Path to convenient C FFI in Go

DWIM-style FFI

CGo is a widely adopted way of calling C functions from Go: low level C FFI which does many things behind the scene, but exposes only minimal functionality that is required to interact with C.

CGo does no implicit conversions or data copying during C functions call, even int and are not compatible. Code that uses this mechanism without wrappers (bindings) will be polluted with explicit slice/array copies and type conversions.

That is perfectly fine for default behavior and FFI foundation, but sometimes we do not require this amount of control. In this cases, we want the programming environment to do what we mean.

Imagine we have this C code:

// Let's assume this function is very important.
int sum(int *xs, int xs_len) {
    int ret = 0;
    for (int i = 0; i < xs_len; ++i) {
        ret += xs[i];
    return ret;

And you wish to call it from Go. There is []int of valuable payload which must be aggregated with sum function.

xs := []int{1, 2, 3} // Payload
// a. This is how you may want to call that function:
sum := cffi.Func(C.sum)
// b. This is how you actually can call that function:
ys := append([]int{}, xs...) // Make a copy (for safety)

This article aims tries to reach a-like API, as close as possible.

Note that it is not always a desired behavior to pass slice as 2 separate {data, len} arguments, but I have selected this strategy to show something worthwhile in the final section of this post.

Universal {Go}->{C} value mapping

If type mapping is the most boilerplate-full part, let’s write a simple library that does it for us.

Almost all primitive types have obvious C counterparts. For other types we can define conversion rules and apply them consistently.

For starters, Go2C function should handle 1 type: integers. It takes arbitrary Go type as interface{} and returns inferred C type boxed into interface{}.

package cffi
import "C"
func Go2C(x interface{}) interface{} {
    switch x := x.(type) {
    case int:
        panic("todo: implement more types")

So long it looks fine. Try to use it via client package and you may be surprised.

package main
import "C"
import "cffi"
func main() {
    x := int(10)      // Clearly, an int
    y := cffi.Go2C(x) // Dynamic
    z := y.(    // Panics!

Exact error message may vary, but it reads like: “panic: interface conversion: interface {} is cffi._Ctype_int, not main._Ctype_int”.

This is a known issue. Practically speaking, we can not implement Go2C this way properly.

This also makes it impossible to match result types and do reversal, C2Go mapping.

The only way to define a converter function is to delegate that task to the client code. Package that imports “C” does implement the conversion rules.

CGo function metadata

To define function like func Call(fn <?>, args ...<?>) <?> we need to have signature info of fn argument.

How much information is provided by CGo? What kind of value C.<X> yields, given that <X> is a function?

package main
// int foo(void) { return 0; }
import "C"
import "fmt"
func main() { fmt.Printf("%T\n", }

The answer is unsafe.Pointer. Well, this is bad for two reasons:

  1. We can not wrap it into reflect.Value;
  2. unsafe.Pointer gives zero type information;

More experiments will reveal a cheesy way to get what we need.

Step1: discover CGo name mangling scheme.

package main
// void foo(void) {}
import "C"
func main() {, 2) }

Go will kindly reply that you called function with wrong number of arguments:

main.go:6: too many arguments in call to _Cfunc_foo
	have (number, number)
	want ()

See that _Cfunc_foo? I think you get the pattern.

Step2: examine mangled symbol directly.

package main
// void foo(void) {}
import "C"
import "fmt"
func main() { fmt.Printf("%#v\n", _Cfunc_foo) }

Go rejects your code: main.go:5: undefined: _Cfunc_foo. This is easy to fix.

Step3: figure out a fix to error above.

package main
// void foo(void) {}
import "C"
import "fmt"
func main() { 
    _ = // Use "foo"
    fmt.Printf("%#v\n", _Cfunc_foo) 

This snippet actually gets us closer to the solution. Expression _Cfunc_foo is not equivalent to as it gives us func() main._Ctype_void type.

Implementation overview

Implementation requirements:

  1. Function is callable via its symbol, like f(), where f is a symbol;
  2. Ingoing and outgoing arguments are automatically converted;

First requirement can be fulfilled only by global (possibly dot-imported) function or closure variable. Second requirement, due to restrictions outlined above, is possible with a help of external state. This state can be global or captured (with closures).

package main
// int add1(int x) { return x + 1; }
import "C"
import "cffi"
var add1 cffi.Func
func init() {
    _ = C.add1(0) // [I]

    invoker := cffi.NewInvoker( // [II]
        // Go -> C
        func(x interface{}) interface{} {
        // C -> Go
        func (x interface{}) interface{} {
            return int(x.(

    add1 = cffi.Wrap(invoker, _Cfunc_add1) // [III]

func main() {
    println(add1(50)) // [IV]

(I) is needed if add1 is never called via C.add1 symbol. We will not get _Cfunc_add1 without it.

(II) invoker instance should take care of values conversions and universal call evaluation.

(III) actual function pointer is wrapped into a closure that holds invoker.

(IV) prepared closure can be used in a desired way.

Invoker can handle 1->N value mapping. For example, it can be legal to return []interface{} for Go values that should be unwrapped into 2 C function arguments. Slices are such example (we ignore cap on purpose).

func (x interface{}) interface{} {
    switch x := x.(type) {
    case []int:
        y := make([], len(x))
        for i := range x {
            y[i] =[i])
        ptr := (*[0]))
        return []interface{}{ptr,}

    // ... handle other types

If you want to see implementation sources, inspect cffi library.

Warnings and closing notes


cffi library solution involves many extra overhead compared to simple CGo call, which itself is far more expensive than normal Go function call.


Using CGo alone can hurt application portability. Granted, using CGo oddities like name mangled function objects slaughters program portability completely. It may break with newer Go1 releases.