The Various Matrix Classes

PETSc provides a variety of matrix implementations, since no single matrix format is appropriate for all problems. This section first discusses various matrix blocking strategies and then describes the assortment of matrix types in PETSc.

Matrix Blocking Strategies

In today’s computers, the time to perform an arithmetic operation is dominated by the time to move the data into position, not the time to compute the arithmetic result. For example, the time to perform a multiplication operation may be one clock cycle, while the time to move the floating-point number from memory to the arithmetic unit may take 10 or more cycles. In order to help manage this difference in time scales, most processors have at least three levels of memory: registers, cache, and random access memory. (In addition, some processors have external caches, and the complications of paging introduce another level to the hierarchy.)

Thus, to achieve high performance, a code should first move data into cache and from there move it into registers and use it repeatedly while it remains in the cache or registers before returning it to main memory. If a floating-point number is reused 50 times while it is in registers, then the “hit” of 10 clock cycles to bring it into the register is not important. But if the floating-point number is used only once, the “hit” of 10 clock cycles becomes noticeable, resulting in disappointing flop rates.

Unfortunately, the compiler controls the use of the registers, and the hardware controls the use of the cache. Since the user has essentially no direct control, code must be written in such a way that the compiler and hardware cache system can perform well. Good-quality code is then said to respect the memory hierarchy.

The standard approach to improving the hardware utilization is to use blocking. That is, rather than working with individual elements in the matrices, you employ blocks of elements. Since the use of implicit methods in PDE-based simulations leads to matrices with a naturally blocked structure (with a block size equal to the number of degrees of freedom per cell), blocking is advantageous. The PETSc sparse matrix representations use a variety of techniques for blocking, including the following:

  • Storing the matrices using a generic sparse matrix format, but storing additional information about adjacent rows with identical nonzero structure (so-called I-nodes); this I-node information is used in the key computational routines to improve performance (the default for the MATSEQAIJ and MATMPIAIJ formats).

  • Storing the matrices using a fixed (problem dependent) block size (via the MATSEQBAIJ and MATMPIBAIJ formats).

The advantage of the first approach is that it is a minimal change from a standard sparse matrix format and brings a large percentage of the improvement obtained via blocking. Using a fixed block size gives the best performance, since the code can be hardwired with that particular size (for example, in some problems the size may be 3, in others 5, and so on), so that the compiler will then optimize for that size, removing the overhead of small loops entirely.

The following table presents the floating-point performance for a basic matrix-vector product using three approaches: a basic compressed row storage format (using the PETSc runtime options -mat_seqaij -mat_nounroll); the same compressed row format using I-nodes (with the option -mat_seqaij); and a fixed block size code, with a block size of 3 for these problems (using the option -mat_seqbaij). The rates were computed on one node of an older IBM Power processor based system, using two test matrices. The first matrix (ARCO1), courtesy of Rick Dean of Arco, arises in multiphase flow simulation; it has 1,501 degrees of freedom, 26,131 matrix nonzeros, a natural block size of 3, and a small number of well terms. The second matrix (CFD), arises in a three-dimensional Euler flow simulation and has 15,360 degrees of freedom, 496,000 nonzeros, and a natural block size of 5. In addition to displaying the flop rates for matrix-vector products, we display them for triangular solves obtained from an ILU(0) factorization.


Block size


I-node version

Fixed block size

Matrix-Vector Product (Mflop/sec)











Triangular Solves from ILU(0) (Mflop/sec)











These examples demonstrate that careful implementations of the basic sequential kernels in PETSc can dramatically improve overall floating point performance, and users can immediately benefit from such enhancements without altering a single line of their application codes. Note that the speeds of the I-node and fixed block operations are several times that of the basic sparse implementations.

Assorted Matrix Types

PETSc offers a variety of both sparse and dense matrix types.

Sequential AIJ Sparse Matrices

The default matrix representation within PETSc is the general sparse AIJ format (also called the Yale sparse matrix format or compressed sparse row format, CSR).

Parallel AIJ Sparse Matrices

The AIJ sparse matrix type, is the default parallel matrix format; additional implementation details are given in [BGMS97].

Sequential Block AIJ Sparse Matrices

The sequential and parallel block AIJ formats, which are extensions of the AIJ formats described above, are intended especially for use with multiclass PDEs. The block variants store matrix elements by fixed-sized dense nb \(\times\) nb blocks. The stored row and column indices begin at zero.

The routine for creating a sequential block AIJ matrix with m rows, n columns, and a block size of nb is

MatCreateSeqBAIJ(MPI_Comm comm,int nb,int m,int n,int nz,int *nnz,Mat *A)

The arguments nz and nnz can be used to preallocate matrix memory by indicating the number of block nonzeros per row. For good performance during matrix assembly, preallocation is crucial; however, you can set nz=0 and nnz=NULL for PETSc to dynamically allocate matrix memory as needed. The PETSc users manual discusses preallocation for the AIJ format; extension to the block AIJ format is straightforward.

Note that the routine MatSetValuesBlocked() can be used for more efficient matrix assembly when using the block AIJ format.

Parallel Block AIJ Sparse Matrices

Parallel block AIJ matrices with block size nb can be created with the command MatCreateBAIJ()

MatCreateBAIJ(MPI_Comm comm,int nb,int m,int n,int M,int N,int d_nz,int *d_nnz,int o_nz,int *o_nnz,Mat *A);

A is the newly created matrix, while the arguments m, n, M, and N indicate the number of local rows and columns and the number of global rows and columns, respectively. Either the local or global parameters can be replaced with PETSC_DECIDE, so that PETSc will determine them. The matrix is stored with a fixed number of rows on each processor, given by m, or determined by PETSc if m is PETSC_DECIDE.

If PETSC_DECIDE is not used for m and n then you must ensure that they are chosen to be compatible with the vectors. To do so, you first consider the product \(y = A x\). The m that used in MatCreateBAIJ() must match the local size used in the VecCreateMPI() for y. The n used must match that used as the local size in VecCreateMPI() for x.

You must set d_nz=0, o_nz=0, d_nnz=NULL, and o_nnz=NULL for PETSc to control dynamic allocation of matrix memory space. Analogous to nz and nnz for the routine MatCreateSeqBAIJ(), these arguments optionally specify block nonzero information for the diagonal (d_nz and d_nnz) and off-diagonal (o_nz and o_nnz) parts of the matrix. For a square global matrix, we define each processor’s diagonal portion to be its local rows and the corresponding columns (a square submatrix); each processor’s off-diagonal portion encompasses the remainder of the local matrix (a rectangular submatrix). The PETSc users manual gives an example of preallocation for the parallel AIJ matrix format; extension to the block parallel AIJ case is straightforward.

Sequential Dense Matrices

PETSc provides both sequential and parallel dense matrix formats, where each processor stores its entries in a column-major array in the usual Fortran style.

Parallel Dense Matrices

The parallel dense matrices are partitioned by rows across the processors, so that each local rectangular submatrix is stored in the dense format described above.



Satish Balay, William D. Gropp, Lois Curfman McInnes, and Barry F. Smith. Efficient management of parallelism in object oriented numerical software libraries. In E. Arge, A. M. Bruaset, and H. P. Langtangen, editors, Modern Software Tools in Scientific Computing, 163–202. Birkhäuser Press, 1997.