PHP Extensions Made Eldrich: PHP Variables

This is section 3 of a 4-part introduction to PHP extensions:

  1. Setting Up PHP – compiling PHP for extension development
  2. Hello, world! – your first extension
  3. Working with the API – the PHP C API
  4. Classes – creating PHP objects in C

This section is, unfortunately, longer than all of the other sections combined. The upshot is that this section covers 90% of the functions you’ll use when creating extensions.

Using Variables

In the previous sections, we got PHP set up and created our first extension. In this section, we’ll look at how to use more of the PHP API.

Working with input

branch: zend_parse_parameters

Our existing extension is nice, but it isn’t very interactive. We can modify this function to accept variables as arguments using the zend_parse_parameters function:

PHP_FUNCTION(cthulhu) {
    // boolean type
    zend_bool english = 0;

    if (zend_parse_parameters(ZEND_NUM_ARGS() TSRMLS_CC, "b", &english) == FAILURE) {

    if (english) {
        php_printf("In his house at R'lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.n");
    else {
        php_printf("Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.n");

Try re-compiling the extension and calling cthulhu(true); and cthulhu(false);.

If you try calling cthulhu(); (no arguments), you’ll notice that zend_parse_parameters takes care of warning you about it:

$ php -r 'cthulhu();'

Warning: cthulhu() expects exactly 1 parameter, 0 given in Command line code on line 1
A note on return values

zend_parse_parameters and many other PHP API function return SUCCESS or FAILURE, which are int values. Irritatingly, SUCCESS is 0 (false in C) and FAILURE is -1 (true in C)! So, you generally can’t say if (some_php_api_func()), you have to say if (some_php_api_func() == SUCCESS).

zend_parse_parameters input

The parameters passed to zend_parse_parameters are:

The number of arguments passed in (you can hard-code this, but using ZEND_NUM_ARGS() will automatically grab that info for you).
You’ll see this magic variable all over the place in PHP extensions. It’s a macro that defines “, <thread_info>” (or “” if threading is disabled). Note that, because it includes a comma, there’s no comma between ZEND_NUM_ARGS() and TSRMLS_CC. You don’t have to worry about it or do anything with it, just pass it around.
This is a string describing the arguments you expect. Common values are:

  • “b”: boolean, expects zend_bool.
  • “s”: string, expects char* and int.
  • “l”: long, expects long.
  • “d”: double, expects double.
  • “a”: array, expects zval*.
  • “o”: object, expects zval*.
  • “z”: any type, expects zval*.

Except for “b”, “l”, and “d”, zend_parse_parameters does not create a copy of the parameter, it just returns the address. Thus, you generally shouldn’t free this memory, as the calling function “owns” it.

The options listed above can be combined. For example, suppose we had a function that took a number of times to append a given string to a given array. We’d expect it to look something like:

  int str_len;
  long num;
  char *str;
  zval *arr;

  if (zend_parse_parameters(ZEND_NUM_ARGS() TSRMLS_CC, "lsa", &num, &str, &str_len, &arr) == FAILURE) {

  /* function body */

Note that you always pass in the address of the variable, not the variable itself.

A list of addresses to use to store passed-in values. zend_bool is just a typedefed numeric type to represent booleans.

Note that you must always use “long” for integers (not int). The long type is a different size on 32-bit and 64-bit machines (except on Windows!), so you’ll get weird segfaults if you use another numeric type on certain platforms.


branch: types

You may have noticed above that arrays, objects, and any type are all returned a zvals by zend_parse_parameters. This is because every PHP variable is, under the covers, a C struct called a zval. For example, if you say $x = "foo"; $y = 123; $z = array();, then $x, $y, and $z are all zvals.

If you want to be able to communicate information from C to PHP, it’s important to understand how to work with zvals. A zval is defined as:

struct _zval_struct {
    zvalue_value value;
    zend_uint refcount__gc;
    zend_uchar type;
    zend_uchar is_ref__gc;

The main components of this struct are:

The actual value of the variable. This is defined as a union of:

typedef union _zvalue_value {
    long lval;
    double dval;
    struct {
        char *val;
        int len;
    } str;
    HashTable *ht;
    zend_object_value obj;
} zvalue_value;

These field correspond to the following types:

  • lval: Longs and booleans
  • dval: Doubles
  • str: Strings
  • ht: Arrays and associative arrays
  • obj: Objects
A reference count for garbage collection. When you (or PHP) asks for a zval to be destroyed, the zval destructor decrements the refcount and checks if it is 0. If the refcount is greater than 0, it will just decremented the refcount and return. Once the refcount is 0, the zval will actually be freed.
The type of this zval. This tells PHP which union element to look for and what to do when it finds it. There are human-readable macros for each type:

#define IS_NULL	          0
#define IS_LONG	          1
#define IS_DOUBLE         2
#define IS_BOOL	          3
#define IS_ARRAY          4
#define IS_OBJECT         5
#define IS_STRING         6
#define IS_RESOURCE       7
#define IS_CONSTANT       8

This tutorial will only cover working with types 0-6. I’ve found that, with object-oriented PHP, the last three are less useful.

Resources are a way of binding C structs to PHP variables (e.g., passing a database connection around with the defunct mysql extension), but objects provide a nicer way of doing struct attachment. The Developer Zone tutorial goes into quite a lot of detail on resources, if you’re interested.

The field type tells PHP which union element to look at for the zval’s value. For example, if zval_p->type == IS_STRING, the value for the zval should be in the zval_p->value.str field.

This field also determines how PHP interprets the value field. For example, lval does double duty for longs and booleans. So, if you have lval set to 1 and zval_p->type==IS_LONG, it will be displayed as 1. If you have zval_p->type==IS_BOOL, it will be displayed as true.

// add function entries for each function you define
zend_function_entry rlyeh_functions[] = {
  PHP_FE(cthulhu, NULL)
  PHP_FE(makeBool, NULL)
  PHP_FE(makeLong, NULL)

PHP_FUNCTION(makeBool) {
    Z_TYPE_P(return_value) = IS_BOOL;
    Z_LVAL_P(return_value) = 1;

PHP_FUNCTION(makeLong) {
    Z_TYPE_P(return_value) = IS_LONG;
    Z_LVAL_P(return_value) = 1;

// don't forget to add declarations for these functions to your header file, too!

return_value is passed into PHP_FUNCTIONs and holds the value that is returned (it defaults to null).

If you compile this new code and run:


You’ll see something like:

If this is a PHP reference.

Accessing the Contents of a Zval

The internals of a zval are subject to change, so you should always PHP’s zval macros instead of touching the gooey innards (e.g., don’t actually set a value by putting zval_p->value.lval in your code).

As shown in the example above, you can safely manipulate said innards through these macros:

zval *zval_p;

long l        = Z_LVAL_P(zval_p)
zend_bool b   = Z_BVAL_P(zval_p)
double d      = Z_DVAL_P(zval_p)
char *str     = Z_STRVAL_P(zval_p)
int str_len   = Z_STRLEN_P(zval_p)
HashTable *ht = Z_ARRVAL_P(zval_p)

// objects are a bit complicated... suffice to know that these exist:
Z_OBJ_HANDLER_P(zval_p, h)

As you can see, you can extract each part of a zval’s value using a macro. The ones listed above work on zval pointers (zval*s). If you are using zval or zval**, there are analogous helpers with one fewer or one more P, respectively. For example:

long get_long(zval z) {
  return Z_LVAL(z);

// or 

long get_long(zval **zval_pp) {
  return Z_LVAL_PP(zval_pp);

Creating Zvals

Before using a zval, you must make sure that its refcount, type, and value are set correctly. For scalar types, you can set value and type using a single macro: ZVAL_type.

ZVAL_BOOL(zval_p, 0);
ZVAL_LONG(zval_p, 123);
ZVAL_DOUBLE(zval_p, 12.3);

For strings, it is a little trickier because you have to allocate space for the string or let PHP know that you’ve already allocated space for it.

Thus, ZVAL_STRING takes an argument that tells PHP whether or not to make a copy of the string for the zval. Basically, this should be 0 if you’ve already created a special instance of the string for this zval and 1 if you haven’t.

// "bar" is on the stack and zval_p is on the heap, so we 
// want to make a copy of "bar" on the heap
ZVAL_STRING(zval_p, "bar", 1);
// this means "copy" ------^

// copy "bar" to the heap
char *str = estrdup("bar");
ZVAL_STRING(zval_p, str, 0);
// "don't copy" ---------^

Which brings us to the next section, memory management.

Memory Management

branch: mm

PHP uses its own memory pool and allocation/deallocation functions, which you should generally use instead of malloc, free, and friends.

PHP has similar functions to the standard C library, only everything is prefixed with an “e”:

void* emalloc(size_t size);
void* ecalloc(size_t size);
void* erealloc(size_t size);

void efree(void* ptr);

char* estrdup(char* str);
char* estrndup(char* str, int len);

If you are used to C programming where you check if memory was successfully allocated (x = malloc(sizeof(x)); if (!x) return 0;), know that this is not strictly necessary in PHP. PHP’s memory management functions will exit PHP if you run out of memory, so if emalloc returns, it returned some memory.

Remember how you compiled PHP with --enable-maintainer-zts at the beginning? Well, here’s the payoff: it will let you know about any memory leaks it detects. For example, try adding a function to your extension:

// add to function_entry table and header file, too

Now, if you recompile your extension and run leak(), you’ll see:

[Wed Aug 10 16:34:42 2011]  Script:  '-'
/Users/k/php-5.3.6/Zend/zend_builtin_functions.c(1360) :  Freeing 0x100AA75E0 (3 bytes), script=-
=== Total 1 memory leaks detected ===

This can make tracking down memory leaks much easier. (Getting friendly with valgrind is a good idea, too.)

Creating and Destroying Zvals

Zvals can be created using emalloc, but I’d recommend generally using a different macro: MAKE_STD_ZVAL. This macro not only allocates a zval, but it also sets the refcount and isref fields, so you don’t have to worry about setting those yourself.

zval *zval_p;

If you need to destroy a zval, use zval_ptr_dtor, which takes a zval** (not a zval*).

zval *zval_p;

// back to square one

zval_ptr_dtor decrements the refcount by 1. If the refcount is still greater than 0, then zval_ptr_dtor will just return. If this makes the refcount 0, it also destroys the current zval. If this zval is a string, array, or object, PHP will take care of freeing the associated memory. Thus, you should generally not call free on a zval (as this will cause leaks: orphaned strings or objects with no zval pointing to them).

Also, you should always make sure that you have set the zval to the correct type before calling zval_ptr_dtor: if you call it on garbage, it can segfault if it tries to free, say, an string that was actually an invalid pointer.

The Persistence of Memory

branch: persistence

Theoretically, all memory allocated with emalloc is freed after each request (I say theoretically because in my experience, it’s not so much freed as leaked). If you want something to hang around for longer than a single request, you’ll need to use persistent memory. Persistent memory hangs around for longer than one request (generally), up to the lifetime of the PHP process.

To allocate persistent memory, use “pe”-prefixed memory allocation functions, instead of “e”-prefixed.

void* pemalloc(size_t size, int persistent);
void* pecalloc(size_t size, int persistent);
void* perealloc(size_t size, int persistent);

void pefree(void* ptr, int persistent);

char* pestrdup(char* str, int persistent);
char* pestrndup(char* str, int len, int persistent);

The “persistent” option lets you choose whether you want to allocate persistent memory (1) or transitory memory (0, normal “e”-allocation behavior).

Search and Destroy: Finding and Cleaning Up Persistent Memory

Suppose your extension allocates a persistent struct in one HTTP request. How do you find it during the next HTTP request?

There are three steps:

  1. You have to create a type for this memory.
  2. You have to link this type to a destructor, so that PHP knows how to clean up the memory.
  3. You have to insert your allocated memory into PHP’s persistent memory hash.
Persistent Gods

To try out persistent memory, we want a struct that should persist for multiple requests. Great Old Ones are pretty darn persistent, so we’ll create an old_one struct in php_rlyeh.h:

typedef struct _old_one {
    char *name;
    int worshippers;
} old_one;

Now we need to creating a type for it. Near the beginning of php_rlyheh.c, add an int, named anything you want. This integer will hold the numeric type for Great Old Ones.

// traditionally these start with "le_", which stands 
// for "list entry"
int le_old_one;

Now we need to link the le_old_one type up to a destructor. We’ll do this when our module is first loaded, in the magical PHP_MINIT_FUNCTION(rlyeh) function:

// add MINIT to the module description:
zend_module_entry rlyeh_module_entry = {

// add this to php_rlyeh.h
    le_old_one = zend_register_list_destructors_ex(NULL, rlyeh_old_one_pefree, "Great Old One", module_number);

Also, add a line to php_rlyeh.h:


zend_register_list_destructors_ex says, “make a new type for le_old_one. If you have to automatically free something of this type, call rlyeh_old_one_pefree on it.”

Persistent destructors always take a zend_rsrc_list_entry: this is the container PHP holds list entries (which is how we’re storing persistent memory). So, our destructor would look like:

void rlyeh_old_one_pefree(zend_rsrc_list_entry *rsrc TSRMLS_DC) {
    old_one *god = rsrc->ptr;

    // free the char* field, if set
    if (god->name) {
        pefree(god->name, 1);

    pefree(god, 1);

Now we are ready to create some Great Old Ones!

Let’s make a new function: getYig(). If there’s already been an old_one created, it’ll return information about it, otherwise it’ll create a new one.

    zend_rsrc_list_entry *le;
    char *key = "yig";

    if (zend_hash_find(&EG(persistent_list), key, strlen(key)+1, (void**)&le) == FAILURE) {
        // need to create a new god
        zend_rsrc_list_entry nle;
        old_one *yig;

        yig = (old_one*)pemalloc(sizeof(old_one), 1);
        yig->name = pestrdup("Yig", 1);
        yig->worshippers = 4;

        php_printf("creating a new godn");

        nle.ptr = yig;
        nle.type = le_old_one;
        nle.refcount = 1;

        zend_hash_update(&EG(persistent_list), key, strlen(key)+1, (void*)&nle, sizeof(zend_rsrc_list_entry), NULL);
    else {
        old_one *god = le->ptr;

        php_printf("fetched %s: %d worshippersn", god->name, god->worshippers);

Note that zend_hash_update and zend_hash_find take the key length + 1. The PHP API is a bit inconsistent about this: the best way to figure out if a function takes length or length+1 is to look at the source or find an example of it being used in another extension.

If you have a web server set up, add your extension to the php.ini it’s using (warning: this is probably a different php.ini than the command-line client uses). Restart it and load a page that calls getYig() a couple of times. The first time you’ll see “creating”, the next times you’ll see “fetched…”.

In the code above, you may notice that we use hash functions (zend_hash_find and zend_hash_add) to manipulate the EG(persistent_list). EG(persistent_list) is actually a HashTable that you can use to store persistent memory. However, the name reveals something that I find interesting about PHP internals: all HashTables (associative arrays) are lists, too (they keep the elements in order and you can access elements by index or key).

And speaking of hashes and lists…


Creating Arrays

branch: array

To create an array or associative array, use array_init().

You can insert new elements to an associative array with one of these functions:

add_assoc_long(zval *zval_p, char *key, long n)
add_assoc_null(zval *zval_p, char *key)
add_assoc_bool(zval *zval_p, char *key, zend_bool b) 
add_assoc_double(zval *zval_p, char *key, double d) 
add_assoc_string(zval *zval_p, char *key, char *str, int duplicate) 
add_assoc_stringl(zval *zval_p, char *key, char *str, int length, int duplicate)
add_assoc_zval(zval *zval_p, char *key, zval *value) 

You can also “push” new elements to the array with related functions:

add_next_index_long(zval *zval_p, long n);
add_next_index_null(zval *zval_p);
add_next_index_bool(zval *zval_p, int b);
add_next_index_resource(zval *zval_p, int r);
add_next_index_double(zval *zval_p, double d);
add_next_index_string(zval *zval_p, const char *str, int duplicate);
add_next_index_stringl(zval *zval_, const char *str, uint length, int duplicate);
add_next_index_zval(zval *zval_p, zval *value);

Let’s use this to fill in the function we started in the zend_parse_parameters function:

  int str_len, i;
  long num;
  char *str;
  zval *arr;

  if (zend_parse_parameters(ZEND_NUM_ARGS() TSRMLS_CC, "lsa", &num, &str, &str_len, &arr) == FAILURE) {

  // sanity check
  if (num  100) {

  for (i=0; i<num; i++) {
    add_next_index_stringl(arr, str, str_len, 1);

If we run this function, we can see that appends strings to the array correctly.

This should output:


Accessing Array Elements

To find an element in an associative array, use one of the zend_hash functions.

PHP_FUNCTION(findMonster) {
  int monster_len;
  char *monster;
  zval *list, **desc;

  if (zend_parse_parameters(ZEND_NUM_ARGS() TSRMLS_CC, "sa", &monster, &monster_len, &list) == FAILURE) {

  if (zend_hash_find(Z_ARRVAL_P(list), monster, monster_len+1, (void**)&desc) == FAILURE) {


Note that the fourth argument is the pointer to a pointer to a pointer. I was skeptical about that for a while, but there it is.

Also, we are using a couple of new macros for setting the return value. These RETURN_type macros just set the return_value we were manipulating directly earlier.

Now, if we run something like:

 "The Toad God",
           "Yig" => "Father of Serpents",
           "Ythogtha" => "The Thing in the Pit");

var_dump(findMonster("Yig", $a));


We’ll get “Father of Serpents”.

There are also a couple other hash functions you’ll probably find useful for your code:

int zend_hash_find(const HashTable *ht, const char *arKey, uint nKeyLength, void **pData);
int zend_hash_add(const HashTable *ht, const char *arKey, uint nKeyLength, void *pData, int pDataSize, void **pDest);
int zend_hash_add(const HashTable *ht, const char *arKey, uint nKeyLength, void *pData, int pDataSize, void **pDest);
int zend_hash_num_elements(const HashTable *ht);
int zend_hash_exists(const HashTable *ht, const char *arKey, uint nKeyLength);

Note that these functions do not add references to array elements. Thus, you should not, for example, do zend_hash_find and then call zval_ptr_dtor on the element found or your array will be in a weird half-freed state and PHP will try to double-free the element when the array is properly destroyed. Therefore, if you want to use an array element outside of the context of the array, you should add a reference to it, first. (We avoid that in the situation above by returning duplicates of the element’s string value.)

Iterating Through Arrays

You can iterate through an array, element by element, but it ain’t pretty. Here’s the standard for-loop you need:

HashTable *hindex = Z_ARRVAL_P(zval_p);
HashPosition pointer;
zval **data;

for(zend_hash_internal_pointer_reset_ex(hindex, &pointer);
    zend_hash_get_current_data_ex(hindex, (void**)&data, &pointer) == SUCCESS;
    zend_hash_move_forward_ex(hindex, &pointer)) {

  char *key;
  uint key_len, key_type;
  ulong index;

  key_type = zend_hash_get_current_key_ex(hindex, &key, &key_len, &index, 0, &pointer);

  switch (key_type) {
    // associative array keys
    php_printf("key: %sn", key);
    // numeric indexes
    php_printf("index: %dn", index);

Now let’s never speak of it again.

Instead, let’s move on to objects!

12 thoughts on “PHP Extensions Made Eldrich: PHP Variables

  1. leak is a built-in-function.
    [root@localhost php537]#  /home/modify/php537/install-debug-zts//bin/php  -r “leak();”[Thu Aug 25 13:42:26 2011]  Script:  ‘-‘/home/modify/php537/src/Zend/zend_builtin_functions.c(1340) :  Freeing 0x08B71AE4 (3 bytes), script=-=== Total 1 memory leaks detected ===


    1. Why do you think it’s a built-in function?  I can’t find it in the manual:, and if I use it without compiling first, I get: PHP Fatal error:  Call to undefined function leak() in Command line code on line 1


  2. Hi, this is Ganesh I am having 3 years of experience as a Dot Net developer and I am certified. I have Knowledge on OOPS Concepts in .NET indepth. After learning Salesforce will be enough to get a good career in IT with good Package? and i crossed Salesforce Training in Chennai website where someone please help me to identify the syllabus covers everything or not??



  3. Hi, this is Ganesh I am having 3 years of experience as a Dot Net developer and I am certified. I have Knowledge on OOPS Concepts in .NET indepth. After learning Salesforce will be enough to get a good career in IT with good Package? and i crossed Salesforce Training in Chennai website where someone please help me to identify the syllabus covers everything or not??



  4. Hi this is Rajesh i am having 3 years of experience as a php developer and i am certified. i have knowledge on OOPS concepts in php but dont know indepth. After learning Dot Net will be enough to get a good career in IT with good package? and i crossed Dot Net training in chennai website where someone please help me to identity the syllabus covers everything or not??

    thanks, Rajesh


  5. Hi this is Rajesh i am having 3 years of experience as a php developer and i am certified. i have knowledge on OOPS concepts in php but dont know indepth. After learning Dot Net will be enough to get a good career in IT with good package? and i crossed Dot Net training in chennai website where someone please help me to identity the syllabus covers everything or not??

    thanks, Rajesh


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