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Table implementation change in 1.0

This page discusses the change in the internal implementation of the Table class which took place starting from version 1.0 of astropy. The motivation for making this change is discussed in the Benefits section.


Data container

The images below illustrate the basic architecture of the Table class for astropy versions 0.4.x and earlier (left) and after version 1.0 (right).

On the left side (before 1.0) the fundamental data container is a numpy structured array referenced as an internal attribute _data. All public methods and operations (e.g. column access, row indexing) are done via this internal ndarray object. The columns attribute is used to manage table columns and provide access. It is a TableColumns object which is essentially an ordered dictionary of Column or MaskedColumn objects which provide views of the _data array.

On the right side (after 1.0) the fundamental data container is now the collection of individual column objects and there is no longer a structured array associated with the table. Each Column object is the sole owner of its data. As before, the columns attribute is used to manage columns and provide access.

table_before table_after


For versions before 1.0 the Column object is an ndarray subclass with a memory view of the corresponding column in the _data array. This means that the physical memory for the Column object data is exactly the same as the memory storing the _data array. Therefore updating an element in the column results in the corresponding update in the _data value. This model is convenient in many ways, but also has drawbacks. In particular, astropy tables are easily mutable (e.g. you can add or remove columns) while numpy structured arrays are not. This means that key operations require regenerating the entire _data structured array and likewise regenerating all the Column view objects. This is relatively slow and results in additional code complexity to always ensure correspondence.

Starting with version 1.0 the Column object is the same ndarray subclass but it is sole owner of the data. This simplifies table management considerably along with making operations like adding or removing columns much faster because there is no structured array to regenerate.

column_before column_after


A Row object corresponds to a single row in the table. For versions before 1.0, when a Row object is requested it uses numpy indexing into the table _data array to generate a numpy.void or object as the data attribute [1]. This delegates most of the row access functionality like row['a'] to the numpy void classes. For unmasked tables this data attribute is a memory view of the parent table row, though for masked tables (due to the implementation of numpy masked arrays), the data attribute is not a view.


For version 1.0 and later, the Row object does not create a view of the full row at any point. Instead it manages access (like row['a']) dynamically in a way that maintains the same interface. Due to improved implementation this is actually faster.

The row data attribute is part of the public API before 1.0, therefore it is still available in 1.0 but as a deprecated property. In this case accessing data runs the as_void() method to dynamically create and return a numpy.void or object. This provides a copy of the original data, not a view. Code which was relying on the row data attribute as a view into the parent table will need to be modified.


[1]numpy.void is a dtype that can be used to represent structures of arbitrary byte width.


The data property of the Row object is deprecated in version 1.0 and may be removed in a later version. Code which requires access to a numpy.void or object corresponding to a table row can now use the as_void() method. This is public and stable, with the caveat that it is relatively slow and returns a copy of the row data, not a view.


While the _data property of the Table object is not part of the public API in any astropy release, some users may have let this creep into their code as back-door access to the numpy object. In version 1.0 this attribute is formally deprecated and will generate a warning.

From 1.0 the public method for getting the corresponding numpy structured array or masked array version of a table is the Table method as_array(). This dynamically generates the requested object, making a copy of the table data. Be aware that the _data property calls as_array(), so accessing _data will effectively double the memory usage of the table.

An alternative is to use array to do the conversion, e.g. for an astropy Table object named dat use np_dat = np.array(dat). Be aware that for a masked table this operation always returns a pure ndarray with data corresponding to the unmasked values.

High-level operations

In version 1.0 the operations described in Table operations rely on as_array() to create numpy structured arrays which are used in the actual array manipulations. This creates temporary copies of the tables.

Performance regressions

From version 1.0 most common operations run at the same speed or are faster (sometimes significantly faster). The only operations which are noticeably slower are adding a row in a masked table (~2 times slower) and setting a column like dat['a'][:] = 10 in a masked table (~6 times slower).


The key benefits of the version 1.0 change are as follows:

  • Allows for much faster addition or removal of columns. A common idiom is creating a table and then adding columns:

    >>> from astropy.table import Table
    >>> import numpy as np
    >>> t = Table()
    >>> t['a'] = np.arange(100)
    >>> t['b'] = np.random.uniform(size=100)
    >>> t['c'] = t['a'] + t['b']

    Prior to 1.0 this idiom was extremely inefficient because the underlying structured array was being entirely regenerated with each column addition. From 1.0 forward this is fast and a good way to write code.

  • Provides the infrastructure to allow for Tables to easily hold column types beyond just Column and MaskedColumn. This includes Quantity, Time, and SkyCoord objects. Other ideas like nested Table objects are also possible.

  • Generally faster because of improved implementation in key areas. Column-based access is faster because the column data are held in contiguous memory instead of being strided within the numpy structure array.

  • Reduces code complexity in a number of core table routines.