Creating Basic Python C Extensions - Tutorial

Elliot Forbes Elliot Forbes ⏰ 4 Minutes 📅 Dec 1, 2017

This tutorial was built using Python 3.6. The official documentation can be found here: Extending and Embedding the Python Interpreter

In this tutorial we are going to take a look at how you can create a really simple Python module using the C programming language. I felt this was a good topic to cover as I personally struggled with finding succinct documentation that worked and showed me the basics.

Why Are C Extensions Necessary?

Being able to write C extensions can come in handy in scenarios where the Python language becomes a bottleneck. Sometimes you require the raw performance of a low-level language like C in order to reduce things like response times and processing times.

The Basic Requirements

In this tutorial we’ll be building a very simple C based Python module that will feature a number of different functions that should hopefully give you enough to get started.

We’ll be creating 2 distinct functions:

  • A Hello World function that simply performs a print.
  • A Simple Fibonacci Function that takes in a value n.

Getting Started

Let’s dive into the C code. Open up the .c file that will contain your new module and add #include <Python.h> to the top. This will bring in the necessary C Python objects that will allow us to construct our module.

#include <Python.h>

// Function 1: A simple 'hello world' function
static PyObject* helloworld(PyObject* self, PyObject* args)
    printf("Hello World\n");
    return Py_None;

// Our Module's Function Definition struct
// We require this `NULL` to signal the end of our method
// definition
static PyMethodDef myMethods[] = {
    { "helloworld", helloworld, METH_NOARGS, "Prints Hello World" },
    { NULL, NULL, 0, NULL }

// Our Module Definition struct
static struct PyModuleDef myModule = {
    "Test Module",

// Initializes our module using our above struct
PyMODINIT_FUNC PyInit_myModule(void)
    return PyModule_Create(&myModule);

Our File

Thankfully Python includes some modules that make extending the language easier. Here we can specify the name of our module and pass in the necessay .c files that make up our module.

from distutils.core import setup, Extension
setup(name = 'myModule', version = '1.0',  \
   ext_modules = [Extension('myModule', ['test.c'])])

Building and Installing our Module

In order to build and install our newly created C module we have to do the following:

python build
python install

When run in succession you should see the following output. We can then start our Python interpreter and call our newly created module:

 $ python3.6 build
running build
running build_ext
building 'myModule' extension
/usr/bin/clang -fno-strict-aliasing -Wsign-compare -fno-common -dynamic -DNDEBUG -g -fwrapv -O3 -Wall -Wstrict-prototypes -arch i386 -arch x86_64 -g -I/Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/3.6/include/python3.6m -c test.c -o build/temp.macosx-10.6-intel-3.6/test.o
/usr/bin/clang -bundle -undefined dynamic_lookup -arch i386 -arch x86_64 -g build/temp.macosx-10.6-intel-3.6/test.o -o build/lib.macosx-10.6-intel-3.6/

 $ python3.6 install
running install
running build
running build_ext
running install_lib
copying build/lib.macosx-10.6-intel-3.6/ -> /Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/3.6/lib/python3.6/site-packages
running install_egg_info
Removing /Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/3.6/lib/python3.6/site-packages/myModule-1.0-py3.6.egg-info
Writing /Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/3.6/lib/python3.6/site-packages/myModule-1.0-py3.6.egg-info

 $ python3.6
Python 3.6.0 (v3.6.0:41df79263a11, Dec 22 2016, 17:23:13)
[GCC 4.2.1 (Apple Inc. build 5666) (dot 3)] on darwin
Type "help", "copyright", "credits" or "license" for more information.
>>> import myModule
>>> myModule.helloworld()
Hello World

Our Fibonacci Function

Let’s now take a look at a more complex function that will take in a value n and then return the appropriate fibonacci number. We aren’t going to do any fancy memoization here, it’s going to be a plain old recursive function that features terrible performance. However it will show us how to both take in a value and return a value in our C module.

// Function 2: A C fibonacci implementation
// this is nothing special and looks exactly
// like a normal C version of fibonacci would look
int Cfib(int n)
    if (n < 2)
        return n;
        return Cfib(n-1)+Cfib(n-2);
// Our Python binding to our C function
// This will take one and only one non-keyword argument
static PyObject* fib(PyObject* self, PyObject* args)
    // instantiate our `n` value
    int n;
    // if our `n` value
    if(!PyArg_ParseTuple(args, "i", &n))
        return NULL;
    // return our computed fib number
    return Py_BuildValue("i", Cfib(n));

Again we should build and install this like we have done before. We can then test this out like so:

>>> import myModule
>>> myModule.fib(2)


Hopefully you found this tutorial useful and it clarifies the process of creating your own C based modules. If you feel like leaving some feedback or asking some further questions then please feel free to in the comments section below.