TM;
  int rcn[TN] =  pn * TN + 0 ... TN;
  TYPE* pc[TM, TN] = C + rcn[newaxis, :] + rcm[:, newaxis] * ldc;
  *pc = c;

All matrix multiplications variants can then be retrieved using the following compilation option:

// A is not transposed
// A is transposed
// B is not transpose
// B is transpose

Auto-tuning can also be handled using pre-processor macros:

// Auto-tuning TM and TN in {32, 64, 128}; TK in {8, 16}
-DTM=[32, 64, 128] -DTN=[32, 64, 128] -DTK=[8, 16]
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