Building an `R` Package and Integrate `C++`

Welcome to my blog on the following topics: speeding up R codes using C++, building packages using R and C++, parallel computing with R and C++. These tools can help with simulations in daily research. There’re also some of my troubleshootings, which might help with future debug.

Speed up R codes using C++

It is well-known that R is vectorized and slow in executing loops. To speed up the execution, C++ can serve as a remedy. The R package Rcpp by Dirk Eddelbuettel et. al. provides nice integration of R and C++.

  1. Installation of Rcpp
    • (On windows) Install Rtools in a folder whose name doesn’t contain spaces or tabs
    • Install package Rcpp
  2. Some Basic Syntax
    • Not reusable functions: Directly write C++ functions in RStudio console using cppFunction(). E.g.
        cppFunction("double foo(double x){return x+1.0;}",depends="RcppArmadillo")
    • Reusable functions: Prepare a C++ file someFile.cpp. Write functions in it. Directly source the file someFile.cpp in RStudio.
    • In C++ files, insert // [[Rcpp::export]] before the declaration of functions that you want to pass to R. Otherwise you cannot call it in R.
    • Functions written in someFile.cpp is only usable in the current R session and cannot be saved. If a new R session is started, we need to source someFile.cpp again
    • Reference: Blog, Gallery, 中文参考
  3. Another useful package: RcppArmadillo. It provides some R-like functions including sampling functions. Reference: click here
  4. One more useful package RcppEigen: click here.
  5. Yes another helpful package RcppNumerical: see here
  6. Some special topics:
    • Passing a C++ function as an argument into another C++ function in Rcpp:
      • To do the “passing” in R console: The data type of the callee is Rcpp::Function or SEXP. And pass the output of this callee to as<double>() before passing it to any local variable. But you can only do the “passing” in R console rather than in the C++ file. Possible to export the caller.
      • To do the “passing” in C++ file by other C++ functions: the data type of this callee is a pointer. Need to declare a new type for the argument. Cannot export the caller.
      • To do the “passing” in both: Seems not easy. By adding //[[Rcpp::export]] before the caller, the type is automatically SEXP. ad hoc Remedy: use a “wrapper” to perform the call in cpp and export the wrapper to R.

Speeding up R codes: other methods

Sometimes a simple improvement suffices.

  1. Parallel computing: with the help of the cluster system in CU, we can use around 30 cores for one task.
  2. Parallel computing & C++: Notice that, C++ functions cannot be paralleled in R unless they are built into an R package. (Please refer to the next section)
  3. Some tricks:
    - C++: Use pointers properly
    - C++: Reduce the number of local variables (declaration and copying are slow in C++)
    - C++: Use pipe operator. For details, IDK…
    - R: Use the Forward-Pipe Operator %>% from package magrittr.
    - R: Vectorize, use apply, etc.

Building packages purely by R

To build an R package, just prepare all source codes and use the pane in RStudio. Reference: click here

Building packages by R and C++

To make your codes distributable and parallelable, it would be a good choice to build a package for it. The following are steps for writing, building and updating a package.

  1. Write a package with Rcpp
    a. Write source .cpp codes
    b. Create a package skeleton: I prefer the following command

    One can also use

      Rcpp.package.skeleton("yourPackageName", cpp_files = c("convolve.cpp"),example=F)

    A folder named yourPackageName will be created in the working directory.
    c. Copy all .cpp and .R source code files to ./src folder directly.
    d. Some notes:

    • The created package includes: DESCRPTION & man folder,  NAMESPACE, src & R folder (which include RcppExport). We only touch the src folder.
    • RcppArmadillo changes C++ data type to R data type, automates DESCRPTION and NAMESPACE (linkingTo etc). If instead one uses Rcpp.package.skeleton, one still needs to modify Depends/Imports and LinkingTo, along with correct NAMESPACE file, makevar in description.
    • Compared to Rcpp, RcppArmadillo will create additional Makevars and files in the src folder. No need to modify them.
    • If the package is built using RStudio pane button, need to add makevar file in ./src (or directly choose package type “with rcpparmadillo”), change the documentation cppFileName.rd in ./man. It is really tedious.
  2. Build the package: execute the following commands in R console
    a. compileAttributes() (to modify the RcppExports.R file)
    b. setwd('./yourPackageName')
    c. devtools::check() (optional)
    d. devtools::build() (create a someName.tar.gz file, that is your package and you can upload it to the cluster or send it to others)

  3. Use the package
    a. Install: there are many ways to install
    • install.packages('someName.tar.gz',repos=NULL,type='source')
    • devtools::install('yourPackageName')
    • setwd('./yourPackageName'); devtools::install()
      b. Load: in R session, run library('yourPackageName')
    • Use ls(package:yourPackageName) to check what functions are loaded from the package
  4. Update the package
    a. Modify codes in ./src
    b. Repeat Step 2: Build the package and Step 3: Use the package

Parallel computing with R and C++

Recall that C++ functions cannot be paralleled in R unless they are built into an R package. Moreover, once the package is ready, we must load it in the parallel computing function foreach(). For example,

foreach(iRep = 1:nRep, .combine = 'c', .packages = c('magrittr','yourPackageName')) %dopar% { someSimulation(iRep) }

Otherwise there will be an error Package not found.


  • Use R3.6.0 for parallel computing with C++
  • install error: install.packages from source gives no functions while devtools::install from folder succeeds: In Windows10, use devtools::install('yourPackageName') instead of from source using someName.tar.gz
  • According to my experience solely, if the package is to be installed into the cluster in CUHK, use the following command: R CMD INSTALL 'someName.tar.gz' --no-lock (directly type it in the console, no need to run R)
  • Note 1: not exit in scope or no matching function: Check data types! It solves 95% of the problems.
  • Note 2: C++ checks typing when you source the file. Make sure data types are properly declared, functions are applied to variables with matching types (functions from different packages may have the same name, but accept different types of arguments), and arithmetic operators are applied to double (if you perform divison on int, the simulation results could be hugely different)
  • Note 3: e.g., std::max(a,b) is different from x.max() where x is a of type arma::mat.

Problems to be solved

  • How to use wrap()

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