Polymorphic C functions

Many useful C library functions are polymorphic. Properly representing them is a key to interoperability with C.

As a typical example. let us consider a commonly used C library function FREAD(3. According to the manual, its type is defined as follows:

 #include <stdio.h>
 size_t  fread(void  *ptr,
               size_t size,
               size_t nmemb,
               FILE *stream);

The meanings of its arguments are:

  • void *ptr : a pointer to an array to which the input data are stored.
  • size_t size : the size of each input data element
  • size_t nmemb : the maximal number of elements´╝Ä
  • FILE *stream : input stream

Using the size of element type, this function can reads input stream of various types and store them to an array of the corresponding type quite efficiently by advancing the array element pointer. This function is polymorphic in the type of data elements. As a statically typed polymorphic language, ML should treat this as a function of the following type:

fread : 'a array * int * stdIn -> int


  • 'a array : an array to which the input data are stored
  • int : the maximal number of data elements´╝Ä
  • stdIn : input stream

The size argument required by the original C function should be computed and inserted by the compiler.

This is indeed possible in SML#. Based on the polymorphic record compilation theory, SML# compiler is capable of computing the size of each data type, passing the necessary size information to polymorphic functions. SML# system makes a part of this mechanism available to the programmer that write C FFI interface for type safe linking of polymorphic C functions.

FREAD can be used by the following declaration.

 type c_file = unit ptr
 val libc = DynamicLink.dlopen "/lib/libc.so.6"
 val c_fread = DynamicLink.dlsym (libc, "fread")
 fun fread (dst, len, file) =
     _ffiapply c_fread (dst : 'a array,
                        len : int,
                        file : c_file)
                : int

The body of fread is the SML# special form having the following syntax:

_ffiapply e (arg1,...,argn) : t

Each argument agri is either of the form

 exp : t

The former is an ordinary expression and its type to be passed to the C function. The latter is the reference to the size information SML# compiler maintain. This term is automatically replaced with the term denoting the size of the type and passed to the C function. Conceptually, this construct allows the programmer to write the result of the type directed compilation.

The above declaration yields the following binding.

val fread = fn : ['a .'a Array.array * int * unit ptr  -> int]

After this, fread can be used as a polymoprhic function of this type. Its behavior is to call the raw C function that perform binary IO and direct data transfer to the specified array in the SML# heap.

By declaring fopen, fclose, fwrite etc, one can use efficient C binary IO from SML# in a type safe manner.

Last modified:2007/07/05 02:39:26
References:[Seamless Interoperability with C] [Program Examples]