Understanding jaxprs

Updated: February 14, 2020 (for commit 9e6fe64).

(Note: the code examples in this file can be seed also in jax/tests/api_test::JaxprTest.testExamplesJaxprDoc.)

Conceptually, one can think of JAX transformations as first tracing the Python function to be transformed into a small and well-behaved intermediate form, the jaxpr, that is then transformed accordingly, and ultimately compiled and executed. One of the reasons JAX can pack so much power into such a small software package is that it starts with a familiar and flexible programming interface (Python with NumPy) and it uses the actual Python interpreter to do most of the heavy lifting to distill the essence of the computation into a simple statically-typed expression language with limited higher-order features: the jaxpr language.

Not all Python programs can be processed this way, but it turns out that many scientific computing and machine learning programs do have this property.

Before we proceed, it is important to point out that not all JAX transformations materialize a jaxpr as described above; some, e.g., differentiation, will apply transformations incrementally during tracing. Nevertheless, if one wants to understand how JAX works internally, or to make use of the result of JAX tracing, it is useful to understand jaxpr.

A jaxpr instance represents a function with one of more typed parameters (input variables) and one or more typed results. The results depend only on the input variables; there are no free variables captured from enclosing scopes. The inputs and outputs have types, which in JAX are represented as abstract values. There are two related representations in the code for jaxprs. The main one is jax.core.TypedJaxpr and is what you obtain when you use jax.make_jaxpr() to inspect jaxprs. It has the following fields:

  • jaxpr: is the actual computation content of the actual function (described below).
  • literals is a list of constants. For various reasons, during tracing JAX will collect the non-scalar constants that arise and will replace them with variables, e.g., constants that appear in the Python program, or the result of constant folding such constants. The variables that stand for these constants are mentioned separately in the enclosed jaxpr. When applying a TypedJaxpr to some actual arguments, one must pass first the literals followed by the actual arguments.
  • in_avals and out_avals are the types of the input variables (excluding the ones that correspond to the literals), and of the output values. These types are called in JAX abstract values, e.g., ShapedArray(float32[10,10]).

The most interesting part of the TypedJaxpr is the actual execution content, represented as a jax.core.Jaxpr as printed using the following grammar:

jaxpr ::= { lambda Var* ; Var+.
            let Eqn*
            in  [Expr+] }
  • The parameter of the jaxpr are shown as two lists of variables separated by ;. The first set of variables are the ones that have been introduced to stand for constants that have been hoisted out. These are called the constvars. The second list of variables are the real input variables.
  • Eqn* is a list of equations, defining intermediate variables referring to intermediate expressions. Each equation defines one or more variables as the result of applying a primitive on some atomic expressions. Each equation uses only input variables and intermediate variables defined by previous equations.
  • Expr+: is a list of output atomic expressions for the jaxpr.

Equations are printed as follows:

Eqn  ::= let Var+ = Primitive [ Param* ] Expr+
  • Var+” are one or more intermediate variables to be defined as the output of a primitive invocation (some primitives can return multiple values)
  • Expr+ are one or more atomic expressions, each either a variable or a literal constant. A special form of an atomic expression is the unit expression, printed as * and standing for a value that is not needed in the rest of the computation and has been elided.
  • Param* are zero or more named parameters to the primitive, printed in square brackets. Each parameter is shown as Name = Value.

Most jaxpr primitives are first-order (they take just one or more Expr as arguments):

Primitive := add | sub | sin | mul | ...

The jaxpr primitives are documented in the jax.lax module.

For example, here is the jaxpr produced for the function func1 below:

from jax import numpy as jnp
def func1(first, second):
   temp = first + jnp.sin(second) * 3.
   return jnp.sum(temp)

print(jax.make_jaxpr(func1)(jnp.zeros(8), jnp.ones(8)))
{ lambda ; a b.
  let c = sin b
      d = mul c 3.0
      e = add a d
      f = reduce_sum[ axes=(0,)
                      input_shape=(8,) ] e
  in f }

Here there are no constvars, a and b are the input variables and they correspond respectively to first and second function parameters. The scalar literal 3.0 is kept inline. The reduce_sum primitive has named parameters axes and input_shape, in addition to the operand e.

Note that JAX traces through Python-level control-flow and higher-order functions when it extracts the jaxpr. This means that just because a Python program contains functions and control-flow, the resulting jaxpr does not have to contain control-flow or higher-order features. For example, when tracing the function func3 JAX will inline the call to inner and the conditional if second.shape[0] > 4, and will produce the same jaxpr as before:

def func2(inner, first, second):
  temp = first + inner(second) * 3.
  return jnp.sum(temp)

def inner(second):
  if second.shape[0] > 4:
    return jnp.sin(second)
    assert False

def func3(first, second):
  return func2(inner, first, second)

print(api.make_jaxpr(func2)(jnp.zeros(8), jnp.ones(8)))
{ lambda ; a b.
  let c = sin b
      d = mul c 3.0
      e = add a d
      f = reduce_sum[ axes=(0,)
                      input_shape=(8,) ] e
  in f }

Handling PyTrees

In jaxpr there are no tuple types; instead primitives take multiple inputs and produce multiple outputs. When processing a function that has structured inputs or outputs, JAX will flatten those and in jaxpr they will appear as lists of inputs and outputs. For more details, please see the documentation for PyTrees (JAX pytrees).

For example, the following code produces an identical jaxpr to what we saw before (with two input vars, one for each element of the input tuple):

def func4(arg):  # Arg is a pair
  temp = arg[0] + jnp.sin(arg[1]) * 3.
  return jnp.sum(temp)

print(api.make_jaxpr(func4)((jnp.zeros(8), jnp.ones(8))))
{ lambda a b.
  let c = sin b
      d = mul c 3.0
      e = add a d
      f = reduce_sum[ axes=(0,)
                      input_shape=(8,) ] e
  in f }

Constant Vars

ConstVars arise when the computation ontains array constants, either from the Python program, or from constant-folding. For example, the function func6 below:

def func5(first, second):
  temp = first + jnp.sin(second) * 3. - jnp.ones(8)
  return temp

def func6(first):
  return func5(first, jnp.ones(8))


JAX produces the following jaxpr:

{ lambda b d a.
  let c = add a b
      e = sub c d
  in e }

When tracing func6, the function func5 is invoked with a constant value (onp.ones(8)) for the second argument. As a result, the sub-expression jnp.sin(second) * 3. is constant-folded. There are two ConstVars, b (standing for jnp.sin(second) * 3.) and d (standing for jnp.ones(8)). Unfortunately, it is not easy to tell from the jaxpr notation what constants the constant variables stand for.

Higher-order primitives

jaxpr includes several higher-order primitives. They are more complicated because they include sub-jaxprs.


JAX traces through normal Python conditionals. To capture a conditional expression for dynamic execution, one must use the jax.lax.cond() constructor with the following signature:

lax.cond(pred : bool, true_op: A, true_body: A -> B, false_op: C, false_body: C -> B) -> B

For example:

def func7(arg):
  return lax.cond(arg >= 0.,
                  lambda xtrue: xtrue + 3.,
                  lambda xfalse: xfalse - 3.)

{ lambda  ; a.
  let b = ge a 0.0
      c = cond[ false_jaxpr={ lambda  ; a.
                              let b = sub a 3.0
                              in b }
                linear=(False, False)
                true_jaxpr={ lambda  ; a.
                             let b = add a 3.0
                             in b } ] b a a
  in c }

The cond primitive has a number of parameters:

  • true_jaxpr and false_jaxpr are jaxprs that correspond to the true and false branch functionals. In this example, those functionals take each one input variable, corresponding to xtrue and xfalse respectively.
  • linear is a tuple of booleans that is used internally by the auto-differentiation machinery to encode which of the input parameters are used linearly in the conditional.

The above instance of the cond primitive takes 3 operands. The first one (b) is the predicate, then a` is the ``true_op (arg, to be passed to true_jaxpr) and also a is the false_op (arg, to be passed to false_jaxpr).

The following example shows a more complicated situation when the input to the branch functionals is a tuple, and the false branch functional contains a constant jnp.ones(1) that is hoisted as a constvar:

def func8(arg1, arg2):  # arg2 is a pair
  return lax.cond(arg1 >= 0.,
                  lambda xtrue: xtrue[0],
                  lambda xfalse: jnp.ones(1) + xfalse[1])

print(api.make_jaxpr(func8)(5., (jnp.zeros(1), 2.)))
{ lambda e ; a b c.
  let d = ge a 0.0
      f = cond[ false_jaxpr={ lambda  ; c a b.
                              let d = add c b
                              in d }
                linear=(False, False, False, False, False)
                true_jaxpr={ lambda  ; a b.
                             in a } ] d b c e b c
  in f }

The top-level jaxpr has one constvar e (corresponding to jnp.ones(1) from the body of the false_jaxpr) and three input variables a b c (corresponding to arg1 and the two elements of arg2; note that arg2 has been flattened). The true_jaxpr has two input variables (corresponding to the two elements of arg2 that is passed to true_jaxpr). The false_jaxpr has three input variables (c corresponding to the constant for jnp.ones(1), and a b for the two elements of arg2 that are passed to false_jaxpr).

The actual operands to the cond primitive are: d b c e b c, which correspond in order to:

  • 1 operand for the predicate,
  • 2 operands for true_jaxpr, i.e., b and c, which are input vars, corresponding to arg2 for the top-level jaxpr,
  • 1 constant for false_jaxpr, i.e., e, which is a consvar for the top-level jaxpr,
  • 2 operands for true_jaxpr, i.e., b and c, which are the input vars corresponding to arg2 for the top-level jaxpr.


Just like for conditionals, Python loops are inlined during tracing. If you want to capture a loop for dynamic execution, you must use one of several special operations, jax.lax.while_loop() (a primitive) and jax.lax.fori_loop() (a helper that generates a while_loop primitive):

lax.while_loop(cond_fun: (C -> bool), body_fun: (C -> C), init: C) -> C
lax.fori_loop(start: int, end: int, body: (int -> C -> C), init: C) -> C

In the above signature, “C” stands for the type of a the loop “carry” value. For example, here is an example fori loop:

def func10(arg, n):
  ones = jnp.ones(arg.shape)  # A constant
  return lax.fori_loop(0, n,
                       lambda i, carry: carry + ones * 3. + arg,
                       arg + ones)

print(api.make_jaxpr(func10)(onp.ones(16), 5))
{ lambda c d ; a b.
  let e = add a d
      f g h = while[ body_jaxpr={ lambda  ; e g a b c.
                                  let d = add a 1
                                      f = add c e
                                      h = add f g
                                  in (d, b, h) }
                     cond_jaxpr={ lambda  ; a b c.
                                  let d = lt a b
                                  in d }
                     cond_nconsts=0 ] c a 0 b e
  in h }

The top-level jaxpr has two constvars: c (corresponding to ones * 3. from the body of the loop) and d (corresponding to the use of ones in the initial carry). There are also two input variables (a corresponding to arg and b corresponding to n). The loop carry consists of three values, as seen in the body of cond_jaxpr (corresponding to the iteration index, iteration end, and the accumulated value carry). Note that body_jaxpr takes 5 input variables. The first two are actually constvars: e corresponding to ones * 3 and g corresponding to the captures use of arg in the loop body. The parameter body_nconsts = 2 specifies that there are 2 constants for the body_jaxpr. The other 3 input variables for body_jaxpr correspond to the flattened carry values.

The while primitive takes 5 arguments: c a 0 b e, as follows:

  • 0 constants for cond_jaxpr (since cond_nconsts is 0)
  • 2 constants for body_jaxpr (c, and a)
  • 3 parameters for the initial value of carry


JAX supports a special form of loop over the elements of an array (with statically known shape). The fact that there are a fixed number of iterations makes this form of looping easily reverse-differentiable. Such loops are constructed with the jax.lax.scan() operator:

lax.scan(body_fun: (C -> A -> (C, B)), init_carry: C, in_arr: Array[A]) -> (C, Array[B])

Here C is the type of the scan carry, A is the element type of the input array(s), and B is the element type of the output array(s).

For the example consider the function func11 below:

def func11(arr, extra):
  ones = jnp.ones(arr.shape)  #  A constant
  def body(carry, aelems):
    # carry: running dot-product of the two arrays
    # aelems: a pair with corresponding elements from the two arrays
    ae1, ae2 = aelems
    return (carry + ae1 * ae2 + extra, carry)

  return lax.scan(body, 0., (arr, ones))

 print(api.make_jaxpr(func11)(onp.ones(16), 5.))
{ lambda c ; a b.
  let d e = scan[ forward=True
                  jaxpr={ lambda  ; a b c d e.
                          let f = mul c e
                              g = add b f
                              h = add g a
                          in (h, b) }
                  linear=(False, False, False, True, False)
                  num_consts=1 ] b 0.0 a * c
  in (d, e) }

The top-level jaxpr has one constvar c corresponding to the ones constant, and two input variables corresponding to the arguments arr and extra. The body of the scan has 5 input variables, of which:

  • one (a) is a constant (since num_consts = 1), and stands for the captured variable extra used in the loop body,
  • one (b) is the value of the carry (since num_carry = 1)
  • The remaining 3 are the input values. Notice that only c and e are used, and stand respectively for the array element from the first array passed to lax.scan (arr) and to the second array (ones). The input variables (d) seems to be an artifact of the translation.

The linear parameter describes for each of the input variables whether they are guaranteed to be used linearly in the body. Here, only the unused input variable is marked linear. Once the scan goes through linearization, more arguments will be linear.

The scan primitive takes 5 arguments: b 0.0 a * c, of which:

  • one is the free variable for the body
  • one is the initial value of the carry
  • The next 3 are the arrays over which the scan operates. The middle one is not used (*).


The call primitive arises from JIT compilation, and it encapsulates a sub-jaxpr along with parameters the specify the backend and the device the computation should run. For example:

def func12(arg):
  def inner(x):
    return x + arg * jnp.ones(1)  # Include a constant in the inner function
  return arg + inner(arg - 2.)

{ lambda b ; a.
  let c = sub a 2.0
      d = xla_call[ backend=None
                    call_jaxpr={ lambda  ; c b a.
                                 let d = mul b c
                                     e = add a d
                                 in e }
                    name=inner ] b a c
      e = add a d
  in e }

The top-level constvar b refers to the jnp.ones(1) constant, and the top-level input variable a refers to the arg parameter of func12. The xla_call primitive stands for a call to the jitted inner function. The primitive has the function body in the call_jaxpr parameter, a jaxpr with 3 input parameters:

  • c is a constvar and stands for the ones constant,
  • b corresponds to the free variable arg captured in the inner function,
  • a corresponds to the inner parameter x.

The primitive takes three arguments b a c.


If you use the jax.pmap() transformation, the function to be mapped is captured using the xla_pmap primitive. Consider this example:

def func13(arr, extra):
  def inner(x):
    # use a free variable "extra" and a constant jnp.ones(1)
    return (x + extra + jnp.ones(1)) / lax.psum(x, axis_name='rows')
  return api.pmap(inner, axis_name='rows')(arr)

print(api.make_jaxpr(func13)(jnp.ones((1, 3)), 5.))
{ lambda c ; a b.
  let d = xla_pmap[ axis_name=rows
                    call_jaxpr={ lambda  ; d b a.
                                 let c = add a b
                                     e = add c d
                                     f = psum[ axis_name=rows ] a
                                     g = div e f
                                 in g }
                    mapped_invars=(True, False, True)
                    name=inner ] c b a
  in d }

The top-level constvar c refers to the jnp.ones(1) constant. The xla_pmap primitive specifies the name of the axis (parameter rows) and the body of the function to be mapped as the call_jaxpr parameter. The value of this parameter is a Jaxpr with 3 input variables:

  • d stands for the constant jnp.ones(1),
  • b stands for the free variable extra,
  • a stands for the parameter x of inner.

The parameter mapped_invars specify which of the input variables should be mapped and which should be broadcast. In our example, the value of extra is broadcast, the other input values are mapped.