Dealing with foreign libraries

The OCaml programming language allows to interface libraries written in foreign languages such as C. This section explains how to do this with Dune. Note that it does not cover how to write the C stubs themselves, this is covered by the OCaml manual

More precisely, this section covers: - how to add C/C++ stubs to an OCaml library - how to pass specific compilation flags for compiling the stubs - how to build a library with a foreign build system

Note that in general Dune has limited support for building source files written in foreign languages. This support is suitable for most OCaml projects containing C stubs, but is too limited for building complex libraries written in C or other languages. For such cases, Dune allows to integrate a foreign build system into a normal Dune build.

Adding C/C++ stubs to an OCaml library

To add C stubs to an OCaml library, simply list the C files without the .c extension via the c_names field of the library stanza. For instance:

 (name mylib)
 (c_names file1 file2))

Similarly, you can add C++ stubs to an OCaml library by listing them without the .cpp extension via the cxx_names field.

Dune is currently not flexible regarding the extension of the C/C++ source files. They have to be .c and .cpp. If you have source files that that do not follow this extension and you want to build them with Dune, you need to rename them first. Alternatively, you can use the foreign build sandboxing method described bellow.

Header files

C/C++ source files may include header files in the same directory as the C/C++ source files or in the same directory group when using include_subdirs.

The header files must have the .h extension.

Installing header files

It is sometimes desirable to install header files with the library. For that you have two choices: install them explicitly with an install stanza or use the install_c_headers field of the library stanza. This field takes a list of header files names without the .h extension. When a library install header files, these are made visible to users of the library via the include search path.

Foreign build sandboxing

When the build of a C library is too complicated to express in the Dune language, it is possible to simply sandbox a foreign build. Note that this method can be used to build other things, not just C libraries.

To do that, follow the following procedure:

  • put all the foreign code in a sub-directory
  • tell Dune not to interpret configuration files in this directory via an ignored_subdirs stanza
  • write a custom rule that:
    • depend on this directory recursively via source_tree
    • invoke the external build system
    • copy the C archive files (.a, .so, …) in main library directory with a specific names (see bellow)
  • attach the C archive files to an OCaml library via the self_build_stubs_archive field

For instance, let’s assume that you want to build a C library libfoo using libfoo’s own build system and attach it to an OCaml library called foo.

The first step is to put the sources of libfoo in your project, for instance in src/libfoo. Then tell dune to consider src/libfoo as raw data by writing the following in src/dune:

(ignored_subdirs (libfoo))

The next step is to setup the rule to build libfoo. For this, writing the following code src/dune:

 (deps (source_tree libfoo))
 (targets libfoo_stubs.a
 (action (progn
          (chdir libfoo (run make)))
          (copy libfoo/libfoo.a libfoo_stubs.a)
          (copy libfoo/

Note that the rule copies the files to libfoo_stubs.a and It is important that the files produced are named lib<ocaml-lib-name>_stubs.a and dll<ocaml-lib-name>

The last step is to attach these archives to an OCaml library as follows:

 (name bar)
 (self_build_stubs_archive foo))

Then, whenever you use the bar library, you will also be able to use C functions from libfoo.


When using the sandboxing method, the following limitations apply:

  • the build of the foreign code will be sequential
  • the build of the foreign code won’t be incremental

both these points could be improved. If you are interested in helping make this happen, please let the Dune team know and someone will guide you.

Real example

The re2 project uses this method to build the re2 C library. You can look at the file re2/src/re2_c/dune in this project to see a full working example.