2023 twenty-four merry days of Perl Feed

Santa Kotlin is coming to Perl

FFI::Platypus - 2023-12-24

This post starts with a long introduction to explain why I'm writing, but if you want to skip all of that you can jump directly to the meat and potatoes.

Stay awhile and listen

I grew up as a Nintendo kid. Some of the first video games I played were on an NES, and the first console I ever owned was an SNES. I have very fond memories of those times and of the games I got to know and play.

Although at the time I don't think I considered applying that label to myself, it was very much a part of how I understood myself and my place among my peers. I was a Nintendo kid, and they... well, they were something else. Sega kids, maybe.

This misguided sense of identity paired well with a misguided sense of loyalty, which made it so I found it difficult to enjoy both at the same time. If I was a "Nintendo" kid, what would it mean if I enjoyed Sega... things? What would it mean to own one?

This was not only related to video games, either. I remember very easily falling into this trap with all sorts of similar "contrasts". I was a Beatles kid, so I couldn't like The Rolling Stones. I was a Star Wars kid, so I couldn't enjoy Star Trek. The list was tragically endless.

This was not so hard when my team was inarguably better than the other. But I remember how hard it got to be a "Nintendo kid" when the PlayStation came around. It was gritty, it was powerful, it was exciting... and it felt inaccessible.

Am I still reading the Perl advent calendar?

Ah, yes. Perl.

I've always loved Perl. It was not my very first programming language (you and me, BASIC, for life), but it was the first one where I felt like I could write real programs. The first that I felt was worth mastering, and the one I'm most comfortable with, even today.

So, surprise surprise, I was a Perl kid.

And there have been times when being a Perl kid has not been easy.

I am fortunately past the time when I look at the world in terms of clubs that you belong to because of the things you like. I will have you know I can listen to both Radiohead and Coldplay without breaking a sweat (I take no responsibility for deciding what contrasted with what).

But to this day, there are aspects of this worldview that remain in me.

Perl's PlayStation

I imagine this largely depends on my particular interests, but for the Perl kid in me, it was hard to see how easy the other kids had it when they wanted to integrate with other languages.

To me, this was the PlayStation to Perl's Nintendo.

I remember several attempts trying to teach my teenager-self how to write XS, so I could bind to this or that library. I remember feeling frustrated and defeated. I remember wondering if this meant that Perl was holding me back...

The answer is "no". If I was being held back, it was me who was doing so by again thinking in terms of clubs.

But even if I had continued to see the world through that lens, the Perl we have at our disposal today is miles from the Perl I learned as a kid. There are still, I am sure, plenty of areas where I think Perl has to catch up. But we are at a moment where Perl is positively blooming with new features and tools, that make catching up possible, if not outright easy.

In the last two versions alone (at the time of writing, 5.36 and 5.38) we have n-at-a-time iteration, a native try with finally support (finally!), the new defer blocks, native booleans, the new builtin namespace, and a powerful new syntax for defining classes. Not to mention other recent native features (like sub signatures and the isa operator), or the things made possible via CPAN: async/await support, the renewed efforts into PDL, and what I might consider the jewel of modern Perl: FFI::Platypus.

Time will tell, but I feel like this is what it must feel like to live during a renaissance.

Any chance of having actual code in this post?

Yes, I'm getting to that. Now that I've finished with the introduction we can get to the meat and potatoes of this post. I hope I didn't lose too many of you along the way.

Binding to Kotlin from Perl

What motivated this post in the first place was a task at work where I was asked to look into the feasibility of integrating with a third-party that provided SDKs for several languages... but not Perl.

Lucky for me, they had made the code of those SDKs publicly available, so I could examine it. And while looking through them I realised that most of the heavy lifting was done by binding to a shared C library. My teenager-self would have had a traumatic flashback sequence at this point, but this is modern Perl. We have FFI::Platypus. "This will be easy", I thought.

The challenge came when I realised that the library was originally written in Kotlin via what they know as "Kotlin/Native", which generates header files with some ad-hoc hoops for us to jump through. As an attempt at simplifying things, I've put together a repository with a sort of sample distribution that you can play around with as an illustration. The code examples below will be taken from it.

In any case, the native Kotlin extension will take code that looks like this:

package example

fun reverseString(str: String) : String {
    return str.reversed()

and eventually wrap it in a C struct which will look like the one below:

typedef struct {
  /* Service functions. */
  // ... Snipped 28 fields with fields pointing to service functions

  /* User functions. */
  struct {
    struct {
      struct {
        const char* (*reverseString)(const char* str);
      } example;
    } root;
  } kotlin;
} libexample_ExportedSymbols;

extern libexample_ExportedSymbols* libexample_symbols(void);

Which, to summarise, is exposing a global libexample_symbols function which returns a pointer to a struct where the last field (named kotlin) holds a pointer to a struct with a field (named root) which holds a pointer to a struct with a field (named example) which holds a pointer to the function that you wrote.

That's a mouthful.

When I first saw this, and saw that doing it in eg. Ruby (the SDK I was looking at for guidance) was not only possible, but relatively simple-looking, I got pangs of that PlayStation feeling.

But as it turns out, FFI::Platypus already gives us all the tools to deal with something like this.

The first thing will be to define the nested structs, and for that we will need FFI::C (remember that you can look at the whole file these snippets are taken from in the sample repository):

    Santa::Kotlin::Example {
    FFI::C->struct( Example => [
        reverseString => 'opaque',

    Santa::Kotlin::Root {
    FFI::C->struct( Root => [ example => 'Example' ]);

    Santa::Kotlin::Kotlin {
    FFI::C->struct( Kotlin => [ root => 'Root' ]);

    Santa::Kotlin::Symbols {

    FFI::C->struct( Symbols => [
        # ... 28 skipped fields which we must have here too ...
        kotlin => 'Kotlin',

These packages are only for internal use, so that's why they have a newline after the package keyword: it makes it so that if this code is ever put on CPAN, these packages will not be indexed.

When defining a struct with FFI::C, the first parameter is a name that can be referred to later, which is why these are defined from the inside (the ones most deeply nested) going out. It means I can refer to the types of the inner fields when defining the outer structs, like in the root field of type Root in the struct for the Santa::Kotlin::Kotlin package: since it is of type Root, its value will automatically be cast into a Santa::Kotlin::Root object.

We still need to get our hands on an instance of this outermost struct, and for that we have to bind to that global libexample_symbols function:

# Register $ffi with FFI::C, so new types become available

# ...

my $symbols = $ffi
    ->function( libexample_symbols => ['void'] => 'Symbols' )

Since we've told FFI::C that it should register any types it creates with this instance of FFI::Platypus, we can use the Symbols type (which corresponds to the Santa::Kotlin::Symbols package defined above) as the return value of this function.

Note also that we are not attaching this function, because we are not going to expose it to our users. We only want to be able to call it once so we can get a reference to the struct it returns, which we store in $symbols.

Once we've done all this preparation, we are ready to attach any functions in our example Kotlin package to our Santa::Kotlin Perl package, and we do this by using the memory addresses of the functions we are interested in:

    # we look up the address and give it a Perl name
    # \ \
    [ $symbols->kotlin->root->example->reverseString, 'reverse_string' ],
    ['string'] => 'string',

At this point, we are ready to call this function as we would any other from our perl code:

use Santa::Kotlin;
say Santa::Kotlin::reverse_string('lrep ot gnimoc si niltok atnas');
# OUTPUT: santa kotlin is coming to perl

These are good times to be a Perl kid, so happy holidays to all the good ones out there.

Happy hacking!

Gravatar Image This article contributed by: jjatria@gmail.com