Embedding Python in C++, Part 2

In my search for an alternative to raw Python/C API for embedding Python in C++, I had several requirements:

  1. It must have good support for C++ (i.e. not just C).
  2. It must provide good control and flexibility. This is a little vague, but what this means is that I like step-by-step programming with full understanding; I don’t like tools that give me a black-box feel of magic.
  3. It must handle Python exceptions smoothly, meaning un-captured exceptions in my Python code should propagate into the C++ calling side as C++ exceptions. This way, I may choose to raise exceptions in Python instead of returning error codes.
  4. Big plus if it’s possible to pass data from C++ to Python by reference. I did not have an immediate need to modify an object in Python and have the modification visible in C++, but I would like to be able to pass read-only data without copying.
  5. The tool should be an actively and seriously developed and maintained open source project with reasonable traction.

I found several tools that enjoyed decent attention, including

The documentation for all these tools give much more attention to “extending” than “embedding”. It may not be easy to find out how to start embedding Python using these tools.

I did find explicit mentions to “embedding” using cffi and cython. A quick look at the descriptions suggested that these two options did not meet the 2nd requirement listed above.

The documentation for PyCXX is clean and to the point. I found such section titles (and content) as “We avoid programming with Python object pointers” and “The basic concept is to wrap Python pointers” enlightening. Unfortunately, I decided to skip this tool without actually trying it, for reasons in its model of development and distribution. The code is distributed on sourceforge.net as a tar-ball. It appears to have a sole maintainer and developer. The revision history indicates it’s being steadily maintained and developped. Beyond that, I did not get to see a list of issues, frequency of commits, level of traction, plan for future development, and so on. These are unfortunate reasons for skipping a capable tool, and it seems to be one.

So I ended up trying pybind11. This is a successor to boost.python. The codebase is substantial, development activity is high, level of interest is good (1771 stars on github as of today). The list of features are very impressive. The documentation put a lot of emphasis on “object-oriented code”, such as defining a class in C++, and inheriting it in Python, and things even fancier than that. This did feel overkill for my need at the moment and taste in general. As can be seen in part 1 (class Driver to be specific), I preferred to have a rather clean separation of the Python and C++ codes, with a small API in between. But my idea could change if I ended up learning and using this tool a lot.

The documentation is serious but still incomplete. It took some imagination and trials to fill the gaps. I managed to make it work for me.

The C++ header file is identical to the first version in part 1 except for two lines. One is an extra include

#include "pybind11/pybind11.h"

The other is replacing

PyObject * _engine = nullptr;


py::object _engine;

This is an important difference: with Python/C API, we work with bare C pointers; with pybind11, we work with C++ objects that manages bare pointers for us behind the scene.

The source file is across-the-board cleaner and simpler than the previous version. Here is the method initialize:

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 driver_cls = py::module::import("py4cc1.py4cc").attr("Driver");
    _driver = driver_cls(py::arg("max_tasks") = _max_tasks);

    auto kwargs = py::dict(
        py::arg("config_json") = py::cast(model_config_json),
        py::arg("float_feature_names") = float_feature_names,
        py::arg("str_feature_names") = str_feature_names

    _initialized = true;

Note how the tedious type conversions (PyLong_FromLong and the like) are gone or much simplified with a py::cast(...). Also note the use of named arguments. C++ vectors are converted to Python lists automatically. The fact that one can use the **kwargs syntax is supprisingly delightful. Calling a method involves getting the method as an attribute (_driver.attr("initialize")), then calling the returned callable object directly (_driver.attr("initialize")(**kwargs)). No more PyObject_Call(...) gymnastics.

The method retrieve goes like this:

TaskResult Driver::retrieve(const long key)
    py::tuple z = _driver.attr("retrieve")(key);

    TaskResult result;
    result.flag = z[0].cast<int>();
    result.key = key;
    result.value = z[1].cast<int>();
    result.message = z[2].cast<std::string>();

    return result;

Here we see tuple items are accessed in the natural way (z[0]) instead of PyTuple_GetItem(z, 0), and Python-to-C++ conversion uses the pattern py_object.cast<target_type>().

In the next post I will explore various ways of passing C++ STL containers to Python.

Written on February 11, 2017