PHP Native Interface

Design of the design of phpni, a native interface for PHP, designed to replace the Zend API.

The need for such a native interface is described separately in remove_zend_api.

phpni: The PHP Native Interface

This describes the design of phpni, the PHP Native Interface. This design is in early stages.

Design Criteria

  • Remove any couping between the Zend Engine, extensions and SAPIs.
  • Support all major use cases of the Zend API
    • embedding within SAPIs
    • proving access to C libraries
    • providing the ability to rewrite performance sensitive code in C
  • Significantly simplify creation of extensions
  • Allow other PHP implementations to use the same interface.
  • This is intended to be a static process. That is, we are replacing the static compilation of extensions with another static process. We do not intend to simplify or support run-time binding, like JNI, JNA or libffi. Instead it is imagined the result will be a single libphplibs.a, which statically links into libphp5.so.


Take the use case of wrapping a C library to expose its functionality in user space. The major idea is to “automatically” import C functions into a special namespace. The PHP library functions would then be comprised of PHP user space code which calls those C functions directly. That way it is possible to craft an API that is separate from the C implementation.

Lets take a simple example. Assume we have a C library XXX, with 3 functions, x, y and z. We'd like to expose this in user space as a class called MyXXX, with methods a and b. We create a file with the signatures of x, y and z:


int x (int, int);
void y (char*, int);
void z (char*, int);

We then write our user space code:


class MyXXX
   function __construct ($username)
       $this->username = $username;

   function a ($w1, $w2)
      $foo = \internals\XXX\x ($w1, $w2);
      \internals\XXX\y ($this->username, $foo);

   function b ($m1, $m2)
      $foo = \internals\XXX\x ($m1, $m2);
      \internals\XXX\z ($this->username, $foo);
      return $foo;


In order to interface between the PHP code and the C functions, a tool will be required to generate code. This tool will obviously be implementation specific. SWIG could be used to create this.

Zend engine

Since the libraries would no longer use the Zend API, the tight coupling would be broken. It would now be possible to change major parts of the Zend engine without affecting the operation of any other part of PHP.


It would no longer be necessary to know the Zend API to write extensions. Instead, only the API of the C library is necessary, and the interface can be created in PHP user code.

Embed SAPI

The same interface used for libraries can be used to handle many of the use cases of the C API. However, we do need to specify a means to call PHP user code from C/C++ code.

Other PHP implementations

Since PHP extensions are no longer written in the Zend API, other PHP implementations, such as Roadsend, Project Zero, Phalanger and Quercus should be reuse the libraries without difficulty. In addition, if the coupling is between the interpreter and its components is simple enough, it may be possible for other implementations to be slotted in directly. However, though this would be a nice side-effect, it should probably not be considered a priority.

Note that the design described requires the Zend engine to generate interfacing code from the phpni specification. Other implementations would be required to generate their own code for this interface.

Input from other PHP implementations:

  • Project Zero
  • phc
    • Involved
  • Roadsend
    • TODO
  • Phalanger
    • TODO
  • Quercus
    • TODO

Problems with current design

As the design progresses, problems will be identified, which must be solved. This section will keep track of them:

Problems to be dealt with

  • Strings:
    • Who will be responsible for freeing passed memory?
  • Arrays
    • It is likely that each implementation will have to implement their own array extension (the term “extension” is probably misleading for something so fundamental to the language).

Problems solved

  • Performance of say, pointer arithmetic, will suffer
    • With the basic design (v1.0), it should be simple to put a C layer above the C library, and wrap that instead.
  • strings:
    • representing length
      • The php_string structure created on the C side should have a length
    • mutability
      • The php_string structure created on the C side should either be of type mutable_string/immutable_string, or have a mutable flag.
      • Does the implementation have to respect this too? Probably.
    • Unicode
      • This should come for free?

Similar projects


phpni differs from many of these in that it is designed not to add new features, but instead to replace an existing facility - the ability to call C libraries. As such, dynamic linking is not part of the spec.


There is no reason we shouldn't reuse these, if they fit the bill.

Project Plan

This is a simple design. In reality, it would need to be prototyped to determine whether this makes sense for every use case, and that there would be little sacrificed to make it work. The work on it should probably progress in roughly the following order:

  • Discuss requirements with other PHP implementations
  • Prototype a single library
    • perhaps readline?
    • Manually write interface code between phpni code and the PHP code.
    • Look at other implementations, in particular JNI
  • Write a utility to generate the interface code automatically for the Zend engine
    • Using SWIG?
    • Test 5 or 6 libraries
    • Test more complicated functionality
  • Work with other implementations to prototype the same
  • Convert entire set of PHP extensions
  • At some point we'll need to get consensus from PHP-internals developers that this is a good idea, and a commitment to use it.
rfc/php_native_interface.txt · Last modified: 2017/09/22 13:28 by