perlcall - Perl calling conventions from C


BThe purpose of this document is to show you how to write callbacks , i.e. how to call Perl from C. The main focus is on how to interface back to Perl from a bit of C code that has itself been run by Perl, i.e. the 'main' program is a Perl script; you are using it to execute a section of code written in C; that bit of C code wants you to do something with a particular event, so you want a Perl sub to be executed whenever it happens.

Examples where this is necessary include

Although the techniques described are applicable to embedding a C program, this is not the primary goal of this document. For details on embedding Perl in C refer to the perlembed manpage (currently unwritten).

Before you launch yourself head first into the rest of this document, it would be a good idea to have read the following two documents - the perlapi manpage and the perlguts manpage .

This stuff is easier to explain using examples. But first here are a few definitions anyway.


Perl has a number of C functions which allow you to call Perl subs. They are

I32 perl_call_sv(SV* sv, I32 flags) ; I32 perl_call_pv(char *subname, I32 flags) ; I32 perl_call_method(char *methname, I32 flags) ; I32 perl_call_argv(char *subname, I32 flags, register char **argv) ;

The key function is perl_call_sv . All the other functions make use of perl_call_sv to do what they do.

perl_call_sv takes two parameters, the first is an SV*. This allows you to specify the Perl sub to be called either as a C string (which has first been converted to an SV) or a reference to a sub. Example 7, shows you how you can make use of perl_call_sv . The second parameter, flags , is a general purpose option command. This parameter is common to all the perl_call_* functions. It is discussed in the next section.

The function, perl_call_pv , is similar as perl_call_sv except it expects it's first parameter has to be a C char* which identifies the Perl sub you want to call, e.g. perl_call_pv("fred", 0) .

The function perl_call_method expects its first argument to contain a blessed reference to a class. Using that reference it looks up and calls methname from that class. See example 9.

perl_call_argv calls the Perl sub specified by the subname parameter. It also takes the usual flags parameter. The final parameter, argv , consists of a list of C strings to be sent to the Perl sub. See example 8.

All the functions return a number. This is a count of the number of items returned by the Perl sub on the stack.

As a general rule you should always check the return value from these functions. Even if you are only expecting a particular number of values to be returned from the Perl sub, there is nothing to stop someone from doing something unexpected - don't say you havn't been warned.

Flag Values

The flags parameter in all the perl_call_* functions consists of any combination of the symbols defined below, OR'ed together.

Calls the Perl sub in a scalar context.

Whatever the Perl sub actually returns, we only want a scalar. If the perl sub does return a scalar, the return value from the perl_call_* function will be 1 or 0. If 1, then the value actually returned by the Perl sub will be contained on the top of the stack. If 0, then the sub has probably called die or you have used the G_DISCARD flag.

If the Perl sub returns a list, the perl_call_* function will still only return 1 or 0. If 1, then the number of elements in the list will be stored on top of the stack. The actual values of the list will not be accessable.

G_SCALAR is the default flag setting for all the functions.

Calls the Perl sub in a list context.

The return code from the perl_call_* functions will indicate how many elements of the stack are used to store the array.

If you are not interested in the values returned by the Perl sub then setting this flag will make Perl get rid of them automatically for you. This will take precedence to either G_SCALAR or G_ARRAY.

If you do not set this flag then you may need to explicitly get rid of temporary values. See example 3 for details.

If you are not passing any parameters to the Perl sub, you can save a bit of time by setting this flag. It has the effect of of not creating the @_ array for the Perl sub.

A point worth noting is that if this flag is specified the Perl sub called can still access an @_ array from a previous Perl sub. This functionality can be illustrated with the perl code below

sub fred { print "@_\n" } sub joe { &fred } &joe(1,2,3) ;

This will print

1 2 3

What has happened is that fred accesses the @_ array which belongs to joe .

If the Perl sub you are calling has the ability to terminate abnormally, e.g. by calling die or by not actually existing, and you want to catch this type of event, specify this flag setting. It will put an eval { } around the sub call.

Whenever control returns from the perl_call_* function you need to check the $@ variable as you would in a normal Perl script. See example 6 for details of how to do this.



Enough of the definition talk, let's have a few examples.

Perl provides many macros to assist in accessing the Perl stack. These macros should always be used when interfacing to Perl internals. Hopefully this should make the code less vulnerable to changes made to Perl in the future.

Another point worth noting is that in the first series of examples I have only made use of the perl_call_pv function. This has only been done to ease you into the topic. Wherever possible, if the choice is between using perl_call_pv and perl_call_sv , I would always try to use perl_call_sv .

The code for these examples is stored in the file perlcall.tar . (Once this document settles down, all the example code will be available in the file).

Example1: No Parameters, Nothing returned

This first trivial example will call a Perl sub, PrintUID , to print out the UID of the process.

sub PrintUID { print "UID is $<\n" ; }

and here is the C to call it

void call_PrintUID() { dSP ; PUSHMARK(sp) ; perl_call_pv("PrintUID", G_DISCARD|G_NOARGS) ; }

Simple, eh.

A few points to note about this example.

  1. We aren't passing any parameters to PrintUID so G_NOARGS can be specified.

  2. Ignore dSP and PUSHMARK(sp) for now. They will be discussed in the next example.

  3. We aren't interested in anything returned from PrintUID , so G_DISCARD is specified. Even if PrintUID was changed to actually return some value(s), having specified G_DISCARD will mean that they will be wiped by the time control returns from perl_call_pv .

  4. Because we specified G_DISCARD, it is not necessary to check the value returned from perl_call_sv . It will always be 0.

  5. As perl_call_pv is being used, the Perl sub is specified as a C string.


Example 2: Passing Parameters

Now let's make a slightly more complex example. This time we want to call a Perl sub which will take 2 parameters - a string ( $s ) and an integer ( $n ). The sub will simply print the first $n characters of the string.

So the Perl sub would look like this

sub LeftString { my($s, $n) = @_ ; print substr($s, 0, $n), "\n" ; }

The C function required to call LeftString would look like this.

static void call_LeftString(a, b) char * a ; int b ; { dSP ; PUSHMARK(sp) ; XPUSHs(sv_2mortal(newSVpv(a, 0))); XPUSHs(sv_2mortal(newSViv(b))); PUTBACK ; perl_call_pv("LeftString", G_DISCARD); }

Here are a few notes on the C function call_LeftString .

  1. The only flag specified this time is G_DISCARD. As we are passing 2 parameters to the Perl sub this time, we have not specified G_NOARGS.

  2. Parameters are passed to the Perl sub using the Perl stack. This is the purpose of the code beginning with the line dSP and ending with the line PUTBACK .

  3. If you are going to put something onto the Perl stack, you need to know where to put it. This is the purpose of the macro dSP - it declares and initialises a local copy of the Perl stack pointer.

    All the other macros which will be used in this example require you to have used this macro.

    If you are calling a Perl sub directly from an XSUB function, it is not necessary to explicitly use the dSP macro - it will be declared for you.

  4. Any parameters to be pushed onto the stack should be bracketed by the PUSHMARK and PUTBACK macros. The purpose of these two macros, in this context, is to automatically count the number of parameters you are pushing. Then whenever Perl is creating the @_ array for the sub, it knows how big to make it.

    The PUSHMARK macro tells Perl to make a mental note of the current stack pointer. Even if you aren't passing any parameters (like in Example 1) you must still call the PUSHMARK macro before you can call any of the perl_call_* functions - Perl still needs to know that there are no parameters.

    The PUTBACK macro sets the global copy of the stack pointer to be the same as our local copy. If we didn't do this perl_call_pv wouldn't know where the two parameters we pushed were - remember that up to now all the stack pointer manipulation we have done is with our local copy, not the global copy.

  5. Next, we come to XPUSHs. This is where the parameters actually get pushed onto the stack. In this case we are pushing a string and an integer.

    See the section XSUB's AND THE ARGUMENT STACK in the perlguts manpage for details on how the XPUSH macros work.

  6. Finally, LeftString can now be called via the perl_call_pv function.


Example 3: Returning a Scalar

Now for an example of dealing with the values returned from a Perl sub.

Here is a Perl sub, Adder , which takes 2 integer parameters and simply returns their sum.

sub Adder { my($a, $b) = @_ ; $a + $b ; }

As we are now concerned with the return value from Adder , the C function is now a bit more complex.

static void call_Adder(a, b) int a ; int b ; { dSP ; int count ; ENTER ; SAVETMPS; PUSHMARK(sp) ; XPUSHs(sv_2mortal(newSViv(a))); XPUSHs(sv_2mortal(newSViv(b))); PUTBACK ; count = perl_call_pv("Adder", G_SCALAR); SPAGAIN ; if (count != 1) croak("Big trouble\n") ; printf ("The sum of %d and %d is %d\n", a, b, POPi) ; PUTBACK ; FREETMPS ; LEAVE ; }

Points to note this time are

  1. The only flag specified this time was G_SCALAR. That means the @_ array will be created and that the value returned by Adder will still exist after the call to perl_call_pv .

  2. Because we are interested in what is returned from Adder we cannot specify G_DISCARD. This means that we will have to tidy up the Perl stack and dispose of any temporary values ourselves. This is the purpose of


    at the start of the function, and


    at the end. The ENTER / SAVETMPS pair creates a boundary for any temporaries we create. This means that the temporaries we get rid of will be limited to those which were created after these calls.

    The FREETMPS / LEAVE pair will get rid of any values returned by the Perl sub, plus it will also dump the mortal SV's we created. Having ENTER / SAVETMPS at the beginning of the code makes sure that no other mortals are destroyed.

  3. The purpose of the macro SPAGAIN is to refresh the local copy of the stack pointer. This is necessary because it is possible that the memory allocated to the Perl stack has been re-allocated whilst in the perl_call_pv call.

    If you are making use of the Perl stack pointer in your code you must always refresh the your local copy using SPAGAIN whenever you make use of of the perl_call_* functions or any other Perl internal function.

  4. Although only a single value was expected to be returned from Adder , it is still good practice to check the return code from perl_call_pv anyway.

    Expecting a single value is not quite the same as knowing that there will be one. If someone modified Adder to return a list and we didn't check for that possibility and take appropriate action the Perl stack would end up in an inconsistant state. That is something you really don't want to ever happen.

  5. The POPi macro is used here to pop the return value from the stack. In this case we wanted an integer, so POPi was used.

    Here is the complete list of POP macros available, along with the types they return.

    • POPs SV
    • POPp pointer
    • POPn double
    • POPi integer
    • POPl long

  6. The final PUTBACK is used to leave the Perl stack in a consistant state before exiting the function. This is necessary because when we popped the return value from the stack with POPi it only updated our local copy of the stack pointer. Remember, PUTBACK sets the global stack pointer to be the same as our local copy.


Example 4: Returning a list of values

Now, let's extend the previous example to return both the sum of the parameters and the difference.

Here is the Perl sub

sub AddSubtract { my($a, $b) = @_ ; ($a+$b, $a-$b) ; }

and this is the C function

static void call_AddSubtract(a, b) int a ; int b ; { dSP ; int count ; ENTER ; SAVETMPS; PUSHMARK(sp) ; XPUSHs(sv_2mortal(newSViv(a))); XPUSHs(sv_2mortal(newSViv(b))); PUTBACK ; count = perl_call_pv("AddSubtract", G_ARRAY); SPAGAIN ; if (count != 2) croak("Big trouble\n") ; printf ("%d - %d = %d\n", a, b, POPi) ; printf ("%d + %d = %d\n", a, b, POPi) ; PUTBACK ; FREETMPS ; LEAVE ; }


  1. We wanted array context, so we used G_ARRAY.

  2. Not surprisingly there are 2 POPi's this time because we were retrieving 2 values from the stack. The main point to note is that they came off the stack in reverse order.


Example 5: Returning Data from Perl via the parameter list

It is also possible to return values directly via the parameter list - whether it is actually desirable to do it is another matter entirely.

The Perl sub, Inc , below takes 2 parameters and increments each.

sub Inc { ++ $_[0] ; ++ $_[1] ; }

and here is a C function to call it.

static void call_Inc(a, b) int a ; int b ; { dSP ; int count ; SV * sva ; SV * svb ; ENTER ; SAVETMPS; sva = sv_2mortal(newSViv(a)) ; svb = sv_2mortal(newSViv(b)) ; PUSHMARK(sp) ; XPUSHs(sva); XPUSHs(svb); PUTBACK ; count = perl_call_pv("Inc", G_DISCARD); if (count != 0) croak ("call_Inc : expected 0 return value from 'Inc', got %d\n", count) ; printf ("%d + 1 = %d\n", a, SvIV(sva)) ; printf ("%d + 1 = %d\n", b, SvIV(svb)) ; FREETMPS ; LEAVE ; }

To be able to access the two parameters that were pushed onto the stack after they return from perl_call_pv it is necessary to make a note of their addresses - thus the two variables sva and svb .

The reason this is necessary is that the area of the Perl stack which held them will very likely have been overwritten by something else by the time control returns from perl_call_pv .

Example 6: Using G_EVAL

Now an example using G_EVAL. Below is a Perl sub which computes the difference of its 2 parameters. If this would result in a negative result, the sub calls die .

sub Subtract { my ($a, $b) = @_ ; die "death can be fatal\n" if $a < $b ; $a - $b ; }

and some C to call it

static void call_Subtract(a, b) int a ; int b ; { dSP ; int count ; SV * sv ; ENTER ; SAVETMPS; PUSHMARK(sp) ; XPUSHs(sv_2mortal(newSViv(a))); XPUSHs(sv_2mortal(newSViv(b))); PUTBACK ; count = perl_call_pv("Subtract", G_EVAL|G_SCALAR); /* Check the eval first */ sv = GvSV(gv_fetchpv("@", TRUE, SVt_PV)); if (SvTRUE(sv)) printf ("Uh oh - %s\n", SvPV(sv, na)) ; SPAGAIN ; if (count != 1) croak ("call_Subtract : expected 1 return value from 'Subtract', got %d\n", count) ; printf ("%d - %d = %d\n", a, b, POPi) ; PUTBACK ; FREETMPS ; LEAVE ; }

If call_Subtract is called thus

call_Subtract(4, 5)

the following will be printed

Uh oh - death can be fatal


  1. We want to be able to catch the die so we have used the G_EVAL flag. Not specifying this flag would mean that the program would terminate.

  2. The code

    sv = GvSV(gv_fetchpv("@", TRUE, SVt_PV)); if (SvTRUE(sv)) printf ("Uh oh - %s\n", SvPVx(sv, na)) ;

    is the equivalent of this bit of Perl

    print "Uh oh - $@\n" if $@ ;


Example 7: Using perl_call_sv

In all the previous examples I have 'hard-wried' the name of the Perl sub to be called from C. Sometimes though, it is necessary to be able to specify the name of the Perl sub from within the Perl script.

Consider the Perl code below

sub fred { print "Hello there\n" ; } CallSub("fred") ;

here is a snippet of XSUB which defines CallSub .

void CallSub(name) char * name CODE: PUSHMARK(sp) ; perl_call_pv(name, G_DISCARD|G_NOARGS) ;

That is fine as far as it goes. The thing is, it only allows the Perl sub to be specified as a string. For perl 4 this was adequate, but Perl 5 allows references to subs and anonymous subs. This is where perl_call_sv is useful.

The code below for CallSub is identical to the previous time except that the name parameter is now defined as an SV* and we use perl_call_sv instead of perl_call_pv .

void CallSub(name) SV* name CODE: PUSHMARK(sp) ; perl_call_sv(name, G_DISCARD|G_NOARGS) ;

As we are using an SV to call fred the following can all be used

CallSub("fred") ; Callsub(\&fred) ; $ref = \&fred ; CallSub($ref) ; CallSub( sub { print "Hello there\n" } ) ;

As you can see, perl_call_sv gives you greater flexibility in how you can specify the Perl sub.

Example 8: Using perl_call_argv

Here is a Perl sub which prints whatever parameters are passed to it.

sub PrintList { my(@list) = @_ ; foreach (@list) { print "$_\n" } }

and here is an example of perl_call_argv which will call PrintList .

call_PrintList { dSP ; char * words[] = {"alpha", "beta", "gamma", "delta", NULL } ; perl_call_argv("PrintList", words, G_DISCARD) ; }

Note that it is not necessary to call PUSHMARK in this instance. This is because perl_call_argv will do it for you.

Example 9: Using perl_call_method

[This section is under construction]

Consider the following Perl code

{ package Mine ; sub new { bless [@_] } sub Display { print $_[0][1], "\n" } } $a = new Mine ('red', 'green', 'blue') ; call_Display($a, 'Display') ;

The method Display just prints out the first element of the list. Here is a XSUB implementation of call_Display .

void call_Display(ref, method) SV * ref char * method CODE: PUSHMARK(sp); XPUSHs(ref); PUTBACK; perl_call_method(method, G_DISCARD) ;

Strategies for storing Context Information

[This section is under construction]

One of the trickiest problems to overcome when designing a callback interface is figuring out how to store the mapping between the C callback functions and the Perl equivalent.

Consider the following example.

Alternate Stack Manipulation

[This section is under construction]

Although I have only made use of the POP* macros to access values returned from Perl subs, it is also possible to bypass these macros and read the stack directly.

The code below is example 4 recoded to


the perlapi manpage , the perlguts manpage , the perlembed manpage


Paul Marquess<pmarquess @bfsec>

Special thanks to the following people who assisted in the creation of the document.

Jeff Okamoto, Tim Bunce.


Version 0.4, 17th October 1994