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Working with C

[Note: This information applies to Swift3]

The Swift calling convention basically states that calls from Swift to C should follow the platform ABI and that all the Swift compiler needs are correct headers with the C function prototypes and other types.

Calling Swift from C is not currently guaranteed to work since Swift will doesnt try to define an external calling convention for its functions so that it has more flexibilty with internal Swift to Swift calls.

However currently only a few Swift functions are called from C/asm and these either take no parameters or a few scalar values so its easy to abuse the guarantee for the few functions need.

The easiest way to export C types and function prototypes is to have one main header file which includes all others and then use the -import-objc-header option to swiftc to use it.

Access to assembly is easy using static inline assembly declared in header files eg:

static inline uint64_t
        uint64_t res;
        asm volatile ("mov %%cr3, %0" : "=r" (res) : : );
        return res;

static inline void
setCR3(uint64_t value)
        asm volatile ("mov %0, %%cr3" : : "r" (value) : );

Allows the CR3 register to be get/set easily using let addr = getCR3() and setCR3(addr) etc.


Pointers in Swift use the types UnsafePointer and UnsafeMutablePointer and can be created from an address using the init(bitPattern: UInt)? method. It returns an Optional which will be nil if the address was 0.

Pointer values (uintptr_t) can be represented using UInt. A couple of macros allow symbols to be exported from C to Swift:

// Export as [symbol]_ptr of type UnsafePointer<Void>
        static inline const void *x##_ptr() { extern uintptr_t x; return &x; }

// Export as [symbol]_ptr of type UnsafePointer<t>
#define EXPORTED_SYMBOL_AS_PTR(x, t) \
        static inline const t *x##_ptr() { extern t x; return &x; }

// Export as [symbol]_addr as a unitptr_t to be manipulated as a UInt
        static inline uintptr_t x##_addr() { extern uintptr_t x; return (uintptr_t)&x; }

UnsafePointer and UnsafeMutablePointer values can be converted to a UInt if the address is needed using the bitPattern argument:

With a simple extension allowing it to be a property:

extension UnsafePointer {
    var address: UInt {
        return UInt(bitPattern: self)

extension UnsafeMutablePointer {
    var address: UInt {
        return UInt(bitPattern: self)

Although using functions to return the address of a symbol may look a bit cumbersome, the use of inlined functions along with the linking creating a binary with a specific start address (as in the case of a kernel etc) means that the function gets converted to the absolute address of the symbol at link time so there is no calling overhead or excess pollution of the name space with lots of *_ptr() and *_addr() functions.

Swift function names

Swift function names use name mangling to include the module name and method signature. However when exporting to C or asm this can be inconvenient especially if the function signature changes. @_silgen_name can be used to provide an override for a function so that it has a consistent name:

func function1(a: Int) -> UInt {
    return UInt(a)

func function2(a: Int) -> UInt {
    return UInt(a)

converts to

Disassembly of section .text:

0000000000000000 <_TF4test9function1FSiSu>:
   0:   55                      push   %rbp
   1:   48 89 e5                mov    %rsp,%rbp
   4:   50                      push   %rax
   5:   48 83 ff 00             cmp    $0x0,%rdi
   9:   48 89 7d f8             mov    %rdi,-0x8(%rbp)
   d:   7c 0a                   jl     19 <_TF4test9function1FSiSu+0x19>
   f:   48 8b 45 f8             mov    -0x8(%rbp),%rax
  13:   48 83 c4 08             add    $0x8,%rsp
  17:   5d                      pop    %rbp
  18:   c3                      retq
  19:   0f 0b                   ud2
  1b:   0f 1f 44 00 00          nopl   0x0(%rax,%rax,1)

0000000000000020 <function2>:
  20:   55                      push   %rbp
  21:   48 89 e5                mov    %rsp,%rbp
  24:   50                      push   %rax
  25:   48 83 ff 00             cmp    $0x0,%rdi
  29:   48 89 7d f8             mov    %rdi,-0x8(%rbp)
  2d:   7c 0a                   jl     39 <function2+0x19>
  2f:   48 8b 45 f8             mov    -0x8(%rbp),%rax
  33:   48 83 c4 08             add    $0x8,%rsp
  37:   5d                      pop    %rbp
  38:   c3                      retq
  39:   0f 0b                   ud2

With function1's name decoding to:

$ swift-demangle _TF4test9function1FSiSu
_TF4test9function1FSiSu ---> test.function1 (Swift.Int) -> Swift.UInt

Defines and constants

When using #define in .h files remember that C integer values actually have a type and this needs to be taken into account when used in Swift. The values are not simply substituted in to the code as they are in C. Consider:

// test.h
#define ONE 1
#define TWO 2L
#define THREE 3LL
#define FOUR 4U
#define FIVE 5UL
#define SIX 6ULL
// test.swift
print("ONE\t", ONE, ONE.dynamicType)
print("TWO\t", TWO, TWO.dynamicType)
print("THREE\t", THREE, THREE.dynamicType)
print("FOUR\t", FOUR, FOUR.dynamicType)
print("FIVE\t", FIVE, FIVE.dynamicType)
print("SIX\t", SIX, SIX.dynamicType)
$ swiftc -import-objc-header test.h test.swift
$ ./test
ONE     1 Int32
TWO     2 Int
THREE   3 Int64
FOUR    4 UInt32
FIVE    5 UInt
SIX     6 UInt64

But if test.swift is modified:

func printInt(a: Int) {

$ swiftc -import-objc-header test.h test.swift
test.swift:14:10: error: cannot convert value of type 'Int32' to expected argument type 'Int'
test.swift:16:10: error: cannot convert value of type 'Int64' to expected argument type 'Int'

test.swift would need to be modified as follows:

func printInt(a: Int) {

$ swiftc -import-objc-header test.h test.swift
$ ./test

Which is something to remember when using constants in header files.


A struct can be defined in a .h file and then easily used in Swift. The struct can be addressed just be its name without struct eg:

// test.h
struct register_set {
        unsigned long rax;
        unsigned long rbx;
        unsigned long rcx;
        unsigned long rdx;

static inline const struct register_set * _Nonnull
register_set_addr(struct register_set * _Nonnull set)
        return set;
// test.swift
var registers = register_set()

print("rax =", registers.rax)
print("rbx =", registers.rbx)
$ ./test
rax = 0
rbx = 0

This allows easy initialisation of empty structs where all of the elements are set to zero. If data in a fixed memory table (eg ACPI tables) needs to be parsed and only the address is known then this is also easy to accomplish using the pointee property:

var registers = register_set()
registers.rax = 123
registers.rbx = 456

let addr = register_set_addr(&registers)
let r = UnsafePointer<register_set>(addr)
print("addr = ", addr, addr.dynamicType)
print("rax =", r.pointee.rax)
print("rbx =", r.pointee.rbx)
addr =  0x000000010136c210 UnsafePointer<register_set>
rax = 123
rbx = 456

[Note: the use of _Nonnull in test.h. This makes the return type of register_set_addr() be an UnsafePointer<register_set> instead of an Optional<UnsafePointer<register_set>>. Of course you need to ensure that the address passed to register_set_addr() is non-NULL]

There are two advantages of C structs over Swift struct:

  1. Packed structures

If the data has a pre defined format that you dont control and the struct requires packing using __attribute__((packed)) then it can only be defined in a .h file as Swift does not currently have a method of setting struct attributes. Due to alignment padding it will add in extra space. Compare:

// test.h

#include <stdint.h>
#include <stddef.h>

// Descriptor table info used for both GDT and IDT
struct dt_info {
        uint16_t limit;
        uint64_t address;
} __attribute__((packed));

static inline ptrdiff_t
offset_of(void * _Nonnull base, void * _Nonnull ptr)
        return ptr - base;
struct DTInfo {
    var limit: UInt16
    var address: UInt64

var info1 = DTInfo(limit: 31, address: 0xabcd)
let limitOffset1 = offset_of(&info1, &info1.limit)
let addrOffset1 = offset_of(&info1, &info1.address)
print("Swift: limitOffset:", limitOffset1, "addrOffset:", addrOffset1)

var info2 = dt_info(limit: 31, address: 0xabcd)
let limitOffset2 = offset_of(&info2, &info2.limit)
let addrOffset2 = offset_of(&info2, &info2.address)
print("C: limitOffset:", limitOffset2, "addrOffset:", addrOffset2)

[Note: due to the lack of an offsetOf() function a C function is used to calculate the offset using some pointer arithmetic]

Swift: limitOffset: 0 addrOffset: 8
C: limitOffset: 0 addrOffset: 2

As we can see the Swift defined SomeTable aligns each field to its natural size so the data field is placed on the next UInt64 boundary. C would naturally do the same but the behaviour is overriden using the __attribute__((packed)) option.

  1. Fixed Arrays

Swift does not currently support fixed size arrays and they must be represented as a tuple. Although this does not stop you from defining the struct in Swift, it can make the code quite unreadable if the array has a large number of elements, eg:

struct Foo {
    var sz: UInt8[8]

gives the error:

$ swiftc -import-objc-header test.h test.swift
test.swift:1:18: error: array types are now written with the brackets around the element type
    var sz: UInt8[8]


struct foo {
        unsigned char x[8];
let y = foo()
let x = foo(x: (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8))

Works and gives the following output, although x needs to be initialised using a tuple:

foo(x: (0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0))
foo(x: (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8))


Because fixed size arrays are seen as tuples by Swift, to treat them as indexable arrays they need to be accessed using UnsafeBufferPointer and UnsafeMutableBufferPointer.

// test.h
#define ARRAY_SIZE  8L
extern unsigned char test_array[];
static inline void *test_array_addr() { return &test_array; };
void print_array();
// array.c
#include <stdio.h>
#include "test.h"

unsigned char test_array[ARRAY_SIZE] = { 0, 1, 2, 3 };

        for (int i = 0; i < ARRAY_SIZE; i++) {
                printf("%d ", test_array[i]);
// test.swift
let arrayPtr = UnsafeMutablePointer<UInt8>(test_array_addr())
let testArray = UnsafeMutableBufferPointer(start: arrayPtr, count: ARRAY_SIZE)
print("testArray:", testArray)
testArray.forEach({ print("\($0) ", terminator: "") })

for x in 4..<ARRAY_SIZE {
    testArray[x] = UInt8(x)
$ clang -c array.c
$ swiftc -Xlinker array.o  -import-objc-header test.h -emit-executable test.swift
$ ./test
testArray: UnsafeMutableBufferPointer(start: 0x000000010eb7d190, count: 8)
0 1 2 3 0 0 0 0
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7


When passing strings to C especially if they are to be printed by a simple low level text only console driver it can be useful to make use of StaticString. It has a few advantages over String when it can be used:

  1. It has an isASCII property which can be useful to assert() on. This means that a console driver that may not understand unicode knows it wont be getting any unicode characters.

  2. The utf8start property returns a simple pointer to the string which can be passed around, which is a lot simpler to use than String.

StaticString cannot be used in all circumstances but for printf style functions it is often used for error or debug messages as the format string is usually a constant string.

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