C++ within Python with SWIG

Brandon Rozek

October 27, 2020

For performance reasons, it can be useful to write functions in C/C++ which can then be called within Python. This will be an introductory post, in where we will call a simple C++ function (with a dependency) within Python using SWIG.

First we need to install SWIG:

sudo apt install swig

We’re going to use GNU MP in order to have arbitrary precision arithmetic for our factorial function.

sudo apt install libgmp-dev

Source Setup

Normally people use headers for larger C++ programs, though we’re going to create one just so we can see how to include it later in SWIG. Let’s called this file factorial.hpp

std::string fact(unsigned int n);

In order to get it the large number from C++ to Python. We are going to use std::string as the return of our fact function.

Here is the source factorial.cpp

#include <gmpxx.h>
#include "factorial.hpp"

std::string fact(unsigned int n) {
        if (n == 0) {
                n = 1;
        mpz_class result(n);
        while (n > 1) {
                result *= n;
        return result.get_str(10); // Base 10

Now that we have our C++ code, we need to create a swig template file called factorial.i

 %module factorial
 #include "factorial.hpp"
 %include <std_string.i>
 %include "factorial.hpp"

Since we’re returning a std::string we need to tell SWIG what that is. We do this through the <std_string.i> include.

We can now ask SWIG to write the C++ code that will interface with Python. This will create the files factorial_wrap.cxx and factorial.py.

swig -c++ -python factorial.i

Compilation and Linkage

Let’s compile our C++ code.

g++ -O2 -fPIC -c factorial.cpp 
Flag Description
-O2 Perform nearly all supported optimizations that don’t involve a space-speed tradeoff.
-fPIC Create Position-Independent Code
-c Don’t link at this time

To compile factorial_wrap.cxx we need to include the directory where Python.h lives. You can find this by issuing the command locate Python.h. Below is where it is located on my system.

g++ -O2 -fPIC -c factorial_wrap.cxx -I/home/user/.pyenv/versions/3.8.2/include/python3.8/

Finally let’s create the needed shared object file by linking factorial.o, factorial_wrap.o, and the GNU MP libraries.

g++ -O2 -fPIC -shared factorial.o factorial_wrap.o -lgmpxx -lgmp -o _factorial.so

It is important that our final output is called _ + module_name.so

We should at this time be able to open up python and import our function.

import factorial

If you run into any errors, the SWIG Documentation is quite helpful.

In order to not have to type out the compiling and linking commands every time, here is a Makefile

CFLAGS=-O2 -fPIC -Wall

all: _factorial.so

_factorial.so: factorial.o factorial_wrap.o
	$(CC) $(CFLAGS) -shared factorial.o factorial_wrap.o -lgmpxx -lgmp -o _factorial.so

factorial_wrap.o: factorial_wrap.cxx
	$(CC) $(CFLAGS) -c factorial_wrap.cxx -I$(PYTHON_PATH)

factorial.o: factorial.cpp
	$(CC) $(CFLAGS) -c factorial.cpp

factorial_wrap.cxx: factorial.i
	swig -c++ -python factorial.i

	rm *.o *.so factorial_wrap.cxx factorial.py

Then you can call make clean to clean up everything and make to run all the individual compilation steps we did before.