Calling Python from Haskell

Published April 15th, 2014, 7 min read,

In a past version of this blog I used Pandoc to convert Markdown to HTML. It's by far the best and most powerful markdown converter, but it has one, albeit little weakness: Its syntax highlighting is based highlighting-kate, which is less good and supports less languages than the Python library Pygments, the de-facto standard highlighter used by Github and others.

It's easy to implement custom highlighting thanks to the great API of Pandoc, with just two functions in Text.Highlighting.Pygments.Pandoc:

import Text.Highlighting.Pygments (toHtml)

blockToHtml :: Block -> IO Block
blockToHtml x@(CodeBlock attr _) | attr == nullAttr = return x
blockToHtml x@(CodeBlock (_,[],_) _) = return x
blockToHtml (CodeBlock (_,language:_,_) text) = do
  colored <- toHtml text language
  return (RawBlock (Format "html") colored)
blockToHtml x = return x

codeBlocksToHtml :: Pandoc -> IO Pandoc
codeBlocksToHtml = walkM blockToHtml

This code transforms all code blocks to a raw HTML block containing the code highlighted by Pygments. The language used in the code block is taken from the first unnamed attribute of the code block, just like in Github's markdown dialect. Code blocks which do not specify a language are not touched.

So far I just went the easy way, and called the pygmentize script in toHtml, passing the code to be highlighted on stdin, and reading the result from stdout. While this is easy to implement with just a few lines it also slows down the build considerably.

Last weekend I sat down and tried to call Pygments directly via Python's C API through Haskell's FFI. This is what came out of this adventure.

Native wrappers

Foreign.Python.Native is an hsc2hs module which imports the required functions from Python's C API and declares corresponding Haskell signatures.

The module also declares the necessary types, using a special hsc2hs feature to automatically derive the right Haskell type for a given C type. For instance, the following declaration declares an appropriate Haskell alias for Python's Py_ssize_t, so I didn't need to grok the header files for the typedef:

type PySSizeT = #type Py_ssize_t

I also use the CApiFFI extension to avoid the hassle of finding out whether to import the UCS2 or the UCS4 API of CPython. Instead, I just import the macro API and let GHC figure out the rest:

foreign import capi unsafe "Python.h PyUnicode_AsUTF8String"
  pyUnicode_AsUTF8String :: RawPyObject -> IO RawPyObject

foreign import capi unsafe "Python.h PyUnicode_FromStringAndSize"
  pyUnicode_FromStringAndSize :: CString -> PySSizeT -> IO RawPyObject

GHC automatically generates a wrapper C functions for these macros, and figures out whether to link PyUnicodeUCS2_AsUTF8String or PyUnicodeUCS4_AsUTF8String.

Convenient Haskell API

Foreign.Python is the convenient Haskell API around the native Python functions.

Update (April 16, 2014): I changed toPyObject to return Nothing if given a null pointer, for increased safety. Before toPyObject would simply wrap the given pointer, whether NULL or not. The definition of toPyObjectChecked was updated too.

While wrapping a NULL pointer in a managed pointer doesn't do any harm in and by itself, because the dereferencing functions from Python are safe to call with NULL, it was still possible to try and use the pointer, e.g. by trying to call the underlying Python object, and thus trigger a segfault.

Now it's impossible to obtain a PyObject from NULL, increasing the safety of my Python API.

I use ForeignPtr to wrap the raw PyObject pointers into an opaque Haskell type which automatically calls Py_XDECREF on the underlying PyObject when it goes out of scope:

newtype PyObject = PyObject (ForeignPtr ())

toPyObject :: RawPyObject -> IO (Maybe PyObject)
toPyObject raw | raw == nullPtr  = return Nothing
toPyObject raw = liftM (Just . PyObject) (newForeignPtr pyDecRef raw)

withPyObject :: PyObject -> (RawPyObject -> IO a) -> IO a
withPyObject (PyObject ptr) = withForeignPtr ptr

Only the opaque type is exported from the module, so outside code never has any chance of messing with the underlying C object and bypassing the garbage collector.

Many CPython functions return NULL to indicate that the operation failed and a Python exception was raised. To deal with these situations I use a little helper that throws a Haskell exception from the current Python exception if given a NULL pointer:

toPyObjectChecked :: RawPyObject -> IO PyObject
toPyObjectChecked = toPyObject >=> maybe throwCurrentPythonException return

To obtain objects from the Python runtime, I define a bunch of functions to import modules, get attributes and call objects. The implementations are boilerplate code, so I'll just show you the type signatures:

importModule :: String -> IO PyObject
getAttr      :: PyObject -> String -> IO PyObject
callObject   :: PyObject -> [PyObject] -> [(PyObject, PyObject)] -> IO PyObject

To convert these objects from Haskell, and to pass Haskell objects to Python, I use a little type class to convert a type to and from Python:

class Object a where
  toPy   :: a -> IO PyObject
  fromPy :: PyObject -> IO a

As I only need strings to call Pygments, there are only two instances for ByteString and String.

To convert from a ByteString, I just need to obtain a temporary buffer from the byte string and pass that to Python:

instance Object ByteString where
  toPy s = useAsCStringLen s $ \(buffer, len) ->
    pyString_FromStringAndSize buffer (fromIntegral len) >>= toPyObjectChecked

Converting back to a is a little more intricate, because Python needs addressable fields to take the raw bytes out of the underlying PyObject. Foreign.Marshal.Alloc.alloca comes to rescue and conveniently allocates addressable fields which I can then hand down to Python. Python puts the memory address and size of the underlying string buffer into these fields, which I can then read with Foreign.Storable.peek to copy the entire byte sequence into an independent ByteString:

  fromPy s =
    alloca $ \s_buffer_ptr ->
    alloca $ \s_len_ptr ->
    withPyObject s $ \raw -> do
      result <- pyString_AsStringAndSize raw s_buffer_ptr s_len_ptr
      unless (result == 0) throwCurrentPythonException
      buffer <- peek s_buffer_ptr
      len <- peek s_len_ptr
      packCStringLen (buffer, fromIntegral len)

Converting from a String almost looks like converting from a ByteString, except that we need to encode the String to UTF-8 to pass it to PyUnicode_FromStringAndSize, which expects a UTF-8 encoded char array. Converting back is simple as well, because I can build upon the ByteString conversion from above. I just need to turn the Python unicode object into an encoded char array with PyUnicode_AsUTF8String which I can then convert to a ByteString and decode:

instance Object String where
  toPy s = useAsCStringLen (UTF8.fromString s) $ \(buffer, len) ->
    pyUnicode_FromStringAndSize buffer (fromIntegral len) >>= toPyObjectChecked
  fromPy o = do
    s <- withPyObject o pyUnicode_AsUTF8String >>= toPyObjectChecked
    liftM UTF8.toString (fromPy s)

Pygments interface

Text.Highlighting.Pygments is the Pygments interface that builds upon this Python API.

I start with some type aliases for Pygments types. They don't add more type safety, because Python is dynamically typed anyway, but they make the type signatures a little nicer:

type Lexer     = PyObject
type Formatter = PyObject

Then I wrap the required functions from Pygments into convenient Haskell functions. getLexerByName gives me the Pygments Lexer for the name of a programming language:

getLexerByName :: String -> IO Lexer
getLexerByName name = do
  initialize False
  lexers <- importModule "pygments.lexers"
  get_lexer_by_name <- getAttr lexers "get_lexer_by_name"
  pyName <- toPy name
  callObject get_lexer_by_name [pyName] []

The function

  1. initializes the interpreter,
  2. imports pgyments.lexers,
  3. gets a reference to the underlying get_lexer_by_name function,
  4. converts the given language to a Python object,
  5. and ultimately calls get_lexer_by_name with the appropriate arguments.

This function is as safe as it can be when dealing with a dynamically typed language:

highlight highlights a given piece of code with a lexer and formatter:

highlight :: String -> Lexer -> Formatter -> IO String
highlight code lexer formatter = do
  initialize False
  pygments <- importModule "pygments"
  py_highlight <- getAttr pygments "highlight"
  codeObj <- toPy code
  callObject py_highlight [codeObj, lexer, formatter] [] >>= fromPy

With these convenient wrappers I am now able to implement toHtml:

toHtml :: String -> String -> IO String
toHtml code language = do
  formatters <- importModule "pygments.formatters"
  html_formatter <- getAttr formatters "HtmlFormatter"
  cssclass_key <- toPy "cssclass"
  cssclass <- toPy "highlight"
  formatter <- callObject html_formatter [] [(cssclass_key, cssclass)]
  lexer <- getLexerByName language
  highlight code lexer formatter

This function first creates an instance of the HtmlFormatter class, by importing the pygments.formatters module, obtaining a reference to the class object, and calling the class object with some options to create a new instance.

Then it gets the lexer object, and passes these objects and the code to highlight. The result is a string containing HTML to highlight the given code.


I use Cabal to build these modules. The corresponding cabal file is simple:

executable lunarsite
  other-modules:       Foreign.Python
  build-depends:       base >=4.6 && <4.8,
                       bytestring >=0.10 && < 0.11,
                       utf8-string >=0.3 && <0.4,
                       pandoc-types >=1.12 && <1.13,
                       pandoc >=1.12 && <1.13
  build-tools:         hsc2hs

  if os(darwin)
     extra-libraries:   python2.7
     include-dirs:      /usr/include/python2.7
     pkgconfig-depends: python ==2.7

I enable hsc2hs in build-tools to compile Foreign.Python.Native, and tell Cabal to link against Python 2.7.

pkg-config is missing on OS X, but since the layout of the pre-installed system Python is fixed anyway, I just hard-code the library name and the include directory.

On other systems I just rely on Cabal's built-in support for pkg-config to automatically find the library name and the include directories for Python 2.7.

Lessons learned

Calling Python from Haskell was much, much easier than I thought, thanks to Haskell's good FFI, which takes over all marshaling of primitive types, and provides great utilities and helpers to marshal complex types.

It would even been even easier, however, if the C API of Python 2.7 was a little better, and had a little more consistent reference count semantics, and if Haskell supported varargs functions in its FFI.

While Python functions normally do not steal references and do not return borrowed references, there are some notable exceptions, which lead the entire idea to offer a consistent API ad absurdum, since you still need to check any function carefully for how it handles the reference counts in its arguments and return values.

And since Haskell doesn't support foreign varargs functions, I often had to manually assemble complex Python objects such as argument tuples using the lower-level API, instead of just calling Py_BuildValue to build complex Python objects from C values directly.

Despite these minor nuisances working with Haskell's FFI has been a really pleasant experience so far, and I'm truly surprised that a language which is generally renowned for its advancement of computer science also excels at the dirty low-level task of calling C libraries.