bytes/str building API

We need to design an HPy API to build bytes and str objects. Before making any proposal, it is useful to understand:

  1. What is the current API to build strings.

  2. What are the constraints for alternative implementations and the problems of the current C API.

  3. What are the patterns used to build string objects in the existing extensions.

Some terminology:

  • “string” means both bytes and str objects

  • “unicode” or “unicode string” indicates str


In this document we are translating PyUnicode_* functions into HPyStr_*. See issue #213 for more discussion about the naming convention.


The goal of the document is only to describe the current CPython API and its real-world usage. For a discussion about how to design the equivalent HPy API, see issue #214

Current CPython API


There are essentially two ways to build bytes:

  1. Copy the content from an existing C buffer:

PyObject* PyBytes_FromString(const char *v);
PyObject* PyBytes_FromStringAndSize(const char *v, Py_ssize_t len);
PyObject* PyBytes_FromFormat(const char *format, ...);
  1. Create an uninitialized buffer and fill it manually:

PyObject s = PyBytes_FromStringAndSize(NULL, size);
char *buf = PyBytes_AS_STRING(s);
strcpy(buf, "hello");

(1) is easy for alternative implementations and we can probably provide an HPy equivalent without changing much, so we will concentrate on (2): let’s call it “raw-buffer API”.


Similarly to bytes, there are several ways to build a str:

PyObject* PyUnicode_FromString(const char *u);
PyObject* PyUnicode_FromStringAndSize(const char *u, Py_ssize_t size);
PyObject* PyUnicode_FromKindAndData(int kind, const void *buffer, Py_ssize_t size);
PyObject* PyUnicode_FromFormat(const char *format, ...);
PyObject* PyUnicode_New(Py_ssize_t size, Py_UCS4 maxchar);


PyUnicode_FromString{,AndSize} take an UTF-8 string in input

The following functions are used to initialize an uninitialized object, but I could not find any usage of them outside CPython itself, so I think they can be safely ignored for now:

Py_ssize_t PyUnicode_Fill(PyObject *unicode, Py_ssize_t start, Py_ssize_t length, Py_UCS4 fill_char);
Py_ssize_t PyUnicode_CopyCharacters(PyObject *to, Py_ssize_t to_start, PyObject *from, Py_ssize_t from_start, Py_ssize_t how_many);

There are also a bunch of API functions which have been deprecated (see PEP 623 and PEP 624) so we will not take them into account. The deprecated functions include but are not limited to:

PyUnicode_FromStringAndSize(NULL,...) // use PyUnicode_New instead

Moreover, CPython 3.3+ adopted a flexible string represenation (PEP 393) which means that the underlying buffer of str objects can be an array of 1-byte, 2-bytes or 4-bytes characters (the so called “kind”).

str objects offer a raw-buffer API, but you need to call the appropriate function depending on the kind, returning buffers of different types:

typedef uint32_t Py_UCS4;
typedef uint16_t Py_UCS2;
typedef uint8_t Py_UCS1;
Py_UCS1* PyUnicode_1BYTE_DATA(PyObject *o);
Py_UCS2* PyUnicode_2BYTE_DATA(PyObject *o);
Py_UCS4* PyUnicode_4BYTE_DATA(PyObject *o);

Uninitialized unicode objects are created by calling PyUnicode_New(size, maxchar), where maxchar is the maximum allowed value of a character inside the string, and determines the kind. So, in cases in which maxchar is known in advance, we can predict at compile time what will be the kind of the string and write code accordingly. E.g.:

// ASCII only --> kind == PyUnicode_1BYTE_KIND
PyObject *s = PyUnicode_New(size, 127);
Py_UCS1 *buf = PyUnicode_1BYTE_DATA(s);
strcpy(buf, "hello");


CPython distinguishes between PyUnicode_New(size, 127) and PyUnicode_New(size, 255): in both cases the kind is PyUnicode_1BYTE_KIND, but the former also sets a flag to indicate that the string is ASCII-only.

There are cases in which you don’t know the kind in advance because you are working on generic data. To solve the problem in addition to the raw-buffer API, CPython also offers an “Opaque API” to write a char inside an unicode:

int PyUnicode_WriteChar(PyObject *unicode, Py_ssize_t index, Py_UCS4 character)
void PyUnicode_WRITE(int kind, void *data, Py_ssize_t index, Py_UCS4 value)

Note that the character to write is always Py_UCS4, so _WriteChar/_WRITE have logic to do something different depending on the kind.


_WRITE is a macro, and its implementation contains a switch(kind): I think it is designed with the explicit goal of allowing the compiler to hoist the switch outside a loop in which we repeatedly call _WRITE. However, it is worth noting that I could not find any code using it outside CPython itself, so it’s probably something which we don’t need to care of for HPy.

Raw-buffer vs Opaque API

There are two ways to initialize a non-initialized string object:

  • Raw-buffer API: get a C pointer to the memory and fill it directly: PyBytes_AsString, PyUnicode_1BYTE_DATA, etc.

  • Opaque API: call special functions API to fill the content, without accessing the buffer directly: e.g., PyUnicode_WriteChar.

From the point of view of the implementation, a completely opaque API gives the most flexibility in terms of how to implement a builder and/or a string. A good example is PyPy’s str type, which uses UTF-8 as the internal representation. A completely opaque HPyStrBuilder could allow PyPy to fill directly its internal UTF-8 buffer (at least in simple cases). On the other hand, a raw-buffer API would force PyPy to store the UCS{1,2,4} bytes in a temporary buffer and convert them to UTF-8 during the build() phase.

On the other hand, from the point of view of the C programmer it is easier to have direct access the memory. This allows to:

  • use memcpy() to copy data into the buffer

  • pass the buffer directly to other C functions which write into it (e.g., read())

  • use standard C patterns such as *p++ = ... or similar.

Problems and constraints

bytes and str are objects are immutable: the biggest problem of the current API boils down to the fact that the API allows to construct objects which are not fully initialized and to mutate them during a not-well-specificed “initialization phase”.

Problems for alternative implementations:

  1. it assumes that the underlying buffer can be mutated. This might not be always the case, e.g. if you want to use a Java string or an RPython string as the data buffer. This might also lead to unnecessary copies.

  2. It makes harder to optimize the code: e.g. a JIT cannot safely assume that a string is actually immutable.

  3. It interacts badly with a moving GC, because we need to ensure that buf doesn’t move.

Introducing a builder solves most of the problems, because it introduces a clear separation between the mutable and immutable phases.

Real world usage

In this section we analyze the usage of some string building API in real world code, as found in the Top 4000 PyPI packages.


This is the recommended “modern” way to create str objects but it’s not widely used outside CPython. A simple grep found only 17 matches in the 4000 packages, although some are in very important packages such as cffi, markupsafe (1, 2, 3) and simplejson (1, 2).

In all the examples linked above, maxchar is hard-coded and known at compile time.

There are only four usages of PyUnicode_New in which maxchar is actually unknown until runtime, and it is curious to note that the first three are in runtime libraries used by code generators:

  1. mypyc

  2. Cython

  3. siplib

  4. PyICU: this is the only non-runtime library usage of it, and it’s used to implement a routine to create a str object from an UTF-16 buffer.

For HPy, we should at lest consider the opportunity to design special APIs for the cases in which maxchar is known in advance, e.g. HPyStrBuilder_ASCII, HPyStrBuilder_UCS1, etc., and evaluate whether this would be beneficial for alternative implementations.

Create empty strings

A special case is PyUnicode_New(0, 0), which contructs an empty str object. CPython special-cases it to always return a prebuilt object.

This pattern is used a lot inside CPython but only once in 3rd-party extensions, in the regex library ( 1, 2).

Other ways to build empty strings are PyUnicode_FromString("") which is used 27 times and PyUnicode_FromStringAndSize("", 0) which is used only once.

For HPy, maybe we should just have a ctx->h_EmptyStr and ctx->h_EmptyBytes?

PyUnicode_From*, PyUnicode_Decode*

Functions of the PyUnicode_From* and PyUnicode_Decode* families should be easy to adapt to HPy, so we won’t discuss them in detail. However, here is the of matches found by grep for each function, to get an idea of how much each is used:

PyUnicode_From* family:

  964 PyUnicode_FromString
  259 PyUnicode_FromFormat
  125 PyUnicode_FromStringAndSize
   58 PyUnicode_FromWideChar
   48 PyUnicode_FromEncodedObject
   17 PyUnicode_FromKindAndData
    9 PyUnicode_FromFormatV

    7 PyUnicode_FromOrdinal

   66 PyUnicode_FromObject
   45 PyUnicode_FromUnicode

PyUnicode_Decode* family:

143 PyUnicode_DecodeFSDefault
114 PyUnicode_DecodeUTF8
 99 PyUnicode_Decode
 64 PyUnicode_DecodeLatin1
 51 PyUnicode_DecodeASCII
 12 PyUnicode_DecodeFSDefaultAndSize
 10 PyUnicode_DecodeUTF16
  8 PyUnicode_DecodeLocale
  6 PyUnicode_DecodeRawUnicodeEscape
  3 PyUnicode_DecodeUTF8Stateful
  2 PyUnicode_DecodeUTF32
  2 PyUnicode_DecodeUnicodeEscape

Raw-buffer access

Most of the real world packages use the raw-buffer API to initialize str objects, and very often in a way which can’t be easily replaced by a fully opaque API.

Example 1, markupsafe: the DO_ESCAPE macro takes a parameter called outp which is obtained by calling PyUnicode*BYTE_DATA (1BYTE, (2BYTE, (4BYTE). DO_ESCAPE contains code like this, which would be hard to port to a fully-opaque API:

Another interesting example is `pybase64 <`_. After removing the unnecessary stuff, the logic boils down to this:

Note that base64_encode is an external C function which writes stuff into a char * buffer, so in this case it is required to use the raw-buffer API, unless you want to allocate a temporary buffer and copy chars one-by-one later.

There are other examples similar to these, but I think there is already enough evidence that HPy must offer a raw-buffer API in addition to a fully-opaque one.

Typed vs untyped raw-buffer writing

To initialize a str object using the raw-buffer interface, you need to get a pointer to the buffer. The vast majority of code uses PyUnicode_{1,2,4}BYTE_DATA to get a buffer of type Py_UCS{1,2,4}* and write directly to it:

PyObject *s = PyUnicode_New(size, 127);
Py_UCS1 *buf = PyUnicode_1BYTE_DATA(s);
buf[0] = 'H';
buf[1] = 'e';
buf[2] = 'l';

The other way to get a pointer to the raw-buffer is to call PyUnicode_DATA(), which returns a void *: the only reasonable way to write something in this buffer is to memcpy() the data from another str buffer of the same kind. This technique is used for example by CPython’s textio.c.

Outside CPython, the only usage of this technique is inside cython’s helper function __Pyx_PyUnicode_Join.

This probably means that we don’t need to offer untyped raw-buffer writing for HPy. If we really need to support the memcpy use case, we can probably just offer a special function in the builder API.

PyUnicode_WRITE, PyUnicode_WriteChar

Outside CPython, PyUnicode_WRITE() is used only inside Cython’s helper functions (1, 2). Considering that Cython will need special support for HPy anyway, this means that we don’t need an equivalent of PyUnicode_WRITE for HPy.

Similarly, PyUnicode_WriteChar() is used only once, inside JPype.


All the API functions listed above require the user to know in advance the size of the string: PyUnicode_Join() is the only native API call which allows to build a string whose size is not known in advance.

Examples of usage are found in simplejson (1, 2), pycairo, regex (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) and others, for a total of 25 grep matches.


Contrarily to its unicode equivalent, PyBytes_Join() does not exist. There is _PyBytes_Join() which is private and undocumented, but some extensions rely on it anyway: Cython, regex, dulwich.

In theory, alternative implementaions should be able to provide a more efficient way to achieve the goal. E.g. for pure Python code PyPy offers which is faster than both StringIO and ''.join, so maybe it might make sense to offer a way to use it from C.