XLA Custom Calls

This document describes how to write and use XLA "custom calls". Custom calls let you invoke code written in a programming language like C++ or CUDA from an XLA program.

Custom-call on CPU

You can create an HLO instruction which represents a custom-call via XLA's client API. This is not exposed via TensorFlow as of writing.

For example, the following code uses a custom-call to compute A[i] = B[i % 128] + C[i] on the CPU. (Of course you could -- and should! -- do this with regular HLO.)

#include "tensorflow/compiler/xla/client/xla_builder.h"
#include "tensorflow/compiler/xla/service/custom_call_target_registry.h"

void do_it() {
  xla::XlaBuilder b("do_it");
  xla::XlaOp param0 =
      xla::Parameter(0, xla::ShapeUtil::CreateShape(F32, {128}), "p0");
  xla::XlaOp param1 =
      xla::Parameter(1, xla::ShapeUtil::CreateShape(F32, {2048}), "p1");
  xla::XlaOp custom_call =
      xla::CustomCall(&b, "do_custom_call", /*operands=*/{param0, param1},
                      /*output_shape=*/ShapeUtil::CreateShape(F32, {2048}));

void do_custom_call(void* out, const void** in) {
  float* out_buf = reinterpret_cast<float*>(out);
  const float* in0 = reinterpret_cast<const float*>(in[0]);
  const float* in1 = reinterpret_cast<const float*>(in[1]);
  for (int i = 0; i < 2048; ++i) {
    out_buf[i] = in0[i % 128] + in1[i];
XLA_REGISTER_CUSTOM_CALL_TARGET(do_custom_call, "Host");

Notice that the function do_custom_call needs to know the dimensions of the buffers it operates over. In this example we hardcode the sizes 128 and 2048. If you don't want to do this, you can pass the dimensions in as parameters to the call.

Custom-call on GPU

The GPU custom call framework is somewhat different than that on the CPU. Here is a CUDA example that does the same A[i] = B[i % 128] + C[i] computation as the CPU code above.

void do_it() { /* same implementation as above */ }

__global__ custom_call_kernel(const float* in0, const float* in1, float* out) {
  size_t idx = threadIdx.x * blockSize.x + gridIdx.x;
  out[idx] = in0[idx % 128] + in1[idx];

void do_custom_call(CUstream stream, void** buffers,
                    const char* opaque, size_t opaque_len) {
  const float* in0 = reinterpret_cast<const float*>(buffers[0]);
  const float* in1 = reinterpret_cast<const float*>(buffers[1]);
  float* out = reinterpret_cast<float*>(buffers[2]);

  const int64 block_dim = 64;
  const int64 grid_dim = 2048 / block_dim;
  custom_call_kernel<<<grid_dim, block_dim,
                       /*dynamic_shared_mem_bytes=*/0, stream>>>(in0, in1, out);

Notice first that the GPU custom call function is still a function executed on the CPU. Our do_custom_call CPU function is responsible for enqueueing work on the GPU. Here it launches a CUDA kernel, but it could also do something else, like call cublas.

buffers is an array of pointers which lives on the host, and each element it contains points to device (i.e. GPU) memory. The parameters come first, followed by the output value. This is notably different from the CPU calling convention, which has two params, ins and out. The main reason we diverge is to make it possible to handle tuple-shaped inputs/outputs efficiently; see the section below.

As in the CPU example, we've hardcoded the input and output buffer sizes into our custom call. However unlike in the CPU case, passing the buffer sizes in as operands to the custom call would not work well. Usually we need the buffer sizes available to us on the CPU; e.g. when launching a kernel, we need to know the block/grid dimensions to use. But if we were to pass the buffer sizes as operands to our custom call, their values would live in GPU memory. We'd then have to do an expensive synchronous device-to-host memcpy at the start of our operation just to read the sizes.

To let you work around this, we provide the opaque parameter. You can set this to an arbitrary string of bytes when you create the custom call:

std::string opaque = "...";
xla::CustomCall(&b, "do_custom_call", /*operands=*/{param0, param1},
                /*output_shape=*/ShapeUtil::CreateShape(F32, {2048}),

Since xla::Shape has a protocol buffer representation, you could store this serialized proto inside of opaque and deserialize it within your GPU custom-call. Note however that although xla::ShapeProto does not change frequently, it does change. Check the git log to see how it has changed in the past.

Passing tuples to custom-calls

Consider the following custom-call.

using xla::ShapeUtil;
Shape p0_shape = ShapeUtil::MakeTuple({
    ShapeUtil::MakeShape(F32, {32}),
        ShapeUtil::MakeTuple(F32, {64}),
        ShapeUtil::MakeTuple(F32, {128}),
    ShapeUtil::MakeShape(F32, {256}),
xla::XlaOp p0 = xla::Parameter(0, p0_shape, "p0");

Shape out_shape = ShapeUtil::MakeTuple({
  ShapeUtil::MakeShape(F32, {512}),
  ShapeUtil::MakeShape(F32, {1024}),
xla::CustomCall(&b, "do_custom_call", /*operands=*/{p0}, out_shape);

On both CPU and GPU, a tuple is represented in memory as an array of pointers. In C++-pseudocode, parameter 0 above is laid out as follows.

// In-memory layout of parameter 0 from custom-call above.  True on both CPU
// and GPU.
float* subbuf0 = new float[32];
float* subbuf1 = new float[64];
float* subbuf2 = new float[128]
float* subbuf3 = new float[256];

void* subtuple = new void*[2];
(*subtuple)[0] = subbuf1;
(*subtuple)[1] = subbuf2;

void* p0 = new void*[3];
(*p0)[0] = subbuf0;
(*p0)[1] = subtuple;
(*p0)[2] = subbuf3;

Although the in-memory representation of tuples is the same in CPU and GPU, they are handled differently in the CPU and GPU custom-call calling conventions.

Tuple outputs as temp buffers

Tuple inputs to custom-calls are a convenience, but they aren't strictly necessary. If we didn't support tuple inputs to custom calls, you could always unpack the tuples using get-tuple-element before passing them to the custom call.

On the other hand, tuple outputs do let you do things you couldn't otherwise.

The obvious reason to have tuple outputs is, that's how a custom call (or any other XLA op) returns multiple independent arrays.

But less obviously, a tuple output is also a way to give your custom call temp memory. Yes, an output can represent a temp buffer. Consider, an output buffer has the property that the op can write to it, and it can read from it after it's been written to. That's exactly what you want from a temp buffer.

In the example above, suppose we wanted to use the F32[1024] as a temp buffer. Then we'd write the HLO just as above, and we'd simply never read tuple index 1 of the custom call's output.

Tuples in CPU custom-calls

In CPU code, we have a function do_custom_call(const void** ins, void* out). ins is an array with just one element, which points to param0. The subbuffers of param0 are accessible by dereferencing that pointer, and the subbuffers of output_tuple are accessible by dereferencing out.

Tuples in GPU custom-calls

In GPU code, we have a function do_custom_call(..., void** buffers, ...). In this case buffers is a host array of nine device pointers, one for each nested buffer. To generate the flat list, we iterate over the parameters and output, and then do preorder traversal of their shapes. Concretely:

// Layout of `buffers` parameter to GPU custom call function for custom-call
// above.
buffers[0] == param0
buffers[1] == subbuf0 or null
buffers[2] == subtuple or null
buffers[3] == subbuf1 or null
buffers[4] == subbuf2 or null
buffers[5] == subbuf3 or null
buffers[6] == output_tuple
buffers[7] == output_subbuf0
buffers[8] == output_subbuf1

The or null part is significant. A sub-buffer of an input tuple will be non-null in the buffers list if XLA is able to statically analyze the program and figure out the address of the sub-buffer. This is usually the case, but may not be in programs with control flow and/or select ops over tuples.

A correct custom-call implementation that accepts a tuple as input must always handle null input sub-buffers, by dereferencing the root tuple.

The rule is reversed for output buffers. The output sub-buffers will always be populated, but it's up to the custom call to populate the root tuple at the end.

See the following code. Note that we leave out CUDA error handling for clarity, but you'll be thankful if you do it, because otherwise it can be hard to tell when a stream encounters an error.

void do_custom_call(CUstream stream, void** buffers, const char* opaque,
                    size_t opaque_len) {
  bool needs_sync = false;
  const float* subbuf0 = reinterpret_cast<const float*>(buffers[1]);
  if (subbuf0 == nullptr) {
    needs_sync = true;
    cudaMemcpyAsync(&subbuf0, buffers[0], sizeof(void*),
                    cudaMemcpyDeviceToHost, stream);
  const void** subtuple = reinterpret_cast<const void**>(buffers[2]);
  if (subtuple == nullptr) {
    needs_sync = true;
    cudaMemcpyAsync(&subtuple, buffers[2], ...);

  // ... similarly for other params ...

  // Wait for copies enqueued above to complete.
  if (needs_sync) {
  needs_sync = false;

  // Now that we have `subtuple`, we can get subbuf1 and subbuf2.
  float* subbuf1 = buffers[3];
  if (subbuf1 == nullptr) {
    needs_sync = true;
    cudaMemcpyAsync(&subbuf1, subtuple, ...);
  float* subbuf2 = buffers[4];
  if (subbuf2 == nullptr) {
    needs_sync = true;
    cudaMemcpyAsync(&subbuf2, subtuple + 1, ...);

  // Wait for copies enqueued above to complete.
  if (needs_sync) {

  // ... actually run the kernel ...

  // Fill the output tuple.
  void* outputs[2] = {buffers[7], buffers[8]};
  cudaMemcpyAsync(buffers[6], outputs, sizeof(outputs), cudaMemcpyHostToDevice,

  // Necessary to force the cudaMemcpyAsync above to complete before `outputs`
  // goes out of scope.  A sync is only necessary in the tuple output case, and
  // see below for a way to avoid this.

The cudaStreamSynchronize at the end of the function is unfortunate, as it's not required in the non-tuple-output case, and it can be expensive. One way to get around this would be to make outputs into a global variable and ensure that the previous cudaMemcpyAsync completed before overwriting the global and enqueueing another one. This is sketched below.

void do_custom_call(CUstream stream, void** buffers, const char* opaque,
                    size_t opaque_len) {

  // ... Beginning of function is the same as above ...

  // ... actually run the kernel ...

  static std::atomic<bool> first_time{true};
  static CUevent event;
  static void* outputs[2];
  if (first_time.fetch_and(false)) {
    // First time running this function.  Initialize `event`.
    cuEventCreate(&event, CU_EVENT_DISABLE_TIMING);
  } else {
    // Not first time running this function.  Wait for previous event to
    // complete before touching `outputs`.

  // Fill the output tuple.
  outputs[0] = buffers[7];
  outputs[1] = buffers[8];
  cudaMemcpyAsync(buffers[6], outputs, sizeof(outputs), cudaMemcpyHostToDevice,

  // Unblock `event` after the memcpy completes.
  cuEventRecord(event, stream);

This simple implementation would limit parallelism if you want to run this op on multiple GPUs concurrently (or on one GPU with multiple streams); in that case you might need multiple events and globals. We have seen one implementation of this algorithm which keeps a pool of globals and events and periodically polls them (perhaps on each call to the op) to garbage collect.