Data interchange mechanisms

This section discusses the mechanism to convert one type of array into another. As discussed in the assumptions-dependencies section, functions provided by an array library are not expected to operate on array types implemented by another library. Instead, the array can be converted to a “native” array type.

The interchange mechanism must offer the following:

  1. Data access via a protocol that describes the memory layout of the array in an implementation-independent manner.

    Rationale: any number of libraries must be able to exchange data, and no particular package must be needed to do so.

  2. Support for all dtypes in this API standard (see Data Types).

  3. Device support. It must be possible to determine on what device the array that is to be converted lives.

    Rationale: there are CPU-only, GPU-only, and multi-device array types; it’s best to support these with a single protocol (with separate per-device protocols it’s hard to figure out unambiguous rules for which protocol gets used, and the situation will get more complex over time as TPU’s and other accelerators become more widely available).

  4. Zero-copy semantics where possible, making a copy only if needed (e.g. when data is not contiguous in memory).

    Rationale: performance.

  5. A Python-side and a C-side interface, the latter with a stable C ABI.

    Rationale: all prominent existing array libraries are implemented in C/C++, and are released independently from each other. Hence a stable C ABI is required for packages to work well together.

DLPack: An in-memory tensor structure

The best candidate for this protocol is DLPack, and hence that is what this standard has chosen as the primary/recommended protocol. Note that the asarray function also supports the Python buffer protocol (CPU-only) to support libraries that already implement buffer protocol support.


The main alternatives to DLPack are device-specific methods:

  • The buffer protocol on CPU

  • __cuda_array_interface__ for CUDA, specified in the Numba documentation here (Python-side only at the moment)

An issue with device-specific protocols are: if two libraries both support multiple device types, in which order should the protocols be tried? A growth in the number of protocols to support each time a new device gets supported by array libraries (e.g. TPUs, AMD GPUs, emerging hardware accelerators) also seems undesirable.

In addition to the above argument, it is also clear from adoption patterns that DLPack has the widest support. The buffer protocol, despite being a lot older and standardized as part of Python itself via PEP 3118, hardly has any support from array libraries. CPU interoperability is mostly dealt with via the NumPy-specific __array__ (which, when called, means the object it is attached to must return a numpy.ndarray containing the data the object holds).

See the RFC to adopt DLPack for discussion that preceded the adoption of DLPack.

DLPack’s documentation can be found at:

The Python specification of DLPack page gives a high-level specification for data exchange in Python using DLPack.


DLPack is a standalone protocol/project and can therefore be used outside of this standard. Python libraries that want to implement only DLPack support are recommended to do so using the same syntax and semantics as outlined below. They are not required to return an array object from from_dlpack which conforms to this standard.