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Using foreign functions with kdb+

FFI for kdb+ ( KxSystems/ffi) is an extension to kdb+ for loading and calling dynamic libraries using pure q.

The main purpose of the library is to build stable interfaces on top of external libraries, or to interact with the operating system from q. No compiler toolchain or writing C/C++ code is required to use this library.

Know what you’re doing

You don’t need to write C code, but you do need to know what you are doing. You can easily crash the kdb+ process or corrupt in-memory data structures with no hope of finding out what happened.

No support is offered for crashes caused by use of this library.

We are grateful to Alexander Belopolsky for allowing us to adapt and expand on his original codebase.

Requirements and installation

See KxSystems/ffi


ffi.q exposes two main functions in the .ffi namespace. See test_ffi.q for detailed examples of usage.

cf (call function)

A simple function call, intended for one-off calls.

Syntax: cf[fn;args]


  • fn is either the symbol name of a function, or a list of the result type (char atom) and the function name
  • args is a mixed list of arguments to the function

calls fn with the arguments. The types of arguments passed to the function are inferred from the q types and should match the width of the arguments the C function expects. (If an argument is not a mixed list, append (::) to it.)

Function lookup

cf performs function lookup on each call and has significant overhead. For hot-path functions use bind.

bind (create projection)

Creates a projection with the function resolved to call with arguments.

Syntax: bind[fn;types;rtype]


  • fn is either the function name (symbol atom), or the library and function names (symbol vector, length 2)
  • types are the argument types (char vector)
  • rtype is the return type (char atom)

returns a q function, bound to the specifed C function for future calls. Useful for multiple calls to the C lib.

Passing data and getting results

Throughout the library, characters are used to encode the types of data provided and expected as a result. These are based on the c column of primitive data types and the corresponding upper case for vectors of the same type. The sz column is useful to work out what type can hold enough data passing to/from C.

The argument types are derived from data passed to the function (in case of cf) or explicitly specified (in case of bind). The number of character types provided must match the number of arguments expected by the C function. The return type is specified as a single character and can be " " (space), which means to discard the result (i.e. void). If not provided, defaults to int.

char C type
b, c, x unsigned int8
h signed int16
i signed int32
j signed int64
e float
f double
g, s uint8*
" " (space) void (only as return type)
r raw pointer
l size of pointer(size_t)
k K object
uppercase letter pointer to the same type

It is possible to pass a q function to C code as a callback (see qsort example below). The function must be presented as a mixed list (func;argument_types;return_type), where func is a q function (type 100h), argument_types is a char array with the types the function expects, and return_type is a char corresponding to the return type of the function. Note that, as callbacks potentially have unbounded life in C code, they are not deleted after the function completes.

Some utility functions

function purpose
errno return current errno global on *nix OS
kfn bind the function which returns and accepts K objects in current process. Similar to 2:
ext append shared library extension for current platform to library name. On Linux .ffi.ext[`libm]~`
cvar read global variable from the library .ffi.cvar`timezone
ptrsize length of pointer in bytes on current platform
nil null value on current platform

Function arguments should be passed as a generic list to cf, call, and the function created by bind.


PCRE library

Bindings to PCRE (POSIX variant) using FFI for kdb+.

pcreposix is a set of functions providing a POSIX-style API for the PCRE regular-expression 8-bit library.

Complex regular expressions

Complex regular expressions can be catastrophic, exhibiting exponential run time that leads to real outages.

FFI for kdb+ is required for this library. pcre is normally available on modern Linux distributions and macOS.

As any standard, PCRE POSIX has some quirks and differences between platforms (Linux), which this library is trying to resolve.

Script to match multiline email:

reg:.pcre.regcomp["From:([^@]+)@([^\r]+)";2 sv sum 2 vs .pcre[`REG_EXTENDED`REG_NEWLINE]]  // compile regex
show "Regex compiled";

Rmath library

Bindings to Rmath using FFI for kdb+.

Rmath provides the routines supporting the distribution and special (e.g. Bessel, beta and gamma functions) functions in R.

Using this library requires the stand-alone Rmath library to be installed as well as FFI for kdb+. On Ubuntu:

sudo apt-get install r-mathlib

Generate 100K numbers from normal distribution:

q)do[100000;r,:.rm.rnorm[0f;1f]]   // generate 100K N(0,1) random numbers
q)(avg;dev)@\:r                    // verify that avg and dev are 0 and 1
0.0009293088 1.002748


All arguments should be vectors (i.e. pointers to appropriate type).

q)[("f";``ddot_)](1#count x; x;1#1;x;1#1)
q)[(" ";``daxpy_)](1#count x;1#2f; x;1#1;x;1#1)
q)x / <- a*x+y, a=x=y=2
6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6f


q)x:3 1 2i;
// warning: this modifies data in-place regardless of other references.
q)[(" ";`qsort)](x;3i;4i;(cmp;"II";"i")) 
1 2
3 1
3 2
1 2 3i
// warning: this modifies data in-place regardless of other references.
q)[(" ";`qsort)](x;3i;8i;(cmp;"SS";"i")) 

Register a callback on a handle

// h is handle to some other process
r:{b:20#"\000";[`read](x;b;20);0N!n#b;0}[`sd1](h;(r;(),"i"))   / start handler[`sd0](h;::)           / stop handler