[ocaml-ctypes] Creating a C wrapper for an OCaml value

Jeremy Yallop yallop at gmail.com
Fri Sep 11 18:46:48 BST 2015

On 11/09/2015, EMMA R TURETSKY <eturetsky at wisc.edu> wrote:
> So I guess the meat of my question is how do I pass a value in OCaml to C
> and just create a wrapper around it in a way that I can pass the same value
> back when I call OCaml from C using ctypes?  I feel like this should be
> simple and obvious from the manual, but my OCaml understanding is very
> weak.

Passing OCaml values to C is actually a slightly unusual use case,
since most uses of ctypes involve passing C values to OCaml, so it's
probably not especially well documented.  It is possible, though, at
least with the master (unreleased) version of ctypes, which you can
install as follows:

    opam pin add ctypes git at github.com:ocamllabs/ocaml-ctypes.git

The main thing to be aware of is that the OCaml garbage collector can
run in between the time that you pass the OCaml value to C and the
time that you pass it back to OCaml.  The GC can move values around,
changing their addresses, so simply passing the address of a value
directly to C isn't safe.  The way to avoid problems is to register
values as roots, then pass the addresses of those roots to C, rather
than the values themseles.  Ctypes provides a module Ctypes.Root with
a few functions for root management:


The Root API is rather low-level, so I recommend wrapping calls to it
using signatures with stronger typing.  Here's a full example of
passing an OCaml module value to C, retrieving it via a separate C
call and invoking some of the module functions.  First, some C
functions which store and retrieve OCaml values using 'void *':

    /* c_bit.c */
    #include <stddef.h>
    #include <assert.h>

    static void *ocaml_modules[] = {NULL, NULL};

    void store_module(int i, void *m)
      assert (i == 0 || i == 1);
      ocaml_modules[i] = m;

    void *retrieve_module(int i)
      assert(i == 0 || i == 1);
      assert(ocaml_modules[i] != NULL);
      return ocaml_modules[i];

Next, an OCaml module with low-level interfaces to 'store_module' and
'retrieve_module' and a higher-level wrapper module 'HL' which
enforces the use of roots and the correct types:

    (* ocaml_bit.ml *)
    module LL =
      (* Low-level functions for passing OCaml values to and from C *)
      let store_module = Foreign.foreign "store_module"
          Ctypes.(int @-> ptr void @-> returning void)
      and retrieve_module = Foreign.foreign "retrieve_module"
          Ctypes.(int @-> returning (ptr void))

    module type S =
      val say_hello : unit -> unit
      val add : int -> int -> int

    module HL :
      type t = (module S)
      type handle
      val register : t -> handle
      val release  : handle -> unit
      val store    : int -> handle -> unit
      val retrieve : int -> t
    end =
      type t = (module S) and handle = unit Ctypes.ptr
      let register = Ctypes.Root.create
      and release  = Ctypes.Root.release
      and store    = LL.store_module
      and retrieve i = Ctypes.Root.get (LL.retrieve_module i)

Findlib provides a convenient way to build the example:

    ocamlfind c c_bit.c
    ocamlfind mklib -o example -package ctypes.foreign c_bit.o ocaml_bit.ml

Finally, here's everything working in the top level:

    # #use "topfind";;
    - : unit = ()
    (* ... *)
    # #require "ctypes.foreign";;
    (* ... *)
    # #load "example.cma";;
    # open Ocaml_bit;;
    # let handle = HL.register
         (module struct
           let say_hello () = print_endline "hello"
           and add = (+)
    val handle : Ocaml_bit.HL.handle = <abstr>
    # HL.store 0 handle;;
    - : unit = ()
    # let handle2 = HL.register
         (module struct
           let say_hello () = print_endline "hi"
           and add = (-)
    val handle2 : Ocaml_bit.HL.handle = <abstr>
    # HL.store 1 handle2;;
    - : unit = ()
    # module M1 = (val HL.retrieve 0);;
    module M1 : Ocaml_bit.S
    # module M2 = (val HL.retrieve 1);;
    module M2 : Ocaml_bit.S
    # M1.say_hello ();;
    - : unit = ()
    # M2.say_hello ();;
    - : unit = ()

I hope that helps a bit!  Feel free to follow-up, of course, if
anything's not clear (e.g. how to call back into OCaml from C).

Kind regards,


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