Embedding Python in C++, Part 1

Python has very good inter-operability with C and C++. (In this post I’ll just say C++ for simplicity.) There are two sides to this “inter-op”. The first is that the main program is in Python; certain performance critical parts are coded in C++, or provided by an existing C++ library, which is called from the main Python program. This is known as “extending Python with C++”.

The other side is that the main program is in C++, and it calls some Python code. This is known as “embedding Python in C++”.

Both needs arise, but the first is by far more common. We can find much more online resources about “extending” than about “embedding”. However, the two uses share a lot of common machinery. There are several tools in this area. As far as I saw, their documentation and other resources all predominantly talk about “extending”. However, most of them either already support “embedding”, or could do so with modest additional work.

Recently I needed to do both “extending” and “embedding”. I plan to first write about my “embedding” experience in a few articles.

Setting the stage

My main program is a realtime, low-latency, high-throughput, online sevice in C++. In a critical component, it runs some sophisticated modeling or “machine learning” algorithm to make a decision. I decided to develop the model algorithm in Python in order to tap into its excellent data stack and modeling ecosystem. As a result, I needed to build an interface between the Python and C++ codes. To fix ideas, the Python code is listed below.

The meat of the computation is carried out by the class Engine:

Module `py4cc_1.py` in package `py4cc`.

import copy
import json
import multiprocessing
import time
import traceback

def big_model(float_features, str_features, int_feature):
    z = int(sum(abs(v) for v in float_features))
    z += sum(len(s.upper()) for s in str_features)
    z += len([' '] * int_feature)
    return z

class Engine:
    def initialize(self, **kwargs):

    def run_big_model(self, *, float_features, str_features, int_feature):
            z = big_model(float_features, str_features, int_feature)

            # Emulate a time consuming step,
            # but make the duration deterministic hence reproducible.
            time.sleep((z % 100 + 1) * 0.0001)

            return z, ''
        except Exception as e:
            return -1, traceback.format_exc()

The class Driver provides C++-facing API. It handles receiving task submissions, providing results to queries, and managing a process pool, in which each process runs a Engine instance:

Module `py4cc_1.py` in package `py4cc1` (continued).

# Global variable in its process.
global_engine = Engine()

def initialize(kwargs):
    # `Pool` can only pass in positional arguments.
    # We take a single argument which is a dict,
    # and expand it after this.
    global global_engine
    return global_engine.initialize(**kwargs)

def run_big_model(**kwargs):
    global global_engine
    return global_engine.run_big_model(**kwargs)

class Driver:
    def __init__(self, max_tasks=64, n_subprocesses=-1):
        self._tasks = {}
        self._max_tasks = max_tasks
        self._pool = None
        if n_subprocesses <= 0:
            n_subprocesses = multiprocessing.cpu_count()
        self._n_subproceses = n_subprocesses

    def initialize(self, *, config_json, float_feature_names, str_feature_names, **kwargs):
        self._config_json = json.loads(config_json)
        self._float_feature_names = copy.deepcopy(float_feature_names)
        self._str_feature_names = copy.deepcopy(str_feature_names)

        self._pool = multiprocessing.Pool(

        return self

    def submit(self, *, float_features, str_features, int_feature):
            tuple (flag, key, message)
        assert len(self._float_feature_names) == len(float_features)
        assert len(self._str_feature_names) == len(str_features)
            if len(self._tasks) >= self._max_tasks:
                return 1, 0, 'Model engine is working at capacity. Try again later.'

            result = self._pool.apply_async(
                kwds={'float_features': float_features,
                      'str_features': str_features,
                      'int_feature': int_feature},
            key = id(result)
            self._tasks[key] = result

            return 0, key, ''
        except Exception as e:
            return 9, 0, traceback.format_exc()

    def retrieve(self, key):
            key: the key returned from `submit`, used to identify the particular task.

            tuple (flag, value, message).
                Usually `flag == 0` combined with `value > 0` is a sure sign of success.
            result = self._tasks[key]
            if not result.ready():
                return 1, -1, 'The requested task is not finished'

            val, msg = result.get(0)
            del self._tasks[key]
            if val > 0:
                return 0, val, msg
                return 2, val, msg
        except Exception as e:
            return 9, -1, traceback.format_exc()

    def finalize(self):

A few points of note:

  1. Because this code is totally CPU-bound, I use multiple processes to increase throughput and to serve the multiple threads of the C++ program.
  2. At design stage there was a choice to be made between using multiprocessing and concurrent.futures. One reason for using multiprocessing is that it allows custom initialization of the child processes, while concurrent.futures does not (yet) support this directly.
  3. I use a “submit/retrieve” style to handle task requests initiated from any C++ thread: the thread “submits” a modeling task to the Driver, and later comes back to query the result. If submission is not accepted or result is not ready, it waits a little bit and tries again.
  4. Driver launches a “process pool”. The pool accepts task submissions and returns AsyncResult objects.
  5. I use the id (i.e. memory address) of the AsyncResult as a receipt for the submitter (a C++ thread), which later provides the id in calls to retrieve to identify the task whose result is being requested. The keys will have no collision because any key could be used again only after that result has been removed from _tasks.
  6. In the methods submit and retrieve, I wrap all code in try/except statements to capture any exception, so that to the consumer (C++ threads), the Python code never raises exceptions. The returned value contains exit code and error messages, if any, in addition to the true values of interest.
  7. In this example code, I intentionally used a variety of data types (string, string list, numerical list, numerical scalar, etc) in order to test functionalities of the embedding tools.

Testing it in Python

I wrote a Python program to verify that it works. The test code primarily does the following things:

  1. Make up some testing data.
  2. Create a number of threads, each processing a subset of the testing data.
  3. Each thread loops through its data points. In each iteration, it submits the data to Driver, then queries about the result. Once the result is ready, it retrieves the result and moves to the next data point. When the result is not ready, it sleeps, allowing other threads to execute.

The test code is available at https://github.com/zpz/cppy/tree/master/py4cc/tests. The test program ran with no issues.

First attempt at using raw Python/C API

A natural approach uses Python’s C API. The official documentation has a tutorial as well as a reference manual.

To use the API, one must first #include "Python.h", which on my Linux box is located in /usr/local/include/python3.6m.

Before anything python related, one needs to call


to initiate the Python interpreter. After that, the prevalent business is to create and manipulate variables of type PyObject *. (Every Python object is represented by a struct of type PyObject.) There are functions to convert basic types between Python and C++, build Python list or dict objects, call Python functions (which are, of course, PyObjects), access attributes of a Python object, and so on.

For example,

PyObject * pModule = PyImport_Import(PyUnicode_FromString("py4cc1.py4cc"));

does what the following accomplishes in Python:

import py4cc1.py4cc

Top-level functions, classes, and variables in this module are then accessed as attributes of the object pModule. For example, to instantiate a Driver object, we need to first get the Driver class object,

PyObject * driver_cls = PyObject_GetAttrString(pModule, "Driver");

Then initialize a Driver object using the API that calls a Python function (because we would do Driver() to initiate a Driver object as if Driver is just a function):

PyObject * noargs = PyTuple_New(0);
PyObject * kwargs = PyDict_New();
PyDict_SetItemString(kwargs, "max_tasks", PyLong_FromLong(64));

PyObject * driver = PyObject_Call(driver_cls, noargs, kwargs);

As one can see, the API functions are kind of straightforward. But boy, is that tedious. I will not give more details since it’s all in the documentation.

My C++ header file that corresponds to the Python API is listed below.

// File `cc4py_1.h` in `cc4py`.

#ifndef CC4PY_H_
#define CC4PY_H_

#include "Python.h"

#include <string>
#include <vector>

namespace cc4py {
    struct TaskReceipt {
        int flag;
            // 0 -- success; come query the result later with `retrieve`.
            // 1 -- system is full with tasks; try re-submit later.
            // 2+ -- error.
        long key;
            // This is a valid, positive key when `flag` is `0`, 
            // to identify the task just submitted.
            // It is going to be used later to request result of this particular task.
        std::string message;
            // Message when `flag` is nonzero.

    struct TaskResult {
        int flag;
            //  0 -- success; this task is removed from the "driver";
            //       the caller should use the returned `value`.
            //  1 -- the requested task is unfinished; try again later.
            //  2+ -- error; this task is removed from the engine; 
            //       the caller should move on.
        long key;
            // the `key` part of `TaskReceipt` that was returned by `submit`.
        int value;
            // Usually this is a valid positive number only when `flag` is `0`.
        std::string message;
            // Empty if all is well; otherwise inspect and log this message unless `flag` is `1`.

    class Driver
        // Max number of tasks in the system,
        // including unfinished and finished but un-retrieved ones.
        // Once this capacity is achieved, new task submission is not accepted
        // until some finished tasks have been retrieved (hence removed) from the system.
        int _max_tasks = 64;

        PyObject * _driver = nullptr;
        bool _initialized = false;
        bool _finalized = false;

        Driver(int max_tasks=64);

        void initialize(
            std::string const & config_json,
            std::vector<std::string> const & float_feature_names,
            std::vector<std::string> const & str_feature_names

        TaskReceipt submit(
            std::vector<double> const & float_features,
            std::vector<std::string> const & str_features,
            const int int_feature

        TaskResult retrieve(const long key);

        void finalize();


}   // namespace

#endif  // CC4PY_H_

A good part of the corresponding source file is listed below. The complete code is available at https://github.com/zpz/cppy/tree/master/cc4py/cc4py_1.cc. You can get a feel of the tedious yet predictable style of this approach from this code sample.

// File `cc4py_1.cc` in `cc4py`.

#include "cc4py.h"
#include "Python.h"

#include <algorithm>
#include <cassert>
#include <exception>
#include <iostream>
#include <memory>

using namespace cc4py;

PyObject* to_py_float_list(double const * buffer, const int n)
    PyObject* list = PyList_New((Py_ssize_t) n);
    for (Py_ssize_t i = 0; i < n; i++) {
        PyList_SetItem(list, i, PyFloat_FromDouble(buffer[i]));
    return list;

PyObject* to_py_str_list(char const * const* buffer, int n)
    PyObject* list = PyList_New((Py_ssize_t) n);
    for (Py_ssize_t i = 0; i < n; i++) {
        PyList_SetItem(list, i, PyUnicode_FromString(buffer[i]));
    return list;

std::vector<char const *> to_c_strs(std::vector<std::string> const& strings)
    std::vector<char const *> c_strs;
    std::transform(std::begin(strings), std::end(strings),
        std::back_inserter(c_strs), std::mem_fn(&std::string::c_str));
    return c_strs;

Driver::Driver(int max_tasks)
    : _max_tasks{max_tasks}
    // Initialize the Python interpreter.

void Driver::initialize(
    std::string const & model_config_json,
    std::vector<std::string> const & float_feature_names,
    std::vector<std::string> const & str_feature_names
    auto pModule = PyImport_Import(PyUnicode_FromString("py4cc1.py4cc"));
    auto driver_cls = PyObject_GetAttrString(pModule, "Driver");

    auto noargs = PyTuple_New(0);
    auto kwargs = PyDict_New();
    PyDict_SetItemString(kwargs, "max_tasks", PyLong_FromLong(_max_tasks));

    _driver = PyObject_Call(driver_cls, noargs, kwargs);

    PyDict_SetItemString(kwargs, "config_json", PyUnicode_FromString(model_config_json.c_str()));
    PyDict_SetItemString(kwargs, "float_feature_names",
        to_py_str_list(to_c_strs(float_feature_names).data(), float_feature_names.size()));
    PyDict_SetItemString(kwargs, "str_feature_names",
        to_py_str_list(to_c_strs(str_feature_names).data(), str_feature_names.size()));

    auto method = PyObject_GetAttrString(_driver, "initialize");
    PyObject_Call(method, noargs, kwargs);

    _initialized = true;

TaskReceipt Driver::submit(
    std::vector<double> const & float_features,
    std::vector<std::string> const & str_features,
    const int int_feature
    // ... omitted ...

TaskResult Driver::retrieve(const long key)
    auto method = PyUnicode_FromString("retrieve");
    auto py_key = PyLong_FromLong(key);
    auto z = PyObject_CallMethodObjArgs(_driver, method, py_key, nullptr);

    auto flag = PyTuple_GetItem(z, 0);
    auto val = PyTuple_GetItem(z, 1);
    auto msg = PyTuple_GetItem(z, 2);

    TaskResult result;
    result.flag = static_cast<int>(PyLong_AsLong(flag));
    result.key = key;
    result.value = static_cast<int>(PyLong_AsLong(val));
    result.message = PyUnicode_AsUTF8(msg);

    return result;

void Driver::finalize()
    // ... omitted ...


Testing it in C++

The test program for the C++ implementation is analogous to the Python test. An important difference is that the C++ threads need to lock up the code blocks that call Driver methods because, unlike Python, C++ threads do execute simultanously on a multi-core machine. If multiple threads access the single Python interpreter at the same time, the program will crash.

Looking back and forth

Let me emphasize that the C++ implementation listed above is not complete; it’s just a start. For one thing, there are typically multiple slightly different functions in the API that do the same thing, therefore I expect the implementation can be somewhat cleaner.

A real issue is momery management. For example, my code did not take care of releasing memory that it allocated for strings. However, a much, much bigger burden is taking care of reference counts for Python, which I decided to forgo in the proof-of-concept code.

The section entitled “Objects, Types and Reference Counts” in the official documentation basically convinced me that I could hardly get it right, therefore the raw API is not the way to go. There has to be a better way, a way that works on a higher level, hence is cleaner and more concise, and that takes much low-level burden, especially memory management, off the shoulder of the user.

In the next post I will explore third-party tools, which necessarily are built on top of the raw API, that make my job much, much, and so much easier.

Written on February 10, 2017