9.2. Using the FFI with GHC

The following sections also give some hints and tips on the use of the foreign function interface in GHC.

9.2.1. Using foreign export and foreign import ccall "wrapper" with GHC

When GHC compiles a module (say M.hs) which uses foreign export or foreign import "wrapper", it generates two additional files, M_stub.c and M_stub.h. GHC will automatically compile M_stub.c to generate M_stub.o at the same time.

For a plain foreign export, the file M_stub.h contains a C prototype for the foreign exported function, and M_stub.c contains its definition. For example, if we compile the following module:

module Foo where

foreign export ccall foo :: Int -> IO Int

foo :: Int -> IO Int
foo n = return (length (f n))

f :: Int -> [Int]
f 0 = []
f n = n:(f (n-1))

Then Foo_stub.h will contain something like this:

#include "HsFFI.h"
extern HsInt foo(HsInt a0);

and Foo_stub.c contains the compiler-generated definition of foo(). To invoke foo() from C, just #include "Foo_stub.h" and call foo().

The foo_stub.c and foo_stub.h files can be redirected using the -stubdir option; see Section 5.6.4, “Redirecting the compilation output(s)”.

When linking the program, remember to include M_stub.o in the final link command line, or you'll get link errors for the missing function(s) (this isn't necessary when building your program with ghc ––make, as GHC will automatically link in the correct bits). Using your own main()

Normally, GHC's runtime system provides a main(), which arranges to invoke Main.main in the Haskell program. However, you might want to link some Haskell code into a program which has a main function written in another language, say C. In order to do this, you have to initialize the Haskell runtime system explicitly.

Let's take the example from above, and invoke it from a standalone C program. Here's the C code:

#include <stdio.h>
#include "HsFFI.h"

#include "foo_stub.h"

extern void __stginit_Foo ( void );

int main(int argc, char *argv[])
  int i;

  hs_init(&argc, &argv);

  for (i = 0; i < 5; i++) {
    printf("%d\n", foo(2500));

  return 0;

We've surrounded the GHC-specific bits with #ifdef __GLASGOW_HASKELL__; the rest of the code should be portable across Haskell implementations that support the FFI standard.

The call to hs_init() initializes GHC's runtime system. Do NOT try to invoke any Haskell functions before calling hs_init(): bad things will undoubtedly happen.

We pass references to argc and argv to hs_init() so that it can separate out any arguments for the RTS (i.e. those arguments between +RTS...-RTS).

Next, we call hs_add_root, a GHC-specific interface which is required to initialise the Haskell modules in the program. The argument to hs_add_root should be the name of the initialization function for the "root" module in your program - in other words, the module which directly or indirectly imports all the other Haskell modules in the program. In a standalone Haskell program the root module is normally Main, but when you are using Haskell code from a library it may not be. If your program has multiple root modules, then you can call hs_add_root multiple times, one for each root. The name of the initialization function for module M is __stginit_M, and it may be declared as an external function symbol as in the code above. Note that the symbol name should be transformed according to the Z-encoding:


After we've finished invoking our Haskell functions, we can call hs_exit(), which terminates the RTS.

There can be multiple calls to hs_init(), but each one should be matched by one (and only one) call to hs_exit()[9].

NOTE: when linking the final program, it is normally easiest to do the link using GHC, although this isn't essential. If you do use GHC, then don't forget the flag -no-hs-main, otherwise GHC will try to link to the Main Haskell module. Making a Haskell library that can be called from foreign code

The scenario here is much like in Section, “Using your own main(), except that the aim is not to link a complete program, but to make a library from Haskell code that can be deployed in the same way that you would deploy a library of C code.

The main requirement here is that the runtime needs to be initialized before any Haskell code can be called, so your library should provide initialisation and deinitialisation entry points, implemented in C or C++. For example:

 HsBool mylib_init(void){
   int argc = ...
   char *argv[] = ...

   // Initialize Haskell runtime
   hs_init(&argc, &argv);

   // Tell Haskell about all root modules

   // do any other initialization here and
   // return false if there was a problem
   return HS_BOOL_TRUE;

 void mylib_end(void){

The initialisation routine, mylib_init, calls hs_init() and hs_add_root() as normal to initialise the Haskell runtime, and the corresponding deinitialisation function mylib_end() calls hs_exit() to shut down the runtime. On the use of hs_exit()

hs_exit() normally causes the termination of any running Haskell threads in the system, and when hs_exit() returns, there will be no more Haskell threads running. The runtime will then shut down the system in an orderly way, generating profiling output and statistics if necessary, and freeing all the memory it owns.

It isn't always possible to terminate a Haskell thread forcibly: for example, the thread might be currently executing a foreign call, and we have no way to force the foreign call to complete. What's more, the runtime must assume that in the worst case the Haskell code and runtime are about to be removed from memory (e.g. if this is a Windows DLL, hs_exit() is normally called before unloading the DLL). So hs_exit() must wait until all outstanding foreign calls return before it can return itself.

The upshot of this is that if you have Haskell threads that are blocked in foreign calls, then hs_exit() may hang (or possibly busy-wait) until the calls return. Therefore it's a good idea to make sure you don't have any such threads in the system when calling hs_exit(). This includes any threads doing I/O, because I/O may (or may not, depending on the type of I/O and the platform) be implemented using blocking foreign calls.

The GHC runtime treats program exit as a special case, to avoid the need to wait for blocked threads when a standalone executable exits. Since the program and all its threads are about to terminate at the same time that the code is removed from memory, it isn't necessary to ensure that the threads have exited first. (Unofficially, if you want to use this fast and loose version of hs_exit(), then call shutdownHaskellAndExit() instead).

9.2.2. Using function headers

When generating C (using the -fvia-C flag), one can assist the C compiler in detecting type errors by using the -#include directive (Section 5.10.5, “Options affecting the C compiler (if applicable)”) to provide .h files containing function headers.

For example,

#include "HsFFI.h"

void         initialiseEFS (HsInt size);
HsInt        terminateEFS (void);
HsForeignObj emptyEFS(void);
HsForeignObj updateEFS (HsForeignObj a, HsInt i, HsInt x);
HsInt        lookupEFS (HsForeignObj a, HsInt i);

The types HsInt, HsForeignObj etc. are described in the H98 FFI Addendum.

Note that this approach is only essential for returning floats (or if sizeof(int) != sizeof(int *) on your architecture) but is a Good Thing for anyone who cares about writing solid code. You're crazy not to do it.

What if you are importing a module from another package, and a cross-module inlining exposes a foreign call that needs a supporting -#include? If the imported module is from the same package as the module being compiled, you should supply all the -#include that you supplied when compiling the imported module. If the imported module comes from another package, you won't necessarily know what the appropriate -#include options are; but they should be in the package configuration, which GHC knows about. So if you are building a package using Cabal, remember to put all those include files in the package description (see the includes field in the Cabal documentation).

It is also possible, according the FFI specification, to put the -#include option in the foreign import declaration itself:

  foreign import "foo.h f" f :: Int -> IO Int

When compiling this module, GHC will generate a C file that includes the specified -#include. However, GHC disables cross-module inlining for such foreign calls, because it doesn't transport the -#include information across module boundaries. (There is no fundamental reason for this; it was just tiresome to implement. The wrapper, which unboxes the arguments etc, is still inlined across modules.) So if you want the foreign call itself to be inlined across modules, use the command-line and package-configuration -#include mechanism. Finding Header files

Header files named by the -#include option or in a foreign import declaration are searched for using the C compiler's usual search path. You can add directories to this search path using the -I option (see Section 5.10.3, “Options affecting the C pre-processor”).

Note: header files are ignored unless compiling via C. If you had been compiling your code using the native code generator (the default) and suddenly switch to compiling via C, then you can get unexpected errors about missing include files. Compiling via C is enabled automatically when certain options are given (eg. -O and -prof both enable -fvia-C).

9.2.3. Memory Allocation

The FFI libraries provide several ways to allocate memory for use with the FFI, and it isn't always clear which way is the best. This decision may be affected by how efficient a particular kind of allocation is on a given compiler/platform, so this section aims to shed some light on how the different kinds of allocation perform with GHC.

alloca and friends

Useful for short-term allocation when the allocation is intended to scope over a given IO computation. This kind of allocation is commonly used when marshalling data to and from FFI functions.

In GHC, alloca is implemented using MutableByteArray#, so allocation and deallocation are fast: much faster than C's malloc/free, but not quite as fast as stack allocation in C. Use alloca whenever you can.


Useful for longer-term allocation which requires garbage collection. If you intend to store the pointer to the memory in a foreign data structure, then mallocForeignPtr is not a good choice, however.

In GHC, mallocForeignPtr is also implemented using MutableByteArray#. Although the memory is pointed to by a ForeignPtr, there are no actual finalizers involved (unless you add one with addForeignPtrFinalizer), and the deallocation is done using GC, so mallocForeignPtr is normally very cheap.


If all else fails, then you need to resort to Foreign.malloc and Foreign.free. These are just wrappers around the C functions of the same name, and their efficiency will depend ultimately on the implementations of these functions in your platform's C library. We usually find malloc and free to be significantly slower than the other forms of allocation above.


Pools are currently implemented using malloc/free, so while they might be a more convenient way to structure your memory allocation than using one of the other forms of allocation, they won't be any more efficient. We do plan to provide an improved-performance implementation of Pools in the future, however.

[9] The outermost hs_exit() will actually de-initialise the system. NOTE that currently GHC's runtime cannot reliably re-initialise after this has happened.