You will learn:

  • how to call C/C++ compiled code from Python using the ctypes module
  • how to compile a C++ extension using setuptools

We’ll use the code under cext. Start by

cd cext

Why extend Python with C/C++

  1. You want to call a function that is implemented in C, C++ or Fortran. This can give you access to a vast collection of libraries so you won’t have to reinvent the wheel
  2. You have identified a performance bottleneck - reimplementing some parts of your Python code in C, C++ or Fortran could give you a performance boost
  3. It makes your code type safe. In contrast to C, C++ and Fortran, Python is not a typed language - you can pass any object to any Python function. This can cause runtime failures in Python which cannot occur in C, C++ or Fortran, as the error would be caught by the compiler


  • A good way to glue Python with an external library
  • Can be used to incrementally migrate code to C/C++
  • Very flexible
  • Simpler and easier to maintain than custom C extensions


  • Has a learning curve, one must understand how Python and C work
  • Mistakes often lead to segmentation faults, which can be hard to debug

Learn the basics

Let’s go to our example of computing the sum of all the elements of an array. In order not to interfere with the scatter code, let’s create a directory mysum_example and go to that directory:

mkdir mysum_example
cd mysum_example

Open your editor and copy-paste the following code

 * Compute the sum an array
 * @param n number of elements
 * @param array input array
 * @return sum
extern "C" // required when using C++ compiler
long long mysum(int n, int* array) {
    // return type is 64 bit integer
    long long res = 0;
    for (int i = 0; i < n; ++i) {
        res += array[i];
    return res;

Save the above in file mysum.cpp.

Note: the extern "C" line ensures that function mysum can be called from “C”. Because Python is written in C, your external function must be C callable.

To compile mysum.cpp we need to write a setup.py file. Open your editor, copy-paste the lines

from setuptools import setup, Extension

# Compile *mysum.cpp* into a shared library 
    ext_modules=[Extension('mysum', ['mysum.cpp'],),],

and save in file setup.py. The fact that mysum.cpp has the .cpp extension indicates that the source file is written in C++.

Compile the code with the command:

python setup.py build

This will compile the code and produce a shared library under build/lib.linux-x86_64-3.6, something like mysum.cpython-36m-x86_64-linux-gnu.so. The extension .so indicates that the above is a shared library (also called dynamic-link library or shared object). The advantage of creating a shared library over a static library is that in the former the Python interpreter needs not be recompiled. The good news is that setuptools knows how to compile shared libraries so you won’t have to worry about the details.


  • by convention this file should be named setup.py
  • a more realistic example might have include directories and libraries listed in setup.py if the C++ extension depends on external packages. An example of a setup.py file can be found here.

Steps required to call an external function from Python

To call mysum from Python we’ll use the ctypes module. The steps are:

  1. use function CDLL to open the shared library. CDLL expects the path to the shared library and returns a shared library object.
  2. tell the argument and result types of the function. The argument types are listed in members argtypes (a list) and restype, respectively. Use for instance ctypes.c_int for a C int. See table below to find out how to translate other C types to their corresponding ctypes objects.
  3. call the function, casting the Python objects into ctypes objects if required. The table below shows how you can cast some common C/C++ types in corresponding Python objects, which can be handed over to an external C/C++ function

Translation table for some Python and C/C++ types

The following table can be used to translate some common types between Python and C:

Python C/C++ type Comments
None NULL  
ctypes.char_p char*  
ctypes.c_int int No need to cast
ctypes.c_longlong long long  
ctypes.c_double double  
numpy.ctypeslib.ndpointer(dtype=numpy.float64) double* pass a numpy array of type numpy.float64
numpy.ctypeslib.ndpointer(dtype=numpy.int32) int* pass a numpy array of type numpy.int32

For a complete list of C to ctypes type mapping see the Python documentation.

Calling mysum from Python

Let’s return to our mysum C++ function, which we would like to call from Python:

import ctypes
import numpy
import glob

# find the shared library, the path depends on the platform and Python version
libfile = glob.glob('build/*/mysum*.so')[0]

# 1. open the shared library
mylib = ctypes.CDLL(libfile)

# 2. tell Python the argument and result types of function mysum
mylib.mysum.restype = ctypes.c_longlong
mylib.mysum.argtypes = [ctypes.c_int, 

array = numpy.arange(0, 100000000, 1, numpy.int32)

# 3. call function mysum
array_sum = mylib.mysum(len(array), array)

print('sum of array: {}'.format(array_sum))

Additional explanation

  • By default, arguments are passed by value. To pass an array of ints (int*), specify numpy.ctypeslib.ndpointer(dtype=numpy.int32) in the argtypes list. You can declare double* similarly by using numpy.ctypeslib.ndpointer(dtypes=numpy.float64)

  • Strings will need to be converted to byte strings in Python 3 (str(mystring).encode('ascii'))

  • Passing by reference, for instance int& can be achieved using ctypes.byref(myvar_t) with myvar_t of type ctypes.c_int

  • Numpy arrays of type numpy.int have precision numpy.int64 so make sure to create an array of type numpy.int32, which has the same precision as C int.

  • When passing arrays, it is possible to specify extra restrictions on the numpy arrays at the interface level, for example the number of dimensions the array should have or its shape. If an array passed in as an argument does not meet the specified requirements and exception will be raised. A full list of possible options can be found in the numpy.ctypeslib.ndpointer documentation.


We’ve created a version of scatter.py that compute the scattered wave from a contour segment in C++. Compile the code using python setup.py build. (Make sure you have the BOOST_DIR environment variable set as described here.). The code runs faster than the pure Python code under original/; however, there is still room for improvement. Your task will be to replace the computation in Python function isInsideContour defined in scatter.py with the C++ version implemented in src/is_inside_contour.cpp.

  • run and time/profile scatter.py, making note of the checksum
  • look into src/is_inside_contour.h to determine the interface of the function
  • in setup.py, add src/is_inside_contour.cpp to the wave library extension
  • define the C++ function interface in scatter.py
  • modify scatter.py to call the C++ function
  • re-run and time/profile scatter.py, making sure the checksum has not changed