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Ada '83 Rationale, Sec 5.1: The Real Types

"Rationale for the Design of the
Ada® Programming Language"

[Ada '83 Rationale, HTML Version]

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CHAPTER 5: Numeric Types

5.3 The Real Types

The real types form two classes: floating point types and fixed point types. Both are approximate and are different forms of approximation to the real numbers of mathematics. With floating point types, the error in representing a mathematical value is roughly proportional to its absolute value over a large range. In contrast, the error with a fixed point value has an absolute bound, so that small values have a correspondingly large relative error.

The real type definition specifies bounds on the permitted error in the representation of values: the precision for floating point and the delta for fixed point. A floating point type declaration of the form

    type T is digits D;

specifies D significant decimal digits precision. It would perhaps have been more consistent to specify a bound on the relative error directly, but giving the number of significant decimal digits is more natural for the user. The use of a range constraint, in the extended form of declaration

    type T is digits D range L .. R;

signifies the construction of a subtype. The check that the values of L and R lie within the range of the base type is therefore a run-time check, and CONSTRAINT_ERROR is raised if it fails.

A fixed point type declaration of the form

    type T is delta D range L .. R;

specifies the delta D, which is an absolute bound on the permitted error. Here a bound specified in decimal digits would have been inappropriate, and too coarse, for a binary machine. In this case the range constraint is not optional since an unbounded range would imply an infinite number of values; the declaration is illegal if no predefined base type exists that accommodates the range and delta.

The predefined operations provided for floating and fixed types differ in detail in order to reflect correctly the handling of error bounds within a computation. The accuracy constraints determine parameters to a semantic model for the real types which is used to bound errors on the predefined operations. This is described below in section 5.3.3.


Ada provides three classes of predefined attributes for real types:
  1. those also associated with other scalar types (such as 'FIRST and 'LAST),

  2. those specific to the guaranteed properties of a real type (such as 'DIGITS), and

  3. those associated with machine-dependent properties (such as 'MACHINE_RADIX).
There are several predefined attributes that apply to both classes of real types. For each such type R, R'FIRST and R'LAST are values of type R that bound all the values of R. The integer value R'MANTISSA gives the number of binary places for the mantissa (floating point) or magnitude (fixed point) in the abstract representation for the type. R'SMALL and R'LARGE are values of type universal_real which are respectively the smallest positive nonzero value and the largest positive value in the abstract representation.

In this section...

5.3.1 Floating Point Types
5.3.2 Fixed Point Types
5.3.3 A Semantic Model for Approximate Computation

5.3.1 Floating Point Types

The following operators are defined for the predefined floating point type FLOAT:

OperatorMeaningResult Type
+  -
+  -
=  /=
<  <=  >  >=
identity and negation
addition and subtraction
exponentiation by an integer
equality and inequality
operand type
operand type
operand type
operand type
type of left operand

Both operands of the binary operators +, -, *, / and of the relational operators must have the same type. If system-defined floating point types such as LONG_FLOAT are implemented, then overloadings of the arithmetic and relational operators are defined for these types in an analogous manner.

The operators = and /= could have been excluded because their semantics is of doubtful validity, since the representation is approximate. Given a precision of 6 digits, then equality could either mean equality of representation (which would typically be of higher precision) or equality only to 6 digits. If the former semantics were chosen then equality would be implementation dependent. Moreover, since some implementations may use a higher precision for temporary values than for declared objects, it would be possible after the assignment

    X :=  (Y + Z);

to have

    X /= (Y + Z)

If the latter semantics were chosen, then equality would be computed as approximately equal. This would lead to the anomaly that equality would no longer be transitive, that is, it would be possible that

    X = Y and Y = Z and X /= Z

The decision has been to allow equality since it is defined for all other types. The user must be aware that the implemented precision is used, that is, the values X and Y are equal only if their representations are identical, and that in consequence code may not be portable. (The situation is no better with other languages.)

The exponentiation operation for floating point operands is defined by repeated multiplication in the same way as with integers. For a negative exponent, the value is the reciprocal of the value with the positive exponent. The exponent is of type INTEGER.

The predefined attribute R'DIGITS yields the value (of type universal_integer) that appears as the accuracy constraint that gives the precision of the type or subtype R.

As explained earlier, the precision of the predefined types FLOAT, LONG_FLOAT, and so on, is defined by the implementation. The user may define other floating point types directly in terms of their precision and range, in which case an appropriate one of the predefined types is selected by the compiler and the user-defined type is a subtype of a type derived from this predefined type. Alternatively, the user may define types derived from the predefined types by reducing the precision requirement and constraining the range. Thus in practice, at the machine level, there will be only one or two implemented precisions. As for other constraints, the range constraints and the precision reductions are checked by the compiler.

Defining floating point types directly in terms of their precision and range is preferable for portability. In this case the types are mapped on the nearest applicable machine implemented precision. As an example consider the type declarations

type MY_SHORT_FLOAT is digits 6;
type MY_FLOAT       is digits 8;
type MY_LONG_FLOAT  is digits 10;

On a machine for which the implemented precision provides 7 digits for FLOAT and 14 for LONG_FLOAT these declarations have the same effect as

type MY_SHORT_FLOAT is new FLOAT digits 6;
type MY_FLOAT       is new LONG_FLOAT digits 8;
type MY_LONG_FLOAT  is new LONG_FLOAT digits 10;

On another machine, for which the implemented precisions provide 8 digits for FLOAT and 16 for LONG_FLOAT, these declarations have the same effect as

type MY_SHORT_FLOAT is new FLOAT digits 6;
type MY_FLOAT       is new FLOAT digits 8;
type MY_LONG_FLOAT  is new LONG_FLOAT digits 10;

If a range constraint is included in the type declaration, then a check is made that the range inherited from the implemented type will cover the range specified. If the check fails then CONSTRAINT_ERROR is raised.

To summarize, the language provides a direct and simple mechanism for achieving efficient use of the available precisions predefined by a given implementation.


As an illustration of the direct use of the predefined types FLOAT and LONG_FLOAT, consider the following typical library function:

function DOT_PRODUCT(X,Y :  FLOAT_VECTOR) return FLOAT is
  SUM :  LONG_FLOAT :=  0.0;
  for I in X'RANGE loop
  end loop;
  return FLOAT (SUM);

If the machine has an instruction that forms the double length product from two single length operands, it is fairly simple for a peephole optimizer to use this instruction in the inner loop (rather than expand each operand and multiply).

Multiple precisions

If an application requires floating point computation with multiple precisions, then two means can be used to achieve this: the use of subtypes, and the use of types.

(1) Use of Subtypes

To use subtypes, a type must be declared with the largest required precision, for example

    type MY_REAL is digits 20;

Then variables or subtypes can be declared:

X :  MY_REAL;        -- digits 20
Y :  MY_REAL digits 15;
subtype SHORT_REAL is MY_REAL digits 10;
Z1, Z2, Z3 :  SHORT_REAL;

The operations on MY_REAL are defined for all variables with that base type (X, Y, Z1, Z2, Z3). Hence it is not possible to provide an overloaded SQRT function just for SHORT_REAL. Similarly, the error analysis is dependent on the operators for the type MY_REAL.

An optimizing compiler may be able to use single length data representation for each variable, but this depends on the variables being invisible to other compilation units and on the ability of the compiler to establish that the semantics will be preserved.

Note that the declaration of Y is also an implicit assertion that the precision of MY_REAL is at least 15 digits. This could be useful for defensive programming in large systems. For example, if in a later revision of the program the precision of the type MY_REAL is reduced by more than 5, then the compiler will give a warning message upon recompilation of the declaration of Y (or at least cause CONSTRAINT_ERROR to be raised).

(2) Use of Types

To use types, each distinct class of numbers would have a different type, with a precision appropriate to the task being performed. Security is better than with the use of subtypes, but all conversions must be explicit. On the other hand, converting the program for use on another target computer is simple and efficient. This is because each type is mapped separately using only as much precision as necessary. Of course, the efficiency is also high for the initial application computer as well, since even a nonoptimizing compiler will map each type onto the appropriate hardware type.

Both cases above assume that the programs have been written well using named types or subtypes. Direct use of FLOAT and LONG_FLOAT is absent, so that no assumption has been made about the precisions of these types. For a discussion of the construction of mathematical libraries in Ada, and of how one can parameterize with respect to different precisions, see [SWKW].

5.3.2 Fixed Point Types

The definition of the fixed point types is more difficult, for several reasons. First, the representation cannot be determined until both the range and delta are known. These two parameters determine the width required in bits and the position of the decimal (binary) point. Having determined these, the representation is fixed and the operations can be defined. The second problem is that the type resulting from multiplication and division is universal_fixed. Since no operations are available on the type universal_fixed, a product or a quotient must be explicitly converted to the required type (or subtype).

In a fixed point type declaration, the value following delta, and the two range bounds (which must be provided) are of any real type but must have a value determined at compilation time, that is, given by a static expression. In a subtype declaration, the delta value must not be less than that of the type, and the range constraint values must be within the values of the type.

To illustrate the representation of fixed point values, consider for example the type declaration

    type F is delta 0.01 range -100.0 .. 100.0;

We assume the target machine to be a 16-bit minicomputer using two's- complement arithmetic. Assuming that no length clause has been given for F'SMALL, the implemented range would use the next power of two above 100 to encompass the stated range, and would be (-128 .. 127), which needs 7 bits of magnitude (and 1 sign bit) above the decimal point. Similarly 7 bits are required below the decimal point to give error bound < 0.01. Hence 15 bits are required (sign, 7 above decimal point, 7 below decimal point), leaving one spare bit which can conveniently be at the bottom of the word to provide a (fortuitous) guard bit (that is, precision beyond what is needed).

This representation is clearly the most efficient in terms of space, since F'SMALL is a power of 2. A different representation is obtained by specifying an arbitrary real number S for F'SMALL in a length clause

    for F'SMALL use S;

In this case each value of the type is an exact integer multiple of S, and the predefined attribute F'SIZE will tell how many bits are in fact used to store it. S must not exceed F'DELTA.

The predefined attribute R'DELTA for a fixed point type or subtype R has a value of type universal_real which is that given in the accuracy constraint of the type or subtype.

Given two fixed point types F and G (and using I to denote INTEGER) then we have the following operations:

OperatorMeaningOperand Types
Left  Right
Result Type
+  -
+  -
=  /=
<  <=  >  >=
identity and negation
addition and subtraction
integer multiplication
integer multiplication
fixed multiplication
fixed division
fixed division by integer
equality and inequality

Fixed point operators = and /= are permitted for the same reason as for floating point.

Defining the semantics of these operations in terms of the permitted rounding error requires care. The basic source of error is the representation of constants and intermediate results. If EPSILON is half the delta of F (that is, EPSILON = F'DELTA/2), then a constant C is represented by a machine value C1 such that

    C - EPSILON  <  C1  <  C + EPSILON

The operations above that yield a result type universal_fixed obey a similar inequality:

X, Y :  F;

X*Y  - EPSILON  <  F(X*Y)   <  X*Y   + EPSILON
X/Y  - EPSILON  <  F(X/Y)   <  X/Y   + EPSILON

where the upper and lower limits are calculated mathematically (and the result is assumed to lie within the range of F). A value C is representable without error if C1 = C. Computations with such values are exact, except for division and fixed point multiplication. Note that integer multiplication is essentially repeated addition, it can overflow but cannot lose accuracy. Note also that integer multiplication by a floating point value is not permitted, since this is not equivalent to repeated addition. In this case the integer operand must be explicitly floated. The user could define this operation if required.

The operations of fixed multiplication and division are essentially in two parts. First, the accurate product or quotient is formed (that is, a result of the type universal_fixed is obtained). Second, the result must be converted before being assigned to any variable or being used in further computation. This conversion may imply a loss of accuracy due to the representation in the destination type: since the fixed point operands are essentially just scaled integers, the accurate product will in fact be another scaled integer, but the accurate quotient must be treated as a ratio of integers. The operation of fixed division by an integer operates in an analogous way and is merely provided to avoid excessive explicit type conversions. A real literal is not allowed as an operand of fixed multiplication or division, since there is not a unique fixed point type to which to convert it; this situation can be resolved by an explicit conversion, or better, by using a declared constant - which simplifies program maintenance.

To understand the computational aspects it is simplest to consider a decimal machine and model. Take a word as being a sign and three digits (SDDD), and consider the following declaration

    type NORMAL is delta 0.001 range -0.999 .. 0.999;

This type requires all of the word with the representation S.DDD (that is, the point next to the far left of the word). Consider also

    type LARGE is delta 10.0 range -800.0 .. 800.0;

This would ordinarily be implemented as (SDDD.), with one guard digit. Finally, consider

    type MEDIUM is delta 0.1 range -9.0 .. 9.0;

This would have the representation (SD.DD) with one guard digit. We can illustrate the use of these types as follows

X     :  NORMAL;
L1, L2 :  LARGE;
C :  constant MEDIUM :=  2.3;

X :=  0.3333;         -- last digit lost on conversion to NORMAL
                      -- Now |X - 0.3333| < NORMAL'DELTA,
                      -- (mathematically)

X :=  X + 0.1;        -- 0.1 needs no qualification as the left
                      -- specifies the type (NORMAL) of 0.1

X :=  2*X;            -- Now X = 0.866

X :=  X/2;            -- equivalent to X := NORMAL(X/2.0), that is,
                      -- integer division avoids qualification

X :=  NORMAL(C*X);    -- the constant is represented as 2.30
                      -- The machine evaluates
                      -- 2.30*0.433 = 0.99590 (six-digit answer)
and then
                      -- rounds the result to 0.996, which is
stored in X.
                      -- Note that rounding is needed (no guard
digit for
                      -- NORMAL).

L1 :=  700.0;         -- the .0 is necessary: no implicit
                      -- of an integer literal to a fixed point

L1 :=  LARGE(X*L1);   -- calculates 700.0*0.996 = 697.20, rounds to
                      -- (assuming the guard digit for LARGE)


L1 :=  LARGE(X*L1) + L1;   -- conversion is necessary, and serves
                      -- to emphasize rounding before addition

L2 :=  LARGE(X*L1) + 100.0;     -- conversion is necessary

if L1 > X then        -- not legal: L1 and X must have the same

if L1 > LARGE(L2 * X) then -- legal: explicit conversion

The user can perform accurate computation with fixed point by ensuring that only exactly representable values are used. In fact, the only source of error is the implied rounding of constants and conversion (which is necessary for multiplication and division).


A frequent calculation in some numerical applications is the smoothing of an input sequence by means of a running average:

OLD_VAL :=  0.9 * OLD_VAL   +   0.1 * NEW_VAL;

To program this in Ada using fixed point, the types of the products and constants on the right hand side must be specified, that is:

K1 :  constant FRACTION :=  0.9;
K2 :  constant FRACTION :=  0.1;

OLD_VAL :=  F(K1 * OLD_VAL) + F(K2 * NEW_VAL);

An error analysis reveals that a small error in the constant K1 will cause a much larger error in OLD_VAL after successive iterations (thus a constant value of 10.0 as input converges to 9.09 if 0.9 is replaced by 0.89 for K1). This increase in error occurs when the sum of the two constants is not exactly 1.0. To avoid this cumulative effect, one can omit the larger constant and write the following:

    OLD_VAL :=  OLD_VAL + F(K2 * (NEW_VAL - OLD_VAL));


As another illustration of the use of fixed point, consider the following function for computing the average of an array of components:

type F is   ...                -- some fixed point type
type INDEX is range 1 .. 100;
type FIXED_VECTOR is array (INDEX) of F;

function AVERAGE(A :  FIXED_VECTOR) return F is
  type SUMF is delta F'DELTA
  SUM :  SUMF :=  0.0;
  for I in A'RANGE loop
    SUM :=  SUM + SUMF(A(I));
  end loop;
  return F(SUM/NUM_ITEMS);

Here, the type SUMF has a greater range than F to accommodate the larger potential range of values. The explicit conversion inside the loop does not lose accuracy, but the final division potentially will lose accuracy. If type F requires nearly a full word, then the type SUMF will be double length. It is very difficult to write an algorithm to obtain the average which avoids double length. Since the size of the array is involved in the type SUMF, this size must be known at compilation time.

5.3.3 A Semantic Model for Approximate Computation

Programming languages do not conventionally define the semantics of floating point arithmetic. However, in Ada, with declarations controlling the accuracy of data types, it is highly desirable to do so. A proposal of W. S. Brown [Br 78] makes it possible to describe a model which is both clean in structure and realistic (that is, it describes the actual behavior of floating point arithmetic units). In this section, a brief overview is given of the model as needed by the language.

For each type, an abstract representation is defined. The abstract representation of each nonzero number x takes the form of a sign, a mantissa, and an integer exponent. Thus for the binary representation we have

    x =   m * 2**n


    1/2  <  m  <  1

that is, the number is normalized: the most significant binary digit is always 1. For example, a mantissa of length 3 allows representation of only the following mantissa values (using the notation for based literals):

    2#0.100#,  2#0.101#,  2#0.110#,  2#0.111#

The relative precision here varies from 1 in 4 to 1 in 7; in general, mantissa length B guarantees precision of only 1 in 2**(B-1), although near to 1 the precision is nearly 1 in 2**B. Hence to guarantee D decimal digits precision requires B to be one more than the least integer greater than D*log(10)/log(2). If for example we declare

    type F is digits 6;

then the mantissa will have 21 binary digits, that is, F'MANTISSA = 21. If the smallest value of the exponent is -84 and the largest is 84 (the values required by Ada in this case - see below) then

F'SMALL  = 2#0.1#e-84
F'LARGE  = 2#0.11111_11111_11111_11111_1#e84.

We do not assume that numbers are represented in this fashion, merely that numbers having the numeric values given above are representable in the machine. Brown now develops axioms for the representable numbers and the behavior of a machine number that is bounded by an interval whose endpoints are representable numbers. These axioms allow the use of higher precision than specified in the declaration, which is essential in Ada, since the implemented precision will typically be greater than the declared precision.

The Ada version of the Brown model for floating point works as follows:

  1. From the decimal precision specified (F'DIGITS) the corresponding number of binary places is determined, being F'MANTISSA.

  2. The model numbers are those with F'MANTISSA binary places and an exponent in the range

        -4*F'MANTISSA .. 4*F'MANTISSA.

  3. The safe numbers are those with F'MANTISSA binary places and a potentially larger exponent range limited by the hardware.
The model numbers guarantee workable properties including a reasonable range of values - their definition is machine-independent: hence the term model. The safe numbers allow one to exploit the larger exponent range that many machines provide. Safe numbers have the same properties as model numbers and include the model numbers but their range is machine-dependent.

For fixed point types, a similar representation is chosen without an exponent. In this case for the binary representation of each nonzero number x we use:

    x =   M * small

where M is now an integer, whose length B defines its range 1 .. 2**(B-1), and small is the smallest positive representable value (corresponding to M=1). Axioms (not treated by Brown) can now be given which reflect the exact nature of some operations and the approximate nature of others. In addition, because of the obvious correspondence between the abstract representations of all approximate types, conversions can be defined.

These conversions and some use of subtypes can result in weaker error bounds than those of the type. Consider:

type F is digits 6;                             -- 21 bits
X :  F;
Y :  F digits 5;                                    -- 18 bits

The accuracy constraint in the declaration of Y implies loss of precision in the subtype. Thus the statement Y := X; allows an implementation to lose the three least significant binary digits on the assignment. A subsequent assignment X := Y; will then mean that the last three bits of X are undefined (that is, the interval that bounds the value of X is larger than that given by the type).


Consider the fixed point type:

    type F is delta 0.01 range -100.0 .. 100.0;

To discuss the semantics, we again write model numbers in the form of based numbers, thus:

    64 = 2#100_0000.0000_000#


F'FIRST     = -2#110_0100.0000_000#        = -100.0
F'LAST      = 2#110_0100.0000_000#         = 100.0
F'SMALL     = 1/128 = 2#000_0000.0000_001# = 0.0078125(<0.01)
F'LARGE     = 255 + 127/128 = 2#111_1111.1111_111#  = 255.9921875
-- F'DELTA is not a model number
-- F'FIRST and F'LAST are model numbers in this
-- example but this need not always be the case.

Now consider the representation of 2.1, as in the declaration:

    Z :  F :=  2.1;

The value is bounded by the two consecutive model numbers

2 + 12/128 = 2#000_0010.0001_100# = 2.09375
2 + 13/128 = 2#000_0010.0001_101# = 2.1015625

of the type F, which therefore define the smallest model interval that bounds Z. On a 20-bit machine, Z is likely to be represented by the machine value (using the same notation) of

    2.10009765625 = 8602/4096 = 2#000_0010.0001_1001_1010#

The error analysis of ordinary computation proceeds similarly. Take:

    Z :=  Z + 2.0;

Here 2.0 is a model number (and hence is represented exactly). So as a result, the bounds for Z are now 4.09375 and 4.1015625. If the operands are not model numbers, then the bounds for the result of the operation are computed as the closest model numbers that are guaranteed to enclose all possible results, for all possible values in the model intervals associated with the operands. Thus after

    Z :=  Z + Z;

we shall get new bounds 8.1875 and 8.203125 for Z, so the model interval associated with Z has doubled in size.

The logic with fixed point multiplication and division is slightly different. Take

    Z :=  F(X * Y);

Here X and Y are of any fixed point types, not necessarily type F, but of course Z must be of type F for the rules for assignment compatibility. The logic of multiplication (and similarly with division) is as follows. X and Y are computed in the ordinary way, and associated with each of their values will be a corresponding bounding model interval. The multiplication is then performed with essentially arbitrarily high precision. One can think of this intuitively in terms of giving a double length result. This arbitrarily accurate result is then converted to type F; in consequence some accuracy may well be lost, and in any case a bounding model interval will be dependent upon the characteristics of the fixed point type F. This result is then assigned, of course, to the variable Z in this case.

The reason why multiplication and division work in this way, is because the resulting values cannot be constrained to lie within the same range and delta as of the type of the operands. Hence it is essential that these operations allow the result to be rescaled. This is done in two stages: by calculating a result with an essentially arbitrarily high precision, and then by explicit conversion to a fixed point type.

Address any questions or comments to adainfo@sw-eng.falls-church.va.us.