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1.12 Providing a C API for an Extension Module

Many extension modules just provide new functions and types to be used from Python, but sometimes the code in an extension module can be useful for other extension modules. For example, an extension module could implement a type ``collection'' which works like lists without order. Just like the standard Python list type has a C API which permits extension modules to create and manipulate lists, this new collection type should have a set of C functions for direct manipulation from other extension modules.

At first sight this seems easy: just write the functions (without declaring them static, of course), provide an appropriate header file, and document the C API. And in fact this would work if all extension modules were always linked statically with the Python interpreter. When modules are used as shared libraries, however, the symbols defined in one module may not be visible to another module. The details of visibility depend on the operating system; some systems use one global namespace for the Python interpreter and all extension modules (Windows, for example), whereas others require an explicit list of imported symbols at module link time (AIX is one example), or offer a choice of different strategies (most Unices). And even if symbols are globally visible, the module whose functions one wishes to call might not have been loaded yet!

Portability therefore requires not to make any assumptions about symbol visibility. This means that all symbols in extension modules should be declared static, except for the module's initialization function, in order to avoid name clashes with other extension modules (as discussed in section 1.4). And it means that symbols that should be accessible from other extension modules must be exported in a different way.

Python provides a special mechanism to pass C-level information (pointers) from one extension module to another one: CObjects. A CObject is a Python data type which stores a pointer (void *). CObjects can only be created and accessed via their C API, but they can be passed around like any other Python object. In particular, they can be assigned to a name in an extension module's namespace. Other extension modules can then import this module, retrieve the value of this name, and then retrieve the pointer from the CObject.

There are many ways in which CObjects can be used to export the C API of an extension module. Each name could get its own CObject, or all C API pointers could be stored in an array whose address is published in a CObject. And the various tasks of storing and retrieving the pointers can be distributed in different ways between the module providing the code and the client modules.

The following example demonstrates an approach that puts most of the burden on the writer of the exporting module, which is appropriate for commonly used library modules. It stores all C API pointers (just one in the example!) in an array of void pointers which becomes the value of a CObject. The header file corresponding to the module provides a macro that takes care of importing the module and retrieving its C API pointers; client modules only have to call this macro before accessing the C API.

The exporting module is a modification of the spam module from section 1.1. The function spam.system() does not call the C library function system() directly, but a function PySpam_System(), which would of course do something more complicated in reality (such as adding ``spam'' to every command). This function PySpam_System() is also exported to other extension modules.

The function PySpam_System() is a plain C function, declared static like everything else:

static int
PySpam_System(char *command)
    return system(command);

The function spam_system() is modified in a trivial way:

static PyObject *
spam_system(PyObject *self, PyObject *args)
    char *command;
    int sts;

    if (!PyArg_ParseTuple(args, "s", &command))
        return NULL;
    sts = PySpam_System(command);
    return Py_BuildValue("i", sts);

In the beginning of the module, right after the line

#include "Python.h"

two more lines must be added:

#include "spammodule.h"

The #define is used to tell the header file that it is being included in the exporting module, not a client module. Finally, the module's initialization function must take care of initializing the C API pointer array:

    PyObject *m;
    static void *PySpam_API[PySpam_API_pointers];
    PyObject *c_api_object;

    m = Py_InitModule("spam", SpamMethods);

    /* Initialize the C API pointer array */
    PySpam_API[PySpam_System_NUM] = (void *)PySpam_System;

    /* Create a CObject containing the API pointer array's address */
    c_api_object = PyCObject_FromVoidPtr((void *)PySpam_API, NULL);

    if (c_api_object != NULL)
        PyModule_AddObject(m, "_C_API", c_api_object);

Note that PySpam_API is declared static; otherwise the pointer array would disappear when initspam() terminates!

The bulk of the work is in the header file spammodule.h, which looks like this:

#ifdef __cplusplus
extern "C" {

/* Header file for spammodule */

/* C API functions */
#define PySpam_System_NUM 0
#define PySpam_System_RETURN int
#define PySpam_System_PROTO (char *command)

/* Total number of C API pointers */
#define PySpam_API_pointers 1

/* This section is used when compiling spammodule.c */

static PySpam_System_RETURN PySpam_System PySpam_System_PROTO;

/* This section is used in modules that use spammodule's API */

static void **PySpam_API;

#define PySpam_System \
 (*(PySpam_System_RETURN (*)PySpam_System_PROTO) PySpam_API[PySpam_System_NUM])

/* Return -1 and set exception on error, 0 on success. */
static int
    PyObject *module = PyImport_ImportModule("spam");

    if (module != NULL) {
        PyObject *c_api_object = PyObject_GetAttrString(module, "_C_API");
        if (c_api_object == NULL)
            return -1;
        if (PyCObject_Check(c_api_object))
            PySpam_API = (void **)PyCObject_AsVoidPtr(c_api_object);
    return 0;


#ifdef __cplusplus

#endif /* !defined(Py_SPAMMODULE_H) */

All that a client module must do in order to have access to the function PySpam_System() is to call the function (or rather macro) import_spam() in its initialization function:

    PyObject *m;

    Py_InitModule("client", ClientMethods);
    if (import_spam() < 0)
    /* additional initialization can happen here */

The main disadvantage of this approach is that the file spammodule.h is rather complicated. However, the basic structure is the same for each function that is exported, so it has to be learned only once.

Finally it should be mentioned that CObjects offer additional functionality, which is especially useful for memory allocation and deallocation of the pointer stored in a CObject. The details are described in the Python/C API Reference Manual in the section ``CObjects'' and in the implementation of CObjects (files Include/cobject.h and Objects/cobject.c in the Python source code distribution).


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