Perl 6 NativeCall: Look, Ma! I'm a C Programmer!

A while back, I wanted to write a post talking about how Perl 6 lets you use C libraries without writing any C code. It was cool and clickbaity, but I quickly realized two things: (a) the statement isn't always true; and (b) I'm too ignorant to talk about it without sounding like a moron.

And so has started my path to re-learn C (I barely ever used it and it was over a decade ago) and to learn Perl 6's NativeCall in great detail. Oh, and I'll blog about my journey in a series of bite-sized posts. Let's begin!

Use C Libraries Without Writing Any C Code!

NativeCall is one of the standard modules included with Perl 6 that provides interface to C libraries. No compilers or -dev versions of the libraries are needed! And this, of course, means you can use C libraries without writing any C code!

The is native() trait is applied to a sub with an empty body and signature that matches the prototype of the C function you wish this sub to call. Magic! Right?

As I've already hinted, things get complex fast, and in some circumstances not writing any C might be unfeasible or maybe even impossible. In such situations, you'd simply create a wrapper library. But let's look at some code already!

The Standard C Library

If no argument is given to is native trait, it will look in the Standard C Library. Programmers coming from Perl 5 often notice there's no fork() in Perl 6. The reason for that is that, unlike in Perl 5, it's almost never needed, but thanks to NativeCall, it is actually "there":

use NativeCall;

sub fork() returns int32 is native {};

given fork() {
    when 0     { say "I'm a kid!";                      };
    when * > 0 { say "I'm a parent. The kid is at $_";  };
    default    { die "Failed :(";                       };

sleep .5;
say 'Hello, World!';

# I'm a parent. The kid is at 13099
# I'm a kid!
# Hello, World!
# Hello, World!

On the first line, we use the NativeCall module to bring in its functionality. The second line is where all the magic happens. We declare a sub with an empty body and name it the same as its named in the C library. The sub is sporting is native trait which tells the compiler we want a C library function, and since the name of the library isn't there, we want the Standard Library.

For a successfull call, we need to match the prototype of the C function. Looking at man 2 fork, we see it's pid_t fork(void). So our sub doesn't take any arguments, but it returns one. If you dig around, you'll find pid_t can be represented as a C int and if we look up an int in the handy table mapping C and Perl 6 types, you'll notice we can use int32 Perl 6 native type, which is what we specified in the returns trait.

And that is it! The rest of our code uses fork() as if it were a Perl 6 sub. It will be looked up in the library on the first call and cached for any subsequent look ups.

Basic Use of Libraries

For our learning pleasure, I'll be using libcdio library that lets you mess around with CDs and CD-ROMs (anybody still got those?). On Debian, I'll just need libcdio13 package. Notice is it not the -dev version and on my box it was actually already installed.

I'm going to create a Perl 6 program called troll.p6 that opens and closes the CD tray:

use NativeCall;

sub cdio_eject_media_drive(Str) is native('cdio', v13) {};
sub cdio_close_tray(Str, int32) is native('cdio', v13) {};

say "Gimme a CD!";
cdio_eject_media_drive Str;

sleep .5;
say "Ha! Too slow!";
cdio_close_tray Str, 0;

The cdio_eject_media_drive and cdio_close_tray functions are provided by the library. We declare them and apply is native trait. This time, we give the trait two arguments: the library name and its version.

Notice how the name lacks any lib prefixes or .so suffixes. Those are not needed, as NativeCall figures out what those should be automatically, based on the operating system the code is running on.

The version is optional, but it's not recommended that you omit it, since then you never know whether the version that's loaded is compatible with your code. In future posts, I'll explore how to make naming/versioning more flexible.

The one thing to look at are the C function prototypes for these two subs:

driver_return_code_t    cdio_eject_media_drive (const char *psz_drive)
driver_return_code_t    cdio_close_tray (const char *psz_drive, driver_id_t *p_driver_id)

That looks mighty fancy and it seems like we haven't reproduced them exactly in our Perl 6 code. I'm cheetsy-doodling here a bit: while Str is correct for const char *, I looked up what int value will work for p_driver_id so I don't have to mess with structs or enums, for now. I'm also ignoring return types which may be a bad idea and makes my code less predictable and perhaps less portable as well. When making calls to subs, I used the type object Str for the strings. That translates to a NULL in C.

I'll leave more detailed coverage of passing arguments around for future articles. Right now, there's a more serious issue that needs fixing. The names!

Renaming Functions

One thing that sucks about C functions is they're often named with snake_case, which is an eyesore in Perl 6 with it's shiny kebob-case. Luckily, the fix is just a trait away:

use NativeCall;

sub open-tray(Str) is native('cdio', v13)
    is symbol('cdio_eject_media_drive') {};

sub close-tray(Str, int32) is native('cdio', v13)
    is symbol('cdio_close_tray') {};

say "Gimme a CD!";
open-tray Str;

sleep .5;
say "Ha! Too slow!";
close-tray Str, 0;

The usage is simple: name your sub with whatever you want its name to be, then use is symbol trait and use the C function's name as its argument. And that's it! With just a couple of lines of code, we're making a call into a C library and we're using purty sub names to do it!


Today we've seen a glimpse of the power Perl 6 provides when it comes to C libraries. It lets you get pretty far without needing a C compiler.

In future posts in the series, we'll learn more about passing data around as well as various helpers that do the heavy lifting.

See you next time!


thanks, useful post. --jnap

I wonder how is it on the Perl 5 side. If you can use Perl 6 from Perl 5 with compatibility module or Inline, then hypothetically this should work on Perl 5 too, right?

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About Zoffix Znet

user-pic I blog about Perl.