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DRAFT: Synopsis 21: Calling Foreign Code


    Created: 27 Feb 2009
    Last Modified: 23 Nov 2012
    Version: 2

The document is a draft.


    use NativeCall;
    sub native_function(int arg) is native('libsomething') { * }
    sub short_name() is native('libsomething') is symbol('long_and_complicated_name') { * }


Perl 6 has a standard foreign function interface, NativeCall. The only libraries NativeCall is able to interface with are those written in C. Languages like Fortran and C++ require name mangling, which is compiler-specific and thus falls well beyond the scope of this specification.


This is likely not an exhaustive list of showstoppers for C++/Fortran compat; also, some platforms may be tricky simply in terms of C interop as well

Calling foreign code

A sub is marked as a native routine with the is native trait. A native sub must have an attached signature, which is used to specify the native-level argument structure of the function. If the return type of the function is Mu the native function returns no value, any other return type must be compatible with the types specified in the next section.

The is native trait

    sub trait_mod:<is>(Routine $r, :$native!) is export(:DEFAULT, :traits) { ... }

The is native trait is the main gateway used to access C libraries. A routine with this trait applied will not be a normal Perl 6 callable, but will call into the function with the same name in the specified library.

The library name passed to is native is passed unmodified to man:dlopen(3) or the platform's equivalent and the symbol is the looked for in the handle returned from the call to dlopen. If the library name is an undefined value or the empty string, the symbol will be searched for in the currently loaded libraries of the process; that is, behaviour consistent with dlsym(RTLD_DEFAULT, symbol) in C.


The is symbol trait

    sub trait_mod:<is>(Routine $r, :$symbol!) is export(:DEFAULT, :traits) { ... }

Since all symbols in a C library share a single namespace with all other libraries, it is common practice to prefix externally visible symbols with a library prefix so as not to interfere with other libraries. In Perl 6 this may be a nuisance, and the is symbol trait lets a user specify a different symbol name to search for than the name of the sub.

A native sub also adorned with is symbol will search for the symbol specified in the symbol trait, rather than the name of the subroutine itself.

The is nativeconv trait

    sub trait_mod:<is>(Routine $r, :nativeconv!) is export(:DEFAULT, :traits) { ... }

Native code typically supports several different calling conventions. If a convention different than the default one is needed, it is specified with is nativeconv($convention). The conventions supported are platform-specific.

The is encoded trait

    sub trait_mod:<is>(Routine $r,   :encoded!) is export(:DEFAULT, :traits) { ... }
    sub trait_mod:<is>(Parameter $p, :encoded!) is export(:DEFAULT, :traits) { ... }

Input arguments and return values that are strings may be returned in any of a multitude of encodings. If the value is encoded differently from UTF-8, it must be stated explicitly.

Global variables

Caveat emptor: This whole section is conjectural.

Just like functions exported by a library, global variables are accessed with the is native trait; after all, all exported symbols are the same from the point of view of the linker: a pointer to something. The is symbol and is encoding (for strings) traits also apply to variables.

Marshalling and demarshalling of Perl 6 data

The raw internal representation of most Perl 6 objects can't be expected to work sensibly with native code. To specify how to marshal and demarshal complex Perl 6 objects, representation polymorphism is most frequently used, but some classes are provided for frequent use cases.

For pointer types, the type object associated with the Perl 6 class represents the null pointer.

Numeric types

Numeric types, both native types and not, have obvious marshalling semantics (as long as they are not arbitrary-precision types). A NativeCall implementation should support the following types:

int8, uint8 signed and unsigned byte
int16, uint16 signed and unsigned two-byte integer
int32, uint32 signed and unsigned four-byte integer
int64, uint64 signed and unsigned eight-byte integer
int, uint signed and unsigned machine word
Int largest available integer type
num32 four-byte floating point number
num, num64 eight-byte floating point number


This is a wider range of native types than what S02 mandates. We'll either want to expand that list of natives, or find some other way of specifying sizes.
There is no obvious mirror of Int for largest available unsigned type.
Should Num be a synonym for num/num64?
If the Int or Num type object is passed, should it be silently converted to a zero value, or cause an exception?
How should overflows be handled?


    multi explicitly-manage(Str $x is rw, :$encoding = 'utf8') is export(:DEFAULT, :utils) { ... }

By default, a string passed to a native sub wil be marshalled to a char * appropriately encoded as specified with the is encoded trait. The memory allocated to the C string is freed when the function returns. If a Str object should have a persistent char * associated with it, this can be signalled by calling explicitly-manage($str, $encoding). The buffer allocated will never be freed.

A string-valued native sub's return value will be unmarshalled according to the is encoded trait, and the C pointer is not freed as deciding whether the caller or callee owns the data can't be decided automatically, and freeing by default risks causing later code to access freed memory.


We need better facilities for signaling when it's appropriate to free data. The current facilities have the benefit that it won't cause memory-related errors later on, but on the flip side, it will leak memory over time.

The OpaquePointer class

    class OpaquePointer is repr('CPointer') { }

The OpaquePointer type is the simplest possible way to interface with C pointers, and can be seen as similar to the void * type in C. An OpaquePointer offers no way to inspect the pointer or manipulate it; it can only be passed around in the program and back to C.

The CPointer REPR

    typedef struct _magic magic;
    magic *magic_new(void);
    void   magic_perform(magic *m);
    class Magic is repr('CPointer') {
        my Magic sub magic_new()       is native('libmagic') { * }
        my sub magic_perform(Magic $m) is native('libmagic') { * }
        method new() { magic_new(); }
        method perform() { magic_perform(self); }

The CPointer REPR enables types that are similar to OpaquePointer in that they cannot be introspected or mutated, but different in that they can have methods. This makes it easy to interface with "object-oriented" C code that returns an opaque pointer handle that encapsulate the resources used by the library and lets us implement this naturally using Perl 6 OO.

A CPointer object can not have attributes.

The CArray class

    class CArray[::Type] does Positional[Type] is export(:DEFAULT, :types) { ... }

General Perl 6 arrays support features such as laziness, which means that they can not easily be marshalled into a C representation. Thus, NativeCall provides the CArray type which supports a set of array features compatible with marshalling to and from C. The Type parameter is, of course, mandatory as the exact layout of the array in memory depends on the type of the elements.

A Carray that has been marshalled from a value returned from C cannot, given how arrays work in C, know the bounds of the array. Thus, it is the user's responsibility to ensure that all accesses are within the bounds of the array. NativeCall will make no attempt to figure this out, and requests for array elements outside of the array is likely to result in death by segmentation fault.

If the CArray has been created in Perl 6, the bounds of the array are known, and operations can be bounds-checked and the array grown appropriately. Note, however, that growing an array may result in its C representation being moved to a different memory location. Thus, if a piece of C code has stored the location of an array and it is later on moved due to operations on the Perl side, strange bugs and segfaults are likely to ensue.

The CStruct REPR

    class StructObject is repr('CStruct') { ... }

Structs are an important part of most non-trivial C APIs; using the CStruct REPR, arbitrary structs can be accessed just like ordinary Perl 6 classes.

Callable objects

Callback arguments are, in essence, no different from normal data. They are declared as callables (typically with the & sigil) and also have an attached signature. The signature is important as the callback handling code needs this information to get the function's arguments off the stack.

Callbacks returned from C are specified identically, but as return values rather than parameters (note: callbacks returned from C NYI).

Complex data value types

Caveat emptor: This section, like the one on global variables, is all conjecture. Nothing is implemented.

In Perl 6 the distinction between value type and reference is intrinsic to the type. In C, on the other hand, any type can be used both as a value and reference type, depending on how it's used. Thus, NativeCall needs some mechanism to duplicate this. One possible source of inspiration for this is C#. C# distinguishes between value and reference types similarly to Perl 6 and also has a well-supported foreign function interface.


To be determined. This section is hypothetical.

One option is an API similar to the C99 stdarg.h macros and explicitly get arguments off an opaque object. For example my $arg = va_arg($args, Type).

Miscellaneous helper functions

Refreshing outdated objects

    multi refresh($obj) is export(:DEFAULT, :utils) { { ... }

To avoid unmarshalling data from the C representation whenever data is accessed, an efficient implementation is going to want to cache unmarshalled data. Whenever a complex object is passed to a native subroutine, the implementation should make sure the cache data isn't out of date. However, if the C code saves a pointer passed to it and a later invocation mutates the data pointed to, NativeCall can't magically detect this. In cases like this, the user will have to use refresh to invalidate any outdated objects in the cache.


Sometimes it will be necessary to reinterpret a pointer-valued object as a different kind of pointer. One way to provide this would be a function a la: my $val = reinterpret($ptr, Type).


    Arne Skjærholt <[email protected]>
    Jonathan Worthington <[email protected]>
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