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Matthijs Cox
Matthijs Cox

Posted on • Originally published at functionalnoise.com

Embedding Julia libraries in C++

Embedding compiled Julia libraries inside a foreign environment with a C-callable interface is an advanced topic on the border of my expertise. It's somewhat underdocumented and non-trivial, so I've made this tutorial by writing down the steps I followed myself.

The fundamentals are explained in the Embedding section in the Julia manual. For the datatypes that can be passed between C and Julia, see calling-c-and-fortran-code.

I will make things hard for myself and compile on Windows. Also note that I am using c++ instead of c, but most steps will be similar for c.

High level the steps involved are:

  • Setup a c/c++ compiler
  • Make a Julia package
  • Write the Julia c-interface functions
  • Write the c++ code calling those functions
  • Compile Julia code to a library with PackageCompiler.jl
  • Compile c++ and link it to the Julia library

I'll explain how I did these steps and especially touch upon the Julia-C interface functions and types.

Compiling C++

I will compile C++ on Windows. It's notoriously difficult on Windows to find the right compiler. I got burned once on some generic MinGW compiler, creating all kinds of wrong string conversions, took us days to find out. So far the MinGW x86_64-8.1.0-posix-seh-rt_v6-rev0 version is working fine on my personal system. You can also use the Microsoft Visual C++ compiler tools, you can download the command line tools separate from the Visual Studio IDE. Make sure the right tool is added to your windows path. Use where g++ or where gcc to find out which one you are using.

Let's start at the real basics. So make a file called example.cpp.

#include <iostream>

int main()
    std::cout << "hello world" << std::endl;
    return 0;
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Now on your command line run: g++ example.cpp -o example. This will compile an example.exe, which you can then run on your command line with example.exe and see the output string "hello world".

Use gcc for c and g++ for c++. These functions come with a bunch of compile and link options. There are so many options... The most common ones are:

  • -c (Compilation option). Compile only. Produces .o files from source files without doing any linking.
  • -I[/path/to/headers] (Compilation option). Include a folder with header files, like julia.h.
  • -o file-name (Link option, usually). Use file-name as the name of the file produced by g++ (usually, this is an executable file).
  • -l[library-name] (Link option). Link in the specified library, for example -ljulia for libjulia.dll.
  • -L[/path/to/shared-libraries] -l[library-name] (Link option). Link in the specified library from a given folder.

Create a Julia package

I assume you have basic Julia knowledge, including package development. Julia libraries are created from a package, so go ahead and make one in a folder. Simply run:

julia> cd("my/desired/package/path")
julia> import Pkg; Pkg.generate("MyLibPackage")
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Compiling Julia

PackageCompiler.jl is your primary friend and documentation is improving rapidly. Perhaps in the future we will have an incredible StaticCompiler.jl, but that's for another time.

PackageCompiler does take a few minutes to compile any Julia code, even a simple hello world. That's because all of Julia base is included, regardless of whether actually need all base functionality or not.

We will be using the create_library functionality of PackageCompiler. The easiest way is to find some example build scripts from others and add those to your package, so let's go find one.

Existing examples?

A skeleton Julia compilation example is already available here.

For a pure C example implementation see Simon Byrne's libcg. See if you can already run that example.


  • Clone the repository in a folder. You know: git clone https://github.com/simonbyrne/libcg.git.
  • Run the Makefile. Uh oh...

OK, running the Makefile on Windows isn't trivial either. StackOverflow provides some answers. My c/c++ mingw installation comes with mingw32-make, but that doesn't work with this specific Makefile, see this issue. Advise is to install Cygwin together with make, because the examples repositories use a lot of shell scripting which doesn't work on Windows.

OK, so this example is not so simple on Windows. In the end I decided to write my own Windows Makefile for my own c++ code and run it with mingw32-make.

You can find my personal examples in this repository called embedjuliainc.

Interlude: Makefiles?

Compiling c/c++ projects generally involves a lot of steps to compile multiple files and link libraries together. This can become a complex build process and you don't want to type all commands manually all the time. So people made build tools! Yay! Typically these come with their own kind of scripting language that you need to learn. Hmm, OK, just do it. It's also generally Unix oriented, not Windows. Make is a one common build tool, here's a Makefile tutorial.

As an example, I enjoyed this g++ makefile example. It explains all compilation steps and how to make a Makefile for our simple example c++ program above. Very informative, please read and try it out!

Interlude: Name Mangling

Another thing that is different in all my examples below, is that c++ mangles the names of functions. That means that a function f(int) get's turning into something like __f_i(int). To avoid this we need to use extern C whenever we define function interfaces. This took me a while to figure out, so a lesson learned the hard way!

extern "C"
    #include "julia_init.h"
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Basic Types

I created an example of basic type data transfer between Julia and c++ in this repository. It contains implementations of the following data types:

  • Booleans
  • Integers
  • Doubles
  • Strings
  • Structs
  • Arrays
  • Enumerations

For a full comparison look at:

In general Julia's C interface documentation is your friend.

The typical pattern is straightforward, this Julia code:

Base.@ccallable function test_int64(myInt64::Int64)::Int64
    return myInt64
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You can call with such c++ code:

int64_t test_int64(int64_t myInt64);
int64_t myInt64 = 9006271;
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Header file

The PackageCompiler.create_library function also likes to receive a header file. So please write all your c/c++ interface types and functions inside this header file. I wonder if this header file could be created automatically from all the Base.@ccallable function signatures? Now you have to manually keep the Julia source code and the header file in sync.

Struct types

As the manual says in the section "Struct Type Correspondences" you can pass structs. Fixed size arrays in c/c++ map onto the NTuple in Julia.

Warning! Be absolutely certain that the Julia struct definition matches the c struct definition!

Nested structs work just fine:

struct ChildStruct

struct ParentStruct
    staticArray::NTuple{3, Cint}

Base.@ccallable function test_nested_structs(myParentStruct::ParentStruct)::ParentStruct
    return myParentStruct
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The corresponding C/C++ interface:

struct ChildStruct
    int ChildStructId;

struct ParentStruct
    int ParentStructId;
    ChildStruct myChildStruct;
    int staticArray[3];

ParentStruct test_nested_structs(ParentStruct myParentStruct);
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Passing by reference

If you want to avoid any copying and additional memory allocation, you will have to pass the data by reference as a pointer. A typical example is to pass an array by reference. In the example code I pass an Array{Cint}. Note that you also need to pass the dimensions of the array, in this case only the length, since we assume it's a vector.

Base.@ccallable function test_array(myArrayPtr::Ptr{Cint}, myArraySize::Cint)::Cvoid
    myArray = unsafe_wrap(Array{Cint}, myArrayPtr, myArraySize, own=false)
    # do stuff, mutating an element will mutate the original C memory, be careful
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Let's pass a struct by reference and mutate it. You can first load the entire struct with unsafe_load.

Base.@ccallable function test_nested_structs_ptr(myParentStructPtr::Ptr{ParentStruct})::Cvoid
    myParentStruct = unsafe_load(myParentStructPtr)
    myParentStruct.myChildStruct = ChildStruct(12)
    return Cvoid()
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For arrays you can first unsafe_wrap like in the section above. Or you can immediately unsafe_store! on an individual element. As always be very careful with these operations.

Nested variable sized structs

Be careful with placing variable-sized arrays inside structs (this includes strings). You will have to somehow pass along the array size and manually unwrap such complexity. I still have to write a complex example for this. The Julia manual has a very minimal example in the "Calling C and Fortran" section.

For example, I would like to pass such a structure by reference:

struct VarSizedStruct
struct NestedVarStruct
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I don't know if it is a smart thing to do. You'll have to manually interpret the bytes...

I think the best way to go, is to place pointers inside the structs and to manually unsafe_wrap every array.

struct VarSizedStruct
    lenString::Cint # in case the string is not NUL-terminated
struct NestedVarStruct

function Base.@ccallable(nestedPtr::Ptr{NestedVarStruct})::Cvoid
    nested = unsafe_load(nestedPtr)
    len = nested.len
    struct_array = unsafe_wrap(Array{VarSizedStruct}, nested.varArrayPtr, len, own=false)
    last_struct = struct_array[len]
    last_double_array = unsafe_wrap(Array{Cdouble}, last_struct.varArrayPtr, last_struct.lenArray, own=false)
    last_string = unsafe_string(last_struct.string, last_struct.lenString)
    return Cvoid()
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Basically you are not passing along the struct with data, but a collection of pointers and lengths. You'll have to then manually convert the data to an internal Julia representation of your choosing. It seems error prone and feels like it could be automated.

Garbage Collector

The manual is clear on memory management from within c/c++. You can even disable the garbage collector if you want.

One thing we ran into while testing the c-callable Julia functions from within a Julia script, is that the garbage collector may remove your object even while the function is executing. This can happen when passing pointers instead of objects and leads to horribly unexpected segmentation faults. Please use the GC.@preserve for those cases.

I placed an example in the precompile statements file:

arr = Cint[1,2,3]
arr_pointer = Ptr{Cint}(pointer_from_objref(arr))
len_arr = Base.cconvert(Cint, length(arr))
# please garbage collector, preserve my array during execution
GC.@preserve arr test_array(arr_pointer, len_arr)
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Error handling

A typical old C way of error handling is to always return an integer on the C interface. The Julia code is then responsible for catching errors and returning the corresponding error integer. Any other desired output arguments are passed as mutable input parameters on the C interface. If you want the error messages as well, you could also pass along a struct with the error code/type and a Cstring with the error message. I've added an example with an ExceptionHandler.jl package for this case to my repository.

Here's a simple example:

error_code(::Exception)::Cint = 2

Base.@ccallable function something(inputPtr::Ptr{Cint}, outputPtr::Ptr{Cint})::Status
    resultCode::Cint = 0
        # do stuff
    catch e
        resultCode = error_code(e)
    return resultCode
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But that is not what I am looking for. I want a way to catch Julia exceptions inside c++. The Julia manual embedding section on exceptions is not clear on how to do this for native Base.@ccallable functions. Through experimentation I found out that exceptions cannot be caught by a regular try/catch block inside the c++ code wrapping around the julia library call.

Let's say we have a function that throws errors on the c-interface:

Base.@ccallable function throw_basic_error()::Cint
    throw(ErrorException("this is an error"))
    return 0
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Missed exceptions

This would be an expected way to catch errors, but it doesn't work:

catch (const std::exception& e)
    std::cout << "\n a standard exception was caught, with message '"
                << e.what() << std::endl;
catch (...)
    std::cout << "\n unknown exception caught" << std::endl;
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When running this code, you will see an error like fatal: error thrown and no exception handler available.. Our current assumption is that this is due to Julia initializing in another thread or process than the c++ code itself.

Catch those exceptions

After some digging we found the JL_TRY and JL_CATCH macros in the Julia header file. These can be used to catch Julia exceptions:

    jl_value_t *errs = jl_stderr_obj();
    std::cout << "A Julia exception was caught" << std::endl;
    if (errs) {
        jl_value_t *showf = jl_get_function(jl_base_module, "showerror");
        if (showf != NULL) {
            jl_call2(showf, errs, jl_current_exception());
            jl_printf(jl_stderr_stream(), "\n");
    return 1;
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To print the error type and message, you will have to use functions directly from the Julia runtime. We did not yet find a nice and easy way to convert the Julia exception into a c++ exception.


The package CBinding.jl can automatically generate the Julia types from a c header file. There is a lot of knowledge in that package, so I should investigate it better. I also wonder if it's possible to do the opposite: to generate a c header from Julia types and functions.

Other interesting packages are Cxx.jl and CxxWrap.jl. These packages focus on embedding c++ (libraries) inside Julia, but again contain a lot of knowledge and some examples on embedding Julia inside c/c++.


Embedding in c/c++ is non-trivial. I advise to avoid embedding if you can ;) If you cannot avoid embedding, then use the examples from this post, but I do not guarantee that all my examples are safe and robust. I did not yet create examples with complicated nested variable sized structures and arrays, that's for another time. For now I'd advise to keep the c-interface as simple as possible. Good luck!


Special acknowledgements to Daan Sperber, Biao Xu and Evangelos Paradas for helping me figure out a lot of the steps involved.

Top comments (1)

markkittisopikul profile image
Mark Kittisopikul

We were just discussing the Windows situation as well as the MATLAB embedding on Discourse: