java foreign function and memory api - ffm apijava foreign function and memory api - ffm api
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Java Foreign Function & Memory API
(FFM API)

Sven Woltmann
Sven Woltmann
Last update: April 4, 2024

After many years of development as part of Project Panama, the final version of the “Foreign Function & Memory API” was released with Java 22 in March 2024.

In this article, you will find out:

  • What is the Foreign Function & Memory API?
  • What is the difference between FFM API and JNI?
  • How do I call external code with the FFM API?
  • How do you write and read external memory with the FFM API?
  • What do the terms Arena, Memory Segment, Memory Layout and Function Descriptor mean?

You can find the source code for the article in this GitHub repository.

What is the Foreign Function & Memory API?

The Foreign Function & Memory API (FFM API for short) enables Java developers to easily call functions from libraries written in other programming languages (e.g., the standard C library) from within Java.

The FFM API also makes it possible to securely access memory from Java not managed by the JVM, i.e., memory outside the Java heap.

I will show you how this works in the next but one section. First, you should know why the FFM API was developed in the first place.

Difference Between the FFM API and JNI

To access foreign code – i.e., code outside the JVM – Java developers had to use the Java Native Interface (JNI), which has existed since Java 1.1. Anyone who has ever done this knows that it is not a pleasant task:

  • JNI is cumbersome to use: You have to write a lot of Java and C boilerplate code and synchronize it with changes in the native code. Tools have been provided for this, but they only make the task marginally easier.
  • JNI is error-prone: Errors when accessing native memory can easily cause the JVM to crash.
  • JNI is extremely slow.

The FFM API, on the other hand, is:

  • Easy to use, as you will see in the following section. According to the Panama developers, the implementation effort has been reduced by 90% compared to JNI with the modern FFM API.
  • Secure: Access to native memory is managed by so-called arenas, which ensure that memory addresses are valid and throw an exception otherwise (instead of crashing the JVM).
  • Fast: The FFM API is said to be four to five times faster than JNI.

With the finalization of the FFM API by JDK Enhancement Proposal 454, there is no longer any reason to use JNI.

Now we come to the exciting question: How does the FFM API work?

Foreign Function & Memory API – Examples

The new API is best explained using examples. I will first show you a simple example that calls the strlen() function of the standard C library. Next comes a more complex example that calls C’s qsort() function, which in turn calls a Java callback function to compare any two elements.

I will then explain the components of the Foreign Function & Memory API in more detail.

Example 1: strlen() Function of the Standard C Library

Let’s start with a simple example (you can find it in the FFMTestStrlen class in the GitHub repository). The following code uses the standard C library’s strlen() method to calculate the length of the string “Happy Coding!”

Let’s take a look at the definition of this C function:

size_t strlen( const char* str );Code language: C++ (cpp)

The method has one parameter:

  • str – pointer to the null-terminated string to be examined

The return type, size_t, stands for an unsigned integer.

I will first show you the program for calling this method. You can find a short explanation of the individual steps in the comments and a more detailed explanation below the program code.

public class FFMTestStrlen {
  public static void main(String[] args) throws Throwable {
    // 1. Get a linker – the central element for accessing foreign functions
    Linker linker = Linker.nativeLinker();

    // 2. Get a lookup object for commonly used libraries
    SymbolLookup stdlib = linker.defaultLookup();

    // 3. Get the address of the "strlen" function in the C standard library
    MemorySegment strlenAddress = stdlib.find("strlen").orElseThrow();

    // 4. Define the input and output parameters of the "strlen" function
    FunctionDescriptor descriptor =
        FunctionDescriptor.of(ValueLayout.JAVA_LONG, ValueLayout.ADDRESS);

    // 5. Get a handle to the "strlen" function
    MethodHandle strlen = linker.downcallHandle(strlenAddress, descriptor);

    // 6. Get a confined memory area (one that we can close explicitly)
    try (Arena offHeap = Arena.ofConfined()) {

      // 7. Convert the Java String to a C string and store it in off-heap memory
      MemorySegment str = offHeap.allocateFrom("Happy Coding!");

      // 8. Invoke the "strlen" function
      long len = (long) strlen.invoke(str);
      System.out.println("len = " + len);
    }
    // 9. Off-heap memory is deallocated at end of try-with-resources
  }
}
Code language: Java (java)

What exactly happens in this code? (The following numbering refers to the corresponding comments in the source code).

  1. Using the static method Linker.nativeLinker(), we get a linker – the central component that orchestrates access to external functions.
  2. We use Linker.defaultLookup() to obtain a SymbolLookup object, which we can use to retrieve the memory addresses of frequently used library methods. Which libraries these are depends on the operating system and CPU.
  3. Using SymbolLookup.find(...), we ask for the memory address of the “strlib” function. The method returns an Optional<MemorySegment>, which is empty if the method does not exist.
  4. We use a so-called function descriptor to specify the strlib() method’s input and output parameters. The first argument, ValueLayout.JAVA_LONG, defines the return type of the method. The second argument, ValueLayout.ADDRESS, defines the type of the first (and only) method parameter as a memory address (that of the string whose length we want to determine). When calling the native function, the function descriptor will ensure that Java types are properly converted to C types and vice versa.
  5. The method Linker.downcallHandle(...) provides us with a MethodHandle for the method at the specified memory address and the previously defined function descriptor. Method handles are nothing new – they have been around since Java 7.
  6. Arena.ofConfined() provides us with a so-called arena – an object that manages access to native memory – more on this later.
  7. Arena.allocateFrom(...) reserves a native memory block and stores in it the character sequence “Happy Coding!” in UTF-8 format.
  8. With MethodHandle.invoke(...), we call the C strlen() method; we cast the result to a long (the function descriptor defined in step 3 ensures that we can do this).
  9. At the end of the try-with-resources block, Arena.close() is called, and all memory blocks managed by this arena are released.

The Foreign Function & Memory API elements shown here – memory segment, arena, value layout, and function descriptor – are described in more detail in the chapter FFM API Components.

Starting the Sample Program

If you save the source code in the FFMTestStrlen.java file, you can execute it as follows:

$ java FFMTestStrlen.java 
WARNING: A restricted method in java.lang.foreign.Linker has been called
WARNING: java.lang.foreign.Linker::downcallHandle has been called by eu.happycoders.java22.ffm.FFMTestStrlen in an unnamed module
WARNING: Use --enable-native-access=ALL-UNNAMED to avoid a warning for callers in this module
WARNING: Restricted methods will be blocked in a future release unless native access is enabled

len = 13Code language: plaintext (plaintext)

To suppress the warning, you must start the program as follows:

$ java --enable-native-access=ALL-UNNAMED FFMTestStrlen.java
len = 13Code language: plaintext (plaintext)

The string length has been computed correctly!

Example 2: qsort() Function of the Standard C Library

Next, let’s try a more complex example. We want to use the qsort() function to sort an array of integers. To do this, we first need to take a look at the definition of this function:

void qsort( void *ptr, size_t count, size_t size,
            int (*comp)(const void *, const void *) );Code language: C++ (cpp)

The method uses the following parameters:

  • ptr – pointer to the array to be sorted
  • count – number of elements in the array
  • size – size of the individual elements of the array in bytes
  • comp – comparison function that returns a negative integer value if the first argument is smaller than the second, a positive integer value if the first argument is larger than the second, and zero if the arguments are equal

Signature of the comparison function:

int cmp(const void *a, const void *b);Code language: C++ (cpp)

Again, I will first show you the complete program code with comments. I will then explain the new components of this example in more detail.

public class FFMTestQsort {
  public static void main(String[] args) throws Throwable {
    // 1. Get a linker - the central element for accessing foreign functions
    Linker linker = Linker.nativeLinker();

    // 2. Get a lookup object for commonly used libraries
    SymbolLookup stdlib = linker.defaultLookup();

    // 3. Get the address of the "qsort" function in the C standard library
    MemorySegment qsortAddress = stdlib.find("qsort").orElseThrow();

    // 4. Define the input and output parameters of the "qsort" function:
    FunctionDescriptor qsortDescriptor =
        FunctionDescriptor.ofVoid(
            ValueLayout.ADDRESS, 
            ValueLayout.JAVA_LONG,
            ValueLayout.JAVA_LONG,
            ValueLayout.ADDRESS);

    // 5. Get a method handle to the "qsort" function
    MethodHandle qsortHandle = linker.downcallHandle(qsortAddress, qsortDescriptor);

    // 6. Define the input and output parameters of the "compare" function:
    FunctionDescriptor compareDescriptor =
        FunctionDescriptor.of(
            ValueLayout.JAVA_INT,
            ValueLayout.ADDRESS.withTargetLayout(ValueLayout.JAVA_INT),
            ValueLayout.ADDRESS.withTargetLayout(ValueLayout.JAVA_INT));

    // 7. Get a handle to the "compare" function
    MethodHandle compareHandle =
        MethodHandles.lookup()
            .findStatic(FFMTestQsort.class, "compare", compareDescriptor.toMethodType());

    // 8. Get a confined memory area (one that we can close explicitly)
    try (Arena offHeap = Arena.ofConfined()) {
      // 9. Allocate off-heap memory and store unsorted array in it
      int[] unsorted = createUnsortedArray();
      MemorySegment arrayAddress = offHeap.allocateFrom(ValueLayout.JAVA_INT, unsorted);

      // 10. Allocate off-head memory for an "upcall stub" to the comparison function
      MemorySegment compareAddress =
          linker.upcallStub(compareHandle, compareDescriptor, offHeap);

      // 11. Invoke the qsort function
      qsortHandle.invoke(
          arrayAddress, 
          unsorted.length, 
          ValueLayout.JAVA_INT.byteSize(), 
          compareAddress);

      // 12. Read array from off-heap memory
      int[] sorted = arrayAddress.toArray(ValueLayout.JAVA_INT);
      System.out.println("sorted   = " + Arrays.toString(sorted));
    }
    // 13. Off-heap memory is deallocated at end of try-with-resources
  }

  private static int compare(MemorySegment aAddr, MemorySegment bAddr) {
    int a = aAddr.get(ValueLayout.JAVA_INT, 0);
    int b = bAddr.get(ValueLayout.JAVA_INT, 0);
    return Integer.compare(a, b);
  }

  private static int[] createUnsortedArray() {
    ThreadLocalRandom random = ThreadLocalRandom.current();
    int[] unsorted = IntStream.generate(() -> random.nextInt(1000)).limit(10).toArray();
    System.out.println("unsorted = " + Arrays.toString(unsorted));
    return unsorted;
  }
}
Code language: C++ (cpp)

The specifics of this program compared to the previous one:

  • Step 4: For the function descriptor, we use the FunctionDescriptor.ofVoid(…) method since qsort(…) has no return value. We specify the following arguments:
    • ValueLayout.ADDRESS – for the pointer to the array to be sorted
    • ValueLayout.JAVA_LONG – for the number of elements in the array
    • ValueLayout.JAVA_LONG – for the size of the individual array elements
    • ValueLayout.ADDRESS – for the address of the comparison function
  • Step 6: Here, we define a function descriptor for the comparison function: the first argument, ValueLayout.JAVA_INT, specifies the return type; the second and third arguments, ValueLayout.ADDRESS.withTargetLayout(ValueLayout.JAVA_INT) respectively, stands for the memory addresses of two array elements to be compared.
  • Step 7: Here, we generate a method handle for the comparison function.
  • Step 9: Using the Arena.allocateFrom(…) method, we allocate off-heap memory for an integer array and store the passed array in it.
  • Step 10: With Linker.upcallStub(…), we allocate off-heap memory for a so-called “upcall stub” for the comparison function. The C function can later use this stub to call the Java callback method compare(…).
  • Step 11: We specify the address of this stub as the fourth argument when calling the qsort(…) method.

You can find the complete program code in the FFMTestQsort class in the GitHub repository.

Starting the Sample Program

We start the program as follows:

$ java --enable-native-access=ALL-UNNAMED FFMTestQsort.java
unsorted = [696, 788, 659, 413, 933, 143, 93, 200, 736, 300]
sorted   = [93, 143, 200, 300, 413, 659, 696, 736, 788, 933]Code language: plaintext (plaintext)

Our program has successfully sorted ten numbers with qsort().

FFM API Components

Based on the examples, you have become familiar with the essential components of the Foreign Function & Memory API – arena, memory segment, function descriptor, and value layout. In this chapter, I will go into these components in more detail.

Arena

An arena manages access to native memory and ensures that allocated memory blocks are released again and that we do not access memory that has already been released.

There are four types of arenas that we can create using static factory methods of the Arena class:

  • the global arena,
  • automatic arenas, managed by the garbage collector,
  • confined arenas, and
  • shared arenas.

In the following sections, you will learn about the differences between the various types.

Global Arena

There is only one instance of the global arena, which is shared by all application threads. Memory segments allocated in the global arena are only released when the JVM is closed.

You can get the global arena as follows:

Arena arena = Arena.global();Code language: Java (java)

You can’t close the global arena. A call to Arena.global().close() results in an UnsupportedOperationException.

Automatic Arena

Memory segments allocated in an automatic arena are released by the garbage collector as soon as there are no more references to the corresponding MemorySegment objects.

An automatic arena can also be used by all application threads. You create them as follows:

Arena arena = Arena.ofAuto();Code language: Java (java)

Please note that each call to Arena.ofAuto() creates a new automatic arena.

An automatic arena is closed when there are no more references to the arena itself and all memory segments allocated via it. A manual call to Arena.global().close() leads to an UnsupportedOperationException.

Confined Arena

An automatic arena has the disadvantage that the deallocation of the memory segments is not deterministic. It only happens when the garbage collector runs and detects that there are no more references to them.

There are use cases in which we want to decide for ourselves when the memory allocated via an arena is released. There are so-called “confined” arenas for this purpose, as we have also used in the example application.

The memory segments allocated by a confined arena are released when the arena is closed by calling close(). Since the Arena class is auto-closeable, we should create the arena in a try-with-resources block:

try (Arena arena = Arena.ofConfined()) {
  . . .
}Code language: Java (java)

All memory segments allocated within this block are released at the end of the block by an implicit call to arena.close().

Attempting to use an already closed arena leads to an IllegalStateException.

A confined arena may only be used by the thread that created it.

Shared Arena

A shared arena combines the advantages of the confined arena (deterministic lifetime of the memory segments) with the possibility of being used from multiple threads. You create a shared arena as follows:

Arena arena = Arena.ofShared()Code language: Java (java)

A shared arena is closed when any thread calls its close() method. If another thread then attempts to use the arena, an IllegalStateException will be thrown.

MemorySegment

A MemorySegment is an object that describes a contiguous memory area. A memory segment can be allocated in various ways. The Arena class offers the following methods, among others:

  • Arena.allocateFrom(String str)
    allocates a memory segment and stores the given string in it as a UTF-8-encoded byte sequence. We have used this method in the example above.
  • allocate(long byteSize)
    allocates a memory segment of the specified size.
  • allocate(MemoryLayout elementLayout)
    allocate(MemoryLayout elementLayout, long count)
    allocate a memory segment whose size is precisely matched to a certain number (1 in the first variant, count in the second variant) of objects of a particular type (defined by elementLayout). I will describe the MemoryLayout class in the next section.

You can find a complete overview of all methods for allocating memory segments in the JavaDoc documentation of Arena and SegmentAllocator.

MemoryLayout

A MemoryLayout defines the memory structure of a specific type, whereby this type can also be a combination of other types (e.g., an array or struct).

ValueLayout

ValueLayout is a subclass of MemoryLayout that defines how basic data types such as int, long, and double are stored in memory.

In the example, we have used ValueLayout.JAVA_LONG to describe the primitive Java type long and ValueLayout.ADDRESS to describe a memory address of the underlying hardware.

SequenceLayout

A SequenceLayout, also a subclass of MemoryLayout, describes an array of a specific type, whereby this type is, in turn, described by a MemoryLayout. For example, the following code defines an array with ten Java doubles:

MemoryLayout.sequenceLayout(10, ValueLayout.JAVA_DOUBLE);Code language: Java (java)

And the following code defines the memory layout for an array consisting of three arrays of ten integer arrays each:

MemoryLayout.sequenceLayout(3, 
    MemoryLayout.sequenceLayout(10, ValueLayout.JAVA_INT));

StructLayout

A StructLayout, also a subclass of MemoryLayout, describes the memory layout of a struct, i.e., a memory area in which different data types are stored one after the other. The elements of the structs have a name and, in turn, a MemoryLayout. The name is not stored, but it is used to access the struct’s elements.

The following code describes the memory layout for a struct that contains a year, a month, and a day:

MemoryLayout.structLayout(
    ValueLayout.JAVA_SHORT.withName("year"),
    ValueLayout.JAVA_SHORT.withName("month"), 
    ValueLayout.JAVA_SHORT.withName("day"));Code language: Java (java)

A struct can also contain arrays or structs.

FunctionDescriptor

We use FunctionDescriptor to describe the input and output parameters of a native function. When calling a native function via a method handle, the function descriptor ensures that the transferred Java types are converted to the correct C types, and the return value is converted from a C type to the desired Java return type.

The FunctionDescriptor class has two static methods:

  • of(MemoryLayout resLayout, MemoryLayout... argLayouts)
    creates a function descriptor with the return type defined by resLayout and the input types defined by argLayouts.
  • ofVoid(MemoryLayout... argLayouts)
    creates a function descriptor without a return type and with the input types defined by argLayouts.

You have now familiarized yourself with the basic elements of the Foreign Function & Memory API. The following chapter explains how these elements work together to write and read memory areas.

Writing and Reading Memory Segments

In this chapter, you will learn how to write and read the memory area managed by MemorySegment.

We start with a simple example with a ValueLayout, move on to a complicated example with a SequenceLayout, and finally arrive at a very complex example with a combination of SequenceLayout and StructLayout.

MemorySegment and ValueLayout

The following program (class FFMTestInts in the GitHub repo) creates a MemorySegment with 100 Java integers in the global arena, fills it with random numbers using MemorySegment.setAtIndex(...), and then reads out all 100 numbers with MemorySegment.getAtIndex(...):

public class FFMTestInts {
  private static final int COUNT = 100;

  public static void main(String[] args) {
    MemorySegment numbers = Arena.global().allocate(ValueLayout.JAVA_INT, COUNT);

    ThreadLocalRandom random = ThreadLocalRandom.current();
    for (int i = 0; i < COUNT; i++) {
      numbers.setAtIndex(ValueLayout.JAVA_INT, i, random.nextInt());
    }

    for (int i = 0; i < COUNT; i++) {
      int number = numbers.getAtIndex(ValueLayout.JAVA_INT, i);
      System.out.println(number);
    }
  }
}Code language: Java (java)

Now, let’s move on to a slightly more complicated example...

MemorySegment and SequenceLayout

The following code (class FFMTestMultipleArrays) defines a MemoryLayout for an array of integers and allocates four such arrays.

To write the elements of the array, a VarHandle is defined for arrayLayout. The argument PathElement.sequenceElement() indicates that we want to specify the index of the respective element for accessing the array via VarHandle. Finally, we write the array elements with VarHandle.set(...) and specify the segment, the offset (the size of the array layout multiplied by the index of the array we are writing), the index within the array, and the value to be written as arguments.

We could read the values using an analog VarHandle.get(...) method, but I would like to show you another variant: We use MemorySegment.elements(...) to create a stream of memory segments, each of which contains an array. We load the respective array from the memory segment via MemorySegment.toArray(...).

public class FFMTestMultipleArrays {
  private static final int ARRAY_LENGTH = 8;
  private static final int NUMBER_OF_ARRAYS = 4;

  public static void main(String[] args) {
    SequenceLayout arrayLayout = MemoryLayout.sequenceLayout(ARRAY_LENGTH, JAVA_INT);
    VarHandle arrayHandle = arrayLayout.varHandle(PathElement.sequenceElement());

    MemorySegment segment = Arena.global().allocate(arrayLayout, NUMBER_OF_ARRAYS);

    ThreadLocalRandom random = ThreadLocalRandom.current();
    for (int i = 0; i < NUMBER_OF_ARRAYS; i++) {
      long offset = i * arrayLayout.byteSize();
      for (int j = 0; j < ARRAY_LENGTH; j++) {
        arrayHandle.set(segment, offset, j, random.nextInt(0, 1000));
      }
    }

    segment
        .elements(arrayLayout)
        .forEach(
            arraySegment -> {
              int[] array = arraySegment.toArray(JAVA_INT);
              System.out.println(Arrays.toString(array));
            });
  }
}
Code language: Java (java)

Finally, we come to a particularly complicated example...

MemorySegment and StructLayout

The last example (class FFMTestArrayOfStructs) defines a StructLayout, which consists of the components year, month, and day, each of type short.

It also defines a SequenceLayout for an array of date structs.

We then define VarHandles for the Struct elements within the array. We have to specify two path elements in each case: first, the array index and then the respective element name of the structs.

We write the structs via VarHandle.set(...) and specify the segment, the offset 0 (as the memory segment only contains one element, namely the array of structs), the array index, and the value to be written as arguments.

As in the previous example, we want to read the structs via MemorySegment.elements(...). This method provides a stream of memory segments, each of which contains a struct. Finally, we load the elements of the structs via three additional VarHandles for the struct (the previously created VarHandles were for structs within an array and won’t work here).

public class FFMTestArrayOfStructs {
  private static final int ARRAY_LENGTH = 8;

  public static void main(String[] args) {
    StructLayout dateLayout =
        MemoryLayout.structLayout(
            ValueLayout.JAVA_SHORT.withName("year"),
            ValueLayout.JAVA_SHORT.withName("month"),
            ValueLayout.JAVA_SHORT.withName("day"));

    SequenceLayout positionArrayLayout = 
        MemoryLayout.sequenceLayout(ARRAY_LENGTH, dateLayout);

    MemorySegment segment = Arena.global().allocate(positionArrayLayout);
    writeToSegment(segment, positionArrayLayout);
    readFromSegment(segment, dateLayout);
  }

  private static void writeToSegment(
      MemorySegment segment, SequenceLayout positionArrayLayout) {
    VarHandle yearInArrayHandle =
        positionArrayLayout.varHandle(
            PathElement.sequenceElement(), PathElement.groupElement("year"));
    VarHandle monthInArrayHandle =
        positionArrayLayout.varHandle(
            PathElement.sequenceElement(), PathElement.groupElement("month"));
    VarHandle dayInArrayHandle =
        positionArrayLayout.varHandle(
            PathElement.sequenceElement(), PathElement.groupElement("day"));

    ThreadLocalRandom random = ThreadLocalRandom.current();
    for (int i = 0; i < ARRAY_LENGTH; i++) {
      yearInArrayHandle.set(segment, 0, i, (short) random.nextInt(1900, 2100));
      monthInArrayHandle.set(segment, 0, i, (short) random.nextInt(1, 13));
      dayInArrayHandle.set(segment, 0, i, (short) random.nextInt(1, 31));
    }
  }

  private static void readFromSegment(MemorySegment segment, StructLayout dateLayout) {
    VarHandle yearHandle = dateLayout.varHandle(PathElement.groupElement("year"));
    VarHandle monthHandle = dateLayout.varHandle(PathElement.groupElement("month"));
    VarHandle dayHandle = dateLayout.varHandle(PathElement.groupElement("day"));

    segment
        .elements(dateLayout)
        .forEach(
            positionSegment -> {
              int year = (int) yearHandle.get(positionSegment, 0);
              int month = (int) monthHandle.get(positionSegment, 0);
              int day = (int) dayHandle.get(positionSegment, 0);
              System.out.printf("%04d-%02d-%02d\n", year, month, day);
            });
  }
}
Code language: Java (java)

In the GitHub repository, you will find another example, FFMTestArrayOfArrays, which I do not include here as it does not introduce any new concepts.

You have now acquired a solid basic knowledge of arenas, memory segments, memory layouts, and function descriptors. You should now be ready for your first forays into the world of native functions and native memory.

A Brief History of the Foreign Function & Memory API

Finally, in this section, you will find a brief review of the development steps of the FFM API.

The so-called “Foreign Memory Access API” was presented in the incubator stage back in March 2020 in Java 14 (JEP 370).

One year later, the “Foreign Linker API” was introduced in the incubator stage in Java 16 (JEP 389).

In Java 17, the two APIs were merged into the “Foreign Function & Memory API,” and this unified API was presented once again as an incubator version (JEP 412).

In Java 19, the FFM API was promoted to the preview stage (JEP 424).

In Java 22, the API was declared ready for production and finalized in March 2024 after a long development and maturation period (JEP 454).

Conclusion

Most Java developers will rarely need to access native memory or execute native code. Nevertheless, it is helpful to know that this option exists, e.g., to invoke AI libraries written in other languages from Java.

In this article, you have learned the basics. If you want to delve deeper into the matter, I recommend you study JDK Enhancement Proposal 454 and the Project Panama website.

Are you already planning to integrate your first native library? If so, which one? Let me know via the comment function!

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