I've had a few request to provide some more information on External Calling, so I thought I would make a few posts about it. This first post will be a high level description of External Calling and how it works, with examples coming later. As External Calling is an advanced topic, I am going to assume you know how to compile a shared library and are generally familiar with the C language. Although this first post won't require any real programming knowledge.
What is External Calling?
External Calling is the name for Maple's ability to connect to and call functions from other programming languages. Maple uses this for various reasons. We have written our own libraries in C, C++ and Java to solve particular problems. We partner with various labs around the world who have developed code, often in languages like C or C++, so external calling is used to interface with their code. We also connect to high performance libraries like NAG and BLAS to provide those high performance routines in Maple. Of course, you can use External Calling to connect Maple to your code as well.
Although Maple can call various programming languages, the most common languages we connect to are C and C++, and those are the languages I am going to focus on.
How does it work?
In Maple, you call ?define_external or use the ?ExternalCalling package. Both these methods take a description of the function that you want to call and returns a Maple procedure. Normally you would assign the procedure to a name and then call the externally defined function just like any other Maple procedure.
There are a couple different ways to use define_external to connect to a shared library, the differences are mostly concerned with how the parameters given in Maple are converted to parameters used in the external function.
- Wrapperless external calling. With wrapperless external calling, Maple calls a function implemented in the shared library by automatically converting the values given in Maple into valid types for the external function.
- Generated wrappers: With generated wrappers, Maple automatically generates a small C library that handles conversions from Maple values to the values used in the external function. Using generated wrappers allows Maple to handle more data types, like call back procedures.
- Custom wrappers: A custom wrapper is a C function that you write yourself. This function accepts arguments as Maple data structures and returns a Maple data structure. You are responsible for converting the Maple data structures into whatever forms you need and converting your computed value back into a Maple data structure. Maple provides the External Calling API to assist in working with Maple from the externally defined function.
The first two forms of external calling are the easiest to do, however they are also the most limited. Internally we exclusively (I think) use the third, custom wrapper, form of external calling. That is the form I am going to talk about.
The name "custom wrapper" is a bit of a misnomer. The function that you write does not need to "wrap" anything, it can implement anything you want. As long as you can convert the result into a Maple data structure, you can pass it back into Maple. In fact Maple also supports returning generic data, via the ?MaplePointer routines, but that is a more complex topic for a later blog post.
Your external function is simply a C function with the following calling convention:
ALGEB CustomWrapper( MKernelVector kv, ALGEB args )
ALGEB is the C data type that represents a Maple data structure. The MKernelVector is a data structure that acts as an intermediary between your external calling routines and the Maple engine. You will need to pass this structure back into the External Calling API functions. Both of these types, plus the External Calling API functions are defined in a header, maplec.h, that needs to be included in your code. I will provide more details when I provide examples.
The External Calling API
The External Calling API is a set of functions that we make available for working with the Maple Engine from external code. Maple also allows third party applications to load the Maple engine as a shared library, we call this ?OpenMaple. The External Calling functions are also available in OpenMaple, so you will often see OpenMaple used in the Maple help pages. Most functions can be used in both OpenMaple and External Calling, except for a few that are OpenMaple specific and involve starting and stopping the Maple Engine.
Maple's help system documents all the External Calling functions so you can see what is available. There is an overview of the external calling functions on this page, ?ExternalCalling,C,API. Briefly, however there are functions for converting Maple types to C and back, creating and interacting with Maple data structures (list, set, rtable, table, string, etc), creating and interacting with Maple language elements (names, procedures, etc), printing to the Maple interface, memory allocation, evaluating Maple statements and raising exceptions. There is even a C interface to the Task Programming Model.
In my next post I will provide some examples of using the External Calling API to actually do stuff in an externally defined procedure. However, I am going to spend some time trying to figure out the easiest way for you to get the tools you'll need to be able to develop externally defined functions yourself, so my next post might take a bit of time.