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PEP 573 -- Module State Access from C Extension Methods

Title:Module State Access from C Extension Methods
Author:Petr Viktorin <encukou at>, Nick Coghlan <ncoghlan at>, Eric Snow <ericsnowcurrently at> Marcel Plch <gmarcel.plch at>
BDFL-Delegate:Stefan Behnel
Discussions-To:import-sig at
Type:Standards Track


This PEP proposes to add a way for CPython extension methods to access context such as the state of the modules they are defined in.

This will allow extension methods to use direct pointer dereferences rather than PyState_FindModule for looking up module state, reducing or eliminating the performance cost of using module-scoped state over process global state.

This fixes one of the remaining roadblocks for adoption of PEP 3121 (Extension module initialization and finalization) and PEP 489 (Multi-phase extension module initialization).

While this PEP takes an additional step towards fully solving the problems that PEP 3121 and PEP 489 started tackling, it does not attempt to resolve all remaining concerns. In particular, accessing the module state from slot methods (nb_add, etc) remains slower than accessing that state from other extension methods.


Process-Global State

C-level static variables. Since this is very low-level memory storage, it must be managed carefully.

Per-module State

State local to a module object, allocated dynamically as part of a module object's initialization. This isolates the state from other instances of the module (including those in other subinterpreters).

Accessed by PyModule_GetState().

Static Type

A type object defined as a C-level static variable, i.e. a compiled-in type object.

A static type needs to be shared between module instances and has no information of what module it belongs to. Static types do not have __dict__ (although their instances might).

Heap Type

A type object created at run time.


PEP 489 introduced a new way to initialize extension modules, which brings several advantages to extensions that implement it:

  • The extension modules behave more like their Python counterparts.
  • The extension modules can easily support loading into pre-existing module objects, which paves the way for extension module support for runpy or for systems that enable extension module reloading.
  • Loading multiple modules from the same extension is possible, which makes testing module isolation (a key feature for proper sub-interpreter support) possible from a single interpreter.

The biggest hurdle for adoption of PEP 489 is allowing access to module state from methods of extension types. Currently, the way to access this state from extension methods is by looking up the module via PyState_FindModule (in contrast to module level functions in extension modules, which receive a module reference as an argument). However, PyState_FindModule queries the thread-local state, making it relatively costly compared to C level process global access and consequently deterring module authors from using it.

Also, PyState_FindModule relies on the assumption that in each subinterpreter, there is at most one module corresponding to a given PyModuleDef. This does not align well with Python's import machinery. Since PEP 489 aimed to fix that, the assumption does not hold for modules that use multi-phase initialization, so PyState_FindModule is unavailable for these modules.

A faster, safer way of accessing module-level state from extension methods is needed.


The implementation of a Python method may need access to one or more of the following pieces of information:

  • The instance it is called on (self)
  • The underlying function
  • The class the method was defined in
  • The corresponding module
  • The module state

In Python code, the Python-level equivalents may be retrieved as:

import sys

class Foo:
    def meth(self):
        instance = self
        module_globals = globals()
        module_object = sys.modules[__name__]  # (1)
        underlying_function = Foo.meth         # (1)
        defining_class = Foo                   # (1)
        defining_class = __class__             # (2)


The defining class is not type(self), since type(self) might be a subclass of Foo.

The statements marked (1) implicitly rely on name-based lookup via the function's __globals__: either the Foo attribute to access the defining class and Python function object, or __name__ to find the module object in sys.modules. In Python code, this is feasible, as __globals__ is set appropriately when the function definition is executed, and even if the namespace has been manipulated to return a different object, at worst an exception will be raised.

The __class__ closure, (2), is a safer way to get the defining class, but it still relies on __closure__ being set appropriately.

By contrast, extension methods are typically implemented as normal C functions. This means that they only have access to their arguments and C level thread-local and process-global states. Traditionally, many extension modules have stored their shared state in C-level process globals, causing problems when:

  • running multiple initialize/finalize cycles in the same process
  • reloading modules (e.g. to test conditional imports)
  • loading extension modules in subinterpreters

PEP 3121 attempted to resolve this by offering the PyState_FindModule API, but this still has significant problems when it comes to extension methods (rather than module level functions):

  • it is markedly slower than directly accessing C-level process-global state
  • there is still some inherent reliance on process global state that means it still doesn't reliably handle module reloading

It's also the case that when looking up a C-level struct such as module state, supplying an unexpected object layout can crash the interpreter, so it's significantly more important to ensure that extension methods receive the kind of object they expect.


Currently, a bound extension method (PyCFunction or PyCFunctionWithKeywords) receives only self, and (if applicable) the supplied positional and keyword arguments.

While module-level extension functions already receive access to the defining module object via their self argument, methods of extension types don't have that luxury: they receive the bound instance via self, and hence have no direct access to the defining class or the module level state.

The additional module level context described above can be made available with two changes. Both additions are optional; extension authors need to opt in to start using them:

  • Add a pointer to the module to heap type objects.

  • Pass the defining class to the underlying C function.

    The defining class is readily available at the time built-in method object (PyCFunctionObject) is created, so it can be stored in a new struct that extends PyCFunctionObject.

The module state can then be retrieved from the module object via PyModule_GetState.

Note that this proposal implies that any type whose method needs to access per-module state must be a heap type, rather than a static type.

This is necessary to support loading multiple module objects from a single extension: a static type, as a C-level global, has no information about which module object it belongs to.

Slot methods

The above changes don't cover slot methods, such as tp_iter or nb_add.

The problem with slot methods is that their C API is fixed, so we can't simply add a new argument to pass in the defining class. Two possible solutions have been proposed to this problem:

  • Look up the class through walking the MRO. This is potentially expensive, but will be useful if performance is not a problem (such as when raising a module-level exception).
  • Storing a pointer to the defining class of each slot in a separate table, __typeslots__ [1]. This is technically feasible and fast, but quite invasive.

Due to the invasiveness of the latter approach, this PEP proposes adding an MRO walking helper for use in slot method implementations, deferring the more complex alternative as a potential future optimisation. Modules affected by this concern also have the option of using thread-local state or PEP 567 context variables, or else defining their own reload-friendly lookup caching scheme.


Adding module references to heap types

The PyHeapTypeObject struct will get a new member, PyObject *ht_module, that can store a pointer to the module object for which the type was defined. It will be NULL by default, and should not be modified after the type object is created.

A new factory method will be added for creating modules:

PyObject* PyType_FromModuleAndSpec(PyObject *module,
                                   PyType_Spec *spec,
                                   PyObject *bases)

This acts the same as PyType_FromSpecWithBases, and additionally sets ht_module to the provided module object.

Additionally, an accessor, PyObject * PyType_GetModule(PyTypeObject *) will be provided. It will return the ht_module if a heap type with module pointer set is passed in, otherwise it will set a SystemError and return NULL.

Usually, creating a class with ht_module set will create a reference cycle involving the class and the module. This is not a problem, as tearing down modules is not a performance-sensitive operation (and module-level functions typically also create reference cycles). The existing "set all module globals to None" code that breaks function cycles through f_globals will also break the new cycles through ht_module.

Passing the defining class to extension methods

Since PEP 590 [4] was accepted for Python 3.8, PyCFunction implements the vectorcall protocol. This PEP builds on top of PEP 590 to provide C implemented methods with context about their defining class (and thus their defining module).

A new signature flag, METH_METHOD, will be added. Conceptually, it adds defining_class to the function signature. To make the initial implementation easier, the flag can only be used as (METH_FASTCALL | METH_KEYWORDS | METH_METHOD). (It can't be used with other flags like METH_O or bare METH_FASTCALL, though it may be combined with METH_CLASS or METH_STATIC).

A corresponding new C signature, PyCMethod, is added to the PyCFunction set of signatures:

PyObject *PyCMethod(PyObject *self,
                    PyTypeObject *defining_class,
                    PyObject *const *args,
                    size_t nargsf,
                    PyObject *kwnames)

Additional combinations like (METH_VARARGS | METH_METHOD) may be added in the future (or even in the initial implementation of this PEP). However, METH_METHOD should always be an additional flag, i.e., the defining class should only be passed in if needed.

To hold the extra information, a new structure extending PyCFunctionObject will be added:

typedef struct {
    PyCFunctionObject func;
    PyTypeObject *mm_class; /* Passed as 'defining_class' arg to the C func */
} PyCMethodObject;

The PyCFunction implementation will pass mm_class into a PyCMethod C function when it finds the METH_METHOD flag being set. A new macro PyCFunction_GET_CLASS(cls) will be added for easier access to mm_class.

C methods may continue to use the other METH_* signatures if they do not require access to their defining class/module. If METH_METHOD is not set, casting to PyCMethodObject is invalid.

Argument Clinic

To support passing the defining class to methods using Argument Clinic, a new converter will be added to defining_class.

Each method may only have one argument using this converter, and it must appear after self, or, if self is not used, as the first argument. The argument will be of type PyTypeObject *.

When used, Argument Clinic will select METH_FASTCALL | METH_KEYWORDS | METH_METHOD as the calling convention. The argument will not appear in __text_signature__.

This will be compatible with __init__ and __new__ methods, where an MRO walker will be used to pass the defining class from clinic generated code to the user's function.

Slot methods

To allow access to per-module state from slot methods, an MRO walker will be implemented:

PyTypeObject *PyType_DefiningTypeFromSlotFunc(PyTypeObject *type,
                                              int slot, void *func)

The walker will go through bases of heap-allocated type and search for class that defines func at its slot.

The func needs not to be inherited by type. The only requirement for the walker to find the defining class is that the defining class must be heap-allocated.

On failure, exception is set and NULL is returned.


Getting to per-module state from a heap type is a very common task. To make this easier, a helper will be added:

void *PyType_GetModuleState(PyObject *type)

This function takes a heap type and on success, it returns pointer to state of the module that the heap type belongs to.

On failure, two scenarios may occur. When a type without a module is passed in, SystemError is set and NULL returned. If the module is found, pointer to the state, which may be NULL, is returned without setting any exception.

Modules Converted in the Initial Implementation

To validate the approach, several modules will be modified during the initial implementation:

The zipimport, _io, _elementtree, and _csv modules will be ported to PEP 489 multiphase initialization.

Summary of API Changes and Additions

New functions:

  • PyType_GetModule
  • PyType_DefiningTypeFromSlotFunc
  • PyType_GetModuleState

New macros:

  • PyCFunction_GET_CLASS

New types:

  • PyCMethodObject

Modified structures:

  • _heaptypeobject - added ht_module

Other changes:

  • METH_METHOD call flag
  • defining_class converter in clinic

Backwards Compatibility

Two new pointers are added to all heap types. All other changes are adding new functions and structures, or changes to private implementation details.


An initial implementation is available in a Github repository [2]; a patchset is at [3].

Possible Future Extensions

Easy creation of types with module references

It would be possible to add a PEP 489 execution slot type to make creating heap types significantly easier than calling PyType_FromModuleAndSpec. This is left to a future PEP.

It may be good to add a good way to create static exception types from the limited API. Such exception types could be shared between subinterpreters, but instantiated without needing specific module state. This is also left to possible future discussions.


As proposed here, methods defined with the METH_METHOD flag only support one specific signature.

If it turns out that other signatures are needed for performance reasons, they may be added.