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Kotlin/Native as a dynamic library – tutorial

Learn how you can use the Kotlin/Native code from existing native applications or libraries. For this, you need to compile the Kotlin code into a dynamic library, .so, .dylib, and .dll.

Kotlin/Native also has tight integration with Apple technologies. The Kotlin/Native as an Apple Framework tutorial explains how to compile Kotlin code into a framework for Swift and Objective-C.

In this tutorial, you will:

Create a Kotlin library

Kotlin/Native compiler can produce a dynamic library out of the Kotlin code. A dynamic library often comes with a header file, a .h file, which you will use to call the compiled code from C.

The best way to understand these techniques is to try them out. First, create a first tiny Kotlin library and use it from a C program.

Start by creating a library file in Kotlin and save it as hello.kt:

package example object Object { val field = "A" } class Clazz { fun memberFunction(p: Int): ULong = 42UL } fun forIntegers(b: Byte, s: Short, i: UInt, l: Long) { } fun forFloats(f: Float, d: Double) { } fun strings(str: String) : String? { return "That is '$str' from C" } val globalString = "A global String"

While it is possible to use the command line, either directly or by combining it with a script file (such as .sh or .bat file), this approach doesn't scale well for big projects that have hundreds of files and libraries. It is then better to use the Kotlin/Native compiler with a build system, as it helps to download and cache the Kotlin/Native compiler binaries and libraries with transitive dependencies and run the compiler and tests. Kotlin/Native can use the Gradle build system through the kotlin-multiplatform plugin.

We covered the basics of setting up an IDE compatible project with Gradle in the A Basic Kotlin/Native Application tutorial. Please check it out if you are looking for detailed first steps and instructions on how to start a new Kotlin/Native project and open it in IntelliJ IDEA. In this tutorial, we'll look at the advanced C interop related usages of Kotlin/Native and multiplatform builds with Gradle.

First, create a project folder. All the paths in this tutorial will be relative to this folder. Sometimes the missing directories will have to be created before any new files can be added.

Use the following build.gradle(.kts) Gradle build file:

plugins { kotlin("multiplatform") version "1.9.23" } repositories { mavenCentral() } kotlin { linuxX64("native") { // on Linux // macosX64("native") { // on x86_64 macOS // macosArm64("native") { // on Apple Silicon macOS // mingwX64("native") { // on Windows binaries { sharedLib { baseName = "native" // on Linux and macOS // baseName = "libnative" // on Windows } } } } tasks.wrapper { gradleVersion = "8.1.1" distributionType = Wrapper.DistributionType.ALL }
plugins { id 'org.jetbrains.kotlin.multiplatform' version '1.9.23' } repositories { mavenCentral() } kotlin { linuxX64("native") { // on Linux // macosX64("native") { // on x86_64 macOS // macosArm64("native") { // on Apple Silicon macOS // mingwX64("native") { // on Windows binaries { sharedLib { baseName = "native" // on Linux and macOS // baseName = "libnative" // on Windows } } } } wrapper { gradleVersion = "8.1.1" distributionType = "ALL" }

Move the sources file into the src/nativeMain/kotlin folder under the project. This is the default path, for where sources are located, when the kotlin-multiplatform plugin is used. Use the following block to instruct and configure the project to generate a dynamic or shared library:

binaries { sharedLib { baseName = "native" // on Linux and macOS // baseName = "libnative" // on Windows } }

The libnative is used as the library name, the generated header file name prefix. It is also prefixes all declarations in the header file.

Now you can open the project in IntelliJ IDEA and to see how to fix the example project. While doing this, we'll examine how C functions are mapped into Kotlin/Native declarations.

Run the linkNative Gradle task to build the library in the IDE or by calling the following console command:

./gradlew linkNative

The build generates the following files under the build/bin/native/debugShared folder, depending on the host OS:

  • macOS: libnative_api.h and libnative.dylib

  • Linux: libnative_api.h and libnative.so

  • Windows: libnative_api.h, libnative_symbols.def and libnative.dll

The same rules are used by the Kotlin/Native compiler to generate the .h file for all platforms.
Let's check out the C API of our Kotlin library.

Generated headers file

In the libnative_api.h, you'll find the following code. Let's discuss the code in parts to make it easier to understand.

The very first part contains the standard C/C++ header and footer:

#ifndef KONAN_DEMO_H #define KONAN_DEMO_H #ifdef __cplusplus extern "C" { #endif /// THE REST OF THE GENERATED CODE GOES HERE #ifdef __cplusplus } /* extern "C" */ #endif #endif /* KONAN_DEMO_H */

After the rituals in the libnative_api.h, there is a block with the common type definitions:

#ifdef __cplusplus typedef bool libnative_KBoolean; #else typedef _Bool libnative_KBoolean; #endif typedef unsigned short libnative_KChar; typedef signed char libnative_KByte; typedef short libnative_KShort; typedef int libnative_KInt; typedef long long libnative_KLong; typedef unsigned char libnative_KUByte; typedef unsigned short libnative_KUShort; typedef unsigned int libnative_KUInt; typedef unsigned long long libnative_KULong; typedef float libnative_KFloat; typedef double libnative_KDouble; typedef void* libnative_KNativePtr;

Kotlin uses the libnative_ prefix for all declarations in the created libnative_api.h file. Let's present the mapping of the types in a more readable way:

Kotlin Define

C Type


bool or _Bool


unsigned short


signed char






long long


unsigned char


unsigned short


unsigned int


unsigned long long







The definitions part shows how Kotlin primitive types map into C primitive types. The reverse mapping is described in the Mapping primitive data types from C tutorial.

The next part of the libnative_api.h file contains definitions of the types that are used in the library:

struct libnative_KType; typedef struct libnative_KType libnative_KType; typedef struct { libnative_KNativePtr pinned; } libnative_kref_example_Object; typedef struct { libnative_KNativePtr pinned; } libnative_kref_example_Clazz;

The typedef struct { .. } TYPE_NAME syntax is used in C language to declare a structure. This thread on Stackoverflow provides more explanations of that pattern.

As you can see from these definitions, the Kotlin object Object is mapped into libnative_kref_example_Object, and Clazz is mapped into libnative_kref_example_Clazz. Both structs contain nothing but the pinned field with a pointer, the field type libnative_KNativePtr is defined as void* above.

There is no namespaces support in C, so the Kotlin/Native compiler generates long names to avoid any possible clashes with other symbols in the existing native project.

A significant part of the definitions goes in the libnative_api.h file. It includes the definition of our Kotlin/Native library world:

typedef struct { /* Service functions. */ void (*DisposeStablePointer)(libnative_KNativePtr ptr); void (*DisposeString)(const char* string); libnative_KBoolean (*IsInstance)(libnative_KNativePtr ref, const libnative_KType* type); /* User functions. */ struct { struct { struct { void (*forIntegers)(libnative_KByte b, libnative_KShort s, libnative_KUInt i, libnative_KLong l); void (*forFloats)(libnative_KFloat f, libnative_KDouble d); const char* (*strings)(const char* str); const char* (*get_globalString)(); struct { libnative_KType* (*_type)(void); libnative_kref_example_Object (*_instance)(); const char* (*get_field)(libnative_kref_example_Object thiz); } Object; struct { libnative_KType* (*_type)(void); libnative_kref_example_Clazz (*Clazz)(); libnative_KULong (*memberFunction)(libnative_kref_example_Clazz thiz, libnative_KInt p); } Clazz; } example; } root; } kotlin; } libnative_ExportedSymbols;

The code uses anonymous structure declarations. The code struct { .. } foo declares a field in the outer struct of that anonymous structure type, the type with no name.

C does not support objects either. People use function pointers to mimic object semantics. A function pointer is declared as follows RETURN_TYPE (* FIELD_NAME)(PARAMETERS). It is tricky to read, but we should be able to see function pointer fields in the structures above.

Runtime functions

The code reads as follows. You have the libnative_ExportedSymbols structure, which defines all the functions that Kotlin/Native and our library provides us. It uses nested anonymous structures heavily to mimic packages. The libnative_ prefix comes from the library name.

The libnative_ExportedSymbols structure contains several helper functions:

void (*DisposeStablePointer)(libnative_KNativePtr ptr); void (*DisposeString)(const char* string); libnative_KBoolean (*IsInstance)(libnative_KNativePtr ref, const libnative_KType* type);

These functions deal with Kotlin/Native objects. Call the DisposeStablePointer to release a Kotlin object and DisposeString to release a Kotlin String, which has the char* type in C. It is possible to use the IsInstance function to check if a Kotlin type or a libnative_KNativePtr is an instance of another type. The actual set of operations generated depends on the actual usages.

Kotlin/Native has garbage collection, but it does not help us deal with Kotlin objects from the C language. Kotlin/Native has interop with Objective-C and Swift and integrates with their reference counters. The Objective-C Interop documentation article contains more details on it. Also, there is the tutorial Kotlin/Native as an Apple Framework.

Your library functions

Let's take a look at the kotlin.root.example field, it mimics the package structure of our Kotlin code with a kotlin.root. prefix.

There is a kotlin.root.example.Clazz field that represents the Clazz from Kotlin. The Clazz#memberFunction is accessible with the memberFunction field. The only difference is that the memberFunction accepts a this reference as the first parameter. The C language does not support objects, and this is the reason to pass a this pointer explicitly.

There is a constructor in the Clazz field (aka kotlin.root.example.Clazz.Clazz), which is the constructor function to create an instance of the Clazz.

Kotlin object Object is accessible as kotlin.root.example.Object. There is the _instance function to get the only instance of the object.

Properties are translated into functions. The get_ and set_ prefix is used to name the getter and the setter functions respectively. For example, the read-only property globalString from Kotlin is turned into a get_globalString function in C.

Global functions forInts, forFloats, or strings are turned into the functions pointers in the kotlin.root.example anonymous struct.

Entry point

You can see how the API is created. To start with, you need to initialize the libnative_ExportedSymbols structure. Let's take a look at the latest part of the libnative_api.h for this:

extern libnative_ExportedSymbols* libnative_symbols(void);

The function libnative_symbols allows you to open the way from the native code to the Kotlin/Native library. This is the entry point you'll use. The library name is used as a prefix for the function name.

Use generated headers from C

The usage from C is straightforward and uncomplicated. Create a main.c file with the following code:

#include "libnative_api.h" #include "stdio.h" int main(int argc, char** argv) { //obtain reference for calling Kotlin/Native functions libnative_ExportedSymbols* lib = libnative_symbols(); lib->kotlin.root.example.forIntegers(1, 2, 3, 4); lib->kotlin.root.example.forFloats(1.0f, 2.0); //use C and Kotlin/Native strings const char* str = "Hello from Native!"; const char* response = lib->kotlin.root.example.strings(str); printf("in: %s\nout:%s\n", str, response); lib->DisposeString(response); //create Kotlin object instance libnative_kref_example_Clazz newInstance = lib->kotlin.root.example.Clazz.Clazz(); long x = lib->kotlin.root.example.Clazz.memberFunction(newInstance, 42); lib->DisposeStablePointer(newInstance.pinned); printf("DemoClazz returned %ld\n", x); return 0; }

Compile and run the example on Linux and macOS

On macOS 10.13 with Xcode, compile the C code and link it with the dynamic library with the following command:

clang main.c libnative.dylib

On Linux call a similar command:

gcc main.c libnative.so

The compiler generates an executable called a.out. Run it to see in action the Kotlin code being executed from C library. On Linux, you'll need to include . into the LD_LIBRARY_PATH to let the application know to load the libnative.so library from the current folder.

Compile and run the example on Windows

To start with, you'll need a Microsoft Visual C++ compiler installed that supports a x64_64 target. The easiest way to do this is to have a version of Microsoft Visual Studio installed on a Windows machine.

In this example, you'll be using the x64 Native Tools Command Prompt <VERSION> console. You'll see the shortcut to open the console in the start menu. It comes with a Microsoft Visual Studio package.

On Windows, Dynamic libraries are included either via a generated static library wrapper or with manual code, which deals with the LoadLibrary or similar Win32API functions. Follow the first option and generate the static wrapper library for the libnative.dll as described below.

Call lib.exe from the toolchain to generate the static library wrapper libnative.lib that automates the DLL usage from the code:

lib /def:libnative_symbols.def /out:libnative.lib

Now you are ready to compile our main.c into an executable. Include the generated libnative.lib into the build command and start:

cl.exe main.c libnative.lib

The command produces the main.exe file, which you can run.

Next steps

Dynamic libraries are the main way to use Kotlin code from existing programs. You can use them to share your code with many platforms or languages, including JVM, Python, iOS, Android, and others.

Kotlin/Native also has tight integration with Objective-C and Swift. It is covered in the Kotlin/Native as an Apple Framework tutorial.

Last modified: 31 October 2023