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19. Intro to the C++ FFI

Today's post is a guest post by @andyarvanitis, the creator of Pure11, a C++11 compiler backend for PureScript. This post is an introduction to the Pure11 foreign function interface, which allows us to call C++11 code from PureScript and vice versa.

Today I’ll describe the basics of using the C++ FFI, without getting into any advanced topics. Although it’s possible (and relatively easy) to call PureScript from C++, I’m going to focus on foreign imports.

What’s the same (vs JavaScript)?

There are no differences on the PureScript side of things. You define foreign data, value, and function imports just like you do in "traditional" PureScript.

What’s different?

The implementations of the foreign functions and values are in C++11 instead of JavaScript. Also, foreign functions are not curried.

Foreign code file structure

Just as you provide FFI *.js files in your module source directories, you create *.hh (header) and *.cc (source) files in the same locations. Both sets of foreign language FFI implementations live side-by-side and don’t interfere with one another.

The C++(11) type system

C++ is a statically typed language, but its type system is quite different from PureScript’s, so the C++11 code that the compiler (transpiler) generates uses some custom classes and a degree of type erasure. However, when writing FFI code, you often won’t need to deal with either of these things, since the generated code takes advantage of C++’s custom implicit type conversions and overloaded operators.*  When you’re dealing with primitive types or strings, you can just use them directly (see the following table).

PureScript C++
Int int
Number double
Boolean bool
Char char
String const char *   or   std::string

For other types, you need to use the custom variant type any. There are also types that build on it, and the one you’ll most likely encounter is any::array. As you have probably guessed, it’s the representative of PureScript’s Array (for all types).

* If you’re familiar with C++ and would like to see the details, you can look at the relevant runtime source code.

An example from the standard library with just numeric types

Let’s look at an example from the standard math package. If you look at Math.hh (in the same directory as Math.js), you’ll see:

#include <cmath>
#include "PureScript/PureScript.hh"

namespace Math {
  using namespace PureScript;

  // foreign import abs :: Number -> Number
  inline auto abs(const double x) -> double {
    return std::fabs(x);
  // foreign import atan2 :: Number -> Number -> Radians
  inline auto atan2(const double y, const double x) -> double {
    return std::atan2(y, x);
  // foreign import pi :: Number
  constexpr double pi = 3.141592653589793;

In this particular example, the foreign function implementations are simply inlined wrappers around the C standard fabs and atan2 functions, and are placed into module Math’s namespace (preventing name conflicts on the C++ side). We don’t need a *.cc file in this case, since all of the module’s functions are just wrappers. Also notice that atan2 is not curried — the compiler will take care of providing one implicitly.

An example from the standard library using any and any::array

Now let’s look at Prelude’s Data.Functor FFI. First, the JavaScript version, Functor.js:

exports.arrayMap = function (f) {
  return function (arr) {
    var l = arr.length;
    var result = new Array(l);
    for (var i = 0; i < l; i++) {
      result[i] = f(arr[i]);
    return result;

Compare this to Functor.hh and

#include "PureScript/PureScript.hh"

namespace Data_Functor {
  using namespace PureScript;	

  // foreign import arrayMap :: forall a b. (a -> b) -> Array a -> Array b
  auto arrayMap(const any& f, const any::array& xs) -> any::array; 
#include "Functor.hh"

namespace Data_Functor {
  using namespace PureScript;

  auto arrayMap(const any& f, const any::array& xs) -> any::array {
    any::array bs;
    for (auto it = xs.cbegin(), end = xs.cend(); it != end; it++) {
    return bs;

You can see similarities between the two functions, at least in their structure. This function requires the any variant and any::array types mentioned earlier. As with its JavaScript counterpart, f is assumed to be a function taking a single argument, and is called when generating the new array’s elements. If you’ve used C++’s Standard Template Library, the iterators and member functions used here should look familiar, since std::array conforms to its standard container interfaces.

A note on memory management

I haven’t talked about how memory is managed in the C++ FFI code, and you might be wondering about it, since C++ does not have automatic memory management (at least not by default). You can read more about it on the wiki’s memory management section, but for these basic examples, you can assume that memory is managed for you.

More examples

You can find more FFI examples on the wiki.