shared library

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A shared library is a compiled piece of code that can be shared and used by various programs. It provides functions and procedures that other programs can call. It is different from a static library (that is linked into an executable and becomes part of it) or an executable. Shared library in this article is meant to include both Linux .so and Windows .dll, unless explicitly specified, like "unix shared library" or "dll".

This page tries to document how shared libraries work in combination with FPC. That is: how shared libraries work now, how they should work, as well as how Delphi deals with them.

Let's start with a simple sketch of what forms Delphi supports, because we will of course try to be as compatible as reasonable (limited by the requirement to work on multiple platforms).

This article does not show Kylix details; please feel free to add Kylix details if they are still relevant.


Delphi to my knowledge knows three (or four) ways of dynamic linking.

  1. create a standalone shared library. (compiling a library unit without "runtime packages" selected).
    • This means the RTL will be linked into the shared library
    • This also means the memory manager will be its own island. Using automated types in functions that communicate with it is not possible.
    • Use of Classes is not possible: both program and shared library have their own copies of the VMT, which breaks e.g. is and as operators
  2. create a standalone shared library. (compiling a library unit without "runtime packages" selected), but while using unit sharemem)
    • Comparable with previous case but the memory manager is switched to COM compatible. This means other components/programs that also switch their memory manager to sharemem can call functions that use automated types, because it doesn't matter who returns the block to the COM memmanagement system.
    • Note that AFAIK the COM memory manager is quite slow. This road is probably not desired unless you really want to mess with COM, or your componentization is more important than speed.
  3. Library packages These are shared libraries for which all dependancies on the Pascal level are known (which units they contain and depend on), and can be treated as parts of the main program that reside in a DLL.
    • The RTL is in a separate package (DLL), and both the main program and package use it. Therefore there is only one copy of any unit including system.
    • This also means there is only one memory manager, at least for the main program and the packages it uses. IOW shared libs that are not a package can still use an own RTL and memory manager.
    • A package can only depend on units in its own package or in other packages. (separate compilation requirement)
    • Because no units are duplicated, there is only one copy of each VMT, making classes use transparent.
    • Probably packages can also switch to sharemem, making it compatible with other systems using sharemem. Some way must be found to initialise sharemem as early as possible though (does Delphi do this? Possible test for this is to pass an ansistring created in a init section of a unit in a package to a different sharemem using shared lib that is not a package) to be determined

Besides these, Delphi can also generate DLLs that are ActiveX components. to be described/determined

Topics about library packages are mostly moved from this page to the separate packages article, to avoid confusing the discussion.

Linker namespaces

One of the big problems with porting dynamic libraries from Windows (e.g. DLLs) to Linux and FreeBSD, is the fact that Windows and OS X have a linker namespace per module (as in, per shared lib or binary), with export tables carefully governing exported symbols, and Linux and FreeBSD only have one single linker namespace.

Specially in multi-language projects this is a problem.

I got some feedback on this from a FreeBSD hacker, who recommended to look into ELF visibility attribute, and/or API versioning:

Note that while the last URL is about FreeBSD, it mentions Linux doing the same.

Sharemem implementation details

As said, sharemem switches the memory manager to a global one. Under Windows this is AFAIK the COM manager. On *nix a similar memmanager doesn't always exist (Gnome and KDE component architectures might have something similar), so this is not guaranteed.

One could probably simply have all programs use cmem, which could be a "level 0" implementation for everything that runs in this process.

I explicitely mention this because it might be necessary to impose an own initialisation order (independant of OS shared lib initialisation) to allow the main program to initialise units right after the RTL (system unit) initializations, but before other libs, e.g. a different memory manager.

VMT duplication

The basic problem of VMT duplication is mostly support for the is parameter and similar methods of TObject and TClass like inheritsfrom. This is only solved for packages, IOW for the other two types named above, the is operator doesn't work across libraries/binaries.

In earlier discussions about packages, there was some confusion about this topic. People assumed that packages would somehow tap into the RTL VMTs in the main binary. I'm however pretty sure this is not the case, at least not in Delphi, since if you use packages, the RTL always is a package, too. Also, every dependency of a unit in a package must be in the same package or in a package it has a dependency on. This means a unit (and thus, the VMTs declared in it) only exists once in the greater program (main program + its packages)

Initialization and finalization sections and RTL

(The initialization order of units in packages is moved to the packages page).

The problem with libraries is usually that libraries are initialized as a whole. This can lead to problems with plugin units modifying RTL behaviour (cwstrings, cmem, FV drivers etc)

For stand-alone libraries with internal copies of RTL to function, the RTL needs to be initialized, and the initialization section of the library needs to be called as well.

Roughly there are two options here:

  • Use (e.g. on ELF platforms) the ABI .init and .fini sections or similar constructs in other binary formats.
  • Leave the above initializers mostly empty sections, and enforce an own order using a set of own initializers and finalizers. The ELF init and fini sections merely register the real initializers.

Mixed forms are also possible, e.g. initialize standalone shared libraries via the initializer sections, but with packages use an own definition.

Shared Exe Memory manager

Lars says: regarding a single memory manager for BPL style packages: what about using the executable and exporting its memory manager? I have had problems trying to use CMEM but have successfully shared the same memory manager using SetMemoryManager/GetMemoryManager tricks.

See for an example of sharing memory between exe and dll without using CMEM. Powtils CGI library also uses this trick for dynpwu.pas so that ansistrings can be used without any sharemem or cmem unit. The memory manager is exported from the executable or a single library and shared with all the other DLL/EXE's that are connecting to the single module.

Marco's answer: First, library packages have more features than just shared memory managers. Unique VMTs (try to use the is operator in your example on a class created in the other lib/exe) and no need to handcraft proper initialization. One just groups units into libs, and the compiler does the rest. No special code required. So what must be done for (library) packages is different (and non competing) to the more general shared library case. And that is what this page is about.

From this general "shared library" case, a subdivision can be separated that has a shared memory manager.

Note that there can be a bunch of memory managers used for this, and multiple units that work like sharemem. Nearly any memory manager applies. However it is logical to reserve the "sharemem" unit name for the memory manager that is the most compatible for inter-process work on the given platform (COM on Windows, cmem on Unix). So, I'm talking about the default case here, which doesn't mean that other people can't roll their own.

Also, in-compiler (RTL) support must be as universal as possible, and also work for libraries that are not loadlibrary-ed, but autoloaded at binary startup, and not require handcoding e.g. initialization. Also it mustn't stand in the way of handcoded solutions (like the one you reference), in other words it must be overridable, since otherwise in-compiler (RTL) support would stand in the way of what people build on top of FPC.

It would be useful though, if somebody investigate if it is possible to call exported symbols from the binary from an autoloaded library (for the Tier 1 targets, Linux/FreeBSD - Windows - OS X). This because then a library could maybe indeed plug in the mother binary.

In short the first objective is to simply have a default scheme that works like Delphi's sharemem to put in the "sharemem" unit.

Marco, added later after some new insights

Moreover a difference is also if the units in the dll are accessed directly, or only over a separately (additionally) defined interface.

Lars says: Well another idea: instead of exporting the memory manager from the exe I was thinking about making a fpsharemem.dll that exports one single common FPC memory manager on each platform for all the programs and DLLs to use, instead of using CMEM. i.e. all units put fpsharemem.dll in their uses clause. In fact, that's actually what the demo does but instead of a separate fpsharemem.dll it is just inside that single DLL included with the demo and all the other code. i.e. why use CMEM if we can use freepascal memory manager? The freepascal mem manager is available on all platforms isn't it, as long as there is a FreePascal DLL that is created for each platform?

I guess to answer my own questions it must have to do with COM/IPC (inter process communication) issues/compatibilities. Well anyway, still a very interesting discussion. Doing it by hand the way I did was just a demo to show the concept in action and to prove to people that ansistrings and automated types can be used in regular old DLLs.

Marco: If you have to make one (thing? memory manager?) mandatory, make it cmem, because otherwise you might not be able to interface with some shared libs. If you can somehow make it user selectable it would be better. But keep in mind that it is already hard to pack two precompiled sets of units into a release (increasing to 200MB installed size or so), let alone more.

Roughly this scheme is what sharemem does, communication over COM/IPC to make sure that a second instance of a library doesn't instantiate its state twice. It avoids the DLL with the memmanager itself by using COM as memory manager. (Something that wouldn't work on Unix, since there is no such global memory manager).

I've thought about this in the past too, but once you start adding a few more things (like is operator support, and something end-user supportable for people that can't write a header to a DLL), you end up with effectively packages again. It is really not that much more, runtime, just a few tables to govern proper unit initialization.

Converting from Delphi


In Windows DLLs, Delphi allows you to assign your own procedure to the DLLProc hook to function as a DLL entry point. That procedure can handle:


FreePascal does not have this functionality, but on Windows you can handle three of them:

  • Dll_Process_Detach_Hook
  • Dll_Thread_Attach_Hook
  • Dll_Thread_Detach_Hook

Using shared libraries from FPC

See the FPC documentation (to do: insert link). On Windows, the bitness of the program you are writing (e.g. 64 bit application) must match the bitness of the DLL you are using.

Debugging FPC libraries called by an FPC program: if you are using Lazarus:

  • Open your library project
  • Go to Run/Run Parameters, enter the full path of the application that uses your library in Launching Application
  • Check the "Use launching application".
  • Set the breakpoints as usual and Run the program.

Initialization order

Warning: you should not initialize resources like a db engine that use LoadLibrary to load external libraries in initialization sections or finalize them in finalization (maybe only as last chance) because this is not supported by the underlying operating system. See Issue #26801.

Using FPC libraries from other languages

The possibility to create a shared library in FPC and being able to use it in other languages (typically but not limited to C/C++) is one of the key goals of having the idea of shared libraries.

Official documentation: FPC programmer's guide, chapter 12.

In general

  • keep you library procedural; do not rely on OOP (Object-Oriented Programming)
  • use simple types in the interface procedures, avoid usage of
    • ANSI / Unicode strings (non OLE-bases). ShortStrings are ok.
    • explicit dynamic strings (open arrays are ok)
    • classes
  • OOP implementation is not portable due to compiler dependent implementation (except for Objective C). Even worse, objects might not be compatible between different versions of the same compiler (i.e. TObject for FPC 2.4.x is not compatible to TObject for 2.6.x)

More specific information about which types can be exported:

  • var / const / out parameters
    • var - a variable is always passed by reference
    • const - might be passed as reference (depending on the size of the variable and target CPU platform (ABI))
    • out - a variable is always passed by reference
    • if a parameter is passed by reference, it's typically a pointer reference in C
  • Records - yes, they are compatible with most of the languages. Do keep in mind the "packing" of the record. The best approach is to use "packed record" (the data will be allocated in the most compact way).
  • ShortStrings (fixed size strings) - yes - as a simple array of 256-characters (bytes), the first byte in the array is the number of characters
  • Strings (dynamic strings: AnsiString) - incompatible - do not export; Consider using PChar instead (see example below)
  • WideStrings (Windows ONLY - based on OLE) - could be used. Other languages would need to support OLEStrings as well (and handle them through Windows OLE utilities)
  • WideStrings (non Windows), Unicode strings - incompatible - consider using PWideChar instead;
  • Classes - incompatible. Consider using wrapper functions'
  • Objects (old ones) - could be done, but you'll need to export all methods as separate functions/procedures
  • Open Arrays - yes, but a single "open array" parameter is in fact 2 parameters - a pointer to the array and the size of the array (in elements). Example:
 // this declaration cannot be converted to C, as C doesn't have "open arrays"
 function Calculation(const params: array of TSomeData; a, b : integer): Integer;

could be called as

 // this declaration is easily converted to C
 function _Calculation(params: PSomeData; paramscount: Integer; a, b : integer): Integer;
  • StaticArrays - yes - const might, if var will, be passed as a reference, rather than an array itself;
  • DynamicArrays - dynamic arrays are different from open arrays parameter - not portable. consider using arrays or create wrappers;
  • Interfaces COM/CORBA - yes.
  • Procedure types - yes - but keep in mind the calling convention, since a callback function call would need to use it as well.

Returning string results as PChars

This example illustrates the use of PChar to return string-type results:

function InLibStringFunction: PChar; cdecl;
  MyString: AnsiString = 'Hello World';
  result := PChar(MyString);

The DLL's memory manager will allocate memory for the PChar. This means that your application must not free that memory. It needs to be freed by the DLL. This is not a problem if "MyString" does not change through the complete lifetime of your application.

If you want your application to be able to free the PChars then you can allow your main application to free the memory via the library.

So in that case use this kind of function:

function InLibStringFunction: PChar; cdecl;
  MyString: AnsiString = 'Hello World'; 
  Result := GetMem(Length(MyString) + 1);
  Move(@MyString[1], Result, Length(MyString));
  Result[Length(MyString)] := 0;

And, for freeing the allocated memory, you may add this procedure in the library, which you can then call from your main application :

procedure InLibFreeString(aStr: PChar);

It is a good idea to store the pointer values of the allocated PChar results (e.g. TList or specialize TFPGList<PChar>) so that you can use this inside your exported FreeString function to check whether this is indeed a pointer that you need to free.

Exposing objects using a wrapper

If you need to expose an object, you will need to create wrapper functions. These wrapper functions would accept a pointer parameter, cast it to the object and call the method. Sanity checks are advised.

This is also known as "flattening" the object (to a procedural API/interface).

Keep in mind that you will need to wrap/flatten:

  • object methods
  • object properties
  • object fields (Note: BigChimp: what is an object field? Do you mean property?)
library libtest;

  Classes, ctypes, Math, SysUtils; 

TMyClass = class(TThread)
  enabled1: boolean;
  int1, int2: shortint; 
  function function1(): integer; cdecl; 

function TMyClass.function1(): integer; cdecl; 
  if enabled1 then
    result := int1 + int2 else result := -1;


Chould be "wrapped" like this:

library libtest;

  Classes, ctypes, Math, SysUtils; 

TMyClass = class(TThread)
  enabled1: boolean;
  int1, int2: shortint; 
  function function1(): integer; cdecl; 

function TMyClass.function1(): integer; cdecl;  
  if enabled1 then
    result := int1 + int2 
    result := -1;

function MyClassCreate:Pointer; cdecl;

function MyClassFree(obj:Pointer); cdecl;

function MyClassSetEnabled(obj:Pointer; aenabled: Boolean); cdecl;

function MyClassGetEnabled(obj:Pointer): Boolean; cdecl;

function MyClassSetData(obj:Pointer; i1, i2: shortint); cdecl;

function MyClassGetData(obj:Pointer; var i1, i2: shortint); cdecl;

function MyClassFunction1(obj:Pointer): Integer; cdecl;

  TMyClassCreate, MyClassFree, MyClassSetEnabled, MyClassGetEnabled
  ,MyClassSetData, MyClassGetData, MyClassFunction1;

By the way, the same "wrapper"/flattening approach is taken when a C++ library (with classes) needs to be accessed from FPC (or any other language)


More information here


More information Using Pascal Libraries with Java

See also