Using compiled code

Konrad Rudolph


Current status

The ‘box’ package doesn’t have a built-in foreign function interface yet but it is possible to integrate compiled code via R’s SHLIB mechanism for building shared libraries. In particular, this also works with packages such as Rcpp.

For the time being, the following steps unfortunately require manual work:

  1. Compile code when a module is installed or loaded for the first time.
  2. Load the compiled shared library when a module is loaded.
  3. Interface with compiled code via function calls.

This guide aims to describe all steps in sufficient detail to make them easy. In the long run, the plan is to automate all these steps.


To demonstrate these steps, we will use an example module named c that uses compiled code written in C. Here is the C code that we want to make usable in an R module, which is saved in the file c/hello.c:

#include "R.h"
#include "Rdefines.h"

#include <stdio.h>

SEXP hello_world(SEXP name) {
    char const msg_template[] = "Hello from C, %s!";
    char const *const c_name = CHAR(asChar(name));
    char *const msg_buf = R_alloc(sizeof msg_template - 2 + strlen(c_name) + 1, 1);
    sprintf(msg_buf, msg_template, c_name);
    return mkString(msg_buf);

In addition, compiled code often includes specific compilation instructions. While this is unnecessary for this simple example, it’s included anyway for completeness. For R, these compilation instructions are contained in a file called Makevars:

PKG_CFLAGS = -std=c11 -pedantic -Wall -Wextra -Werror

Compile code

To make code loadable and callable by R, it should be compiled via the R CMD SHLIB mechanism. This only needs to happen once for each module, when it is first loaded. By convention, such code should go into a submodule called __setup__. This convention makes it clear that this is a “special” module, and not intended for direct consumption of the module user.

The module specifies which object files to compile, and invokes R CMD SHLIB:

build_shared_lib = function (object_names) {
    # Change working directory so R finds the Makevars.
    old_dir = setwd(box::file())
    exitcode = system2('R', c('CMD', 'SHLIB', paste0(object_names, '.c')))
    stopifnot(exitcode == 0L)


In principle, only the last line in this file should need to be changed for other C projects.

With this in place, we can invoke the compilation by loading the c/__setup__ submodule:


The result of the compilation will be a single file, (on Unix and macOS) or hello.dll (on Windows) which represents a shared library file, and which we can load and use inside R.

Loading compiled code

Compiled code from a shared library is loaded in R using the dyn.load command. This will happen inside the module that uses and/or exposes the compiled code.

Since the name of the shared library file is platform dependent, we need a helper function that gives us this name:

libname = function (name) {
    box::file(paste0(name, .Platform$dynlib.ext))

Now our module can load the compiled code; since this code needs to be executed every time the module is loaded, it goes into the .on_load hook:

.on_load = function (ns) {
    ns$dll = dyn.load(libname('hello'))

… and don’t forget to unload the dynamic library when the module is unloaded:

.on_unload = function (ns) {

Interacting with compiled code

Finally, our module needs a way of calling the compiled code. This is done via the R primitive .Call:

#' @export
hello_world = function (name) {
    .Call(dll$hello_world, name)

To use the code, we load the module and call the hello_world function:

## [1] "Hello from C, Rthur!"

Note that using dll$hello_world causes a somewhat costly call to getNativeSymbolInfo every time the function is invoked. If this is undesired, the value of dll$hello_world should be stored in a variable when loading the module.