Interop mini-series – Calling C and C++ code from Common Lisp using CFFI (Part 1)

Starting with this post, the new few posts will dig into interoperability between various languages. The next couple of posts will cover C and C++ code from Common Lisp, and how to write callback functions in Common Lisp that plug into code residing in a shared library. This will make use of the cffi library.

Then the following two posts will cover the analogue in Java-world. To this end, we will make use of the JNA project to indicate interop between C/C++ and Java.

Finally, this series will (hopefully) conclude with a mini-project of sorts – a completely embedded JVM instance inside a Common Lisp image! A number of demos will illustrate different uses of embedding Java within Common Lisp. This is a bit of an undertaking though, and will definitely take some time to implement least of all due to the fact that I want to extract the maximum amount of learning from this activity!


  1. Introducing the cffi library
  2. Demos
    1. Interop with C
    2. Interop with C++
  3. Summary of useful functions
  4. References

Setup used for this tutorial series

In order to keep things sane, I will be sticking to a single platform (unless otherwise noted) with the following configuration for this whole mini-series:

  • Mac OS X El Capitan system
  • 8 cores, 16GB RAM, 1600MHz processor
  • SBCL as my Common Lisp implementation
  • JDK 9
  • Apple LLVM 6.1.0 (with Clang as the frontend) as my C and C++ compiler

Note that even though the compiler used is LLVM, the behaviour is more or less the same as that of standard gcc/g++. The same flags also work for compilation, and the only difference vis-a-vis this tutorial will be how the shared (dynamic) library is created.

Introduction to the CFFI library

Let’s install the cffi library using QuickLisp (if you haven’t done so already) first:

LISP-TO-C-USER> (ql:quickload :cffi)
To load "cffi":
  Load 4 ASDF systems:
    alexandria babel trivial-features uiop
  Install 1 Quicklisp release:
; Fetching #
; 234.48KB
240,107 bytes in 0.33 seconds (712.70KB/sec)
; Loading "cffi"
[package cffi-sys]................................
[package cffi]....................................
[package cffi-features]

Now, let’s talk a bit about this library and the features that it provides. Links to the download site and manual are provided in the “References” section.

The cffi library is a cross-platform (across Common Lisp implementations that is) library that supports interop with C (and with C++, but we’ll talk more about that later). What this means is that you can load a native library (dylib, so file, DLL, etc.) and use the functions defined therein within your Lisp code.

The interop is two-ways – the general case is that you want to invoke C functions from Lisp code, or you may want to invoke a function in the library that expects a callback, and you can define this callback as pure Common Lisp code! Nifty, isn’t it?

The library is very well-designed and personally I find the Lispy nature of the APIs (and generated functions) an extra bonus.

The best way to learn the library is to see it in action, so let’s get on with it!

Note: Platform support for different features varies according to the quirks of the specific Common Lisp implementation. Refer to the cffi documentation for specifics).



These demos are aimed to be simple and small, and yet somewhat useful in terms of real-world applicability.

I personally feel that purely contrived demos are best avoided since they hardly teach anything well, most of all for the reason that they are extremely boring!

In the first demo, we will see how a C library may be loaded and run from Common Lisp. This will be the most common use case.

In the second demo, we will do the same, but for a C++ library with a C wrapper around the C++ functionality.

Since both demos are defined in the same package, let’s define the package first:

(require 'cffi)

(defpackage :lisp-to-c-user
  (:use :cl :cffi))

(in-package :lisp-to-c-user)

Interop with C


For the C example, I decided to use use the native library to get some useful system information – architecture type, model name, memory, number of cpus, and the number of logical cpus (cores).

Note that this example works only in Mac OS X. For Linux, the sysctlbyname function can be replaced by sysctl with appropriate changes. For Windows, you will have to check which kernel call provides the same functionality.

We will use the sysctlbyname function to extract these values.

Let’s define the header file first (in system_info.h):

#ifndef __SYSTEM_INFO_H__
#define __SYSTEM_INFO_H__ "system_info.h"


#ifdef __cplusplus
extern "C" {

char* get_machine();
char* get_model();
int64_t get_memory();
int32_t get_ncpu();
int32_t get_nlogicalcpu();

#ifdef __cplusplus

And the corresponding C implementation (in system_info.c:

#include "system_info.h"

#define MAXSIZE 210

char* get_machine()
    static char machine[MAXSIZE];
    size_t len = sizeof(machine);

    sysctlbyname("hw.machine", &machine, &len, NULL, 0);

    return machine;

char* get_model()
    static char model[MAXSIZE];
    size_t len = sizeof(model);

    sysctlbyname("hw.model", &model, &len, NULL, 0);

    return model;

int64_t get_memory()
    int64_t mem;
    size_t len = sizeof(mem);

    sysctlbyname("hw.memsize", &mem, &len, NULL, 0);

    return mem;

int32_t get_ncpu()
    int32_t cpu;
    size_t len = sizeof(cpu);

    sysctlbyname("hw.ncpu", &cpu, &len, NULL, 0);

    return cpu;

int32_t get_nlogicalcpu()
    int32_t logical_cpu;
    size_t len = sizeof(logical_cpu);

    sysctlbyname("hw.logicalcpu", &logical_cpu, &len, NULL, 0);

    return logical_cpu;

int main(int argc, char* argv[])
    printf("%s, %s, %lld, %d, %d\n", 

    return 0;

Let’s compile it into a shared library (in this case, Clang + LLVM on Mac OS X. For other compilers such as gcc proper, check the relevant documentation):

Timmys-MacBook-Pro:c_demo_system_info z0ltan$ clang -dynamiclib -o libsysteminfo.lib system_info.c

Timmys-MacBook-Pro:c_demo_system_info z0ltan$ ls
libsysteminfo.lib	system_info.c		system_info.h

Excellent! Finally, let’s write the Common Lisp client code to use this library:

;;; C-demo

(define-foreign-library libsysteminfo
  (:darwin "libsysteminfo.dylib")
  (:unix "")
  (t (:default "libsysteminfo.dylib")))

(load-foreign-library 'libsysteminfo)

(defcfun "get_machine" :string)
(defcfun "get_model" :string)
(defcfun "get_memory" :long-long)
(defcfun "get_ncpu" :int)
(defcfun "get_nlogicalcpu" :int)

(defun print-system-info ()
  (let ((arch (get-machine))
        (model (get-model))
        (mem (/ (get-memory) (* 1024 1024 1024)))
        (ncpu (get-ncpu))
        (nlogicalcpu (get-nlogicalcpu)))
    (format t "System Information~%")
    (format t "Arch: ~a, Model: ~a, Mem = ~dGB, CPUs = ~d, Logical CPUs = ~d~%"
            arch model mem ncpu nlogicalcpu)))


(close-foreign-library 'libsysteminfo)

And the output:

LISP-TO-C-USER> (print-system-info)
System Information
Arch: x86_64, Model: MacBookPro11,2, Mem = 16GB, CPUs = 8, Logical CPUs = 8

Explanation: We define the native library by using the cffi:define-foreign-library macro. This macro also allows us to define the specific name of the shared library depending on the OS.

Then we can load the specified library using the cffi:load-foreign-library macro. Take care to observed that the name of the library is quoted. This can save you a lot of anguish later on.

The next part is interesting – we use the cffi:decfun macro to define the C functions present in the library as Lispy function. For instance, the C function “get_machine” which is defined in the libsysteminfo.dylib library, is proxied into the current Lisp image as “get-machine”. There are ways to perform such name mangling automatically, but letting the cffi library take care of this is my recommendation.

The general syntax of the defcfun macro is:

	(cffi:defcun  &optional 

So the first defcfun indicates that get_machine is a C function that returns a character array (represented by cffi’s local type, :string), and that it doesn’t take any parameter(s), The cffi library defines a huge set of types that map to C’s primitive, pointer, and structure types extremely well.

Now that we have create proxies for the C functions, we can invoke them as seen in the print-system-info function by passing in the appropriate return type and parameters.

Finally, we unload the native library using another macro, cffi:close-foreign-library, which also takes a quoted library representation.

Interop with C++


This is the more interesting demo for more than one reason! In this example, let’s try and sort an array of integers using the native library.

Again, let’s write the interface out first (in number_sorting.h):

#ifndef __NUMBER_SORTING_H__ 
#define __NUMBER_SORTING_H__ "number_sorting.h"

void callback_function(int[], int);

extern "C" {
    void sort_numbers(int[], int);

Looks good, but what’s the deal with the callback_function? We’ll get to that in just a moment. For now, let’s flesh out the functionality for this interface (in number_sorting.cpp:


void sort_vector(std::vector&, int[], int);

void callback_function(int array[], int size)
    std::vector vec(size);

    sort_vector(vec, array, size);

    int i = 0;
    for (std::vector::const_iterator it = vec.begin(); it != vec.end(); it++)
        array[i++] = *it;

void display_elements(const std::vector& vec)
    for (std::vector::const_iterator it = vec.begin(); it != vec.end(); it++)
        std::cout << *it << " ";
    std::cout << std::endl;

void sort_vector(std::vector& v, int numbers[], int count)
    for (int i = 0; i < count; i++)
        v[i] = numbers[i];


    std::sort(v.begin(), v.end(), [](int x, int y) { return x < y; });

int main()

    int sample[] = { 1, 2, 0, -1, 3, 199, 200, 110, -234, 12345 };

    callback_function(sample, sizeof(sample)/sizeof(sample[0]));

    for (int i = 0; i < (int)sizeof(sample)/sizeof(sample[0]); i++)
        std::cout << sample[i] << " ";
    std::cout << std::endl;

    return 0;

Hmmm, this seems a bit too convoluted for this simple example? Why all the indirection? The reason will become crystal clear once we define the corresponding C file (in number_sorting.c) as well:

#include "number_sorting.h"

void sort_numbers(int numbers[], int n)
    callback_function(numbers, n);

Explanation: The reasons why we need both number_sorting.c and number_sorting.cpp, both of which implement the same interface, number_sorting.h
are two-fold:

  1. Since we are using some C++-only features such std::vector , std::sort, and C++11 lambdas, we need to invoke them in a separate function
  2. And the more important reason – C++’s pernicious name-mangling

Now, if we had simply written the entire sorting functionality using integer arrays and sorted using with C-like constructs (say, qsort, or a manually written sorting function), we wouldn’t need all this indirection, and we could have simply written the header as:

#ifndef __NUMBER_SORTING_H__ 
#define __NUMBER_SORTING_H__ "number_sorting.h"

extern "C" {
    void sort_numbers(int[], int);

and provided the implementation in number_sorting.cpp alone. That would have worked out fine. However, because we use all those C++ templated constructs as well as functional constructs, if we had used this same header file, we would have got a name-mangling issue, and the function would not be visible to the Common Lisp client!

To get around this, we write a C wrapper (number_sorting.c) which simply invokes the C++ function callback_function defined in number_sorting.cpp. Now you may think that we could have simply embedded callback_function inside the definition of sort_numbers in the C++ file alone, but that would not work either. Check out the reference “How to mix C and C++” in the “References section” for more details.

All right, let’s compile the code and generate the shared library:

Timmys-MacBook-Pro:c++_demo_sorting z0ltan$ clang++ -std=c++11 -stdlib=libc++ -dynamiclib -o libnumbersorting.dylib number_sorting.c number_sorting.cpp
clang: warning: treating 'c' input as 'c++' when in C++ mode, this behavior is deprecated

Timmys-MacBook-Pro:c++_demo_sorting z0ltan$ ls
libnumbersorting.dylib	number_sorting.c	number_sorting.cpp	number_sorting.h

Timmys-MacBook-Pro:c++_demo_sorting z0ltan$ nm -gU libnumbersorting.dylib 
0000000000000a10 T __Z11sort_vectorRNSt3__16vectorIiNS_9allocatorIiEEEEPii
0000000000000730 T __Z17callback_functionPii
0000000000000c00 T _main
0000000000000700 T _sort_numbers

We can also see that the function sort_numbers has not been subjected to name-mangling. Now that we’ve resolved that, let’s flesh out the Common Lisp client, and run the demo!

;;; C++-demo

(define-foreign-library libnumbersorting
  (:darwin "libnumbersorting.dylib")
  (:unix "")
  (t (:default "libnumbersorting.dylib")))

(use-foreign-library libnumbersorting)

(defun sort-some-numbers (&optional (n 10))
  (with-foreign-object (numbers :int n)
    (dotimes (i n)
      (setf (mem-aref numbers :int i) (random 100)))
    (let ((before (loop for i below n
                     collect (mem-aref numbers :int i))))
      (format t "Before: ~{~d ~}~%" before))
    (foreign-funcall "sort_numbers" :pointer numbers :int n :void)
    (let ((after (loop for j below n
                    collect (mem-aref numbers :int j))))
      (format t "After: ~{~d ~}~%" after))))


(close-foreign-library 'libnumbersorting)

And the output:

LISP-TO-C-USER> (sort-some-numbers 15)
Before: 52 11 18 62 39 89 2 48 48 66 73 89 73 26 97 
After: 2 11 18 26 39 48 48 52 62 66 73 73 89 89 97 


Explanation: This demo differs only slightly from the C demo in terms of Common Lisp code. We define the native library in the same manner, but we use another macro,
use-foreign-library instead this time. This is my preferred way of loading a native library since I always forget the quoting with load-foreign-library!

Jokes aside, we can see another way of executing a function defined in a native library: cffi:foreign-funcall.

This macro has the following syntax:

	(cffi:foreign-funcall  &optional* 

I tend to prefer foreign-funcall for functions with only side-effects (as in this case), and use defcfun when I need to use the function in the Common Lisp part more than once. YMMV.

The most interesting bit, of course, in the with-foreign-object macro. I won’t bother to show its general syntax, but suffice to say that this macro is used to allocate, set, and use foreign memory (i.e., from the native library) with encapsulation within its body.

In this case, we simply generate a C integer array (not the usage of the type specifier, :int), set the values of the elements of this array using cffi:mem-aref, and read the values of the array using the same accessor function.

Note that value of the var numbersis a pointer type, and also that this is available only within the body of the macro. In the next post, we will see how we can work with custom C-style structs.

Useful basic functions


Here is a summarised list of the functions used in the demos in this blog post.

  • cffi:define-foreign-library
  • cffi:load-foreign-library
  • cffi:close-foreign-library
  • cffi:use-foreign-library
  • cffi:defcfun
  • cffi:foreign-funcall
  • cffi:with-foreign-object
  • cffi:mem-aref



Some references that you might find useful on this subject matter:


4 thoughts on “Interop mini-series – Calling C and C++ code from Common Lisp using CFFI (Part 1)

Speak your mind!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s