Python FFI with ctypes and cffi

March 9th, 2013 at 5:41 am

In a previous post, I demonstrated how to use libffi to perform fully dynamic calls to C code, where "fully dynamic" means that even the types of the arguments and return values are determined at runtime.

Here I want to discuss how the same task is done from Python, both with the existing stdlib ctypes package and the new cffi library, developed by the PyPy team and a candidate for inclusion into the Python stdlib in the future.

With ctypes

I’ll start with the shared object discussed before; the following code loads and runs it in Python using ctypes. I tested it on Python 3.2, but other versions should work too (including 2.7):

from ctypes import cdll, Structure, c_int, c_double, c_uint

lib = cdll.LoadLibrary('./')
print('Loaded lib {0}'.format(lib))

# Describe the DataPoint structure to ctypes.
class DataPoint(Structure):
    _fields_ = [('num', c_int),
                ('dnum', c_double)]

# Initialize the DataPoint[4] argument. Since we just use the DataPoint[4]
# type once, an anonymous instance will do.
dps = (DataPoint * 4)((2, 2.2), (3, 3.3), (4, 4.4), (5, 5.5))

# Grab add_data from the library and specify its return type.
# Note: .argtypes can also be specified
add_data_fn = lib.add_data
add_data_fn.restype = DataPoint

print('Calling add_data via ctypes')
dout = add_data_fn(dps, 4)
print('dout = {0}, {1}'.format(dout.num, dout.dnum))

This is pretty straightforward. As far as dynamic language FFIs go, ctypes is pretty good. But we can do better. The main problem with ctypes is that we have to fully repeat the C declarations to ctypes, using its specific API. For example, see the description of the DataPoint structure. The return type should also be explicitly specified. Not only is this a lot of work for wrapping non-trivial C libraries, it’s also error prone. If you make a mistake translating a C header to a ctypes description, you will likely get a segfault at runtime which isn’t easy to debug without having a debug build of Python available. ctypes allows us to explicitly specify argtypes on a function for some measure of type checking, but this is only within the Python code – given that you got the declaration right, it will help with passing the correct types of objects. But if you didn’t get the declaration right, nothing will save you.

How does it work?

ctypes is a Python wrapper around libffi. The CPython project carries a version of libffi with it, and ctypes consists of a C extension module linking to libffi and Python code for the required glue. If you understand how to use libffi, it should be easy to see how ctypes works.

While libffi is quite powerful, it also has some limitations, which by extension apply to ctypes. For example, passing unions by value to dynamically-loaded functions is not supported. But overall, the benefits outweigh the limitations, which are not hard to work around when needed.

With cffi

cffi tries to improve on ctypes by using an interesting approach. It allows you to avoid re-writing your C declarations in ctypes notation, by being able to parse actual C declarations and inferring the required data types and function signatures automatically. Here’s the same example implemented with cffi (tested with cffi 0.5 on Python 3.2):

from cffi import FFI

ffi = FFI()

lib = ffi.dlopen('./')
print('Loaded lib {0}'.format(lib))

# Describe the data type and function prototype to cffi.
typedef struct {
    int num;
    double dnum;
} DataPoint;

DataPoint add_data(const DataPoint* dps, unsigned n);

# Create an array of DataPoint structs and initialize it.
dps ='DataPoint[]', [(2, 2.2), (3, 3.3), (4, 4.4), (5, 5.5)])

print('Calling add_data via cffi')
# Interesting variation: passing invalid arguments to add_data will trigger
# a cffi type-checking exception.
dout = lib.add_data(dps, 4)
print('dout = {0}, {1}'.format(dout.num, dout.dnum))

Instead of tediously describing the C declarations to Python, cffi just consumes them directly and produces all the required glue automatically. It’s much harder to get things wrong and run into segfaults.

Note that this demonstrates what cffi calls the ABI level. There’s another, more ambitious, use of cffi which uses the system C compiler to auto-complete missing parts of declarations. I’m just focusing on the ABI level here, since it requires no C compiler. How does it work? Deep down, cffi also relies on libffi to generate the actual low-level calls. To parse the C declarations, it uses pycparser.

Another cool thing about cffi is that being part of the PyPy ecosystem, it can actually benefit from PyPy’s JIT capabilities. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, using libffi is much slower than compiler-generated calls because a lot of the argument set-up work has to happen for each call. But once we actually start running, in practice the signatures of called functions never change. So a JIT compiler could be smarter about it and generate faster, more direct calls. I don’t know whether PyPy is already doing this with cffi, but I’m pretty sure it’s in their plans.

A more complex example

I want to show another example, which demonstrates a more involved function being called – the POSIX readdir_r (the reentrant version of readdir). This example is based on some demo/ code in the cffi source tree. Here’s code using ctypes to list the contents of a directory:

from ctypes import (CDLL, byref, Structure, POINTER, c_int,
                    c_void_p, c_long, c_ushort, c_ubyte,
                    c_char, c_char_p, c_void_p)

# CDLL(None) invokes dlopen(NULL), which loads the currently running
# process - in our case Python itself. Since Python is linked with
# libc, readdir_r will be found there.
# Alternatively, we can just explicitly load ''.
lib = CDLL(None)
print('Loaded lib {0}'.format(lib))

# Describe the types needed for readdir_r.
class DIRENT(Structure):
    _fields_ = [('d_ino', c_long),
                ('d_off', c_long),
                ('d_reclen', c_ushort),
                ('d_type', c_ubyte),
                ('d_name', c_char * 256)]

DIR_p = c_void_p

# Load the functions we need from the C library. Specify their
# argument and return types.
readdir_r = lib.readdir_r
readdir_r.argtypes = [DIR_p, DIRENT_p, DIRENT_pp]
readdir_r.restype = c_int

opendir = lib.opendir
opendir.argtypes = [c_char_p]
opendir.restype = DIR_p

closedir = lib.closedir
closedir.argtypes = [DIR_p]
closedir.restype = c_int

# opendir's path argument is char*, hence bytes.
path = b'/tmp'
dir_fd = opendir(path)
if not dir_fd:
    raise RuntimeError('opendir failed')

dirent = DIRENT()
result = DIRENT_p()

while True:
    # Note that byref() here is optional since ctypes can do it on its
    # own by observing the argtypes declared for readdir_r. I keep byref
    # for explicitness.
    if readdir_r(dir_fd, byref(dirent), byref(result)):
        raise RuntimeError('readdir_r failed')
    if not result:
        # If (*result == NULL), we're done.
    # dirent.d_name is char[], hence we decode it to get a unicode
    # string.
    print('Found: ' + dirent.d_name.decode('utf-8'))


Here I went one step farther and actually described the required argument types for imported functions. Once again, this only helps us avoid errors to some extent. You’ll have to agree that the code is tedious. Using cffi, we can just "copy paste" the C declarations and focus on actual calling:

from cffi import FFI

ffi = FFI()
    typedef void DIR;
    typedef long ino_t;
    typedef long off_t;

    struct dirent {
        ino_t          d_ino;       /* inode number */
        off_t          d_off;       /* offset to the next dirent */
        unsigned short d_reclen;    /* length of this record */
        unsigned char  d_type;      /* type of file; not supported
                                       by all file system types */
        char           d_name[256]; /* filename */

    DIR *opendir(const char *name);
    int readdir_r(DIR *dirp, struct dirent *entry, struct dirent **result);
    int closedir(DIR *dirp);

# Load symbols from the current process (Python).
lib = ffi.dlopen(None)
print('Loaded lib {0}'.format(lib))

path = b'/tmp'
dir_fd = lib.opendir(path)
if not dir_fd:
    raise RuntimeError('opendir failed')

# Allocate the pointers passed to readdir_r.
dirent ='struct dirent*')
result ='struct dirent**')

while True:
    if lib.readdir_r(dir_fd, dirent, result):
        raise RuntimeError('readdir_r failed')
    if result[0] == ffi.NULL:
        # If (*result == NULL), we're done.
    print('Found: ' + ffi.string(dirent.d_name).decode('utf-8'))


I placed "copy paste" in quotes on purpose, because the man page for readdir_r doesn’t fully specify all the typedef declarations inside struct dirent. For example, you need to do some digging to discover that ino_t is long. cffi‘s other goal, the API level, is to enable Python programmers to skip such declarations and let the C compiler complete the details. But since this requires a C compiler, I see it as a very different solution from the ABI level. In fact, it’s not really a FFI at this point, but rather an alternative way for writing C extensions to Python code.

Related posts:

  1. ctypes – calling C/C++ code from Python
  2. Educational path
  3. Local execution of Python CGI scripts
  4. Local execution of Python CGI scripts – with Python 3
  5. Shared counter with Python’s multiprocessing

3 Responses to “Python FFI with ctypes and cffi”

  1. xiscuNo Gravatar Says:

    IMHO one should use some C-’header’ to cytpe converter to do the job (e.g. wraptypes from pyglet or ctypesgen just to mention some) but the DRY aproach taken by cffi is really interesting. Let’s see how is going to evolve…

  2. bcNo Gravatar Says:

    Once you start using a compiler, you might as well go with Cython which lets you “cimport” from C-header files in a more pythonic way than copying stuff out of header files into strings in python modules. With both ctypes and Cython available, it’s hard to see the gap that cffi fills.

  3. mcgNo Gravatar Says:

    Even with Cython you still have to “cdef” every function from the header files that you intend to actually use. Cython won’t parse the headers for you.

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