Allegro CL version 10.1
Moderately revised from 10.0.
10.0 version

Foreign Types

This document contains the following sections:

1.0 Foreign types introduction
2.0 The foreign types facility
3.0 Examples
4.0 The Syntax for Foreign Types
   4.1 The union of two structs
5.0 Primitive Types
6.0 Allocation types
7.0 Aligned Pointers and the :aligned type
8.0 Bit Fields
9.0 The Programming Interface
10.0 Passing Foreign Objects to Foreign Functions
   10.1 String representation
   10.2 A Quiz

1.0 Foreign types introduction

The purpose of the foreign types facility is to permit the creation, reading and modification of objects that are described in non-lisp terms. By non-lisp we generally mean C or C++.

The cstruct object, that is an object of type (array excl::foreign), has been enhanced so that the first slot contains a Lisp object. make-array and the garbage collector have been enhanced to allow lisp-valued arrays to be stored in static space. Combining these two enhancements, you get the ability to allocate cstructs in static space and for those cstructs to contain a pointer to their lisp class (in the first slot).

Symbols implementing ftype functionality are in the :foreign-functions (nicknamed :ff) package.

2.0 The foreign types facility

The foreign types facility tries to blend the best of the Allegro CL Unix and aclwin foreign types facility.

3.0 Examples

To get an idea of how this facility works, here are some examples. First we show how we can define, allocate, set and access values in a foreign structure.

;; define the structure
user(3): (ff:def-foreign-type my-point (:struct (x :int) (y :int)))
#<foreign-functions::foreign-structure my-point>

;; allocate an object, using the default 
;; allocation type of :foreign
user(4): (setq obj (ff:allocate-fobject 'my-point))
#<foreign object of class my-point>

;; set a slot in the object
user(5): (setf (ff:fslot-value obj 'x) 3)

;; verify that the slot is set with the correct value
user(6): (ff:fslot-value obj 'x)

The def-foreign-type macro defines the my-point structure and returns the clos class that was defined. Note that the metaclass of a foreign structure is ff:foreign-structure.

Next an object is allocated with allocate-fobject. We didn't specify an allocation type, thus the type :foreign was used. A :foreign object is stored in the lisp heap in an (array excl::foreign) object (which is commonly called cstruct object). A nice feature of a :foreign object is that it is typed. You can use that type to specialize on objects of this foreign type in CLOS generic functions.

Another advantage of a foreign object being typed is that in the (setf fslot-value) calls we didn't have to specify the type of obj. The type was automatically determined at runtime.

Runtime determination of the type is handy and enhances the safety of the program since checks will be made at runtime to ensure that the desired access is appropriate for the object given. There is a cost to this check though, and if the foreign structure access is to be done many times, you'll want to use an accessor that allows you to specify the type at compile time:

user(9): (setf (ff:fslot-value-typed 'my-point :foreign obj 'x) 3)
user(10): (ff:fslot-value-typed 'my-point :foreign obj 'x)

The fslot-value-typed function takes two extra arguments: a type and an allocation method. With certain settings of the optimization values (safety, size, space, speed), the compiler will generate code to do the access in a few machine instructions.

Allocations and accesses can be done of types that have no name. These are called anonymous types.

user(15): (setq obj (ff:allocate-fobject '(:struct (x :int) (y :int))))
#<foreign object of class #:anon-type-2>
user(16): (setf (ff:fslot-value-typed 
                  '(:struct (x :int) (y :int)) :foreign obj 'x) 
user(17): (ff:fslot-value-typed 
               '(:struct (x :int) (y :int)) :foreign obj 'x)

When you use anonymous types, you must use fslot-value-typed. This may be relaxed in the future to permit fslot-value to be used.

4.0 The Syntax for Foreign Types

The type syntax of C is mostly postfix with occasional prefix bits. Also, C tries to get by describing structures using the fewest numbers of characters, and that doesn't always make things readable. Previous foreign types facilities have tried to mimic the C syntax, leading sometimes to even more confusion since they couldn't mimic it exactly. This facility uses prefix syntax exclusively and is a bit more verbose where that is warranted. The syntax for a foreign type (ftype below) is described next.

ftype := scalar-type

primitive-type :=   :fixnum
                    :long-long (see note after chart)
                    :unsigned-long-long (see note after chart)
scalar-type :=  primitive-type
		(* ftype)
		(& ftype)
                (:aligned ftype)

composite-type := (:struct sfield ...)
		  (:class  field ...)  
		  (:union  field ...)
		  (:array  ftype  [dim ...])

function-type  := (:function (ftype ...) ftype [attributes])

user-type  := <symbol>      [where <symbol> has an associated foreign type]
dim := <positive integer>

field := ftype
	 (field-name ftype)

[fields in structures can contain bit specifiers]

sfield := field

bit-specifier :=
          (:bit number-of-bits)
          (field-name (:bit number-of-bits))

number-of-bits := <integer>

multibit-specifier :=
	  (:bits number-of-bytes mbit-specifier ...)
          (field-name (:bits number-of-bytes mbit-specifier ...))

mbit-specifier  :=
          (field-name number-of-bits)

number-of-bytes := <integer>

Some notes on the syntax above:

4.1 The union of two structs

Here is an example of the union composite type.

(in-package :user)
(use-package :ff)

(def-foreign-type changeable
   (key :int)
       (a :int)
       (b :int)
       (c :int)))
       (d (:array :char 6))
       (c (:array :char 6))))

(defun try-changeable ()
  (let ((ch (allocate-fobject 'changeable :foreign)))
    (setf (fslot-value-typed 'changeable :foreign ch 'varying 'numbers 'a) 123)
    (setf (fslot-value-typed 'changeable :foreign ch 'varying 'numbers 'b) 456)
    (setf (fslot-value-typed 'changeable :foreign ch 'varying 'numbers 'c) 789)
    (format t "~& slots of numbers struct ~S ~S ~S ~%"
        (fslot-value-typed 'changeable :foreign ch 'varying 'numbers 'a)
	    (fslot-value-typed 'changeable :foreign ch 'varying 'numbers 'b)
	        (fslot-value-typed 'changeable :foreign ch 'varying 'numbers 'c))

    (dotimes (i 6)
      (setf (fslot-value-typed 'changeable :foreign ch 'varying 'strings 'd i)
          (char-code (elt "abcdef" i)))
      (setf (fslot-value-typed 'changeable :foreign ch 'varying 'strings 'c i)
          (char-code (elt "hijklm" i)))
    (format t "~& slots of strings struct ~S ~S ~%"
        (fslot-value-typed 'changeable :foreign ch 'varying 'strings 'd 0)
	    (fslot-value-typed 'changeable :foreign ch 'varying 'strings 'c 0)

cl-user(20): (try-changeable)
 slots of numbers struct 123 456 789 
 slots of strings struct 97 104 
#<foreign object of class changeable>
cl-user(21):  :i *
A new short simple foreign vector (6) @ #x205afd02
   0-> simple t vector (7) = #(483681 t 901 ...)
   1-> The field #x00000000
   2-> The field #x64636261
   3-> The field #x69686665
   4-> The field #x6d6c6b6a
   5-> The field #x00000000

5.0 Primitive Types

The sizes of the primitives types vary by machine architecture, as this table shows.

Type Size Alignment Notes
:void 0 0 Used in (* :void) type specifications and used to prototype a foreign call of no arguments, just like C and C++ do (i.e. an argument list specification of () really says that we don't know how many arguments there are, whereas an arg list specification of (:void) says that there are precisely 0 arguments expected.)
:char 1 1 A signed one byte access
:unsigned-char 1 1 [none]
:short 2 2 A signed two byte access
:unsigned-short 2 2 [none]
:int 4 4 A signed four byte access
:unsigned-int 4 4 [none]
:aligned 4 on all 32-bit machines and 8 on all all 64-bit machines 4 on all 32-bit machines and 8 on all all 64-bit machines [none]
:long 4 on all 32-bit machines and 8 on all all 64-bit machines except 64-bit Windows, where it is 4. 4 on all 32-bit machines and 8 on all 64-bit machines except 64-bit Windows, where it is 4 A signed access of an architecture specific size.
:unsigned-long 4 on all 32-bit machines and 8 on all all 64-bit machines except 64-bit Windows, where it is 4. 4 on all 32-bit machines and 8 on all 64-bit machines except 64-bit Windows, where it is 4 [none]
:long-long 8 on all machines. Same as :long in all 64-bit Lisps excpet 64-bit machines. 8 on all machines. Cannot be used in foreign call callbacks or :call-direct foreign calls on 32-bit Lisps and 64-bit Windows.
:unsigned-long-long 8 on all machines. Same as :long in all 64-bit Lisps except 64-bit Windows. 8 on all machines. Cannot be used in foreign call callbacks or :call-direct foreign calls on 32-bit Lisps and 64-bit Windows.
:float 4 4 [none]
:double 8 8 on all machines except Linux and FreeBSD on an x86 where it is 4 [none]
:nat 4 on 32-bit implementations, 8 on 64-bit implementations 4 on 32-bit implementations, 8 on 64-bit implementations This type allows the same sources to work on both 32-bit and 64-bit machines.
:unsigned-nat 4 on 32-bit implementations, 8 on 64-bit implementations 4 on 32-bit implementations, 8 on 64-bit implementations Am unsigned version of :nat.

6.0 Allocation types

Objects can be allocated in a variety of places. The default allocation location is :foreign.

7.0 Aligned Pointers and the :aligned type

The :aligned foreign type is described here. Related is the :aligned specification as argument and return values values for def-foreign-call and defun-foreign-callable.

Lisp can reference data stored in the Lisp heap or outside the heap in what we call C-space. Objects in C-space are normally referenced by their addresses. On 32-bit machines, pointers are unsigned 32-bit integers and on 64-bit machines, pointers are unsigned 64-bit integers.

But the full range of unsigned 32 or 64 bit integers cannot be represented as Lisp fixnums because the lower 2 (in 32-bit Lisps) or 3 (in 64-bit Lisps) bits are the tag identifying the object as a fixnum and not part of the value. High addresses therefore must be respresented as bignums. Creating and manipulating bignums takes longer than creating and manipulating fixnums but more importantly it causes consing, and consing can result in garbage collections which cause Lisp objects to move. Foreign code which calls back to Lisp or Lisp code which calls out to foreign code may need to avoid consing in order to avoid garbage collection but if such code needs to manipulate pointers from the full address range, consing may occur.

Within Lisp, an aligned pointer looks like a fixnum, as we have said. If it looks like a positive fixnum, its value as a fixnum is the actual pointer value divided by 8 (in 64-bit Lisp) or 4 (in 32-bit Lisps). If it looks like a negative fixnum, things are too complicated for a simple formula.

The :aligned type allows for aligned pointers (those whose lower two bit are 0 on 32-bit machines and whose lower 3 bits are 0 on 64-bit machines) to be passed about, being treated as pointers in foreign code and as fixnums is Lisp code. This can be useful in foreign calls and call backs and in defining foreign types.

Considering foreign calls and call backs first, when an argument to the function being defined by def-foreign-call is specified to be of type :aligned, it must be a fixnum when passed to the foreign function. The whole bit pattern including zeros in the lowest 2 (32-bit) or 3 (64-bit) bits is passed to the foreign code. Similarly, when the argument to a defun-foreign-callable function is specified as :aligned, it will be received by Lisp with its bits unmodified and in Lisp will be treated as a fixnum. Consider these examples:

(def-foreign-call my-ff ((x :aligned) (y :int)) ...)

Suppose we call my-ff with arguments 1 and 1. These are Lisp fixnums so their internal respresentations in Lisp are (in 64-bit Lisps) #b1000 -- the value (1) and the fixnum tag (#b000). The foreign code will see as arguments #b1000 and #b1, that is the x argument is not converted and the y argument is.

It is similar with defun-foreign-callable. Consider the following:

(defun-foreign-callable add-c-aligned-to-int ((x :aligned) (y :int))
  (setq *x7* (+ x y)))

If foreign calls back into Lisp with (again in a 64-bit Lisp) with values #b1000 and #b1, the value of *x7* will be 2. (The x argument, passed in unchanged, will be interpreted in Lisp as the fixnum 1 and the y argument will be converted to the fixnum 1.)

The :aligned type can be used in foreign type specifications as well.

There are two ways to create an aligned pointer: allocating an object with an :aligned allocation type or referencing a slot of a foreign object that is declared of type (:aligned some-type). Next, we'll show these cases in detail.

Given any foreign type foo we can allocate an aligned pointer to it with

(allocate-fobject 'foo :aligned)

The return value will always be a fixnum.

Suppose we have types point and rect:

(def-foreign-type point
    (:struct (x :int)
             (y :int)))

(def-foreign-type rect
    (:struct  (topleft (* point))
              (bottomright (:aligned point))))

Suppose the variable rr contains a pointer to a rect object. We'll further assume that the pointer to the rect object was passed back to us from a C program and that the pointer is a normal :c (not aligned) pointer. We can access the x slot of the topleft and bottomright fields using the same kind of expression:

(fslot-value-typed 'rect :c rr :topleft '* :x)
(fslot-value-typed 'rect :c rr :bottomright '* :x)

This shows that you can treat the (* ftype) and (:aligned ftype) specifier the same when you're referencing objects through them.

If you just access the pointer values, you'll see big differences.

(fslot-value-typed 'rect :c rr :topleft)

is a normal :c pointer whereas

(fslot-value-typed 'rect :c rr :bottomright)

is an :aligned pointer.

Using aligned pointers requires careful programming. Here are the rules for using aligned pointers:

  1. If an aligned pointer is used in fslot-value-typed or (setf fslot-value-typed) then the allocation type of :aligned must be specified.
  2. Setting a slot of an object declared to be (:aligned some-type) must be done with an aligned pointer. The function address-to-aligned is useful in creating an aligned pointer from a normal :c pointer. aligned-to-address takes an aligned pointer and returns the object.
  3. When accessing a slot of an object declared as (:aligned some-type), the pointer contained therein must have its low two bits zero. Failure to abide by this will likely result in illegal lisp object pointers being stored in the heap, which will usually cause lisp to exit during the next garbage collection when the illegal pointers are discovered.
  4. fslot-address and fslot-address-typed will always return a normal :c pointer.

8.0 Bit Fields

Since C compilers use a variety of alignment and packing rules for bitfields, the Allegro CL foreign type facility must attempt to accommodate all of them. Therefore the basic facility allows bitfields to be packed into bytes on arbitrary byte boundaries.

The def-foreign-type definition of a particular structure must be adapted to the format required by a specific compiler.

For example, consider the following declaration:

struct {
	long a[1];
	char aa;
	unsigned int b : 3;
	unsigned int c : 5;
	unsigned int d : 3;
	unsigned int e : 7;
	unsigned int f : 17;
	char w;
	long z;

MSVC 2.1 allocates 6 longs with a, aa, b, f, w, and z on long boundaries. Gcc 2.7 on Solaris allocates only 5 longs by packing the fields b, c, d, and e into the the 3 bytes following aa.

The following Allegro CL definition would match the layout generated by the Microsoft Visual C compiler or the GNU C compiler on Solaris.

(def-foreign-type foo
     (a (:array :long 1))
     (aa :char)
     (:array :char 3) ;; filler needed to match MSVC alignment
     (b (:bit 3))
     (c (:bit 5))
     (d (:bit 3))
     (e (:bit 7))
     (:bit 14)       ;; filler to align next field to int
     (f (:bit 17))
     (:bit 15)       ;; filler to align next field to int
     (w :char)
     (z :long)))

9.0 The Programming Interface

The foreign type interface includes the following operators:

Name Arguments Notes
address-to-aligned address Convert the integer pointer to an object in memory to an aligned pointer. See the section Section 7.0 Aligned Pointers and the :aligned type for more information.
aligned-to-address aligned Convert the aligned pointer (which is a fixnum) to the address of the object into memory to which it points. See the section Section 7.0 Aligned Pointers and the :aligned type for more information.
allocate-fobject type &optional allocation size Allocate an object of the given type in heap described by the allocation argument. If the size argument is given, then it is the minimum size (in bytes) of the data portion of the object that will be allocated. The valid allocation arguments are shown above.
canonical-ftype type

If type is or names a foreign type, return the symbol or list that describes that type, otherwise return nil.

If type is a symbol defined using def-foreign-type, then the definition form is returned. If type is one of the primitive foreign type symbols or is a list in the form valid for def-foreign-type, then type itself is returned. If type is a symbol that has been given a foreign type definition through def-foreign-type, then the foreign definition is returned. Using canonical-ftype allows a quick determination of whether a symbol names a simple type or a structured type.

describe-fobject fobject &optional ftype This function prints a description of the contents of a foreign object.
def-foreign-type name definition defines name to be a user-defined foreign type with the given definition. Name must either be a symbol or a list beginning with a symbol and followed by attributes (see below). Definition is not evaluated and must be a foreign type description.
ensure-foreign-type &key name definition This is the functional equivalent of the macro def-foreign-type.
fobjectp obj This function returns t if object is appropriate as an argument to foreign type accessors.
free-fobject obj Free an object that was allocated by allocate-fobject with the :allocation of :c. An object should only be freed once.
free-fobject-aligned obj Free an object that was allocated by allocate-fobject with the :allocation of :aligned. An object should only be freed once.
fslot-value-typed type allocation object &rest slot-names Access a slot from an object. The type must be
  • a symbol naming a foreign type.
  • a type description using the syntax shown above.
  • a compiled foreign type object

The allocation must be one of :foreign, :foreign-static-gc, :lisp, :c, :aligned or nil. If the allocation is nil then the allocation type will be computed from the object argument. Note that an allocation type of :foreign or :foreign-static-gc will yield identical results, so you can specify either.

fslot-value object &rest slot-names This is like fslot-value-typed except it can only be used to access slots from objects with :foreign or :foreign-static-gc allocations, since these are the only objects that are runtime typed. This function is a lot more convenient to use than fslot-value-typed since the type and allocation needn't be specified, however it can't at present be open coded. Thus for speed critical parts of the program, fslot-value-typed should be used.
fslot-address-typed type allocation object &rest slot-names This is just like fslot-value-typed except that it returns the address of the object rather than the value. Asking for the address of a :lisp allocated object isn't useful since that object can move during a garbage collection and a program can't predict when a garbage collection can occur.
fslot-address object &rest slot-names This is just like fslot-address-typed except that it works only for :foreign and :foreign-static-gc objects and can't be open coded by the compiler.
foreign-type-p name name must be a symbol. If name is the name of a foreign type defined using this facility, then t is returned.
sizeof-fobject ftype ftype must be a symbol naming a foreign type. The size of an object of the foreign type ftype is returned.
with-stack-fobject (var type) &rest body) Allocate an object of type type on the stack and bind it to var while evaluating body
with-stack-fobjects bind-clauses &rest body) This variant of with-stack-fobject allows multiple bindings.

10.0 Passing Foreign Objects to Foreign Functions

We will take a bottom up approach to describing just what foreign type descriptions mean, and how that relates to what a C program would see receiving a foreign object. We'll use the :int type as an example.

  1. Suppose you want to pass an integer to a foreign function. You do that by just passing the integer value in the foreign function call. You don't need to use the foreign type structures at all.
  2. Suppose you execute this: (allocate-fobject :int) What does this do? Does it return an integer? No, it doesn't. As per case 1, we can use lisp integers to represent integers to be passed to foreign code. In order to understand (allocate-fobject :int) you should remember that allocate-fobject always allocates foreign structures (or arrays of foreign structures) and thus you can rewrite this as (allocate-fobject (:struct (nil :int))) [The nil means that this slot has no name.] Thus you can see that allocate-fobject is going to create a foreign structure that has one field, an :int valued field. If you pass the result of this allocate-fobject to C, what happens is that the lisp foreign-function interface passes a pointer to the start of the :int field. Thus the C program should declare a parameter of type 'int *' to receive this value.
  3. Suppose you execute this: (allocate-fobject '(* :int)) From the discussion above we can conclude that this creates a structure with one unnamed field of type (* :int). When this object is passed to C, it should declare the argument as 'int **'
  4. Suppose you execute this: (allocate-fobject '(:array :int 5)) You end up with a structure with 5 :int objects. If passed to C, you can either declare the arguments to be 'int *' or int[], depending on the syntax you want to use to reference the objects.

Now lets look at what fslot-value operations are possible on each of the kinds of objects mentioned above.

  1. a raw integer: lisp integers are constants. Their values can't be changed.
  2. (setq x (allocate-fobject :int)) This is a structure with single unnamed slot of type :int. We might refer to this an an :int box. We can get the value with (fslot-value x) and set it with (setf (fslot-value x) 4) or, more verbosely: get the value with (fslot-value-typed :int nil x) and set it with (setf (fslot-value-typed :int nil x) 4)
  3. (setq x (allocate-fobject '(* :int))) with this we can either get/set the value in the box, or what it points to. To set the value in the box: (setf (fslot-value x) 1321231) or (setf (fslot-value-typed '(* :int) nil x) 1321231). To set the value at the location pointed to by the value in the box (setf (fslot-value x '*) 1231) or (setf (fslot-value-typed '(* :int) nil x '*) 1231)
  4. (setq x (allocate-fobject '(:array :int 5))) we can get/set each individual object, for example: (setf (fslot-value x 3) 4444) or (setf (fslot-value-typed '(:array :int 5) nil x 3) 4444)


  1. A foreign type X is equivalent to the foreign type (:struct (nil X))
  2. We never specified an allocation type in the examples above, and this is because what is written above applies to all allocation types (:foreign, :foreign-static-gc, :lisp, :c)

10.1 String representation

Allegro CL has images that represent characters with 16-bits and images that represent characters with 8-bits (only one representation is available in each image). See Allegro CL Executables in startup.htm for a list of executables.

If you create a foreign type for a string and store a Lisp string in it, what character representation will be used? Consider this definition:

(def-foreign-type foo
  (:struct (str (:array :char 20))))

(setq obj (allocate-fobject 'foo :foreign-static-gc))

Now store a string in the array:

(setf (fslot-value obj 'str) "abcde")

The system will store the external format of the string (computed by string-to-native) into the foreign object. In a lisp with 8-bit characters the external format of a string is identical to the string itself. In a Lisp with 16-bit characters, it will not be.

A lisp string can be created from the values in the foreign object by

(native-to-string (fslot-value obj 'str))

See native-to-string.

10.2 A Quiz

Now a little quiz to see how well you understand what was done above. A lisp function is passed an integer value str which is the address of a sequence of characters in memory. How do you access the third character in the string?

a. (fslot-value-typed '(* :char) :c str 2)
b. (fslot-value-typed '(:array :char 10) :c str 2)
c. all of the above
d. none of the above

The answer to the quiz: The correct answer is b. Answer a can't be right since the type (* :char) is the same as (:struct (nil (* :char))) and thus says that str points to a structure in memory with one slot, that slot being a pointer to a character string. But we know that str itself points to the string. Answer b is correct. The size of the array we specified isn't important (as long as it is greater than the index we are using to access the array).

Calling C code:

As we've seen above, we take a C type (be it a struct or primitive type) and create a Lisp equivalent type. Let X be the C type and Y the Lisp type. When we pass Y to C, the C code gets not an X object but an X* object since we always pass a pointer to a foreign structure. Likewise when C returns an X structure, it doesn't usually return the X structure, it returns an X* value. Lisp then sees that value as an instance of the Y foreign type. Thus going to C we add a '*' to the type since we pass by reference. Coming back from C we remove a '*' from the type since Lisp always refers to types by pointers, thus using the '*' is superfluous.

Copyright (c) 1998-2022, Franz Inc. Lafayette, CA., USA. All rights reserved.
This page has had moderate revisions compared to the 10.0 page.
Created 2019.8.20.

Allegro CL version 10.1
Moderately revised from 10.0.
10.0 version