Bert's blog

Exposing C++ to Python: an introduction

Python is a very popular tool among many scientists, mainly because it is very easy to use and because there exists a large number of powerful libraries that can be used from Python. Writing efficient Python is however not as easy, especially if the algorithm you want to write is complex and cannot exploit the power of NumPy or SciPy. For this reason, it can be quite useful to write the crucial parts of an algorithm in a low-level language like C++, and then somehow expose this code to Python. In this post, I will list a few ways to achieve this.

The easy way: running software from Python

Before we embark on the difficult journey to actually couple C++ to Python, it is worth pointing out that there are lazy solutions. If you have a C++ executable that can be easily controlled through command line arguments or an input parameter file, and this executable generates the output you want for those parameters without much overhead, then arguably the easiest solution to achieve this is to simply run the executable from Python.

Running commands from Python can be done in many ways, e.g. using the subprocess module. To run an executable called test with additional arguments and 0.001, and collect its output to the terminal for example, you can use:

import subprocess

output =["./test", "", "0.001"], stdout = subprocess.PIPE,
                        universal_newlines = True).stdout

This assumes the test executable is located in the same directory where you are running Python. The arguments to are quite straightforward: the first argument is a list containing all parts of the command to run (usually an executable followed by additional arguments). These will be joined together with spaces to create the command that will be executed. stdout = subprocess.PIPE will capture the output to the terminal instead of simply writing it to the terminal window. Finally, universal_newlines = True makes sure line breaks in the terminal output are processed correctly.

Both the input and output for assumes strings, so you will need to convert all input arguments to strings before passing them on, and you will need to parse the output if you want to extract values from it. This might not be very efficient and definitely does not make for very easy code. If your executable reads parameters from a file, then your script either needs to create that file, or somehow needs to change parameters in some template file, which again requires regular expression parsing.

Alternatively, you can share values between Python and the executable using binary files, since those can store any data type. NumPy has convenient functions to read and write these files in Python, and reading and writing binary files in C++ is also not hard. Even more advanced is the use of memory mapped files. These are binary files that the operating system maps to a specific location in memory. Multiple processes running on the operating system can memory map the same file, and this means that they will access the same location in memory, without necessarily requiring any interaction with the file system itself. This is quite advanced, and I will definitely write a post about this topic at some point.

Even with all these powerful tools, this lazy (but easy) way to interface C++ and Python is far from ideal, since either you need to do a lot of string parsing and formatting, or you need to somehow exchange binary data between different processes. Surely there must be a better way?

The better way: writing Python modules in C++

Python itself is an executable. When you run python (or the recommended python3), you are actually running a program called the Python interpreter that reads, interprets and executes your commands written in the Python scripting language. The Python interpreter itself is written in C (source code), which means that all objects that you create in Python scripts actually correspond to C structures. To extend Python with your own modules in C++, you only need to know how to access and use these C structures.

To make this possible, Python exposes a lot of its functionality through a so called API. This API makes it possible to write your own libraries that can then be imported as any other module from a Python script. Unfortunately, the process to do this is quite complicated.

Because the process is so complicated, many solutions have been created over the years to simplify this process. I have encountered some of these myself over the years, and will give a chronological overview and impression below. All of these solutions assume that you have a working C++ code, and that you want to expose parts of it (functions, classes…) to Python.

My first encounter with Python/C++ interfaces used the SIP bindings. These bindings equip existing C++ code with a number of directives that are then used by an intermediary interpreter to generate additional C files that contain the module code. SIP is only one of many such bindings.

My experience with SIP was not a very good one: the analysis software used by the group where I did my PhD used it, and after every update of our operating systems this software would break because of SIP issues. SIP also makes it a lot harder to compile code because of the additional steps that are required, which increases the risk of these failures. Because of all this, I will not give any examples of how to use SIP, and simply mention that it (and many alternatives) exists.


The C++ Boost libraries are a collection of open-source peer-reviewed library functions that extend the standard C++ library with more powerful features. Some of these features eventually even make it to the standard library. Boost is the go to library for any complicated functionality that would be provided by more obscure libraries in C and Fortran, e.g. extended precision floating point operations, command line argument parsing, regular expression parsing… And it also contains its own Python bindings.

These Python bindings are very similar to the other Python bindings I mentioned above, with one distinction: they are entirely based on macros (directives that are executed by the compiler during compilation), so that they do not require any additional steps during the compilation process. If you have the Boost Python headers and libraries installed on your system, then you can simply write a new C++ code file that contains the code required to expose your C++ routines and classes, or even add them to the existing code files.

A simple example (test.cpp):

#include <boost/python.hpp>

int get_answer_c(){
  return 42;

  boost::python::def("get_answer", get_answer_c);

This creates a simple module that contains a single function that returns a number. To compile the example, you need to create a shared library:

g++ -fPIC -shared test.cpp -o

This will likely fail with an error that complains about missing pyconfig.h header files. You can fix these by adding the pyconfig.h header location for the Python version you want to use to the command, e.g.

g++ -fPIC -shared -I /usr/include/python3.6m test.cpp -o

You will probably also need to link the Boost Python (shared) library (your library will compile without doing this, but will fail to run):

g++ -fPIC -shared -I /usr/include/python3.6m test.cpp \
  /usr/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/ -o

Once you manage to compile, you can import the new module as any other Python module:

import answer

Note that Boost recommends using their own tool to compile your module, but I think it is more instructive to do it manually. For production runs, I prefer using CMake to configure my Makefiles and then this becomes very easy.

While the approach above is quite simple, there are a few things to keep in mind. First of all, you need to make sure to import the library using its full name; shared libraries on Unix are typically called libSOMETHING, so this means you would need to import using import libSOMETHING (in our example, the library does not include the lib). The name you give to the BOOST_PYTHON_MODULE macro needs to match the name of the Python module, and should hence be the same as the name of the shared library file.

To expose classes, you can use similar syntax:

#include <boost/python.hpp>

class ClassAnswer{
  int _answer;
  ClassAnswer(int answer) : _answer(answer) {}

  int get_answer_c() {
    return _answer;

  boost::python::class_<ClassAnswer>("Answer", boost::python::init<int>())
    .def("get_answer", &ClassAnswer::get_answer_c);
import answer
aobj = answer.Answer(42)

As in the first example, I have deliberately given different names to the C++ and Python class and its member method to illustrate that the names in Python are completely set by the Boost Python binding and do not need to match the internal C++ names.

While the examples above seem pretty simple, even Boost Python bindings can get very complicated very quickly, especially if you want to pass on arguments from Python to C++ that are not basic types (e.g. Python lists or even NumPy arrays). In this case, it is often not possible to directly expose the C++ class member functions. Instead, you need to write dedicated wrapper functions that take care of the conversion from Python types to C++ types (and vice versa). This can make things quite complicated and my own experience with this is not necessarily all good.

That being said, since Boost is specifically aimed at C++, Boost Python is probably the most natural way to expose C++ to Python. But of course it creates an important dependency on the Boost library.

The Python C API

The most low-level way to bind C++ to Python is by using the C API provided by the Python interpreter itself. Within this API, every object or value that is exchanged with Python is a PyObject, i.e. a low-level Python object that stores the information that Python requires for its memory management. Using this API, the first example above becomes

#include <Python.h>

static PyObject *get_answer_c(PyObject *self, PyObject *args) {
  return PyLong_FromLong(42);

static PyMethodDef TestMethods[] = {
  {"get_answer", get_answer_c, METH_VARARGS,
   "Get the answer to life, Universe and everything."},
  {nullptr, nullptr, 0, nullptr}

static struct PyModuleDef testmodule = {
  "Answer module.",

PyMODINIT_FUNC PyInit_answer() {
  return PyModule_Create(&testmodule);

Quite a bit longer than the Boost Python version! Note that even the simple integer that we return from the function needs to be converted into a Python Long object; even integers are objects in Python. To compile this example, we can use Python itself and write a script:

from distutils.core import setup, Extension

def main():
          description="Answer module",
          ext_modules=[Extension("answer", ["test.cpp"])])

if __name__ == "__main__":

Where test.cpp is the name of the file that contains the module. We can compile the example using

python3 build

This will create a new folder called build within the current working directory; inside this folder a folder called lib.SYSTEM_ARCHITECTURE is created that contains the shared library module. You can use this module as before from within that build directory.

Using install instead of build would first compile the module (in the same location) and then install the new module so that it can be used from within Python anywhere on your system. This usually requires root privileges. You can also just install the module for the current user by using

python3 install --user

This does not require any special privileges.

Despite being significantly more complicated than the Boost Python example, using the C API directly has a few advantages. Firstly, you can very easily control for which Python version your module is compiled by running the script with that version; no need to figure out the location of the header and library files specifically for that version on your system. Secondly, the install option makes it incredibly easy to install the module on your system and make it available everywhere. Modules compiled with Boost Python will be located in a specific location and need to be manually installed. Thirdly, the based install process is exactly the same one as used by the Python package manager (pip), so that this approach makes it very easy to distribute your module if you would want that.

However, the fact that the syntax is a lot more complex makes it much harder to learn and use. I only just started this process myself, and I don’t feel I am in a position to give very detailed examples yet, including the second example above that exposes a class. I might come back to this in a future post.

Interfacing with other Python libraries

Most of the power of Python comes from specific libraries like NumPy and SciPy, and your own modules will probably only become powerful themselves if they can somehow interface with these as well. It would be especially useful for example if your Python module functions could accept NumPy arrays as input arguments and return them as output.

Both Boost Python and the Python C API have ways to read, create and write NumPy arrays, but none of these are particularly well documented (in my opinion) nor very easy. Given my limited experience with this, I will again refrain from giving any specific examples, and simply mention that this is indeed possible. The Python distutils and setuptools packages have options to enforce dependencies for the modules you create, which can ensure that your module will work as intended.

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