In computing, floating-point arithmetic (FP) is arithmetic using formulaic representation of real numbers as an approximation to support a trade-off between range and precision. For this reason, floating-point computation is often used in systems with very small and very large real numbers that require fast processing times. In general, a floating-point number is represented approximately with a fixed number of significant digits (the significand) and scaled using an exponent in some fixed base; the base for the scaling is normally two, ten, or sixteen. A number that can be represented exactly is of the following form:
where significand is an integer, base is an integer greater than or equal to two, and exponent is also an integer. For example:
The term floating point refers to the fact that a number's radix point (decimal point, or, more commonly in computers, binary point) can "float"; that is, it can be placed anywhere relative to the significant digits of the number. This position is indicated by the exponent, and thus the floating-point representation can be thought of as a form of scientific notation.
A floating-point system can be used to represent, with a fixed number of digits, numbers of different orders of magnitude: e.g. the distance between galaxies or the diameter of an atomic nucleus can be expressed with the same unit of length. The result of this dynamic range is that the numbers that can be represented are not uniformly spaced; the difference between two consecutive representable numbers varies with the chosen scale.
Over the years, a variety of floating-point representations have been used in computers. In 1985, the IEEE 754 Standard for Floating-Point Arithmetic was established, and since the 1990s, the most commonly encountered representations are those defined by the IEEE.
The speed of floating-point operations, commonly measured in terms of FLOPS, is an important characteristic of a computer system, especially for applications that involve intensive mathematical calculations.