Polyglot Projects

Published on 2019, May 20

An exploration of how I wrote a C++ binding API for my Rust library.


As work on my bitvec project neared completion lol, I began thinking about how it might be used by other programming languages. While C++ offers optimized bitset and vector<bool> constructs (mapping to my &mut BitSlice and BitVec types, respectively), I know of no languages with libraries that offer parallels to my project.

At work, I came to a point where I had reason to need a C++ library with the functionality of bitvec, and I realized I could be my own customer of a set of idiomatic foreign-language bindings against the Rust crate.

First Steps

The first commit on my branch was to move everything from the project root into a subdirectory, rust/, and then rebuild the project root as a polyglot repository. This meant making a workspace Cargo manifest so I could run cargo from the root directory, a recipe file to link Rust and other language development processes, and a new README describing how to use the project.

I then added a feature named ffi to the Rust project, then added a module of the same name gated on that feature. As it is not a default feature, Rust users who want to use the crate normally will not notice any difference.

Building the FFI

I then made a module, ffi/slice, and began rebuilding the BitSlice API in it. The immediate obstacle is: it is impossible to expose generic types or functions as C symbols over FFI. Furthermore, the end result of this work is that the project must be compiled as an object-code archive, with all the functions monomorphized and present in it.

This means that for each generic method in the impl<C, T> blocks, eight functions (two provided Cursor types, four provided storage types) functions must be written in the ffi/slice module. Since these functions are going to be entirely identical except for function signature, I learned how to make pattern templates in my editor so that I could enter a macro and have it expand to the set of eight functions, correctly monomorphized.

Initial API Design

The FFI functions that Rust exposes must have a C-compatible API surface. This gives the following constraints:

  • the function must be pub all the way to the crate root, so that the Rust compiler will leave it in the artifact even though it is unused
  • the function must be marked extern "C" so that the compiler will give it the local C compiled interface, rather than the Rust native ABI (which is unspecified)
  • the function should be marked #[no_mangle] so that the name written in the source code is the same name written into the symbol table, and accessible from C. Without this attribute, the C code will have to call, for example, _ZN7example3ffi5slice18bitvec_bs_b08_name17hf0d3f773bb3ad533E, instead of bitvec_bs_b08_name.
  • the function should be marked unsafe. All extern functions are treated as unsafe by default, but without the keyword, their bodies are not unsafe blocks and so require the keyword to call other extern functions or do any other unsafe work required by the FFI boundary.
  • all types in argument or return position must be describable to C, and should be either C fundamentals or wrappers over them. Personally, I don’t even pass small structs by value; only the fundamentals transfer by value, and everything else by pointer.

Since the &BitSlice pointer type is not a simple type – it is a two-word structure, with complex internal rules – I elected to always pass it by pointer. Furthermore, BitSlice is not an object at all in Rust, but a dynamically-sized type describing a region of memory. As such, it is only ever handled as a reference.

I thus wound up with the type signature of *{const|mut} *{const|mut} BitSlice<BigEndian, u8>, expanded to each permutation of Cursor and Bits implementors the crate offers.

The left-most pointer is a pointer to the &BitSlice<_, _> structure, and its const or mut flag marks whether the pointer itself can have its structure values modified. Functions that manipulate &BitSlice values take a mut pointer, and functions that only inspect the slice handle take a const.

The right pointer is the actual pointer to the region. It is a two-word structure, which Rust interprets as a pointer and C does not. Its flag marks whether the function can modify the data in the region to which it points. All four combinations of mut and const pointers are valid, with their own meanings and correct uses.


Rust references are known to be valid. C pointers are unconstrained, and may be null.

The FFI boundary functions must take it on faith that pointers they are given are valid, and must check that the pointers are not null before using them. At first, I wrote a nullck! macro that checked each argument for null, and after the macro ran, my function body could be sure it was proceeding on valid data.

This is fine, but is not idiomatic Rust, and the boundary functions are still Rust functions.

I then realized that Rust makes a very big deal out of the fact that Option<&T> has the exact same ABI surface as *const T, and Option<&mut T> as *mut T.

This means that all pointers can be rewritten in the Rust FFI signatures as options of references, and then I can use the type system to enforce null checking for me.

I then moved all my type signatures from double pointers to double option references. They look like this:

Option<&'a [mut] Option<&'b [mut] BitSlice<_, _>>>

This is (a) ugly and (b) confusing. I found it extremely easy to lose track of which layer I was attempting to inspect or manipulate, especially as I started to favor Option combinators over match statements.

Less Unpleasant Types

Enter type aliases:

type Pointer<'a, T> = Option<&'a T>;
type PointerMut<'a, T> = Option<&'a mut T>;

This alias describes a pointer to any particular type. I used it solely for types that were ABI-equivalent to C pointers of any type. I then mapped the &BitSlice references to another alias,

type Slice<'b, C, T> = Option<&'b BitSlice<C, T>>;
type SliceMut<'b, C, T> = Option<&'b BitSlice<C, T>>;

These type aliases allowed me to reduce my function signatures to

pub unsafe extern "C"
fn bitvec_bs_b08_name<'a, 'b: 'a>(
  this: Pointer<'a, Slice<'b, BigEndian, u8>>,
) -> Return {
  //  not-null pointer to slice handle
  if let Some(lhs) = this {
    //  not-null handle to slice
    if let Some(bits) = lhs {
      //  bits: &BitSlice is now usable

which is much more readable. The distinction between pointer-to-C-value and handle-of-memory is clearly marked, and I can use Pointer for any object crossing the FFI boundary, not just slice handles. Since type aliases are transparent, I can still use the Option patterns and methods on these values.

With a consistent enough naming scheme (this and other for outer pointers, lhs and rhs for inner pointers, and useful names for the final referent), reading the FFI boundary functions becomes habitual and much less surprising.

Final Rust file: rust/src/ffi/slice.rs

Using the FFI

Once the Rust functions are written, they need to be made available to C.

Finding the Rust Artifacts

If you look at the artifacts that rustc produces, you’ll see a lot of them, but…

$ ls target/debug

$ file target/debug/libbitvec.rlib
libbitvec.rlib: current ar archive

That .rlib file is the compiled artifact of the crate. With the --features ffi flag, it will even have the monomorphized FFI boundary functions in it, ready for use from C!

Let’s write a quick C program:

int main() {
  return 0;

and link it against that library and see what happens!

clang -std=c99 c/example.c target/debug/libbitvec.rlib -otarget/c

… oh.

That’s several linker errors.

Here’s the problem: Rust compiled the crate. It did not link the crate against std. Rust libraries are built to be consumed by Rust executables.

We could tell clang to link against the local Rust std also, but that’s a lot of work. Instead, we can tell Rust that we want the library to be usable by a C program, by modifying the crate’s Cargo.toml.

# Cargo.toml

crate-type = [
  "cdylib",    # .so/.dylib/.dll
  "rlib",      # .rlib
  "staticlib", # .a/.lib

Using the (Correct) Rust Artifacts

Let’s compile again, with cargo build, and look in target/debug:

$ ls target/debug
> dir target\debug

The .a and .lib files are statically-linked archives, and the .so and .dll files are dynamically-linked. These files can be fed into a C linker for C to use. Let’s try the static!

$ clang -std=c99 c/example.c target/debug/libbitvec.a -otarget/c
/rustc/91856ed52c58aa5ba66a015354d1cc69e9779bdf//src/libstd/sys/unix/thread.rs:374: undefined reference to `pthread_attr_getstack'
clang: error: linker command failed with exit code 1 (use -v to see invocation)

Awkward. There’s a correct invocation of the other libraries that Rust requires in order to use static archives correctly, and I remember the compiler used to emit it, but I don’t know the list anymore. Let’s try the dynamic instead.

clang -std=c99 c/example.c target/debug/libbitvec.so -otarget/c

This compiles, links, and runs. The fact that it does nothing is incidental; we just needed to get a C program linked against the Rust-made library.

Telling C About the Rust Library

The next step is to inform C that there exist functions and types for it to use. We do this by writing a header file that defines equivalents to our Rust types, and a bunch of extern functions that tell C "you may call this function with these types and get this type back". The C compiler will insert a call to that function name, and punt to the linker to figure out what object code we meant.

Since we #[no_mangle]d our Rust functions, we can copy their names into the C header, and when C calls them, the linker will find them in the Rust object, match things up, and everything should Just Work.

Problem: C has no idea what the Rust types are.

First solution: declare a struct that just matches the ABI of the Rust &BitSlice handles.

#include <stddef.h>

struct BitPtr {
  void * ptr;
  size_t len;

This is equivalent in ABI to Option<&BitSlice> on the Rust side, though as noted in the bitvec docs, the C side absolutely must not read either field of the struct. But we have a correctly sized record, and we can start passing it to Rust.

Let’s initialize it!

int main() {
  struct BitPtr tmp;
  return 0;
clang -std=c99 c/example.c target/debug/libbitvec.so -otarget/c

This runs, though we still cannot observe any effects. I’m not going to continue showing calls to functions in C that have no observable effect other than “not crashing”, so, let’s move on.

FFI, but, Make It Fashion

Writing a header file that lists functions available to call is table stakes. Entry fees. The bare minimum to make a project polyglot.

We want bitvec to have a native-esque interface in every language that uses it. This means types.

Our first problem: C doesn’t have an Option<bool>, and the API uses that pervasively. We do happen to know that Rust guarantees it fits in a uint8_t, so we could write a C enum for it, like

enum OptionBool {
  False = 0,
  True = 1,
  None = /* ??? */,

And use

println!("{}", unsafe { std::mem::transmute::<Option<bool>, u8>(None) });

to get the value of None (it’s 2), but this is silly work to do manually, especially if the compiler changes its mind about representations.

For all types that C has to know, but are not under bitvec’s direct control, we should have the compiler do the work for us. The simplest way to do this is to have a build script emit the C declarations of the Rust native types we’re using.

Rather than reproduce it here, I’ve linked my build script.

Set Rust Asail in C

The first challenge is carrying over Rust’s distinctions of mutability and immutability. Neither C nor Rust have the concept of being parametric over mut or const, so this means separate types:

typedef struct {
  void const * ptr;
  size_t len;
} BitPtrImmut;

typedef struct {
  void * ptr;
  size_t len;
} BitPtrMut;

And since &mut T is a superset of &T, we need to be able to use all BitPtrMut as BitPtrImmut, but not the other way:

typedef struct {
  BitPtrImmut immut;
} BitSlice;

typedef struct {
  union {
    BitSlice immut;
    BitPtrMut mut;
  } u;
} BitSliceMut;

There! Now we can degrade a BitSliceMut to a BitSlice, but a BitSlice cannot1 upgrade to BitSliceMut.

Now we just rewrite our functions to take BitSlice * or BitSliceMut *, and define a macro to degrade from mut to const for us,

#define BV_IMMUT(bvbsm) &((bvbsm).u.immut)

so that we can make calls expecting BitSlice * with the name of a BitSliceMut, and we’re set.

Except C can’t distinguish the cursor or storage types, so this permits mixing the actual Rust functions we’re calling. There’s nothing to prevent calling the function bitvec_bs_l32_get (using little-endian order on u32) on a slice we initialized with bitvec_bs_b16_from_slice (using big-endian order on u16).

This, obviously, is Not Good.

The C side needs to mirror each monomorph that the Rust side had.

With sixteen more declarations.

typedef struct {
  BitPtrImmut immut;
} BitSliceB08;

typedef struct {
  union {
    BitSliceB08 immut;
    BitPtrMut mut;
  } u;
} BitSliceB08Mut;
/* repeat for L08, B16, … */

and then change all our function declarations to

bitvec_bs_b08_len(BitSliceB08 const * self);
bitvec_bs_l08_len(BitSliceL08 const * self);
bitvec_bs_b16_len(BitSliceB16 const * self);
/* … */

and now we have an idiomatic C API.

Final C FFI declaration: c/bitvec/slice.h

If you read that file, you’ll notice some blocks like this:

#ifdef __cplusplus
// …

and you might remember this bit from the build script:

#if defined(__cplusplus) \
&& __cplusplus > 201101L
OptionBool {

These are here to make the files forward-compatible with C++, which will also read them. The text inside these guards is incomprehensible to the C compiler, so the preprocessor removes them unless in the presence of a (recent enough) C++ environment.

Sprinkle in Some Class

C is a pretty straightforward language: we call functions with items, and that’s about it.

C++ is much more interesting, and preferable to use. Furthermore, its object system and templating allows us to more nicely mirror Rust’s generic structs and method syntax.

The first thing C++ needs to do is to import the external function declarations we already wrote in the C headers. Because C++ linkage, like Rust linkage, does not necessarily use the C ABI and also has name mangling, we must tell C++ that the functions use the C ABI and do not mangle – the extern "C" {} scopes that were #ifdefd away in the C headers.

We then tell C++ that all those names should not be in the global namespace, but in the library namespace – the namespace bv {} scopes also in the #ifdef guards.

Now we have a whole lot of functions, but no types to pass in to them. The sixteen different structs in C are awful to use.

We want the following:

template <class /* for now */ C, class T>
class BitSlice : public BitSlice {
  // methods here

so then we can say BitSlice</* something */, uint8_t> bs; bs.len();

Since it’s illegal to have multiple types with the same name, I chose to prepend H to all the C structs to indicate that they are Handles to indirect data.

Since the Rust library only exports two Cursor implementors, we can recreate those in C++ with

enum class Cursor {
  BigEndian = 0,
  LittleEndian = 1,

and make our class take template <Cursor C, class T>.

Defining Methods

My first instinct, not knowing anything about modern C++, was to laboriously create sixteen monomorphs – eight each of class BitSlice and class BitSliceMut : public BitSlice – and define methods on them that call the C functions:

template <Cursor C, class T>
class BitSlice : public HBitSlice {};

template <Cursor C, class T>
class BitSliceMut : public BitSlice<C, T> {};

BitSlice<BigEndian, uint8_t>::size(void)
const noexcept {
  return bitvec_bs_b08_len(this);

BitSlice<LittleEndian, uint8_t>::size(void)
const noexcept {
  return bitvec_bs_l08_len(this);

which, even with editor macros, was horrifically unpleasant.

Jumping Through Hoops and also Tables

I swiftly gave up and asked Twitter user @strega_nil for help, and thankfully she knew what the hell she was doing and showed me some magic.

C++ has some very powerful compile-time programming abilities. For example, we can compile all the monomorphs of the same function into a jump table:

using len_t = auto(HBitSlice const *) -> std::size_t;
constexpr auto len = std::array<len_t, 8> {{
  reinterpret_cast<len_t *>(bitvec_bs_b08_len),
  reinterpret_cast<len_t *>(bitvec_bs_l08_len),
  // …

and we can turn a Cursor variant and a storage class into an index in that jump table:

template <Cursor C, class T>
constexpr std::size_t jump(void) {
    ) << 1)

which computes the number of trailing zeroes in the byte count of each type (0, 1, 2, or 3, for u8, u16, u32, and u64, respectively), shifts up by one, and sets the last bit true for little endian and false for big. This gives us a number in 0 .. 8 for each combination of cursor and storage, computed at compile time and const-folded at use.

template <Cursor C, class T>
class BitSlice : public HBitSlice {
  std::size_t size(void) const noexcept {
    return len[jump<C, T>()](this);

During compilation, the jump<C, T> call is replaced with its computed value, then len[JUMP_C_T] is replaced with the name of the function in that slot in the len function array, and it becomes a flat function call. Since the table entries are moved into their use sites, and the table sites are inaccessible to user code because of namespacing, the tables get removed entirely, and only the templates that are instantiated and their methods that are called appear in the final program.

The Nobility of Inheritance

We still have a problem: the jump tables expect four different kinds of this:

  • HBitSlice *: mut pointer to immut region
  • HBitSliceMut *: mut pointer to mut region
  • HBitSlice const *: immut pointer to immut region
  • HBitSliceMut const *: immut pointer to mut region

but our class can only produce HBitSlice * in unqualified methods and HBitSlice const * in const-qualified methods.

This is where @strega_nil brought out the really cool work:

First, she defined four functions:

static HBitSlice const *
make_immut(HBitSliceMut const * self) {
  return &self->u.immut;
static HBitSlice const *
make_immut(HBitSlice const * self) {
  return self;

static HBitSlice *
make_immut(HBitSliceMut * self) {
  return &self->u.immut;
static HBitSlice *
make_immut(HBitSlice * self) {
  return self;

These turn any pointer to any handle into a pointer to the equivalent immutable handle. They are the identity function when the handle is already immutable, and are union manipulation in the C structure when the handle is mutable.

As it happens, these functions are purely type-level, and are the identity function for address manipulation, so these calls also evaporate in compilation.

Next, she really blew my mind: C++ lets you conditionally select your ancestor.

template <Cursor C, class T>
class BitSlice : public std::conditional<
>::type {
    std::is_integral<T>::value &&

That class decoration ties everything together: when T is uintN_t const, the only methods available are those that do not mutate the referent data; when T is uintN_t (not const), all methods are available. Each method only needs to be declared once, in the class template:

  std::size_t size(void) const noexcept {
    return len[jump<C, T>()](make_immut(this));

From Trampoline to Bouncy Castle

Lastly, just to really flex on me, @strega_nil folded that trampoline call into a multiplexer function:

template <
  Cursor C,
  class T,
  class Ret,
  class... Params,
  class... Args,
auto mux(
    Ret (*)(Params...) noexcept, 8
  > const& funcs,
  Args&&... args
) noexcept -> R {
  return funcs[jump<C, T>()](

This beast, called as mux<C, T>(table, make_immut(this), rest...);, selects the correct function from the table, then passes all the other arguments into that function and returns the result. It typechecks that the looked-up function takes the same parameter set as was invoked at the call site, and is evaluated at compile time to be … just a function call.

Replace table[jump<C, T>()](args...) with mux<C, T>(table, args...) and now, finally, the C++ API is finished.

And it works.

#include <cstdint>
#include <iostream>
#include "bitvec/slice.hpp"

uint32_t arr[4];
bv::BitSlice<BigEndian, uint32_t> bs(arr, 4);
std::cout << std::boolalpha
          << "Bit 13: " << bs[13]
          << std::endl;
bs[13] = true;
std::cout << "Bit 13: " << bs[13]
          << std::endl;
std::cout << "The slice has " << bs.size()
          << " bits. "
          << std::endl;

Final C++ bindings: c/bitvec/slice.hpp.

Beyond Bindings

The minimum functionality is achieved by creating C++ methods that correctly call Rust functions exposed through the C FFI with the appropriate values. The step from thin wrapper to native-feeling library is achieved by extra work, like renaming Rust methods to the C++ convention (size instead of len, at instead of get), implementing the correct constructors (every ::empty and ::from_something in Rust is a constructor overload in C++), and then the useful operators (such as operator [](std::size_t) for Index<usize>).

The effort I spent in making the Rust types match their standard-library counterparts is mirrored by making the C++ binding types match their native counterparts. I recreated the logic in Rust bitvec’s slice::BitGuard and C++ std’s std::vector<bool> that allows write indexing, and I am working on a design for C++ iteration.

Every programming language has its own idioms for expressing common concepts. I steadfastly refuse to port bitvec to other languages2, so in order for other languages to have this functionality, I must provide them with types and functions that can operate it.

Just as speaking German in an American accent, with American-English grammar, is not speaking German, so too is dropping a bare list of types and functions or a stubbornly Rustic API surface in the target language not speaking that language.

Each language I add to the project will have the same level of (best-effort) thought and polish added to the provided interface. C++ users should not notice any difference in their source code that makes them realize that bitvec is not a C++ library, nor should any users of future languages.

Panic! at the Callsite

Every panic! in Rust begins a routine that ultimately ends in the destruction of the thread. In most programs, this works by unwinding the stack until the thread terminates. A Rust function that begins a panic unwind, which was called from a foreign-language stack frame, will cause that unwind to cross the language boundary.

This is extremely undefined behavior.

The Rust reference assures us that during codegen, all extern fn definitions are wrapped with an unwind trap that executes an illegal instruction, causing immediate abort.

Since there are (at time of writing) 646 assert! statements in the bitvec repository, most of them in the library proper, this assurance is necessary.

Still, it is probably worthwhile to compile with RUSTFLAGS=panic=abort,$RUSTFLAGS when creating a library intended for foreign linkage.


I hope I’ve shown that it’s not sufficient just to mark a Rust function as #[no_mangle] extern "C" in order to make a project polyglot. Each language supported by a project should have a native, idiomatic feel to it.

This means coming up with a least-common-denominator FFI boundary for other languages to be able to interact with the Rust artifact. As long as the C-ABI remains the lingua franca of inter-language calls, the Rust FFI surface will need to be shaped to accomodate the broadest, simplest possible expression of each operation. Each language can then wrap the FFI calls in local idiomatic patterns.

This means knowing the destination language well enough – or better yet, knowing someone who knows the destination language well enough – to create an API that fits the language, and then maps the local concepts onto the Rust FFI surface.

Furthermore, not all concepts in the Rust library need to be moved through FFI. While the core logic should certainly remain in one place, it is worth remembering that FFI calls are at minimum a function call that can only be optimized by the linker, and in many languages can wind up with considerable overhead cost.

Creation of polyglot bindings to a library is as detail- and design- intensive of a task as implementing the logic in each language in the first place. The advantage is that with a Rust library, we have all the Rust language’s guarantees of correct behavior and direct control, in addition to the convenient local usage in any language that wishes to take advantage of this functionality.


  1. Without the user writing ugly code that shows them they’re misbehaving. They’re free to do that, of course, but I did my best.
  2. I may have to translate it to C++, in order to use the library on the MSP-430 which Rust cannot target, but the prospect of this fills me with trepidation and fear. I certainly will not produce native ports in any other language, ever.