Package cffi

CFFI is the Common Foreign Function Interface for ANSI Common Lisp systems. By foreign function we mean a function written in another programming language and having different data and calling conventions than Common Lisp, namely, C. CFFI allows you to call foreign functions and access foreign variables, all without leaving the Lisp image.

About This Package

Implementation Support
An Introduction to Foreign Interfaces and CFFI
Wrapper generators
Foreign Types
The Groveller
Platform-specific features


Copyright (c) 2005 James Bielman <jamesjb at>
Copyright (c) 2005-2010 Luís Oliveira <loliveira at>
Copyright (c) 2005-2006 Dan Knapp <danka at>
Copyright (c) 2005-2006 Emily Backes <lucca at>
Copyright (c) 2006 Stephen Compall <s11 at>

Permission is hereby granted, free of charge, to any person obtaining a copy of this software and associated documentation files (the "Software"), to deal in the Software without restriction, including without limitation the rights to use, copy, modify, merge, publish, distribute, sublicense, and/or sell copies of the Software, and to permit persons to whom the Software is furnished to do so, subject to the following conditions:

The above copyright notice and this permission notice shall be included in all copies or substantial portions of the Software.

The software is provided "as is", without warranty of any kind, express or implied, including but not limited to the warranties of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose and noninfringement. In no event shall the authors or copyright holders be liable for any claim, damages or other liability, whether in an action of contract, tort or otherwise, arising from, out of or in connection with the software or the use or other dealings in the software.


CFFI is the Common Foreign Function Interface for ANSI Common Lisp systems. By foreign function we mean a function written in another programming language and having different data and calling conventions than Common Lisp, namely, C. CFFI allows you to call foreign functions and access foreign variables, all without leaving the Lisp image.

We consider this manual ever a work in progress. If you have difficulty with anything CFFI-specific presented in the manual, please contact the developers with details.


See "What makes Lisp different", for an argument in favor of FFI in general.

CFFI's primary role in any image is to mediate between Lisp developers and the widely varying FFIs present in the various Lisp implementations it supports. With CFFI, you can define foreign function interfaces while still maintaining portability between implementations. It is not the first Common Lisp package with this objective; however, it is meant to be a more malleable framework than similar packages.

Design Philosophy

Pointers do not carry around type information. Instead, type information is supplied when pointers are dereferenced. A type safe pointer interface can be developed on top of an untyped one. It is difficult to do the opposite. Functions are better than macros. When a macro could be used for performance, use a compiler-macro instead.


CFFI can be obtained through one of the following means available through its website: In addition, you will need to obtain and install the following dependencies:
  • Babel, a charset encoding/decoding library.
  • Alexandria, a collection of portable public-domain utilities.
  • trivial-features, a portability layer that ensures consistent *features* across multiple Common Lisp implementations.
Furthermore, if you wish to run the testsuite, RT is required.

You may find mechanisms such as clbuild (recommended) or ASDF-Install (not as recommendable) helpful in getting and managing CFFI and its dependencies.

Implementation Support

CFFI supports various free and commercial Lisp implementations: Allegro CL, Corman CL, clisp, CMUCL, ECL, LispWorks, Clozure CL, SBCL and the Scieneer CL.

In general, you should work with the latest versions of each implementation since those will usually be tested against recent versions of CFFI more often and might include necessary features or bug fixes. Reasonable patches for compatibility with earlier versions are welcome nevertheless.


Some features are not supported in all implementations.
Allegro CL
Does not support the :long-long type natively. Unicode support is limited to the Basic Multilingual Plane (16-bit code points).
No Unicode support. (8-bit code points)
Corman CL
Does not support foreign-funcall.
On platforms where ECL's dynamic FFI is not supported (i.e. when :dffi is not present in *features*), load-foreign-library does not work and you must use ECL's own ffi:load-foreign-library with a constant string argument. Does not support the :long-long type natively. Unicode support is not enabled by default.
Does not completely support the :long-long type natively in 32-bit platforms. Unicode support is limited to the Basic Multilingual Plane (16-bit code points).
Not all platforms support callbacks.

An Introduction to Foreign Interfaces and CFFI

Users of many popular languages bearing semantic similarity to Lisp, such as Perl and Python, are accustomed to having access to popular C libraries, such as GTK, by way of "bindings". In Lisp, we do something similar, but take a fundamentally different approach. This tutorial first explains this difference, then explains how you can use CFFI, a powerful system for calling out to C and C++ and access C data from many Common Lisp implementations.

The concept can be generalized to other languages; at the time of writing, only CFFI's C support is fairly complete, but C++ support is being worked on. Therefore, we will interchangeably refer to foreign functions and foreign data, and "C functions" and "C data". At no time will the word "foreign" carry its usual, non-programming meaning.

This tutorial expects you to have a working understanding of both Common Lisp and C, including the Common Lisp macro system.

What makes Lisp different

The following sums up how bindings to foreign libraries are usually implemented in other languages, then in Common Lisp:
Perl, Python, Java, other one-implementation languages
Bindings are implemented as shared objects written in C. In some cases, the C code is generated by a tool, such as SWIG, but the result is the same: a new C library that manually translates between the language implementation's objects, such as PyObject in Python, and whatever C object is called for, often using C functions provided by the implementation. It also translates between the calling conventions of the language and C.
Common Lisp
Bindings are written in Lisp. They can be created at-will by Lisp programs. Lisp programmers can write new bindings and add them to the image, using a listener such as SLIME, as easily as with regular Lisp definitions. The only foreign library to load is the one being wrapped — the one with the pure C interface; no C or other non-Lisp compilation is required.
We believe the advantages of the Common Lisp approach far outweigh any disadvantages. Incremental development with a listener can be as productive for C binding development as it is with other Lisp development. Keeping it "in the [Lisp] family", as it were, makes it much easier for you and other Lisp programmers to load and use the bindings. Common Lisp implementations such as CMUCL, freed from having to provide a C interface to their own objects, are thus freed to be implemented in another language (as CMUCL is) while still allowing programmers to call foreign functions.

Perhaps the greatest advantage is that using an FFI doesn't obligate you to become a professional binding developer. Writers of bindings for other languages usually end up maintaining or failing to maintain complete bindings to the foreign library. Using an FFI, however, means if you only need one or two functions, you can write bindings for only those functions, and be assured that you can just as easily add to the bindings if need be.

The removal of the C compiler, or C interpretation of any kind, creates the main disadvantage: some of C's "abstractions" are not available, violating information encapsulation. For example, structs that must be passed on the stack, or used as return values, without corresponding functional abstractions to create and manage the structs, must be declared explicitly in Lisp. This is fine for structs whose contents are "public", but is not so pleasant when a struct is supposed to be "opaque" by convention, even though it is not so defined (see footnote [1]).

Without an abstraction to create the struct, Lisp needs to be able to lay out the struct in memory, so must know its internal details.

In these cases, you can create a minimal C library to provide the missing abstractions, without destroying all the advantages of the Common Lisp approach discussed above. In the case of structs, you can write simple, pure C functions that tell you how many bytes a struct requires or allocate new structs, read and write fields of the struct, or whatever operations are supposed to be public (see footnote [2]).

Implementor's note: cffi-grovel, a project not yet part of CFFI, automates this and other processes.

Another disadvantage appears when you would rather use the foreign language than Lisp. However, someone who prefers C to Lisp is not a likely candidate for developing a Lisp interface to a C library.

Getting a URL

The widely available libcurl is a library for downloading files over protocols like HTTP. We will use libcurl with CFFI to download a web page.

Please note that there are many other ways to download files from the web, not least the cl-curl project to provide bindings to libcurl via a similar FFI (see footnote [3]).

libcurl-tutorial(3) is a tutorial for libcurl programming in C. We will follow that to develop a binding to download a file. We will also use curl.h, easy.h, and the man pages for the libcurl function, all available in the curl-dev package or equivalent for your system, or in the cURL source code package. If you have the development package, the headers should be installed in /usr/include/curl/, and the man pages may be accessed through your favorite man facility.

Loading foreign libraries

First of all, we will create a package to work in. You can save these forms in a file, or just send them to the listener as they are. If creating bindings for an ASDF package of yours, you will want to add :cffi to the :depends-on list in your .asd file. Otherwise, just use the asdf:oos function to load CFFI.
  (asdf:oos 'asdf:load-op :cffi)

;;; Nothing special about the "CFFI-USER" package. We're just ;;; using it as a substitute for your own CL package. (defpackage :cffi-user (:use :common-lisp :cffi))

(in-package :cffi-user)

(define-foreign-library libcurl (:unix (:or "" "")) (t (:default "libcurl")))

(use-foreign-library libcurl)
Using define-foreign-library and use-foreign-library, we have loaded libcurl into Lisp, much as the linker does when you start a C program, or cl:load does with a Lisp source file or FASL file. We special-cased for Unix machines to always load a particular version, the one this tutorial was tested with; for those who don't care, the define-foreign-library clause (t (:default "libcurl")) should be satisfactory, and will adapt to various operating systems.

Initializing libcurl

After the introductory matter, the tutorial goes on to present the first function you should use.
  CURLcode curl_global_init(long flags);    
Let's pick this apart into appropriate Lisp code:
  ;;; A CURLcode is the universal error code.  curl/curl.h says
  ;;; no return code will ever be removed, and new ones will be
  ;;; added to the end.
  (defctype curl-code :int)

;;; Initialize libcurl with FLAGS. (defcfun "curl_global_init" curl-code (flags :long))
Implementor's note: By default, CFFI assumes the Unix viewpoint that there is one C symbol namespace, containing all symbols in all loaded objects. This is not so on Windows and Darwin, but we emulate Unix's behaviour there. See defcfun for more details.

Note the parallels with the original C declaration. We've defined curl-code as a wrapping type for :int; right now, it only marks it as special, but later we will do something more interesting with it. The point is that we don't have to do it yet.

Looking at curl.h, CURL_GLOBAL_NOTHING, a possible value for flags above, is defined as 0. So we can now call the function:
  cffi-user> (curl-global-init 0)
  => 0    
Looking at curl.h again, 0 means CURLE_OK, so it looks like the call succeeded. Note that CFFI converted the function name to a Lisp-friendly name. You can specify your own name if you want; use ("curl_global_init" your-name-here) as the name argument to defcfun.

The tutorial goes on to have us allocate a handle. For good measure, we should also include the deallocator. Let's look at these functions:
  CURL *curl_easy_init( );
  void curl_easy_cleanup(CURL *handle);    
Advanced users may want to define special pointer types; we will explore this possibility later. For now, just treat every pointer as the same:
  (defcfun "curl_easy_init" :pointer)

(defcfun "curl_easy_cleanup" :void (easy-handle :pointer))
Now we can continue with the tutorial:
  cffi-user> (defparameter *easy-handle* (curl-easy-init))
  cffi-user> *easy-handle*
  => #<FOREIGN-ADDRESS #x09844EE0>    
Note the print representation of a pointer. It changes depending on what Lisp you are using, but that doesn't make any difference to CFFI.

Setting download options

The libcurl tutorial says we'll want to set many options before performing any download actions. This is done through curl_easy_setopt:
  CURLcode curl_easy_setopt(CURL *curl, CURLoption option, ...);    
We've introduced a new twist: variable arguments. There is no obvious translation to the defcfun form, particularly as there are four possible argument types. Because of the way C works, we could define four wrappers around curl_easy_setopt, one for each type; in this case, however, we'll use the general-purpose macro foreign-funcall to call this function.

To make things easier on ourselves, we'll create an enumeration of the kinds of options we want to set. The enum CURLoption isn't the most straightforward, but reading the CINIT C macro definition should be enlightening.
  (defmacro define-curl-options (name type-offsets &rest enum-args)
    "As with CFFI:DEFCENUM, except each of ENUM-ARGS is as follows:


Where the arguments are as they are with the CINIT macro defined in curl.h, except NAME is a keyword.

TYPE-OFFSETS is a plist of TYPEs to their integer offsets, as defined by the CURLOPTTYPE_LONG et al constants in curl.h." (flet ((enumerated-value (type offset) (+ (getf type-offsets type) offset))) `(progn (defcenum ,name ,@(loop for (name type number) in enum-args collect (list name (enumerated-value type number)))) ',name))) ;for REPL users' sanity

(define-curl-options curl-option (long 0 objectpoint 10000 functionpoint 20000 off-t 30000) (:noprogress long 43) (:nosignal long 99) (:errorbuffer objectpoint 10) (:url objectpoint 2))
With some well-placed Emacs query-replace-regexps, you could probably similarly define the entire CURLoption enumeration. I have selected to transcribe a few that we will use in this tutorial.

If you're having trouble following the macrology, just macroexpand the curl-option definition, or see the following macroexpansion, conveniently downcased and reformatted:
    (defcenum curl-option
      (:noprogress 43)
      (:nosignal 99)
      (:errorbuffer 10010)
      (:url 10002))
That seems more than reasonable. You may notice that we only use the type to compute the real enumeration offset; we will also need the type information later.

First, however, let's make sure a simple call to the foreign function works:
  cffi-user> (foreign-funcall "curl_easy_setopt"
                 :pointer *easy-handle*
                 curl-option :nosignal :long 1 curl-code)
  => 0    
foreign-funcall, despite its surface simplicity, can be used to call any C function. Its first argument is a string, naming the function to be called. Next, for each argument, we pass the name of the C type, which is the same as in defcfun, followed by a Lisp object representing the data to be passed as the argument. The final argument is the return type, for which we use the curl-code type defined earlier.

defcfun just puts a convenient façade on foreign-funcall (See footnote [4]). Our earlier call to curl-global-init could have been written as follows:
  cffi-user> (foreign-funcall "curl_global_init" :long 0
  => 0    
Before we continue, we will take a look at what CFFI can and can't do, and why this is so.

Breaking the abstraction

In What makes Lisp different, we mentioned that writing an FFI sometimes requires depending on information not provided as part of the interface. The easy option CURLOPT_WRITEDATA, which we will not provide as part of the Lisp interface, illustrates this issue.

Strictly speaking, the curl-option enumeration is not necessary; we could have used :int 99 instead of curl-option :nosignal in our call to curl_easy_setopt above. We defined it anyway, in part to hide the fact that we are breaking the abstraction that the C enum provides. If the cURL developers decide to change those numbers later, we must change the Lisp enumeration, because enumeration values are not provided in the compiled C library,

CFFI works because the most useful things in C libraries — non-static functions and non-static variables — are included accessibly in A C compiler that violated this would be considered a worthless compiler.

The other thing define-curl-options does is give the "type" of the third argument passed to curl_easy_setopt. Using this information, we can tell that the :nosignal option should accept a long integer argument. We can implicitly assume t == 1 and nil == 0, as it is in C, which takes care of the fact that CURLOPT_NOSIGNAL is really asking for a boolean.

The "type" of CURLOPT_WRITEDATA is objectpoint. However, it is really looking for a FILE*. CURLOPT_ERRORBUFFER is looking for a char*, so there is no obvious CFFI type but :pointer.

The first thing to note is that nowhere in the C interface includes this information; it can only be found in the manual. We could disjoin these clearly different types ourselves, by splitting objectpoint into filepoint and charpoint, but we are still breaking the abstraction, because we have to augment the entire enumeration form with this additional information (see footnote [5]).

The second is that the CURLOPT_WRITEDATA argument is completely incompatible with the desired Lisp data, a stream (see footnote [6]). It is probably acceptable if we are controlling every file we might want to use as this argument, in which case we can just call the foreign function fopen. Regardless, though, we can't write to arbitrary streams, which is exactly what we want to do for this application.

Finally, note that the curl_easy_setopt interface itself is a hack, intended to work around some of the drawbacks of C. The definition of Curl_setopt, while long, is far less cluttered than the equivalent disjoint-function set would be; in addition, setting a new option in an old libcurl can generate a run-time error rather than breaking the compile. Lisp can just as concisely generate functions as compare values, and the "undefined function" error is just as useful as any explicit error we could define here might be.

Option functions in Lisp

We could use foreign-funcall directly every time we wanted to call curl_easy_setopt. However, we can encapsulate some of the necessary information with the following.
  ;;; We will use this type later in a more creative way.  For
  ;;; now, just consider it a marker that this isn't just any
  ;;; pointer.
  (defctype easy-handle :pointer)

(defmacro curl-easy-setopt (easy-handle enumerated-name value-type new-value) "Call `curl_easy_setopt' on EASY-HANDLE, using ENUMERATED-NAME as the OPTION. VALUE-TYPE is the CFFI foreign type of the third argument, and NEW-VALUE is the Lisp data to be translated to the third argument. VALUE-TYPE is not evaluated." `(foreign-funcall "curl_easy_setopt" easy-handle ,easy-handle curl-option ,enumerated-name ,value-type ,new-value curl-code))
Now we define a function for each kind of argument that encodes the correct value-type in the above. This can be done reasonably in the define-curl-options macroexpansion; after all, that is where the different options are listed!

We could make cl:defun forms in the expansion that simply call curl-easy-setopt; however, it is probably easier and clearer to use defcfun. define-curl-options was becoming unwieldy, so I defined some helpers in this new definition.
  (defun curry-curl-option-setter (function-name option-keyword)
    "Wrap the function named by FUNCTION-NAME with a version that
  curries the second argument as OPTION-KEYWORD.

This function is intended for use in DEFINE-CURL-OPTION-SETTER." (setf (symbol-function function-name) (let ((c-function (symbol-function function-name))) (lambda (easy-handle new-value) (funcall c-function easy-handle option-keyword new-value)))))

(defmacro define-curl-option-setter (name option-type option-value foreign-type) "Define (with DEFCFUN) a function NAME that calls curl_easy_setopt. OPTION-TYPE and OPTION-VALUE are the CFFI foreign type and value to be passed as the second argument to easy_setopt, and FOREIGN-TYPE is the CFFI foreign type to be used for the resultant function's third argument.

This macro is intended for use in DEFINE-CURL-OPTIONS." `(progn (defcfun ("curl_easy_setopt" ,name) curl-code (easy-handle easy-handle) (option ,option-type) (new-value ,foreign-type)) (curry-curl-option-setter ',name ',option-value)))

(defmacro define-curl-options (type-name type-offsets &rest enum-args) "As with CFFI:DEFCENUM, except each of ENUM-ARGS is as follows:


Where the arguments are as they are with the CINIT macro defined in curl.h, except NAME is a keyword.

TYPE-OFFSETS is a plist of TYPEs to their integer offsets, as defined by the CURLOPTTYPE_LONG et al constants in curl.h.

Also, define functions for each option named set-`TYPE-NAME'-`OPTION-NAME', where OPTION-NAME is the NAME from the above destructuring." (flet ((enumerated-value (type offset) (+ (getf type-offsets type) offset)) ;; map PROCEDURE, destructuring each of ENUM-ARGS (map-enum-args (procedure) (mapcar (lambda (arg) (apply procedure arg)) enum-args)) ;; build a name like SET-CURL-OPTION-NOSIGNAL (make-setter-name (option-name) (intern (concatenate 'string "SET-" (symbol-name type-name) "-" (symbol-name option-name))))) `(progn (defcenum ,type-name ,@(map-enum-args (lambda (name type number) (list name (enumerated-value type number))))) ,@(map-enum-args (lambda (name type number) (declare (ignore number)) `(define-curl-option-setter ,(make-setter-name name) ,type-name ,name ,(ecase type (long :long) (objectpoint :pointer) (functionpoint :pointer) (off-t :long))))) ',type-name)))
Macroexpanding our define-curl-options form once more, we see something different:
    (defcenum curl-option
      (:noprogress 43)
      (:nosignal 99)
      (:errorbuffer 10010)
      (:url 10002))
    (define-curl-option-setter set-curl-option-noprogress
      curl-option :noprogress :long)
    (define-curl-option-setter set-curl-option-nosignal
      curl-option :nosignal :long)
    (define-curl-option-setter set-curl-option-errorbuffer
      curl-option :errorbuffer :pointer)
    (define-curl-option-setter set-curl-option-url
      curl-option :url :pointer)
Macroexpanding one of the new define-curl-option-setter forms yields the following:
    (defcfun ("curl_easy_setopt" set-curl-option-nosignal) curl-code
      (easy-handle easy-handle)
      (option curl-option)
      (new-value :long))
    (curry-curl-option-setter 'set-curl-option-nosignal ':nosignal))    
Finally, let's try this out:
  cffi-user> (set-curl-option-nosignal *easy-handle* 1)
  => 0    
Looks like it works just as well. This interface is now reasonably high-level to wash out some of the ugliness of the thinnest possible curl_easy_setopt FFI, without obscuring the remaining C bookkeeping details we will explore.

Memory management

According to the documentation for curl_easy_setopt, the type of the third argument when option is CURLOPT_ERRORBUFFER is char*. Above, we've defined set-curl-option-errorbuffer to accept a :pointer as the new option value. However, there is a CFFI type :string, which translates Lisp strings to C strings when passed as arguments to foreign function calls. Why not, then, use :string as the CFFI type of the third argument? There are two reasons, both related to the necessity of breaking abstraction described in "Breaking the abstraction".

The first reason also applies to CURLOPT_URL, which we will use to illustrate the point. Assuming we have changed the type of the third argument underlying set-curl-option-url to :string, look at these two equivalent forms.
  (set-curl-option-url *easy-handle* "")

== (with-foreign-string (url "") (foreign-funcall "curl_easy_setopt" easy-handle *easy-handle* curl-option :url :pointer url curl-code))
The latter, in fact, is mostly equivalent to what a foreign function call's macroexpansion actually does. As you can see, the Lisp string "" is copied into a char array and null-terminated; the pointer to beginning of this array, now a C string, is passed as a CFFI :pointer to the foreign function.

Unfortunately, the C abstraction has failed us, and we must break it. While :string works well for many char* arguments, it does not for cases like this. As the curl_easy_setopt documentation explains, "The string must remain present until curl no longer needs it, as it doesn't copy the string." The C string created by with-foreign-string, however, only has dynamic extent: it is "deallocated" when the body (above containing the foreign-funcall form) exits.

If we are supposed to keep the C string around, but it goes away, what happens when some libcurl function tries to access the URL string? We have reentered the dreaded world of C "undefined behavior". In some Lisps, it will probably get a chunk of the Lisp/C stack. You may segfault. You may get some random piece of other data from the heap. Maybe, in a world where "dynamic extent" is defined to be "infinite extent", everything will turn out fine. Regardless, results are likely to be almost universally unpleasant (see footnote [7]).

Returning to the current set-curl-option-url interface, here is what we must do:
  (let (easy-handle)
      (with-foreign-string (url "")
        (setf easy-handle (curl-easy-init))
        (set-curl-option-url easy-handle url)
        #|do more with the easy-handle, like actually get the URL|#)
      (when easy-handle
        (curl-easy-cleanup easy-handle))))    
That is fine for the single string defined here, but for every string option we want to pass, we have to surround the body of with-foreign-string with another with-foreign-string wrapper, or else do some extremely error-prone pointer manipulation and size calculation in advance. We could alleviate some of the pain with a recursively expanding macro, but this would not remove the need to modify the block every time we want to add an option, anathema as it is to a modular interface.

Before modifying the code to account for this case, consider the other reason we can't simply use :string as the foreign type. In C, a char * is a char *, not necessarily a string. The option CURLOPT_ERRORBUFFER accepts a char *, but does not expect anything about the data there. However, it does expect that some libcurl function we call later can write a C string of up to 255 characters there. We, the callers of the function, are expected to read the C string at a later time, exactly the opposite of what :string implies.

With the semantics for an input string in mind — namely, that the string should be kept around until we curl_easy_cleanup the easy handle — we are ready to extend the Lisp interface:
  (defvar *easy-handle-cstrings* (make-hash-table)
    "Hashtable of easy handles to lists of C strings that may be
  safely freed after the handle is freed.")

(defun make-easy-handle () "Answer a new CURL easy interface handle, to which the lifetime of C strings may be tied. See `add-curl-handle-cstring'." (let ((easy-handle (curl-easy-init))) (setf (gethash easy-handle *easy-handle-cstrings*) '()) easy-handle))

(defun free-easy-handle (handle) "Free CURL easy interface HANDLE and any C strings created to be its options." (curl-easy-cleanup handle) (mapc #'foreign-string-free (gethash handle *easy-handle-cstrings*)) (remhash handle *easy-handle-cstrings*))

(defun add-curl-handle-cstring (handle cstring) "Add CSTRING to be freed when HANDLE is, answering CSTRING." (car (push cstring (gethash handle *easy-handle-cstrings*))))
Here we have redefined the interface to create and free handles, to associate a list of allocated C strings with each handle while it exists. The strategy of using different function names to wrap around simple foreign functions is more common than the solution implemented earlier with curry-curl-option-setter, which was to modify the function name's function slot (see footnote [8]).

Incidentally, the next step is to redefine curry-curl-option-setter to allocate C strings for the appropriate length of time, given a Lisp string as the new-value argument:
  (defun curry-curl-option-setter (function-name option-keyword)
    "Wrap the function named by FUNCTION-NAME with a version that
  curries the second argument as OPTION-KEYWORD.

This function is intended for use in DEFINE-CURL-OPTION-SETTER." (setf (symbol-function function-name) (let ((c-function (symbol-function function-name))) (lambda (easy-handle new-value) (funcall c-function easy-handle option-keyword (if (stringp new-value) (add-curl-handle-cstring easy-handle (foreign-string-alloc new-value)) new-value))))))
A quick analysis of the code shows that you need only reevaluate the curl-option enumeration definition to take advantage of these new semantics. Now, for good measure, let's reallocate the handle with the new functions we just defined, and set its URL:
  cffi-user> (curl-easy-cleanup *easy-handle*)
  => NIL
  cffi-user> (setf *easy-handle* (make-easy-handle))
  => #<FOREIGN-ADDRESS #x09844EE0>
  cffi-user> (set-curl-option-nosignal *easy-handle* 1)
  => 0
  cffi-user> (set-curl-option-url *easy-handle*
  => 0    
For fun, let's inspect the Lisp value of the C string that was created to hold "". By virtue of the implementation of add-curl-handle-cstring, it should be accessible through the hash table defined:
  cffi-user> (foreign-string-to-lisp
              (car (gethash *easy-handle* *easy-handle-cstrings*)))
  => ""    
Looks like that worked, and libcurl now knows what URL we want to retrieve.

Finally, we turn back to the :errorbuffer option mentioned at the beginning of this section. Whereas the abstraction added to support string inputs works fine for cases like CURLOPT_URL, it hides the detail of keeping the C string; for :errorbuffer, however, we need that C string.

In a moment, we'll define something slightly cleaner, but for now, remember that you can always hack around anything. We're modifying handle creation, so make sure you free the old handle before redefining free-easy-handle.
  (defvar *easy-handle-errorbuffers* (make-hash-table)
    "Hashtable of easy handles to C strings serving as error
  writeback buffers.")

;;; An extra byte is very little to pay for peace of mind. (defparameter *curl-error-size* 257 "Minimum char[] size used by cURL to report errors.")

(defun make-easy-handle () "Answer a new CURL easy interface handle, to which the lifetime of C strings may be tied. See `add-curl-handle-cstring'." (let ((easy-handle (curl-easy-init))) (setf (gethash easy-handle *easy-handle-cstrings*) '()) (setf (gethash easy-handle *easy-handle-errorbuffers*) (foreign-alloc :char :count *curl-error-size* :initial-element 0)) easy-handle))

(defun free-easy-handle (handle) "Free CURL easy interface HANDLE and any C strings created to be its options." (curl-easy-cleanup handle) (foreign-free (gethash handle *easy-handle-errorbuffers*)) (remhash handle *easy-handle-errorbuffers*) (mapc #'foreign-string-free (gethash handle *easy-handle-cstrings*)) (remhash handle *easy-handle-cstrings*))

(defun get-easy-handle-error (handle) "Answer a string containing HANDLE's current error message." (foreign-string-to-lisp (gethash handle *easy-handle-errorbuffers*)))
Be sure to once again set the options we've set thus far. You may wish to define yet another wrapper function to do this.

Calling Lisp from C

If you have been reading curl_easy_setopt(3), you should have noticed that some options accept a function pointer. In particular, we need one function pointer to set as CURLOPT_WRITEFUNCTION, to be called by libcurl rather than the reverse, in order to receive data as it is downloaded.

A binding writer without the aid of FFI usually approaches this problem by writing a C function that accepts C data, converts to the language's internal objects, and calls the callback provided by the user, again in a reverse of usual practices.

The CFFI approach to callbacks precisely mirrors its differences with the non-FFI approach on the "calling C from Lisp" side, which we have dealt with exclusively up to now. That is, you define a callback function in Lisp using defcallback, and CFFI effectively creates a C function to be passed as a function pointer.

Implementor's note: This is much trickier than calling C functions from Lisp, as it literally involves somehow generating a new C function that is as good as any created by the compiler. Therefore, not all Lisps support them. See Implementation Support, for information about CFFI support issues in this and other areas. You may want to consider changing to a Lisp that supports callbacks in order to continue with this tutorial.

Defining a callback is very similar to defining a callout; the main difference is that we must provide some Lisp forms to be evaluated as part of the callback. Here is the signature for the function the :writefunction option takes:
  function(void *ptr, size_t size, size_t nmemb, void *stream);    
Implementor's note: size_t is almost always an unsigned int. You can get this and many other types using feature tests for your system by using cffi-grovel.

The above signature trivially translates into a CFFI defcallback form, as follows.
  ;;; Alias in case size_t changes.
  (defctype size :unsigned-int)

;;; To be set as the CURLOPT_WRITEFUNCTION of every easy handle. (defcallback easy-write size ((ptr :pointer) (size size) (nmemb size) (stream :pointer)) (let ((data-size (* size nmemb))) (handler-case ;; We use the dynamically-bound *easy-write-procedure* to ;; call a closure with useful lexical context. (progn (funcall (symbol-value '*easy-write-procedure*) (foreign-string-to-lisp ptr data-size nil)) data-size) ;indicates success ;; The WRITEFUNCTION should return something other than the ;; #bytes available to signal an error. (error () (if (zerop data-size) 1 0)))))
First, note the correlation of the first few forms, used to declare the C function's signature, with the signature in C syntax. We provide a Lisp name for the function, its return type, and a name and type for each argument.

In the body, we call the dynamically-bound *easy-write-procedure* with a "finished" translation, of pulling together the raw data and size into a Lisp string, rather than deal with the data directly. As part of calling curl_easy_perform later, we'll bind that variable to a closure with more useful lexical bindings than the top-level defcallback form.

Finally, we make a halfhearted effort to prevent non-local exits from unwinding the C stack, covering the most likely case with an error handler, which is usually triggered unexpectedly (see footnote [9]). The reason is that most C code is written to understand its own idiosyncratic error condition, implemented above in the case of curl_easy_perform, and more "undefined behavior" can result if we just wipe C stack frames without allowing them to execute whatever cleanup actions as they like.

Using the CURLoption enumeration in curl.h once more, we can describe the new option by modifying and reevaluating define-curl-options.
  (define-curl-options curl-option
      (long 0 objectpoint 10000 functionpoint 20000 off-t 30000)
    (:noprogress long 43)
    (:nosignal long 99)
    (:errorbuffer objectpoint 10)
    (:url objectpoint 2)
    (:writefunction functionpoint 11)) ;new item here    
Finally, we can use the defined callback and the new set-curl-option-writefunction to finish configuring the easy handle, using the callback macro to retrieve a CFFI :pointer, which works like a function pointer in C code.
  cffi-user> (set-curl-option-writefunction
              *easy-handle* (callback easy-write))
  => 0    

A complete FFI?

With all options finally set and a medium-level interface developed, we can finish the definition and retrieve, as is done in the tutorial.
  (defcfun "curl_easy_perform" curl-code
    (handle easy-handle))

cffi-user> (with-output-to-string (contents) (let ((*easy-write-procedure* (lambda (string) (write-string string contents)))) (declare (special *easy-write-procedure*)) (curl-easy-perform *easy-handle*))) => \"<!DOCTYPE HTML PUBLIC \"-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01//EN\" ... Now fear, comprehensively</P> "
Of course, that itself is slightly unwieldy, so you may want to define a function around it that simply retrieves a URL. I will leave synthesis of all the relevant REPL forms presented thus far into a single function as an exercise for the reader.

The remaining sections of this tutorial explore some advanced features of CFFI; the definition of new types will receive special attention. Some of these features are essential for particular foreign function calls; some are very helpful when trying to develop a Lispy interface to C.

Defining new types

We've occasionally used the defctype macro in previous sections as a kind of documentation, much what you'd use typedef for in C. We also tried one special kind of type definition, the defcenum type. See defcstruct, for a definition macro that may come in handy if you need to use C structs as data.

However, all of these are mostly sugar for the powerful underlying foreign type interface called type translators. You can easily define new translators for any simple named foreign type. Since we've defined the new type curl-code to use as the return type for various libcurl functions, we can use that to directly convert cURL errors to Lisp errors.

defctype's purpose is to define simple typedef-like aliases. In order to use type translators we must use the define-foreign-type macro. So let's redefine curl-code using it.
  (define-foreign-type curl-code-type ()
    (:actual-type :int)
    (:simple-parser curl-code))    
define-foreign-type is a thin wrapper around defclass. For now, all you need to know in the context of this example is that it does what (defctype curl-code :int) would do and, additionally, defines a new class curl-code-type which we will take advantage of shortly.

The CURLcode enumeration seems to follow the typical error code convention of 0 meaning all is well, and each non-zero integer indicating a different kind of error. We can apply that trivially to differentiate between normal exits and error exits.
  (define-condition curl-code-error (error)
    (($code :initarg :curl-code :reader curl-error-code))
    (:report (lambda (c stream)
               (format stream "libcurl function returned error ~A"
                              (curl-error-code c))))
    (:documentation "Signalled when a libcurl function answers
  a code other than CURLE_OK."))

(defmethod translate-from-foreign (value (type curl-code-type)) "Raise a CURL-CODE-ERROR if VALUE, a curl-code, is non-zero." (if (zerop value) :curle-ok (error 'curl-code-error :curl-code value)))
The heart of this translator is the new method translate-from-foreign. By specializing the type parameter on curl-code-type, we immediately modify the behavior of every function that returns a curl-code to pass the result through this new method.

To see the translator in action, try invoking a function that returns a curl-code. You need to reevaluate the respective defcfun form so that it picks up the new curl-code definition.
  cffi-user> (set-curl-option-nosignal *easy-handle* 1)
  => :CURLE-OK    
As the result was 0, the new method returned :curle-ok, just as specified (see footnote [10]). I will leave disjoining the separate CURLcodes into condition types and improving the :report function as an exercise for you.

The creation of *easy-handle-cstrings* and *easy-handle-errorbuffers* as properties of easy-handles is a kluge. What we really want is a Lisp structure that stores these properties along with the C pointer. Unfortunately, easy-handle is currently just a fancy name for the foreign type :pointer; the actual pointer object varies from Common Lisp implementation to implementation, needing only to satisfy pointerp and be returned from make-pointer and friends.

One solution that would allow us to define a new Lisp structure to represent easy-handles would be to write a wrapper around every function that currently takes an easy-handle; the wrapper would extract the pointer and pass it to the foreign function. However, we can use type translators to more elegantly integrate this "translation" into the foreign function calling framework, using translate-to-foreign.
  (defclass easy-handle ()
    ((pointer :initform (curl-easy-init)
              :documentation "Foreign pointer from curl_easy_init")
      :initform (foreign-alloc :char :count *curl-error-size*
                               :initial-element 0)
      :documentation "C string describing last error")
     (c-strings :initform '()
                :documentation "C strings set as options"))
    (:documentation "I am a parameterization you may pass to
  curl-easy-perform to perform a cURL network protocol request."))

(defmethod initialize-instance :after ((self easy-handle) &key) (set-curl-option-errorbuffer self (slot-value self 'error-buffer)))

(defun add-curl-handle-cstring (handle cstring) "Add CSTRING to be freed when HANDLE is, answering CSTRING." (car (push cstring (slot-value handle 'c-strings))))

(defun get-easy-handle-error (handle) "Answer a string containing HANDLE's current error message." (foreign-string-to-lisp (slot-value handle 'error-buffer)))

(defun free-easy-handle (handle) "Free CURL easy interface HANDLE and any C strings created to be its options." (with-slots (pointer error-buffer c-strings) handle (curl-easy-cleanup pointer) (foreign-free error-buffer) (mapc #'foreign-string-free c-strings)))

(define-foreign-type easy-handle-type () () (:actual-type :pointer) (:simple-parser easy-handle))

(defmethod translate-to-foreign (handle (type easy-handle-type)) "Extract the pointer from an easy-HANDLE." (slot-value handle 'pointer))
While we changed some of the Lisp functions defined earlier to use CLOS slots rather than hash tables, the foreign functions work just as well as they did before.

The greatest strength, and the greatest limitation, of the type translator comes from its generalized interface. As stated previously, we could define all foreign function calls in terms of the primitive foreign types provided by CFFI. The type translator interface allows us to cleanly specify the relationship between Lisp and C data, independent of where it appears in a function call. This independence comes at a price; for example, it cannot be used to modify translation semantics based on other arguments to a function call. In these cases, you should rely on other features of Lisp, rather than the powerful, yet domain-specific, type translator interface.

What's next?

CFFI provides a rich and powerful foundation for communicating with foreign libraries; as we have seen, it is up to you to make that experience a pleasantly Lispy one. This tutorial does not cover all the features of CFFI; please see the rest of the manual for details. In particular, if something seems obviously missing, it is likely that either code or a good reason for lack of code is already present.

Implementor's note: There are some other things in CFFI that might deserve tutorial sections, such as free-translated-object, or structs. Let us know which ones you care about.

Wrapper generators

CFFI's interface is designed for human programmers, being aimed at aesthetic as well as technical sophistication. However, there are a few programs aimed at translating C and C++ header files, or approximations thereof, into CFFI forms constituting a foreign interface to the symbols in those files.

These wrapper generators are known to support output of CFFI forms.
Designed specifically for Common Lisp. Uses GCC's parser output in XML format to discover functions, variables, and other header file data. This means you need GCC to generate forms; on the other hand, the parser employed is mostly compliant with ANSI C.
A foreign interface generator originally designed to generate Python bindings, it has been ported to many other systems, including CFFI in version 1.3.28. Includes its own C declaration munger, not intended to be fully-compliant with ANSI C.
First, this manual does not describe use of these other programs; they have documentation of their own. If you have problems using a generated interface, please look at the output CFFI forms and verify that they are a correct CFFI interface to the library in question; if they are correct, contact CFFI developers with details, keeping in mind that they communicate in terms of those forms rather than any particular wrapper generator. Otherwise, contact the maintainers of the wrapper generator you are using, provided you can reasonably expect more accuracy from the generator.

When is more accuracy an unreasonable expectation? As described in the tutorial (see "Breaking the abstraction"), the information in C declarations is insufficient to completely describe every interface. In fact, it is quite common to run into an interface that cannot be handled automatically, and generators should be excused from generating a complete interface in these cases.

As further described in the tutorial, the thinnest Lisp interface to a C function is not always the most pleasant one. In many cases, you will want to manually write a Lispier interface to the C functions that interest you.

Wrapper generators should be treated as time-savers, not complete automation of the full foreign interface writing job. Reports of the amount of work done by generators vary from 30% to 90%. The incremental development style enabled by CFFI generally reduces this proportion below that for languages like Python.

Foreign Types

Foreign types describe how data is translated back and forth between C and Lisp. CFFI provides various built-in types and allows the user to define new types.

This is an external interface to the type translation facility. In the implementation, all foreign functions are ultimately defined as type translation wrappers around primitive foreign function invocations. ...

This is an external interface to the type translation facility. In the implementation, all foreign functions are ultimately defined as type translation wrappers around primitive foreign function invocations. ...

The function foreign-bitfield-symbols returns a possibly shared list of symbols that correspond to value in type. ...

The function foreign-bitfield-value returns the value that corresponds to the symbols in the symbols list. ...

The function foreign-enum-keyword returns the keyword symbol that corresponds to value in type. ...

The function foreign-enum-value returns the value that corresponds to keyword in type. ...

The function foreign-slot-names returns a potentially shared list of slot names for the given structure type. This list has no particular order. ...

The function foreign-slot-offset returns the offset in bytes of a slot in a foreign struct type. ...

Returns a pointer to the location of the slot slot-name in a foreign object of type type at ptr. The returned pointer points inside the structure. Both the pointer and the memory it points to have the same extent as ptr. ...

For simple slots, foreign-slot-value returns the value of the object, such as a Lisp integer or pointer. In C, this would be expressed as ptr->slot. ...

This is an external interface to the type translation facility. In the implementation, all foreign functions are ultimately defined as type translation wrappers around primitive foreign function invocations. ...

Built-In Types

:char :unsigned-char :short :unsigned-short :int :unsigned-int :long :unsigned-long :long-long :unsigned-long-long
These types correspond to the native C integer types according to the ABI of the Lisp implementation's host system. :long-long and :unsigned-long-long are not supported natively on all implementations. However, they are emulated by mem-ref. When those types are not available, the symbol cffi-sys::no-long-long is pushed into *features*.
:uchar :ushort :uint :ulong :llong :ullong
For convenience, the above types are provided as shortcuts for unsigned-char, unsigned-short, unsigned-int, unsigned-long, long-long and unsigned-long-long, respectively.
:int8 :uint8 :int16 :uint16 :int32 :uint32 :int64 :uint64
Foreign integer types of specific sizes, corresponding to the C types defined in stdint.h.
:float :double
On all systems, the :float and :double types represent a C float and double, respectively. On most but not all systems, :float and :double represent a Lisp single-float and double-float, respectively. It is not so useful to consider the relationship between Lisp types and C types as isomorphic, as simply to recognize the relationship, and relative precision, among each respective category.
This type is only supported on SCL.
:pointer &optional type
A foreign pointer to an object of any type, corresponding to void *. You can optionally specify type of pointer (e.g. (:pointer :char)). Although CFFI won't do anything with that information yet, it is useful for documentation purposes.
No type at all. Only valid as the return type of a function.

Other Types

CFFI also provides a few useful types that aren't built-in C types.
The :string type performs automatic conversion between Lisp and C strings. Note that, in the case of functions the converted C string will have dynamic extent (i.e. it will be automatically freed after the foreign function returns).

In addition to Lisp strings, this type will accept foreign pointers and pass them unmodified.

A method for free-translated-object is specialized for this type. So, for example, foreign strings allocated by this type and passed to a foreign function will be freed after the function returns.
  CFFI> (foreign-funcall "getenv" :string "SHELL" :string)
  => "/bin/bash"

CFFI> (with-foreign-string (str "abcdef") (foreign-funcall "strlen" :string str :int)) => 6
Like :string but returns a list with two values when convert from C to Lisp: a Lisp string and the C string's foreign pointer.
  CFFI> (foreign-funcall "getenv" :string "SHELL" :string+ptr)
  => ("/bin/bash" #.(SB-SYS:INT-SAP #XBFFFFC6F))        
:boolean &optional (base-type :int)
The :boolean type converts between a Lisp boolean and a C boolean. It canonicalizes to base-type which is :int by default.
  (convert-to-foreign nil :boolean) => 0
  (convert-to-foreign t :boolean) => 1
  (convert-from-foreign 0 :boolean) => nil
  (convert-from-foreign 1 :boolean) => t        
:wrapper base-type &key to-c from-c
The :wrapper type stores two symbols passed to the to-c and from-c arguments. When a value is being translated to or from C, this type funcalls the respective symbol.

:wrapper types will be typedefs for base-type and will inherit its translators, if any.

Here's an example of how the :boolean type could be defined in terms of :wrapper.
  (defun bool-c-to-lisp (value)
    (not (zerop value)))

(defun bool-lisp-to-c (value) (if value 1 0))

(defctype my-bool (:wrapper :int :from-c bool-c-to-lisp :to-c bool-lisp-to-c))

(convert-to-foreign nil 'my-bool) => 0 (convert-from-foreign 1 'my-bool) => t

Defining Foreign Types

You can define simple C-like typedefs through the defctype macro. Defining a typedef is as simple as giving defctype a new name and the name of the type to be wrapped.
  ;;; Define MY-INT as an alias for the built-in type :INT.
  (defctype my-int :int)    
With this type definition, one can, for instance, declare arguments to foreign functions as having the type my-int, and they will be passed as integers.

More complex types

CFFI offers another way to define types through define-foreign-type, a thin wrapper macro around defclass. As an example, let's go through the steps needed to define a (my-string &key encoding) type. First, we need to define our type class:
  (define-foreign-type my-string-type ()
    ((encoding :reader string-type-encoding :initarg :encoding))
    (:actual-type :pointer))    
The :actual-type class option tells CFFI that this type will ultimately be passed to and received from foreign code as a :pointer. Now you need to tell CFFI how to parse a type specification such as (my-string :encoding :utf8) into an instance of my-string-type. We do that with define-parse-method:
  (define-parse-method my-string (&key (encoding :utf-8))
    (make-instance 'my-string-type :encoding encoding))    
The next section describes how make this type actually translate between C and Lisp strings.

Foreign Type Translators

Type translators are used to automatically convert Lisp values to or from foreign values. For example, using type translators, one can take the my-string type defined in the previous section and specify that it should:
  • convert C strings to Lisp strings;
  • convert Lisp strings to newly allocated C strings;
  • free said C strings when they are no longer needed.
In order to tell CFFI how to automatically convert Lisp values to foreign values, define a specialized method for the translate-to-foreign generic function:
  ;;; Define a method that converts Lisp strings to C strings.
  (defmethod translate-to-foreign (string (type my-string-type))
    (foreign-string-alloc string :encoding (string-type-encoding type)))    
From now on, whenever an object is passed as a my-string to a foreign function, this method will be invoked to convert the Lisp value. To perform the inverse operation, which is needed for functions that return a my-string, specialize the translate-from-foreign generic function in the same manner:
  ;;; Define a method that converts C strings to Lisp strings.
  (defmethod translate-from-foreign (pointer (type my-string-type))
    (foreign-string-to-lisp pointer :encoding (string-type-encoding type)))    
When a translate-to-foreign method requires allocation of foreign memory, you must also define a free-translated-object method to free the memory once the foreign object is no longer needed, otherwise you'll be faced with memory leaks. This generic function is called automatically by CFFI when passing objects to foreign functions. Let's do that:
  ;;; Free strings allocated by translate-to-foreign.
  (defmethod free-translated-object (pointer (type my-string-type) param)
    (declare (ignore param))
    (foreign-string-free pointer))    
In this specific example, we don't need the param argument, so we ignore it. See free-translated-object, for an explanation of its purpose and how you can use it.

A type translator does not necessarily need to convert the value. For example, one could define a typedef for :pointer that ensures, in the translate-to-foreign method, that the value is not a null pointer, signalling an error if a null pointer is passed. This would prevent some pointer errors when calling foreign functions that cannot handle null pointers.

Please note: these methods are meant as extensible hooks only, and you should not call them directly. Use convert-to-foreign, convert-from-foreign and free-converted-object instead.

See "Defining new types", for another example of type translators.

Optimizing Type Translators

Being based on generic functions, the type translation mechanism described above can add a bit of overhead. This is usually not significant, but we nevertheless provide a way of getting rid of the overhead for the cases where it matters.

A good way to understand this issue is to look at the code generated by defcfun. Consider the following example using the previously defined my-string type:
  CFFI> (macroexpand-1 '(defcfun foo my-string (x my-string)))
  ;; (simplified, downcased, etc...)
  (defun foo (x)
    (multiple-value-bind (#:G2019 #:PARAM3149)
        (translate-to-foreign x #<MY-STRING-TYPE {11ED5A79}>)
           (foreign-funcall "foo" :pointer #:G2019 :pointer)
           #<MY-STRING-TYPE {11ED5659}>)
        (free-translated-object #:G2019 #<MY-STRING-TYPE {11ED51A79}>
In order to get rid of those generic function calls, CFFI has another set of extensible generic functions that provide functionality similar to CL's compiler macros: expand-to-foreign-dyn, expand-to-foreign and expand-from-foreign. Here's how one could define a my-boolean with them:
  (define-foreign-type my-boolean-type ()
    (:actual-type :int)
    (:simple-parser my-boolean))

(defmethod expand-to-foreign (value (type my-boolean-type)) `(if ,value 1 0))

(defmethod expand-from-foreign (value (type my-boolean-type)) `(not (zerop ,value)))
And here's what the macroexpansion of a function using this type would look like:
  CFFI> (macroexpand-1 '(defcfun bar my-boolean (x my-boolean)))
  ;; (simplified, downcased, etc...)
  (defun bar (x)
    (let ((#:g3182 (if x 1 0)))
      (not (zerop (foreign-funcall "bar" :int #:g3182 :int)))))    
No generic function overhead.

Let's go back to our my-string type. The expansion interface has no equivalent of free-translated-object; you must instead define a method on expand-to-foreign-dyn, the third generic function in this interface. This is especially useful when you can allocate something much more efficiently if you know the object has dynamic extent, as is the case with function calls that don't save the relevant allocated arguments.

This exactly what we need for the my-string type:
  (defmethod expand-from-foreign (form (type my-string-type))
    `(foreign-string-to-lisp ,form))

(defmethod expand-to-foreign-dyn (value var body (type my-string-type)) (let ((encoding (string-type-encoding type))) `(with-foreign-string (,var ,value :encoding ',encoding) ,@body)))
So let's look at the macro expansion:
  CFFI> (macroexpand-1 '(defcfun foo my-string (x my-string)))
  ;; (simplified, downcased, etc...)
  (defun foo (x)
    (with-foreign-string (#:G2021 X :encoding ':utf-8)
       (foreign-funcall "foo" :pointer #:g2021 :pointer))))    
Again, no generic function overhead.

Other details

To short-circuit expansion and use the translate-* functions instead, simply call the next method. Return its result in cases where your method cannot generate an appropriate replacement for it. This analogous to the &whole form mechanism compiler macros provide.

The expand-* methods have precedence over their translate-* counterparts and are guaranteed to be used in defcfun, foreign-funcall, defcvar and defcallback. If you define a method on each of the expand-* generic functions, you are guaranteed to have full control over the expressions generated for type translation in these macros.

They may or may not be used in other CFFI operators that need to translate between Lisp and C data; you may only assume that expand-* methods will probably only be called during Lisp compilation.

expand-to-foreign-dyn has precedence over expand-to-foreign and is only used in defcfun and foreign-funcall, only making sense in those contexts.

Important note: this set of generic functions is called at macroexpansion time. Methods are defined when loaded or evaluated, not compiled. You are responsible for ensuring that your expand-* methods are defined when the foreign-funcall or other forms that use them are compiled. One way to do this is to put the method definitions earlier in the file and inside an appropriate eval-when form; another way is to always load a separate Lisp or FASL file containing your expand-* definitions before compiling files with forms that ought to use them. Otherwise, they will not be found and the runtime translators will be used instead.

Foreign Structure Types

For more involved C types than simple aliases to built-in types, such as you can make with defctype, CFFI allows declaration of structures and unions with defcstruct and defcunion.

For example, consider this fictional C structure declaration holding some personal information:
  struct person {
    int number;
    char* reason;
The equivalent defcstruct form follows:
  (defcstruct person
    (number :int)
    (reason :string))    
Please note that this interface is only for those that must know about the values contained in a relevant struct. If the library you are interfacing returns an opaque pointer that needs only be passed to other C library functions, by all means just use :pointer or a type-safe definition munged together with defctype and type translation. See defcstruct for more details.


All C data in CFFI is referenced through pointers. This includes defined C variables that hold immediate values, and integers.

To see why this is, consider the case of the C integer. It is not only an arbitrary representation for an integer, congruent to Lisp's fixnums; the C integer has a specific bit pattern in memory defined by the C ABI. Lisp has no such constraint on its fixnums; therefore, it only makes sense to think of fixnums as C integers if you assume that CFFI converts them when necessary, such as when storing one for use in a C function call, or as the value of a C variable. This requires defining an area of memory [11], represented through an effective address, and storing it there.

Due to this compartmentalization, it only makes sense to manipulate raw C data in Lisp through pointers to it. For example, while there may be a Lisp representation of a struct that is converted to C at store time, you may only manipulate its raw data through a pointer. The C compiler does this also, albeit informally.

The foreign-free function frees a ptr previously allocated by foreign-alloc. The consequences of freeing a given pointer twice are undefined. ...

The foreign-alloc function allocates enough memory to hold count objects of type type and returns a pointer. This memory must be explicitly freed using foreign-free once it is no longer needed. ...

The function foreign-symbol-pointer will return a foreign pointer corresponding to the foreign symbol denoted by the string foreign-name. If a foreign symbol named foreign-name doesn't exist, nil is returned. ...

The function inc-pointer will return a new pointer pointing offset bytes past pointer. ...

The function make-pointer will return a foreign pointer pointing to address. ...

The mem-aref function is similar to mem-ref but will automatically calculate the offset from an index. ...

The function null-pointer returns a null pointer. ...

The function null-pointer-p returns true if ptr is a null pointer and false otherwise. ...

The function pointerp returns true if ptr is a foreign pointer and false otherwise. ...

The function pointer-address will return the address of a foreign pointer ptr. ...

The function pointer-eq returns true if ptr1 and ptr2 point to the same memory address and false otherwise. ...

Basic Pointer Operations

Manipulating pointers proper can be accomplished through most of the other operations defined in the Pointers dictionary, such as make-pointer, pointer-address, and pointer-eq. When using them, keep in mind that they merely manipulate the Lisp representation of pointers, not the values they point to.

— Lisp Type: foreign-pointer

The pointers' representations differ from implementation to implementation and have different types. foreign-pointer provides a portable type alias to each of these types.

Allocating Foreign Memory

CFFI provides support for stack and heap C memory allocation. Stack allocation, done with with-foreign-object, is sometimes called "dynamic" allocation in Lisp, because memory allocated as such has dynamic extent, much as with let bindings of special variables.

This should not be confused with what C calls "dynamic" allocation, or that done with malloc and friends. This sort of heap allocation is done with foreign-alloc, creating objects that exist until freed with foreign-free.

Accessing Foreign Memory

When manipulating raw C data, consider that all pointers are pointing to an array. When you only want one C value, such as a single struct, this array only has one such value. It is worthwhile to remember that everything is an array, though, because this is also the semantic that C imposes natively.

C values are accessed as the setf-able places defined by mem-aref and mem-ref. Given a pointer and a CFFI type (see Foreign Types), either of these will dereference the pointer, translate the C data there back to Lisp, and return the result of said translation, performing the reverse operation when setf-ing. To decide which one to use, consider whether you would use the array index operator [n] or the pointer dereference * in C; use mem-aref for array indexing and mem-ref for pointer dereferencing.


As with many languages, Lisp and C have special support for logical arrays of characters, going so far as to give them a special name, "strings". In that spirit, CFFI provides special support for translating between Lisp and C strings.

The :string type and the symbols related below also serve as an example of what you can do portably with CFFI; were it not included, you could write an equally functional strings.lisp without referring to any implementation-specific symbols.

This special variable holds the default foreign encoding. ...

The foreign-string-alloc function allocates foreign memory holding a copy of string converted using the specified encoding. start specifies an offset into string and end marks the position following the last element of the foreign string. ...

The foreign-string-free function frees a foreign string allocated by foreign-string-alloc. ...

The foreign-string-to-lisp function converts at most count octets from ptr into a Lisp string, using the defined encoding. ...

The lisp-string-to-foreign function copies at most bufsize-1 octets from a Lisp string using the specified encoding into buffer+offset. The foreign string will be null-terminated. ...


The function get-var-pointer will return a pointer to the foreign global variable symbol previously defined with defcvar. ...



Closes library which can be a symbol designating a library define through define-foreign-library or an instance of foreign-library as returned by load-foreign-library. ...

A list, in which each element is a string, a pathname, or a simple Lisp expression. ...

You should not have to use this variable. ...

Load the library indicated by library. ...

Defining a library

Almost all foreign code you might want to access exists in some kind of shared library. The meaning of shared library varies among platforms, but for our purposes, we will consider it to include .so files on Unix, frameworks on Darwin (and derivatives like Mac OS X), and .dll files on Windows.

Bringing one of these libraries into the Lisp image is normally a two-step process.

Describe to CFFI how to load the library at some future point, depending on platform and other factors, with a define-foreign-library top-level form. Load the library so defined with either a top-level use-foreign-library form or by calling the function load-foreign-library.

See Loading foreign libraries, for a working example of the above two steps.

Library definition style

Looking at the libcurl library definition presented earlier, you may ask why we did not simply do this:
  (define-foreign-library libcurl
    (t (:default "libcurl")))    
Indeed, this would work just as well on the computer on which I tested the tutorial. There are a couple of good reasons to provide the .so's current version number, however. Namely, the versionless .so is not packaged on most Unix systems along with the actual, fully-versioned library; instead, it is included in the "development" package along with C headers and static .a libraries.

The reason CFFI does not try to account for this lies in the meaning of the version numbers. A full treatment of shared library versions is beyond this manual's scope; see Library interface versions, for helpful information for the unfamiliar. For our purposes, consider that a mismatch between the library version with which you tested and the installed library version may cause undefined behavior.[12]

Implementor's note: Maybe some notes should go here about OS X, which I know little about. –stephen


This is the functional version of the callback macro. It returns a pointer to the callback named by symbol suitable, for example, to pass as arguments to foreign functions. ...

The Groveller

CFFI-Grovel is a tool which makes it easier to write CFFI declarations for libraries that are implemented in C. That is, it grovels through the system headers, getting information about types and structures, so you do not have to. This is especially important for libraries which are implemented in different ways by different vendors, such as the unix/posix functions. The CFFI declarations are usually quite different from platform to platform, but the information you give to CFFI-Grovel is the same. Hence, much less work is required!

If you use ASDF, CFFI-Grovel is integrated, so that it will run automatically when your system is building. This feature was inspired by SB-Grovel, a similar SBCL-specific project. CFFI-Grovel can also be used without ASDF.

Building FFIs with CFFI-Grovel

CFFI-Grovel uses a specification file (*.lisp) describing the features that need groveling. The C compiler is used to retrieve this data and write a Lisp file (*.cffi.lisp) which contains the necessary CFFI definitions to access the variables, structures, constants, and enums mentioned in the specification.

CFFI-Grovel provides an ASDF component for handling the necessary calls to the C compiler and resulting file management.

Specification File Syntax

The specification files are read by the normal Lisp reader, so they have syntax very similar to normal Lisp code. In particular, semicolon-comments and reader-macros will work as expected.

There are several forms recognized by CFFI-Grovel:
Grovel Form: progn &rest forms
Processes a list of forms. Useful for conditionalizing several forms.

For example:
    (constant (ev-enable "EV_ENABLE"))
    (constant (ev-disable "EV_DISABLE")))        
Grovel Form: include &rest files
Include the specified files (specified as strings) in the generated C source code.
Grovel Form: in-package symbol
Set the package to be used for the final Lisp output.
Grovel Form: ctype lisp-name size-designator
Define a CFFI foreign type for the string in size-designator, e.g. (ctype :pid "pid_t").
Grovel Form: constant (lisp-name &rest c-names) &key type documentation optional
Search for the constant named by the first c-name string found to be known to the C preprocessor and define it as lisp-name.

The type keyword argument specifies how to grovel the constant: either integer (the default) or double-float. If optional is true, no error will be raised if all the c-names are unknown. If lisp-name is a keyword, the actual constant will be a symbol of the same name interned in the current package.
Grovel Form: define name &optional value
Defines an additional C preprocessor symbol, which is useful for altering the behavior of included system headers.
Grovel Form: cc-flags &rest flags
Adds cc-flags to the command line arguments used for the C compiler invocation.
Grovel Form: cstruct lisp-name c-name slots
Define a CFFI foreign struct with the slot data specfied. Slots are of the form (lisp-name c-name &key type count (signed t)).
Grovel Form: cunion lisp-name c-name slots
Identical to cstruct, but defines a CFFI foreign union.
Grovel Form: cstruct-and-class c-name slots
Defines a CFFI foreign struct, as with cstruct and defines a CLOS class to be used with it. This is useful for mapping foreign structures to application-layer code that shouldn't need to worry about memory allocation issues.
Grovel Form: cvar namespec type &key read-only
Defines a foreign variable of the specified type, even if that variable is potentially a C preprocessor pseudo-variable. e.g. (cvar ("errno" errno) errno-values), assuming that errno-values is an enum or equivalent to type :int.

The namespec is similar to the one used in defcvar.
Grovel Form: cenum name-and-opts &rest elements
Defines a true C enum, with elements specified as ((lisp-name &rest c-names) &key optional documentation). name-and-opts can be either a symbol as name, or a list (name &key base-type define-constants). If define-constants is non-null, a Lisp constant will be defined for each enum member.
Grovel Form: constantenum name-and-opts &rest elements
Defines an enumeration of pre-processor constants, with elements specified as ((lisp-name &rest c-names) &key optional documentation). name-and-opts can be either a symbol as name, or a list (name &key base-type define-constants). If define-constants is non-null, a Lisp constant will be defined for each enum member.

This example defines :af-inet to represent the value held by AF_INET or PF_INET, whichever the pre-processor finds first. Similarly for :af-packet, but no error will be signalled if the platform supports neither AF_PACKET nor PF_PACKET.
  (constantenum address-family
    ((:af-inet "AF_INET" "PF_INET")
     :documentation "IPv4 Protocol family")
    ((:af-local "AF_UNIX" "AF_LOCAL" "PF_UNIX" "PF_LOCAL")
     :documentation "File domain sockets")
    ((:af-inet6 "AF_INET6" "PF_INET6")
     :documentation "IPv6 Protocol family")
    ((:af-packet "AF_PACKET" "PF_PACKET")
     :documentation "Raw packet access"
     :optional t))       
Grovel Form: bitfield name-and-opts &rest elements
Defines a bitfield, with elements specified as ((lisp-name c-name) &key documentation). name-and-opts can be either a symbol as name, or a list (name &key base-type). For example:
  (bitfield flags-ctype
    ((:flag-a "FLAG_A")
      :documentation "DOCU_A")
    ((:flag-b "FLAG_B")
      :documentation "DOCU_B")
    ((:flag-c "FLAG_C")
      :documentation "DOCU_C"))        

ASDF Integration

An example software project might contain four files; an ASDF file, a package definition file, an implementation file, and a CFFI-Grovel specification file.

The ASDF file defines the system and its dependencies. Notice the use of eval-when to ensure CFFI-Grovel is present and the use of (cffi-grovel:grovel-file name &key cc-flags) instead of (:file name).
  ;;; CFFI-Grovel is needed for processing grovel-file components
  (cl:eval-when (:load-toplevel :execute)
    (asdf:operate 'asdf:load-op 'cffi-grovel))

(asdf:defsystem example-software :depends-on (cffi) :serial t :components ((:file "package") (cffi-grovel:grovel-file "example-grovelling") (:file "example")))
The "package.lisp" file would contain several defpackage forms, to remove circular dependencies and make building the project easier. Note that you may or may not want to :use your internal package.

Implementor's note: Mention that it's a not a good idea to :USE when names may clash with, say, CL symbols.
  (defpackage #:example-internal
    (:nicknames #:exampleint))

(defpackage #:example-software (:export ...) (:use #:cl #:cffi #:exampleint))
The internal package is created by Lisp code output from the C program written by CFFI-Grovel; if your specification file is exampleint.lisp, the exampleint.cffi.lisp file will contain the CFFI definitions needed by the rest of your project. See Groveller Syntax.

Implementation Notes

Implementor's note: This info might not be up-to-date.

For foo-internal.lisp, the resulting foo-internal.c, foo-internal, and foo-internal.cffi.lisp are all platform-specific, either because of possible reader-macros in foo-internal.lisp, or because of varying C environments on the host system. For this reason, it is not helpful to distribute any of those files; end users building CFFI-Grovel based software will need cffi-Grovel anyway.

If you build with multiple architectures in the same directory (e.g. with NFS/AFS home directories), it is critical to remove these generated files or the resulting constants will be very incorrect.

Implementor's note: Maybe we should tag the generated names with something host or OS-specific?

Implementor's note: For now, after some experimentation with clisp having no long-long, it seems appropriate to assert that the generated .c files are architecture and operating-system dependent, but lisp-implementation independent. This way the same .c file (and so the same .grovel-tmp.lisp file) will be shareable between the implementations running on a given system.


These are CFFI's limitations across all platforms; for information on the warts on particular Lisp implementations, see Implementation Support.

The tutorial includes a treatment of the primary, intractable limitation of CFFI, or any FFI: that the abstractions commonly used by C are insufficiently expressive. See Breaking the abstraction, for more details.

C structs cannot be passed by value.

Platform-specific features

Whenever a backend does not support one of CFFI's features, a specific symbol is pushed onto cl:*features*. The meanings of these symbols follow.
This Lisp has a flat namespace for foreign symbols meaning that you won't be able to load two different libraries with homograph functions and successfully differentiate them through the :library option to defcfun, defcvar, etc...
The macro foreign-funcall is not available. On such platforms, the only way to call a foreign function is through defcfun. See foreign-funcall, and defcfun.
The C long long type is not available as a foreign type.
However, on such platforms CFFI provides its own implementation of the long long type for all of operations in chapters Foreign Types, Pointers and Variables. The functionality described in Functions and Callbacks will not be available.
32-bit Lispworks 5.0+ is an exception. In addition to the CFFI implementation described above, Lispworks itself implements the long long type for Functions. Callbacks are still missing long long support, though.
This Lisp doesn't support the stdcall calling convention. Note that it only makes sense to support stdcall on (32-bit) x86 platforms.


[1] Admittedly, this is an advanced issue, and we encourage you to leave this text until you are more familiar with how CFFI works.

[2] This does not apply to structs whose contents are intended to be part of the public library interface. In those cases, a pure Lisp struct definition is always preferred. In fact, many prefer to stay in Lisp and break the encapsulation anyway, placing the burden of correct library interface definition on the library.

[3] Specifically, UFFI, an older FFI that takes a somewhat different approach compared to CFFI. I believe that these days (December 2005) CFFI is more portable and actively developed, though not as mature yet. Consensus in the free unix Common Lisp community seems to be that CFFI is preferred for new development, though UFFI will likely go on for quite some time as many projects already use it. CFFI includes the UFFI-COMPAT package for complete compatibility with UFFI.

[4] This isn't entirely true; some Lisps don't support foreign-funcall, so defcfun is implemented without it. defcfun may also perform optimizations that foreign-funcall cannot.

[5] Another possibility is to allow the caller to specify the desired C type of the third argument. This is essentially what happens in a call to the function written in C.

[6] See Other Kinds of Streams, for a GNU-only way to extend the FILE* type. You could use this to convert Lisp streams to the needed C data. This would be quite involved and far outside the scope of this tutorial.

[7] “But I thought Lisp was supposed to protect me from all that buggy C crap!” Before asking a question like that, remember that you are a stranger in a foreign land, whose residents have a completely different set of values.

[8] There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach; I chose to (setf symbol-function) earlier because it entailed generating fewer magic function names.

[9] Unfortunately, we can't protect against all non-local exits, such as returns and throws, because unwind-protect cannot be used to "short-circuit" a non-local exit in Common Lisp, due to proposal minimal in ANSI issue Exit-Extent. Furthermore, binding an error handler prevents higher-up code from invoking restarts that may be provided under the callback's dynamic context. Such is the way of compromise.

[10] It might be better to return (values) than :curle-ok in real code, but this is good for illustration.

[11] The definition of memory includes the CPU registers.

[12] Windows programmers may chafe at adding a unix-specific clause to define-foreign-library. Instead, ask why the Windows solution to library incompatibility is “include your own version of every library you use with every program”.

[13] See Using asdf to load systems, for information on asdf:*central-registry*.

[14] See mini-eval in libraries.lisp for the source of this definition. As is always the case with a Lisp eval, it's easier to understand the Lisp definition than the english.

[15] Namely, CMUCL. See use-foreign-library in libraries.lisp for details.

Exported Symbol Index

*darwin-framework-directories*, Variable
*default-foreign-encoding*, Variable
*foreign-library-directories*, Variable
callback, Macro
close-foreign-library, Function
convert-from-foreign, Function
convert-to-foreign, Function
defbitfield, Macro
defcallback, Macro
defcenum, Macro
defcfun, Macro
defcstruct, Macro
defctype, Macro
defcunion, Macro
defcvar, Macro
define-c-struct-wrapper, Macro
define-foreign-library, Macro
define-foreign-type, Macro
define-parse-method, Macro
expand-from-foreign, Generic Function  (undocumented)
expand-to-foreign, Generic Function  (undocumented)
expand-to-foreign-dyn, Generic Function  (undocumented)
foreign-alloc, Function
foreign-bitfield-symbol-list, Function
foreign-bitfield-symbols, Function
foreign-bitfield-value, Function
foreign-enum-keyword, Function
foreign-enum-keyword-list, Function
foreign-enum-value, Function
foreign-free, Function
foreign-funcall, Macro
foreign-funcall-pointer, Macro
foreign-library, Class  (undocumented)
foreign-library-loaded-p, Function  (undocumented)
foreign-library-name, Generic Function  (undocumented)
foreign-library-pathname, Function  (undocumented)
foreign-library-type, Function  (undocumented)
foreign-pointer, Symbol
foreign-slot-names, Function
foreign-slot-offset, Function
foreign-slot-pointer, Function
foreign-slot-value, Function
foreign-string-alloc, Function
foreign-string-free, Function
foreign-string-to-lisp, Function
foreign-symbol-pointer, Function
foreign-type-alignment, Generic Function
foreign-type-size, Generic Function
free-converted-object, Function
free-translated-object, Generic Function
get-callback, Function
get-var-pointer, Function
inc-pointer, Function
incf-pointer, Macro
lisp-string-to-foreign, Function
list-foreign-libraries, Function
load-foreign-library, Function
load-foreign-library-error, Condition
make-pointer, Function
make-shareable-byte-vector, Function
mem-aref, Function
mem-ref, Function
null-pointer, Function
null-pointer-p, Function
pointer-address, Function
pointer-eq, Function
pointerp, Function
reload-foreign-libraries, Function
translate-camelcase-name, Generic Function
translate-from-foreign, Generic Function
translate-name-from-foreign, Generic Function
translate-name-to-foreign, Generic Function
translate-to-foreign, Generic Function
translate-underscore-separated-name, Generic Function
use-foreign-library, Macro
with-foreign-object, Macro
with-foreign-objects, Macro
with-foreign-pointer, Macro
with-foreign-pointer-as-string, Macro
with-foreign-slots, Macro
with-foreign-string, Macro
with-foreign-strings, Macro
with-pointer-to-vector-data, Macro