Using Go strings in R

5 min read

go R package cgo string

So far we’ve only looked at passing int back and forth between R ang go. double would be simple to tackle so I probably won’t do a dedicated post about it.

Before we look into how we can use interoperate between R vectors and go slices, we need to look into strings. Go has the string type built in the language and the strings package to manipulate UTF-8 encoded strings, further explained in this blog post.

Go’s support for unicode is great and could easily be enough motivation to consider learning the language.

I’ve setup the rstats-go/_playground_string repository to play with strings. It contains an R package gostring based on the structure I’ve used for this post.

As previously, I’ve organized the GOPATH so that it contains:

  • The rstring package that contains only go code, e.g. using the string type. It has two functions: Foobar that always return the same string, and Nbytes that takes a string and returns the number of bytes it is made of.
  • The main package that contains a mix of go an C code, using cgo and the C R API. Eventually, all of that will be generated somehow.

Convert a go string to an R string

Foobar is a simple go function that always return the same string.

func Foobar() string {
  return "foo" + "bar" ;

The first thing we need is an exported go function in the main package that calls rstring.Foobar.

//export Foobar
func Foobar() string {
  return rstring.Foobar() ;

The //export here is a special comment interpreted by cgo to express that we want to be able to call this function from C. Here is the relevant information from the generated header file:

typedef long long GoInt64;
typedef GoInt64 GoInt;
typedef struct { const char *p; GoInt n; } GoString;

extern GoString Foobar();

So, we have a C function called Foobar that returns a C struct GoString from which we can get a pointer to the start of the string and the number of char.

This is not how we would typically pass a go string with cgo, because the string we get is not null terminated. We would typically return a null terminated copy of the string using the CString function as explained on the go wiki.

We don’t want to do that because CString allocates memory using malloc and it becomes our responsability to free that memory, and also because our end game here is to make it an R string, i.e. using the global string cache of R.

Instead of that, we can use the mkCharLenCE function from the R api.

/* mkCharCE - make a character (CHARSXP) variable and set its
   encoding bit.  If a CHARSXP with the same string already exists in
   the global CHARSXP cache, R_StringHash, it is returned.  Otherwise,
   a new CHARSXP is created, added to the cache and then returned. */

SEXP mkCharLenCE(const char *name, int len, cetype_t enc)

We need to feed 3 things to mkCharLenCE

  • name: a pointer to the start of the string, we have that in the p element of the GoString struct
  • len: the number of bytes of the string, we have that as n
  • enc: the string encoding. We’ll just assume utf-8 encoding and use CE_UTF8

So given a GoString called res we can make it an R string using mkCharLenCE( res.p, res.n, CE_UTF8 ). This gives us a “scalar” R string, to return it to the R side, we need to turn it into a length 1 string vector using ScalarString.

SEXP foobar(){
  GoString res = Foobar() ;
  return ScalarString(mkCharLenCE( res.p, res.n, CE_UTF8 )) ;

We can .Call that function from the R side:

#' @export
foobar <- function() {
  .Call("foobar", PACKAGE = "gostring")

Using an R string in go

For the other way around, we have the Nbytes function that takes a go string and return its number of bytes:

func Nbytes( s string ) int {
  return len(s) ;

As before, the //exported function just proxies the call to the real function.

//export Nbytes
func Nbytes(s string ) int {
  return rstring.Nbytes(s) ;

The interesting bit I guess is in the .Call ready function nbytes from the main.c file.

SEXP nbytes(SEXP x){
  SEXP sx = STRING_ELT(x, 0);
  GoString gos = { (char*) CHAR(sx), SHORT_VEC_LENGTH(sx) };
  return ScalarInteger( Nbytes(gos) ) ;

First this extract the first string from the string vector using the STRING_ELT macro.

SEXP sx = STRING_ELT(x, 0);

Then, it constructs a GoString from the R string pointer and its length, which we can get using R api macros CHAR and SHORT_VEC_LENGTH. I’ll blog about this separately

GoString gos = { (char*) CHAR(sx), SHORT_VEC_LENGTH(sx) };

Then, we call the proxy Nbytes function and wraps up the returned int as a length 1 integer vector using ScalarInteger.

return ScalarInteger( Nbytes(gos) ) ;

wrapping up

Installing the code from this post’ companion repo and calling the foobar and nbytes functions.

romain@sherlock ~/git/rbind/romain $ Rscript -e 'install_github("rstats-go/_playground_string"); gostring::foobar(); gostring::nbytes("foo")'
Using GitHub PAT from envvar GITHUB_PAT
Downloading GitHub repo rstats-go/_playground_string@master
from URL
Installing gostring
'/Library/Frameworks/R.framework/Resources/bin/R' --no-site-file --no-environ  \
  --no-save --no-restore --quiet CMD INSTALL  \
  '/private/var/folders/9k/s6066bbx22s7g9gy6sg4qy3w0000gn/T/RtmpkUIA0L/devtools12067239a4401/rstats-go-_playground_string-dd417b7'  \
  --library='/Library/Frameworks/R.framework/Versions/3.4/Resources/library'  \

* installing *source* package ‘gostring’ ...
** libs
rm -f *.h
CGO_CFLAGS="-I/Library/Frameworks/R.framework/Resources/include -DNDEBUG   -I/usr/local/include" CGO_LDFLAGS="  -F/Library/Frameworks/R.framework/.. -framework R" GOPATH=/private/var/folders/9k/s6066bbx22s7g9gy6sg4qy3w0000gn/T/RtmpkUIA0L/devtools12067239a4401/rstats-go-_playground_string-dd417b7/src/go  go build -o -buildmode=c-shared main
installing to /Library/Frameworks/R.framework/Versions/3.4/Resources/library/gostring/libs
** R
** preparing package for lazy loading
** help
*** installing help indices
** building package indices
** testing if installed package can be loaded
* DONE (gostring)
[1] "foobar"
[1] 3