Wrapping C Global Variables

$Header: /cvs/projects/SWIG/Examples/ruby/variables/index.html,v 2002/04/08 03:56:05 beazley Exp $

When a C global variable appears in an interface file, SWIG tries to wrap it using a technique known as "variable linking." The idea is pretty simple---we try to create a Ruby variable (actually module method) that magically retrieves or updates the value of the underlying C variable when it is accessed. Click here to see a SWIG interface with some variable declarations in it.

Manipulating Variables from Ruby

Before going any further, it is important to understand some important differences between C and Ruby variables. In C, a variable is simply a name that refers to a specific location in memory. For example, when you declare a global variable 'double a' you know that somewhere in memory, 8 bytes have been set aside to hold a double and that a is bound to this location for the life of the program. In Ruby, variable creation is nothing more than a naming operation. For example, when you say 'a = 3', 'a' becomes a name that refers to some object '3'. Later on, if you say 'a = 7.5, the name 'a' is bound to an entirely different object containing the value '7.5' (the contents of the original object are not changed). The end result of this is that a variable in Ruby can refer to a virtually unlimited number of different objects (memory locations) over the lifetime of a program.

Because of Ruby's somewhat unusual variable assignment semantics, it is not possible to directly link a C global variable into an equivalent Ruby variable. Instead, all C global variables are accessed as attributes of the module. For example, if you had a global variable

double foo;
it will be accessed in the Ruby module as Click here to see a script that updates and prints out the values of the variables using this technique.

Key points

  • When a global variable has the type "char *", SWIG manages it as a character string. However, whenever the value of such a variable is set from Ruby, the old value is destroyed using free().
  • signed char and unsigned char are handled as small 8-bit integers.
  • String array variables such as 'char name[256]' are managed as Ruby strings, but when setting the value, the result is truncated to the maximum length of the array. Furthermore, the string is assumed to be null-terminated.
  • When structures and classes are used as global variables, they are mapped into pointers. Getting the "value" returns a pointer to the global variable. Setting the value of a structure results in a memory copy from a pointer to the global.

Creating read-only variables

The %immutable and %mutable directives can be used to specify a collection of read-only variables. For example:
int    status;
double blah;
The %immutable directive remains in effect until it is explicitly disabled using the %mutable directive.


  • Management of global variables is one of the most problematic aspects of C/C++ wrapping because the scripting interface and resulting memory management is much trickier than simply creating a wrapper function.