I’ve recently returned to the land of floating-point error analysis to try to polish up a few more details for the next edition of Physically Based Rendering. Floating-point is an interesting corner of computation, full of surprises (good and bad) and neat tricks to help with the bad. Along the way, I came across this posting on StackOverflow, which pointed me at a nifty algorithm for accurately computing \(a \times b-c \times d\).

Before we dig into that algorithm, what’s so tricky about \(a \times b-c \times d\), anyway? Consider \(a=33962.035\), \(b=-30438.8\), \(c=41563.4\), and \(d=-24871.969\). (Those are actual values that came up during a run of pbrt.) With 32-bit floats, \(a \times b=-1.03376365 \times 10^9\) and \(c \times d=-1.03376352 \times 10^9\). Subtract those, and you get \(-128\). If you do the math in double precision and convert to float at the end, you get \(-75.1656\). What happened?

The problem is that the value of each product is way off in \(-1 \times 10^9\) land, where the spacing between representable floating point values is huge—it’s 64. Thus, when \(a \times b\) and \(c \times d\) are respectively rounded to the nearest representable float, they turn into multiples of 64. In turn, their difference will be a multiple of 64 and there’s no hope of coming any closer to \(-75.1656\) than \(-64\). In this case, the result was even farther away, due to the way the two products were rounded at \(-1 \times 10^9\). We’ve run straight into good old catastrophic cancellation.1

Here’s that better approach:2

inline float DifferenceOfProducts(float a, float b, float c, float d) {
    float cd = c * d;
    float err = std::fma(-c, d, cd);
    float dop = std::fma(a, b, -cd);
    return dop + err;

DifferenceOfProducts() computes \(a \times b-c \times d\) in a way that avoids catastrophic cancellation. It was originally described by the legend, William Kahan, in On the Cost of Floating-Point Computation Without Extra-Precise Arithmetic. Incidentally, Kahan’s write ups are generally fun reads, full of commentary about the state of the floating-point world as well as math and technical insight. That one’s conclusion includes:

Those of us who have grown old fighting against the vagaries of floating-point arithmetic and ill-conceived compiler “optimizations” take pride in our victories in that battle. But bequeathing the same battle to the generations that follow us would be contrary to the essence of civilization. Our experience indicts programming languages and development systems as sources of too many of the vagaries against which we have had to fight. Too many are unnecessary, as are certain of the tempting “optimizations” safe for integers but occasionally fatal for floating-point.

With that salt given its due appreciation, back to DifferenceOfProducts(): its use of fused multiply-add (FMA) instructions is the key to its cleverness.3 Mathematically, FMA(a,b,c) is \(a \times b+c\), so at first it may appear to just be useful as a micro-optimization: one instruction in the place of two. However, FMA offers something special—it only rounds once.

With regular old \( a \times b+c \), first \(a \times b\) is computed, and that value, which generally can’t be represented exactly in floating point, is rounded to the nearest float. Then, \(c\) is added to that rounded value, and that result is again rounded to the nearest float. FMA is implemented so that rounding only happens at the end—the intermediate value of \(a \times b\) is maintained at sufficient accuracy so that when \(c\) is added to it, the final result is the closest float to the true value of \(a \times b+c\).

With that understanding of FMA in mind, back to DifferenceOfProducts(). Here again are the first two lines:

    float cd = c * d;
    float err = std::fma(-c, d, cd);

The first computes the rounded value of \(c \times d\), and the second… subtracts \(c \times d\) from its product? If you didn’t know how FMAs work, you’d think that err would always be zero. With an FMA, the second line actually extracts the amount of rounding error in the computed value of \(c \times d\) and stores it in err. From there on out, it’s a straight shot:

    float dop = std::fma(a, b, -cd);
    return dop + err;

A second FMA computes the difference of products with an FMA, rounding only at the end. Thus, it’s immune to catastrophic cancellation, but it had to work with the rounded value of \(c \times d\). The return statement patches that up by adding in the error extracted in the second line. Jeannenrod et al. showed that the result is correct to 1.5 ulps, which is stellar: FMA and the basic floating-point operations are accurate to 0.5 ulps, so that’s almost as good as could be.

Using the New Hammer

DifferenceOfProducts() turns out to be useful surprisingly often once you start looking for places to apply it. Computing a quadratic discriminant? Call DifferenceOfProducts(b, b, 4 * a, c).4 Computing the determinant of a 2x2 matrix? It’s got you covered. I count over 80 uses of it in the implementation of next version of pbrt. Of them, my favorite is the cross product function. It had always been a source of trouble, which eventually led to hands being thrown up and doubles being used in the implementation in order to avoid catastrophic cancellation:

inline Vector3f Cross(const Vector3f &v1, const Vector3f &v2) {
    double v1x = v1.x, v1y = v1.y, v1z = v1.z;
    double v2x = v2.x, v2y = v2.y, v2z = v2.z;
    return Vector3f(v1y * v2z - v1z * v2y,
                    v1z * v2x - v1x * v2z,
                    v1x * v2y - v1y * v2x);

Now, we can stick with floats and use DifferenceOfProducts().

inline Vector3f Cross(const Vector3f &v1, const Vector3f &v2) {
    return Vector3f(DifferenceOfProducts(v1.y, v2.z, v1.z, v2.y),
                    DifferenceOfProducts(v1.z, v2.x, v1.x, v2.z),
                    DifferenceOfProducts(v1.x, v2.y, v1.y, v2.x));

That tricky example at the start of this post was actually part of a cross product. At some point pbrt needed to compute the cross product of the vectors \((33962.035, 41563.4, 7706.415)\) and \((-24871.969, -30438.8, -5643.727)\). Computed using floats, the resulting vector would have been \((1552, -1248, -128)\). (As a general rule, getting not-very-big integer values back from a floating-point calculation that involved larger numbers is a pretty good tell that you’ve got catastrophic cancellation going on in there.)

In double precision, that cross product is \((1556.0276, -1257.5151, -75.1656)\) and we can see that with floats, \(x\) was sort of ok, \(y\) was getting meh, and \(z\) supplied the disaster we used for motivation. With DifferenceOfProducts() and floats all the way? \((1556.0276, -1257.5153, -75.1656)\). \(x\) and \(z\) match double precision exactly and \(y\) is just barely off—there’s that extra ulp.

And what about performance? DifferenceOfProducts() does two FMAs, a multiply, and an add. The naive algorithm can be implemented with one FMA and one multiply, which might seem that it would take half as much time. In practice, it doesn’t seem to matter much once you’ve got the values at hand in registers: in a synthetic benchmark on my laptop, I measured DifferenceOfProducts() to be only 1.09x more expensive than the naive algorithm. Double precision was 2.98x slower.

Once you start to become aware of catastrophic cancellation, all sorts of innocuous-looking expressions in code can start to make you nervous. DifferenceOfProducts() turns out to be good medicine for a good number of them. It’s easy to use, and there’s not much reason to not use it widely.


  1. Catastrophic cancellation isn’t a worry when subtracting quantities with different signs or when adding quantities with the same sign. Conversely, it can be a problem when adding values with different signs. Thus, sums should generally be looked at with the same wariness as differences. 

  2. I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to work out a SumOfProducts() function that protects against catastrophic cancellation. For a slightly more challenging exercise, explain why, in DifferenceOfProducts(), dop + err == dop if the signs of a*b and c*d are different. 

  3. An FMA instruction has been available on GPUs for over a decade, and on most CPUs for at least five years now. On CPUs, you may need to add compiler flags to get your compiler to emit it directly when you use std::fma(); -march=native works on gcc and clang. 

  4. In IEEE floating-point, multiplication by powers of two is exact, so 4 * a doesn’t incur any rounding error, assuming there is no overflow.