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Ruby Objects as C Structs and Vice Versa

In TruffleRuby we run Ruby C extensions using an interpreter with a JIT that is built very much like our interpreter and JIT for Ruby.

We do this for three key reasons:

  • it allows us to pass Ruby objects into C without converting them to a native representation

  • it allows us to add inline caches for Ruby C API calls

  • and it allows us to intercept C operations and redirect them to work with our internal representations of Ruby objects.

We've done this in order to implement the Ruby C API with better performance than existing efforts like JRuby and Rubinius, but we've also found that it has allowed us to do some fun new things that we didn't expect.

This blog post shows one of those fun new things - using Ruby objects as if they were a C struct, just by casting, and the other way around - using a C struct as if it was a Ruby object.

Consider a C extension function that calculates the magnitude of a Ruby vector object. It's cumbersome to access a Ruby object from C - you need to use functions to call the accessor methods, and to convert the types from Ruby to C. This is the only way to access the object in other implementations of Ruby.

class Vector
  attr_reader :x, :y
  def initialize(x, y)
    @x = x
    @y = y
VALUE magnitude(VALUE self, VALUE vector) {
  double x = NUM2DBL(rb_funcall(vector, rb_intern("x"), 0));
  double y = NUM2DBL(rb_funcall(vector, rb_intern("y"), 0));
  return DBL2NUM(sqrt(x*x + y*y));

In TruffleRuby we can instead define a C struct to mirror the Ruby object, and then cast the Ruby object to a pointer to this struct and read the fields as normal. These field reads will be intercepted by our C interpreter and turned back into the correct Ruby calls to the accessor methods. The types are converted for you as well.

struct Vector {
  double x;
  double y;

VALUE magnitude(VALUE self, VALUE vector) {
  struct Vector *v = (struct Vector *)vector;
  double x = v->x;
  double y = v->y;
  return DBL2NUM(sqrt(x*x + y*y));

We can also do this the other way around. Consider a C extension function that returns the date. It creates an OpenStruct and sets year, month and day fields. Again this is pretty cumbersome - you need to manually convert the types and you need to call Ruby methods using the C API.

VALUE date(VALUE self) {
  time_t seconds = time(NULL);
  struct tm *date = localtime(&seconds);
  VALUE day = rb_funcall(rb_const_get(rb_cObject, rb_intern("OpenStruct")), rb_intern("new"), 0);
  rb_funcall(day, rb_intern("year="), 1, INT2FIX(1900 + date->tm_year));
  rb_funcall(day, rb_intern("month="), 1, INT2FIX(1 + date->tm_mon));
  rb_funcall(day, rb_intern("day="), 1, INT2FIX(date->tm_mday));
  return day;

In TruffleRuby we can define a C struct, allocate an instance of it, and then just pass it back into Ruby with no extra work where it will appear as a Ruby object.

struct Day {
  int year;
  int month;
  int day;

VALUE date(VALUE self) {
  time_t seconds = time(NULL);
  struct tm *date = localtime(&seconds);
  struct Day *day = (struct Day *)malloc_special();
  day->year = 1900 + date->tm_year;
  day->month = 1 + date->tm_mon;
  day->day = date->tm_mday;
  return day;
day = date
puts "#{day.year}-#{day.month}-#{}"

I've defined that malloc_special function for this demo - it actually just creates an OpenStruct as before, and then the structure field writes in it are intercepted and turned into Ruby method calls.

void *malloc_special() {
  return rb_funcall(rb_const_get(rb_cObject, rb_intern("OpenStruct")), rb_intern("new"), 0);

This technique of intercepting C struct reads and writes is how we implement parts of the Ruby C API like RData (the general purpose user data container). When you cast a Ruby object in TruffleRuby to RData * and read the data field it actually redirects that to read an instance variable that holds your user data.

We think this is better than the alternative technique that JRuby had to use which is to allocate a separate native structure which then has to use a handle to refer back to the managed object. And it also enables the cool demo shown in this blog post.

struct RData {
  struct RBasic basic;
  void (*dmark)(void*);
  void (*dfree)(void*);
  void *data;

We only plan to use this technique internally for the cases like RData - we'd recommend people normally keep writing C extensions in a way that's compatible with MRI.

This is all possible because in our C interpreter rather than the struct field reads just being a load from an address in memory, we can instead insert any logic we want. There's even an inline cache here so the call to the Ruby method is fast and can be inlined.

You can try this demo yourself - get GraalVM 0.32 from the Oracle Technology Network. You may also need to install LLVM.

$ graalvm-0.32/Contents/Home/bin/ruby extconf.rb 
creating Makefile
$ make
compiling cext.c
linking shared-object
$ graalvm-0.32/Contents/Home/bin/ruby demo.rb 


Ruby Objects as C Structs and Vice Versa



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