Porting Cython code to PyPy

Since version 0.17, Cython has basic support for cpyext, the layer in PyPy that emulates CPython’s C-API. This is achieved by making the generated C code adapt at C compile time, so the generated code will compile in both CPython and PyPy unchanged.

However, beyond what Cython can cover and adapt internally, the cpyext C-API emulation involves some differences to the real C-API in CPython that have a visible impact on user code. This page lists major differences and ways to deal with them in order to write Cython code that works in both CPython and PyPy.

Reference counts

A general design difference in PyPy is that the runtime does not use reference counting internally but always a garbage collector. Reference counting is only emulated at the cpyext layer by counting references being held in C space. This implies that the reference count in PyPy is generally different from that in CPython because it does not count any references held in Python space.

Object lifetime

As a direct consequence of the different garbage collection characteristics, objects may see the end of their lifetime at other points than in CPython. Special care therefore has to be taken when objects are expected to have died in CPython but may not in PyPy. Specifically, a deallocator method of an extension type (__dealloc__()) may get called at a much later point than in CPython, triggered rather by memory getting tighter than by objects dying.

If the point in the code is known when an object is supposed to die (e.g. when it is tied to another object or to the execution time of a function), it is worth considering if it can be invalidated and cleaned up manually at that point, rather than relying on a deallocator.

As a side effect, this can sometimes even lead to a better code design, e.g. when context managers can be used together with the with statement.

Borrowed references and data pointers

The memory management in PyPy is allowed to move objects around in memory. The C-API layer is only an indirect view on PyPy objects and often replicates data or state into C space that is then tied to the lifetime of a C-API object rather then the underlying PyPy object. It is important to understand that these two objects are separate things in cpyext.

The effect can be that when data pointers or borrowed references are used, and the owning object is no longer directly referenced from C space, the reference or data pointer may become invalid at some point, even if the object itself is still alive. As opposed to CPython, it is not enough to keep the reference to the object alive in a list (or other Python container), because the contents of those is only managed in Python space and thus only references the PyPy object. A reference in a Python container will not keep the C-API view on it alive. Entries in a Python class dict will obviously not work either.

One of the more visible places where this may happen is when accessing the char* buffer of a byte string. In PyPy, this will only work as long as the Cython code holds a direct reference to the byte string object itself.

Another point is when CPython C-API functions are used directly that return borrowed references, e.g. PyTuple_GET_ITEM() and similar functions, but also some functions that return borrowed references to built-in modules or low-level objects of the runtime environment. The GIL in PyPy only guarantees that the borrowed reference stays valid up to the next call into PyPy (or its C-API), but not necessarily longer.

When accessing the internals of Python objects or using borrowed references longer than up to the next call into PyPy, including reference counting or anything that frees the GIL, it is therefore required to additionally keep direct owned references to these objects alive in C space, e.g. in local variables in a function or in the attributes of an extension type.

When in doubt, avoid using C-API functions that return borrowed references, or surround the usage of a borrowed reference explicitly by a pair of calls to Py_INCREF() when getting the reference and Py_DECREF() when done with it to convert it into an owned reference.

Builtin types, slots and fields

The following builtin types are not currently available in cpyext in form of their C level representation: PyComplexObject, PyFloatObject and PyBoolObject.

Many of the type slot functions of builtin types are not initialised in cpyext and can therefore not be used directly.

Similarly, almost none of the (implementation) specific struct fields of builtin types is exposed at the C level, such as the ob_digit field of PyLongObject or the allocated field of the PyListObject struct etc. Although the ob_size field of containers (used by the Py_SIZE() macro) is available, it is not guaranteed to be accurate.

It is best not to access any of these struct fields and slots and to use the normal Python types instead as well as the normal Python protocols for object operations. Cython will map them to an appropriate usage of the C-API in both CPython and cpyext.

GIL handling

Currently, the GIL handling function PyGILState_Ensure() is not re-entrant in PyPy and deadlocks when called twice. This means that code that tries to acquire the GIL “just in case”, because it might be called with or without the GIL, will not work as expected in PyPy. See PyGILState_Ensure should not deadlock if GIL already held.


Simple functions and especially macros that are used for speed in CPython may exhibit substantially different performance characteristics in cpyext.

Functions returning borrowed references were already mentioned as requiring special care, but they also induce substantially more runtime overhead because they often create weak references in PyPy where they only return a plain pointer in CPython. A visible example is PyTuple_GET_ITEM().

Some more high-level functions may also show entirely different performance characteristics, e.g. PyDict_Next() for dict iteration. While being the fastest way to iterate over a dict in CPython, having linear time complexity and a low overhead, it currently has quadratic runtime in PyPy because it maps to normal dict iteration, which cannot keep track of the current position between two calls and thus needs to restart the iteration on each call.

The general advice applies here even more than in CPython, that it is always best to rely on Cython generating appropriately adapted C-API handling code for you than to use the C-API directly - unless you really know what you are doing. And if you find a better way of doing something in PyPy and cpyext than Cython currently does, it’s best to fix Cython for everyone’s benefit.

Known problems

  • As of PyPy 1.9, subtyping builtin types can result in infinite recursion on method calls in some rare cases.
  • Docstrings of special methods are not propagated to Python space.
  • The Python 3.x adaptations in pypy3 only slowly start to include the C-API, so more incompatibilities can be expected there.

Bugs and crashes

The cpyext implementation in PyPy is much younger and substantially less mature than the well tested C-API and its underlying native implementation in CPython. This should be remembered when running into crashes, as the problem may not always be in your code or in Cython. Also, PyPy and its cpyext implementation are less easy to debug at the C level than CPython and Cython, simply because they were not designed for it.