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C Extensions for Using NumPy Arrays

I've written several C extensions that handle NumPy arrays. They are simple, but they seem to work well. They will show you how to pass Python variables and NumPy arrays to your C code. Once you learn how to do it, it's pretty straight-forward. I suspect they will suffice for most numerical code. I've written it up as a draft and have made the code and document file available. I found for my numerical needs I really only need to pass a limited set of things (integers, floats, strings, and NumPy arrays). If that's your category, this code might help you.

I have tested the routines and so far,so good, but I cannot guarantee anything. I am a bit new to this. If you find any errors put up a message on the SciPy mailing list.

A link to the tar ball that holds the code and docs is given below.

I have recently updated some information and included more examples. The document presented below is the original documentation which is still useful. The link below holds the latest documentation and source code.

-- Lou Pecora

What follows is the content of Lou`s word-document originally pasted here as version 1. I (DavidLinke) have converted this to wiki-markup:

C Extensions to NumPy and Python

By Lou Pecora - 2006-12-07 (Draft version 0.1)


Introduction– a little background

In my use of Python I came across a typical problem: I needed to speed up particular parts of my code. I am not a Python guru or any kind of coding/computer guru. I use Python for numerical calculations and I make heavy use of Numeric/NumPy. Almost every Python book or tutorial tells you build C extensions to Python when you need a routine to run fast. C extensions are C code that can be compiled and linked to a shared library that can be imported like any Python module and you can call specified C routines like they were Python functions.

Sounds nice, but I had reservations. It looked non-trivial (it is, to an extent). So I searched for other solutions. I found them. They are such approaches as SWIG, Pyrex, ctypes, Psycho, and Weave. I often got the simple examples given to work (not all, however) when I tried these. But I hit a barrier when I tried to apply them to NumPy. Then one gets into typemaps or other hybrid constructs. I am not knocking these approaches, but I could never figure them out and get going on my own code despite lots of online tutorials and helpful suggestions from various Python support groups and emailing lists.

So I decided to see if I could just write my own C extensions. I got help in the form of some simple C extension examples for using Numeric written about 2000 from Tom Loredo of Cornell university. These sat on my hard drive until 5 years later out of desperation I pulled them out and using his examples, I was able to quickly put together several C extensions that (at least for me) handle all of the cases (so far) where I want a speedup. These cases mostly involve passing Python integers, floats (=C doubles), strings, and NumPy 1D and 2D float and integer arrays. I rarely need to pass anything else to a C routine to do a calculation. If you are in the same situation as me, then this package I put together might help you. It turns out to be fairly easy once you get going.

Please note, Tom Loredo is not responsible for any errors in my code or instructions although I am deeply indebted to him. Likewise, this code is for research only. It was tested by only my development and usage. It is not guaranteed, and comes with no warranty. Do not use this code where there are any threats of loss of life, limb, property, or money or anything you or others hold dear.

I developed these C extensions and their Python wrappers on a Macintosh G4 laptop using system OS X 10.4 (essential BSD Unix), Python 2.4, NumPy 0.9x, and the gnu compiler and linker gcc. I think most of what I tell you here will be easily translated to Linux and other Unix systems beyond the Mac. I am not sure about Windows. I hope that my low-level approach will make it easy for Windows users, too.

The code (both C and Python) for the extensions may look like a lot, but it is very repetitious. Once you get the main scheme for one extension function you will see that repeated over and over again in all the others with minor variations to handle different arguments or return different objects to the calling routine. Don't be put off by the code. The good news is that for many numerical uses extensions will follow the same format so you can quickly reuse what you already have written for new projects. Focus on one extension function and follow it in detail (in fact, I will do this below). Once you understand it, the other routines will be almost obvious. The same is true of the several utility functions that come with the package. They help you create, test, and manipulate the data and they also have a lot of repetition. The utility functions are also very short and simple so nothing to fear there.

General Scheme for NumPy Extensions

This will be covered in detail below, but first I wanted to give you a sense of how each extension is organized.

Three things that must be done before your C extension functions in the C source file.

  1. You must include Python and NumPy headers.

  2. Each extension must be named in a defining structure at the beginning of the file. This is a name used to access the extension from a Python function.
  3. Next an initialization set of calls is made to set up the Python and NumPy calls and interface. It will be the same for all extensions involving NumPy and Python unless you add extensions to access other Python packages or classes beyond NumPy arrays. I will not cover any of that here (because I don't know it). So the init calls can be copied to each extension file.

Each C extension will have the following form.

Python Wrapper Functions

It is best to call the C extensions by calling a Python function that then calls the extension. This is called a Python wrapper function. It puts a more pythonic look to your code (e.g. you can use keywords easily) and, as I pointed out above, allows you to easily check that the function arguments and data are correct before you had them over to the C extension and other C functions for that big calculation. It may seem like an unnecessary extra step, but it's worth it.

The Code

In this section I refer to the code in the source files C_arraytest.h, C_arraytest.c,, and C_arraytest.mak. You should keep those files handy (probably printed out) so you can follow the explanations of the code below.

The C Code – one detailed example with utilities

First, I will use the example of code from C_arraytest.h, C_arraytest.c for the routine called matsq. This function takes a (NumPy) matrix A, integer i, and (Python) float y as input and outputs a return (NumPy) matrix B each of whose components is equal to the square of the input matrix component times the integer times the float. Mathematically:

The Python code to call the matsq routine is A=matsq(B,i,y). Here is the relevant code in one place:

The Header file, C_arraytest.h:

The Source file, C_arraytest.c:

Now, lets look at the source code in smaller chunks.


You must include the following headers with Python.h always the first header included.

I also include the header C_arraytest.h which contains the prototype of the matsq function:

The static keyword in front of a function declaration makes this function private to your extension module. The linker just won't see it. This way you can use the same intuitional function names(i.e. sum, check, trace) for all extension modules without having name clashes between them at link time. The type of the function is PyObject * because it will always be returning to a Python calling function so you can (must, actually) return a Python object. The arguments are always the same ,

The first one self is never used, but necessary because of how Python passes arguments. The second args is a pointer to a Python tuple that contains all of the arguments (B,i,x) of the function.

Method definitions

This sets up a table of function names that will be the interface from your Python code to your C extension. The name of the C extension module will be _C_arraytest (note the leading underscore). It is important to get the name right each time it is used because there are strict requirements on using the module name in the code. The name appears first in the method definitions table as the first part of the table name:

where I used ellipses (...) to ignore other code not relevant to this function. The METH_VARARGS parameter tells the compiler that you will pass the arguments the usual way without keywords as in the example A=matsq(B,i,x) above. There are ways to use Python keywords, but I have not tried them out. The table should always end with {NULL, NULL} which is just a "marker" to note the end of the table.


These functions tell the Python interpreter what to call when the module is loaded. Note the name of the module (_C_arraytest) must come directly after the init in the name of the initialization structure.

The order is important and you must call these two initialization functions first.

The matsqfunction code

Now here is the actual function that you will call from Python code. I will split it up and explain each section.

The function name and type:

You can see they match the prototype in C_arraytest.h.

The local variables:

The PyArrayObjects are structures defined in the NumPy header file and they will be assigned pointers to the actual input and output NumPy arrays (A and B). The C arrays cin and cout are Cpointers that will point (eventually) to the actual data in the NumPy arrays and allow you to manipulate it. The variable dfactor will be the Python float y, ifactor will be the Python int i, the variables i,j,n, and m will be loop variables (i and j) and matrix dimensions (n= number of rows, m= number of columns) in A and B. The array dims will be used to access n and m from the NumPy array. All this happens below. First we have to extract the input variables (A, i, y) from the args tuple. This is done by the call,

The PyArg_ParseTuple function takes the args tuple and using the format string that appears next ("O!id" ) it assigns each member of the tuple to a C variable. Note you must pass all C variables by reference. This is true even if the C variable is a pointer to a string (see code in vecfcn1 routine). The format string tells the parsing function what type of variable to use. The common variables for Python all have letter names (e.g. s for string, i for integer, d for (double - the Python float)). You can find a list of these and many more in Guido's tutorial ( For data types that are not in standard Python like the NumPy arrays you use the O! notation which tells the parser to look for a type structure (in this case a NumPy structure PyArray_Type) to help it convert the tuple member that will be assigned to the local variable ( matin ) pointing to the NumPy array structure. Note these are also passed by reference. The order must be maintained and match the calling interface of the Python function you want. The format string defines the interface and if you do not call the function from Python so the number of arguments match the number in the format string, you will get an error. This is good since it will point to where the problem is.

If this doesn't work we return NULL which will cause a Python exception.

Next we have a check that the input matrix really is a matrix of NumPy type double. This test is also done in the Python wrapper for this C extension. It is better to do it there, but I include the test here to show you that you can do testing in the C extension and you can "reach into" the NumPy structure to pick out it's parameters. The utility function not_doublematrix is explained later.

Here's an example of reaching into the NumPy structure to get the dimensions of the matrix matin and assign them to local variables as mentioned above.

Now we use these matrix parameters to generate a new NumPy matrix matout (our output) right here in our C extension. PyArray_FromDims(2,dims,NPY_DOUBLE) is a utility function provided by NumPy (not me) and its arguments tell NumPy the rank of the NumPy object (2), the size of each dimension (dims), and the data type (NPY_DOUBLE). Other examples of creating different NumPy arrays are in the other C extensions.

To actually do our calculations we need C structures to handle our data so we generate two C 2-dimensional arrays (cin and cout) which will point to the data in matin and matout, respectively. Note, here memory is allocated since we need to create an array of pointers to C doubles so we can address cin and cout like usual C matrices with two indices. This memory must be released at the end of this C extension. Memory allocation like this is not always necessary. See the routines for NumPy vector manipulation and treating NumPy matrices like contiguous arrays (as they are in NumPy) in the C extension (the routine contigmat).

Finally, we get to the point where we can manipulate the matrices and do our calculations. Here is the part where the original equation operations Bij= i y (Aij)2 are carried out. Note, we are directly manipulating the data in the original NumPy arrays A and B passed to this extension. So anything you do here to the components of cin or cout will be done to the original matrices and will appear there when you return to the Python code.

We are ready to go back to the Python calling routine, but first we release the memory we allocated for cin and cout.

Now we return the result of the calculation.

If you look at the other C extensions you can see that you can also return regular Python variables (like ints) using another Python-provided function Py_BuildValue("i", 1) where the string "i" tells the function the data type and the second argument (1 here) is the data value to be returned. If you decide to return nothing, you must return the Python keyword None like this:

The Py_INCREF function increases the number of references to None (remember Python collects allocated memory automatically when there are no more references to the data). You must be careful about this in the C extensions. For more info see Guido´s tutorial.

The utility functions

Here are some quick descriptions of the matrix utility functions. They are pretty much self-explanatory. The vector and integer array utility functions are very similar.

The first utility function is not used in any of the C extensions here, but I include it because a helpful person sent it along with some code and it does show how one might convert a python object to a NumPy array. I have not tried it. Use at your own risk.

The next one creates the C arrays that are used to point to the rows of the NumPy matrices. This allocates arrays of pointers which point into the NumPy data. The NumPy data is contiguous and strides (m) are used to access each row. This function calls ptrvector(n) which does the actual memory allocation. Remember to deallocate memory after using this one.

Here is where the memory for the C arrays of pointers is allocated. It's a pretty standard memory allocator for arrays.

This is the routine to deallocate the memory.

Note: There is a standard C-API for converting from Python objects to C-style arrays-of-pointers called PyArray_AsCArray

Here is a utility function that checks to make sure the object produced by the parse is a NumPy matrix. You can see how it reaches into the NumPy object structure.

The C Code – other variations

As I mentioned in the introduction the functions are repetitious. All the other functions follow a very similar pattern. They are given a line in the methods structure, they have the same arguments, they parse the arguments, they may check the C structures after the parsing, they set up C variables to manipulate which point to the input data, they do the actual calculation, they deallocate memory (if necessary) and they return something for Python (either None or a Python object). I'll just mention some of the differences in the code from the above matrix C extension matsq.


The format string for the parse function specifies that a variable from Python is a string (s).

No memory is allocated in the pointer assignments for the local C arrays because they are already vectors.

The return is an int = 1 if successful. This is returned as a Python int.


In this routine we "pass back" the output using the fact that it is passed by reference in the argument tuple list and is changed in place by the manipulations. Compare this to returning an array from the C extension in matsq. Either one gets the job done.


Here the matrix data is treated like a long vector (just like stacking the rows end to end). This is useful if you have array classes in C++ which store the data as one long vector and then use strides to access it like an array (two-dimensional, three-dimensional, or whatever). Even though matin and matout are "matrices" we treat them like vectors and use the vector utilities to get our C pointers cin and cout.

For other utility functions note that we use different rank, dimensions, and NumPy parameters (e.g. NPY_LONG) to tell the routines we are calling what the data types are.

The Make File

The make file is very simple. It is written for Mac OS X 10.4, as BSD Unix.

The compile step is pretty standard. You do need to add paths to the Python headers:


and paths to NumPy headers:


These paths are for a Framework Python 2.4 install on Mac OS X. You need to supply paths to the headers installed on your computer. They may be different. My guess is the gcc flags will be the same for the compile.

The link step produces the actual module ( which can be imported to Python code. This is specific to the Mac OS X system. On Linux or Windows you will need something different. I have been searching for generic examples, but I'm not sure what I found would work for most people so I chose not to display the findings there. I cannot judge whether the code is good for those systems.

Note, again the name of the produced shared library must match the name in the initialization and methods definition calls in the C extension source code. Hence the leading underline in the name

Here's my modified Makefile which compiles this code under Linux (save it as Makefile in the same directory, and then run 'make' --PaulIvanov

The Python Wrapper Code

Here as in the C code I will only show detailed description of one wrapper function and its use. There is so much repetition that the other wrappers will be clear if you understand one. I will again use the matsq function. This is the code that will first be called when you invoke the matsq function in your own Python code after importing the wrapper module ( which automatically imports and uses (in a way hidden from the user) the actual C extensions in (note the leading underscore which keeps the names separate).


Import the C extensions, NumPy, and the system module (used for the exit statement at the end which is optional).

The definition of the Python matsq function

Pass a NumPy matrix (matin), a Python int (ifac), and a Python float (dfac). Check the arguments to make sure they are the right type and dimensions and size. This is much easier and safer on the Python side which is why I do it here even though I showed a way to do some of this in the C extensions.

Finally, call the C extension to do the actual calculation on matin.

You can see that the python part is the easiest.

Using your C extension

If the test function mattest2 were in another module (one you were writing), here's how you would use it to call the wrapped matsq function in a script.

The output looks like this:

The output of all the test functions is in the file C_arraytest output.


This is the first draft explaining the C extensions I wrote (with help). If you have comments on the code, mistakes, etc. Please post them on the pythonmac email list. I will see them.

I wrote the C extensions to work with NumPy although they were originally written for Numeric. If you must use Numeric you should test them to see if they are compatible. I suspect names like NPY_DOUBLE, for example, will not be. I strongly suggest you upgrade to the NumPy since it is the future of Numeric in Python. It's worth the effort.


Note that this line, while in the header file above, is missing from the .h in the tar-ball.

The output file name should be _C_arraytest_d.pyd for Debug version and _C_arraytest.pyd for Release version.

ptrvector() allocates n*sizeof(double), but should really allocate pointers to double; so: n*sizeof(double *)


Cookbook/C Extensions/NumPy arrays (last edited 2010-06-20 09:42:59 by FredSpiessens)