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How to Parse Arguments in Your Ruby C Extension

Ulysse Buonomo

Ulysse Buonomo on

How to Parse Arguments in Your Ruby C Extension

Ruby is a wonderful language, made for humans first and machines second. It is easy to read and write. There are plenty of ways to write anything, and you can often guess its standard library by typing the name of the method you would have chosen yourself.

Because of this, Ruby's arguments are very flexible, which lets us express our APIs very clearly. But this comes with a drawback: Ruby is quite hard to parse for C extension developers!

In this article, we'll go through two ways to set up a complex Ruby API that is written in C:

  • with rb_define_method and parsing it with rb_scan_args
  • using a Ruby interface

Let's get started!

C and Ruby: An Introduction

As mentioned, Ruby is hard to parse for C extension developers.

For example:

def this(is, a = "quite", *convoluted, yet: 1, possible:, &example)
  # And we could have omitted the block, yet still passed it as an argument!
end

The beauty of C, the language Ruby is written in, stems from its simplicity, including in its function parameters:

  • <data-type> <variable-identifier>
  • ... for variadic arguments.

These will help you maintain a codebase that is not too hard to understand.

Here's the most complex way to define a C function:

int printf(const char*, ...);

When you code a C extension for your Ruby codebase, you'll start to understand where the complexity begins. But don't worry — Ruby MRI developers have us covered.

Simple Method Definition in a Ruby C Extension

We'll start with a method you'll have to use at some point, rb_define_method.

You can also follow along with the code examples in this repo.

Here is rb_define_method's signature:

void rb_define_method(VALUE klass, const char *name,
                      VALUE (*func)(ANYARGS), int argc);

And according to Ruby's extension.rdoc:

argc is the number of arguments. if argc is -1, the function will receive 3 arguments: argc, argv, and self. if argc is -2, the function will receive 2 arguments, self and args, where args is a Ruby array of the method arguments.

In a nutshell:

// argc is -1.
VALUE func(int argc, VALUE* argv, VALUE self);
// argc is -2.
VALUE func(VALUE self, VALUE args);
// argc is N (here N=2).
VALUE func(VALUE self, VALUE arg1, VALUE arg2);

So if your API only consists of methods with fixed parameter lengths, or only one variadic parameter (def foo(*bar)), read no further — you are done! If you want a richer way to call your API, please, be my guest.

By the way, if you want more involved examples on rb_define_method, I suggest you read Peter Zhu's article on Defining Methods.

Using Ruby C API Internals

So, let's go back to our use case: parsing complex arguments. Fortunately, some tools can help us.

But first, let's see the limitations of solely using rb_define_method.

Drawbacks of rb_define_method

No Mention of Block Arguments

One limitation is that rb_define_method never mentions block arguments. Those are not considered, as it doesn't really matter to Ruby anyway if you pass a block. You can still ensure that a block is passed by using rb_block_given_p or rb_need_block. There's more on that topic in Peter Zhu's article.

Args Can Vary

Another important limitation is that args can vary, but the method call itself is not so constrained. Therefore, if you want your API to be like def foo(bar, *baz), you'll have to parse your arguments. There are a few methods to help you down that path. rb_check_arity is one you can use, along with the -1 version of rb_define_method.

Here's the function signature:

rb_check_arity(int argc, int min, int max)

Keyword Arguments

One last limitation we'll go through is the use of keyword arguments. And I kept the best for last, as that will be the core of this article.

We have to retrieve keyword arguments before we can parse them correctly. Fortunately, the Ruby C API comes with a method for this, rb_scan_args.

Here's the rb_scan_args signature:

rb_scan_args(int argc, VALUE *argv, const char *fmt, ...)

You pass rb_scan_args the argc and argv given by rb_define_method — a string that says how the arguments should be parsed (fmt) and the receiver for those arguments. There you go, all of Ruby's args complexity parsed in one line! Well, almost.

You can refer to extension.rdoc for a formal representation of how fmt should be written, although we'll partially cover it in the examples below.

Write and Parse a Function: An Example

For the rest of this article, let's consider that we want to write this function:

def voronoi_diagram(envelope, *polygons, tolerance:, only_edges: false)
end

Parsing this using rb_scan_args will look like this:

VALUE voronoi_diagram(int argc, VALUE *argv, VALUE self) {
  VALUE envelope;
  VALUE polygons;
  VALUE kwargs;
  rb_scan_args(argc, argv, "1*:", &envelope, &polygons, &kwargs);
 
  // Actual method
}

The "1*:" gibberish means:

  • 1: one required positional argument
  • *: any amount of positional arguments not required
  • :: keyword arguments at the end

Parse Keyword Arguments

Now we've constrained the method, unfortunately, we are not done yet. Our current API is def voronoi_diagram(envelope, *polygons, **kwargs).

Finally, we need to parse those keyword arguments using rb_get_kwargs.

int rb_get_kwargs(VALUE keyword_hash, const ID *table,
                  int required, int optional, VALUE *values);

You have to choose some required and optional arguments. Once that's done, you use table to tell Ruby the name of those arguments, and you store the result in an array (values).

VALUE voronoi_diagram(int argc, VALUE *argv, VALUE self) {
  VALUE envelope;
  VALUE polygons;
  VALUE tolerance;
  VALUE only_edges;
 
  VALUE kwargs;
  rb_scan_args(argc, argv, "1*:", &envelope, &polygons, &kwargs);
 
  ID table[2];
	table[0] = rb_intern("tolerance");
	table[1] = rb_intern("only_edges");
  VALUE *values;
  rb_get_kwargs(kwargs, table, 1, 1, values);
 
  tolerance = values[0];
  only_edges = values[1] == Qundef ? Qfalse : values[1];
 
  // Actual method
}

There you have it! A complex Ruby method, parsed using only C. However, if this is too convoluted for you, there is another option.

Using a Ruby Interface

Another way to handle the problem is actually to use Ruby's syntax directly and do the parsing at the Ruby stage.

def voronoi_diagram(envelope, *polygons, tolerance:, only_edges: false)
  c_voronoi_diagram(envelope, polygons, tolerance, only_edges)
end

With this, you can directly use the third form of rb_define_method, for a C method that looks like this:

VALUE c_voronoi_diagram(VALUE self, VALUE envelope,
                        VALUE polygons, VALUE tolerance,
                        VALUE only_edges) {
  // Actual method
}

And there you go — you completely avoid the problem with an elegant solution that is actually used for some methods in a Ruby implementation (with the Primitive class).

Although the class used by the MRI is quite complex and generates C itself, we can get inspired by it.

Let's create an object and plug our methods to avoid having a visible c_voronoi_diagram for users of our API:

void Init_ext() {
  VALUE primary_mod = rb_define_module("Hidden")
  rb_define_method(primary_mod, "voronoi_diagram", func, 4)
}
def voronoi_diagram(envelope, *polygons, tolerance:, only_edges: false)
  Hidden.voronoi_diagram(envelope, polygons, tolerance, only_edges)
end

Check out a real use case of this class in RGeo's codebase.

Parsing Arguments: Which Method Should I Use?

This repo showcases the two ways to set up a complex Ruby API that is written in C — to recap:

  • with rb_define_method and parsing it with rb_scan_args
  • using a Ruby interface

When we compare both solutions in terms of performance, they are roughly equal (Ruby parsing is 1.02 times faster on average on my M1). That doesn't make much of a difference.

In the RGeo lib, our first design choice was to have an API that only uses variadic length arguments. No keywords, no blocks. This can be very limiting, and we are now using the Primitive way to allow more convoluted arguments.

Benefits of Using a Ruby Interface

My advice is to use a Ruby interface for multiple reasons, including that:

  • the code size is smaller
  • changes are easier to make

Overall, this makes the experience of reading your codebase simpler.

Engaging Ruby users in reading the source code of the gems they use is important to me. As Ruby is easy to read, gems should be as well.

Benefits of Using rb_define_method

The C version, however, gives us a taste of some very useful internal methods. For instance, rb_check_arity is still really useful. Methods for handling blocks are great as well, and you might not need to use the Ruby facade for blocks.

It's all about finding the best choice for your use case.

Wrapping Up

In this post, we explored two methods to parse arguments in your Ruby C extension — using rb_define_method (also looking briefly at its limitations) and parsing it with rb_scan_args and using a Ruby interface.

If you want to read more about C extensions, I recommend:

And my final word of advice for you: check out RGeo. It is a widely used C extension codebase in active development. Most of my examples come from here.

Happy coding!

P.S. If you'd like to read Ruby Magic posts as soon as they get off the press, subscribe to our Ruby Magic newsletter and never miss a single post!

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Ulysse Buonomo

Ulysse Buonomo

Our guest author Ulysse is a former industry Ruby developer who dedicates most of his time to travelling around the world. His spare time is dedicated to RGeo and Ruby, and he loves tinkering with Ruby's internals.

All articles by Ulysse Buonomo

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