[Rd] Why did R 3.0's resolveNativeRoutine remove full-search ability?

Andrew Piskorski atp at piskorski.com
Fri Apr 18 15:55:05 CEST 2014

In versions of R prior to 3.0, by default .C and .Call would find the
requested C function regardless of which shared library it was located
in.  You could use the PACKAGE argument to restrict the search to a
specific library, but doing so was not necessary for it to work.

R 3.0 introduced a significant change to that behavior; from the NEWS

  CHANGES IN R 3.0.0: 
    * A foreign function call (.C() etc) in a package without a PACKAGE 
      argument will only look in the first DLL specified in the 
      NAMESPACE file of the package rather than searching all loaded 
      DLLs.  A few packages needed PACKAGE arguments added. 

That is not merely a performance improvement, it is a significant
change in functionality.  Now, when R code in my package foo tries to
call C code located in bar.so, it fails with a "not resolved from
current namespace (foo)" error.  It works if I change all my uses of
.C and .Call to pass a PACKAGE="bar" argument.  Ok, I can make that
change in my code, no big deal.

What surprises me though, is that there appears to be no way to invoke
the old (and very conventional Unix-style), "I don't want to specify
where the function is located, just keep searching until you find it"
behavior.  Is there really no way to do that, and if so, why not?

Comparing the R sources on the 3.1 vs. 2.15 branches, it looks as if
this is due to some simple changes to resolveNativeRoutine in
"src/main/dotcode.c".  Specifically, the newer code adds this:

   errorcall(call, "\"%s\" not resolved from current namespace (%s)",
             buf, ns);

And removes these lines:

   /* need to continue if the namespace search failed */
   *fun = R_FindSymbol(buf, dll.DLLname, symbol);
   if (*fun) return args;

Is that extra call to R_FindSymbol really all that's necessary to
invoke the old "keep searching" behavior?  Would it be a good idea to
provide an optional way of finding a native routine regardless of
where it's located, perhaps via an optional PACKAGE=NA argument to .C,
.Call, etc.?

And now I see that help(".Call") says:

   'PACKAGE = ""' used to be accepted (but was undocumented): it is 
    now an error. 

I assume passing PACKAGE="" used to invoke the same "keep searching"
behavior as not passing any PACKAGE argument at all.  So apparently
the removal of functionality was intentional.  I'd like to better
understand why.  Why should that be an error?  Or said another way,
why has traditional Unix-style symbol resolution been banned from use
with .C and .Call ?

Andrew Piskorski <atp at piskorski.com>

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