Lua has a very simple C API. You can run Lua code and access lua objects from C. Similarly, you can access C functions and libraries from Lua. In this post, we’ll primarily look at how to expose C functions to lua.

Install Lua

Let’s start off with the installation of lua. You can install lua using system package managers as

Mac:

$ brew install lua

Ubuntu:

$ sudo apt-get install lua5.2 liblua5.2-dev 

You can also build lua from source. However, you have to build lua as a shared library and this can be a bit tricky.

Lua Stack

Communication between lua and C is held through stacks with each element in stack representing lua value (nil, number, string, etc.).

For example, a C wrapped function c_swap is called in lua as:

x, y = c_swap(4, 5)

In C, you will receive arguments in a stack as

lua_State *L:

|     5     |  <--- 2
+-----------+
|     4     |  <--- 1
+===========+

You will then read the arguments from the stack as (indexing for this stack starts with 1 like in lua):

double arg1 = lua_tonumber (L, 1);
double arg2 = lua_tonumber (L, 2);

This is actually unsafe because these calls will fail if value in the stack at the specified index is not a number. Following code uses auxiliary library lauxlib.h and is safer; it will raise errors instead of segfaulting.

double arg1 = luaL_checknumber (L, 1);
double arg2 = luaL_checknumber (L, 2);

Then, you will process the arguments and push the results to stack.

lua_pushnumber(L, arg2);
lua_pushnumber(L, arg1);

Stack will now look like

|     4     |  <--- 4
+-----------+
|     5     |  <--- 3
+-----------+
|     5     |  <--- 2
+-----------+
|     4     |  <--- 1
+===========+

Since you need to communicate the number of return value to lua, you will return 2. Lua will then know that top 2 values in the stack are the returned values.

The stack we’ve described is not global. Each function has its own stack.

Code

Let’s put all this together into main.c. main() function illustrates how to run lua code from C.

#ifdef __cplusplus
  #include "lua.hpp"
#else
  #include "lua.h"
  #include "lualib.h"
  #include "lauxlib.h"
#endif

//so that name mangling doesn't mess up function names
#ifdef __cplusplus
extern "C"{
#endif

static int c_swap (lua_State *L) {
    //check and fetch the arguments
    double arg1 = luaL_checknumber (L, 1);
    double arg2 = luaL_checknumber (L, 2);

    //push the results
    lua_pushnumber(L, arg2);
    lua_pushnumber(L, arg1);

    //return number of results
    return 2;
}

#ifdef __cplusplus
}
#endif


int main(){
    // Create new Lua state and load the lua libraries
    lua_State *L = luaL_newstate();
    luaL_openlibs(L);

    //Expose the c_swap function to the lua environment
    lua_pushcfunction(L, c_swap);
    lua_setglobal(L, "c_swap");

    // Tell Lua to execute a lua command
    luaL_dostring(L, "print(c_swap(4, 5))");
    return 0;
}

And build and execute as If you have installed lua with apt-get, build using gcc main.c -o swap -llua5.2 -I/usr/include/lua5.2/

$ gcc main.c -o swap -llua
$ ./swap

which should print

5   4

Library

In the above code, you’ve not really used lua interpretor; you’ve run the lua code in C itself. You might rather want to create a module which you can load into a lua interpretor using

> mylib = require "mylib"

To do this, you’ll have to register your functions by creating a array of luaL_Reg and a function luaopen_mylib.

Let’s do this right away by editing main.c. We will also add additional mysin function.

This code works only for lua 5.2. For lua 5.1, please use luaL_register(L, "mylib", mylib); instead of luaL_newlib(L, mylib);

#ifdef __cplusplus
  #include "lua.hpp"
#else
  #include "lua.h"
  #include "lualib.h"
  #include "lauxlib.h"
#endif
#include <math.h>

//so that name mangling doesn't mess up function names
#ifdef __cplusplus
extern "C"{
#endif

static int c_swap (lua_State *L) {
    //check and fetch the arguments
    double arg1 = luaL_checknumber (L, 1);
    double arg2 = luaL_checknumber (L, 2);

    //push the results
    lua_pushnumber(L, arg2);
    lua_pushnumber(L, arg1);

    //return number of results
    return 2;
}

static int my_sin (lua_State *L) {
    double arg = luaL_checknumber (L, 1);
    lua_pushnumber(L, sin(arg));
    return 1;
}

//library to be registered
static const struct luaL_Reg mylib [] = {
      {"c_swap", c_swap},
      {"mysin", my_sin}, /* names can be different */
      {NULL, NULL}  /* sentinel */
    };

//name of this function is not flexible
int luaopen_mylib (lua_State *L){
    luaL_newlib(L, mylib);
    return 1;
}

#ifdef __cplusplus
}
#endif

Create a loadable .so file with If you have installed lua with apt-get, build using gcc main.c -shared -o mylib.so -fPIC -llua5.2 -I/usr/include/lua5.2/

$ gcc main.c -shared -o mylib.so -fPIC  -llua

You can now load this module in lua.

$ lua
Lua 5.2.4  Copyright (C) 1994-2015 Lua.org, PUC-Rio
> mylib = require 'mylib'
> print(mylib.c_swap(2, 4))
4   2
> print(mylib.mysin(2))
0.90929742682568

Now, you should be able to wrap any C library by writing a lua wrapper. We still have some caveats:

  1. We will have to write a wrapping function for each of the functions in your C library to ‘parse’ the arguments(luaL_checknumber etc.). This is repetitive and can be a potential source for bugs.
  2. C doesn’t have classes. What if your library is in C++? You cannot easily wrap classes like above. You will have to mess with metatables and so on.

A solution to both of these is to use Swig. Swig allows you to wrap C/C++ classes/functions into many languages like python, lua, java quite easily. In a later post, we will see how to use swig and wrap a simple library.