Build & Distribute a Python C Extension Module


Python is a great language for prototyping and building applications. Python is an interpreted language, and it is not compiled. This means that the code is not optimized for the machine it is running on. This is where C comes in.

C is a compiled language, and it is much faster than Python. So, if you want to write a Python module that is fast, you can write it in C and compile it. This is called a C extension module. In this article, we will see how to build and distribute a Python C extension module using wheels.

Building a C extension module

Let's start by creating a simple C extension module called maths. In this, we will create a square function that takes a number and returns its square.

First, create a directory called maths and create a file called maths.c inside it. This is where we will write our C code.

#include <Python.h>

int square(int num) {
    return num * num;

static PyObject *py_square(PyObject *self, PyObject *args) {
  int n_num, result;
  if (!PyArg_ParseTuple(args, "i", &n_num)) {
    return NULL;
  result = square(n_num);

  return Py_BuildValue("i", result);

static PyMethodDef mathsMethods[] = {
  {"square", py_square, METH_VARARGS, "Function for calculating square in C"},

static struct PyModuleDef maths = {
  "Custom maths module",

PyMODINIT_FUNC PyInit_maths(void)
    return PyModule_Create(&maths);

We need to create a file to build our module. This file tells Python how to build our module.

from setuptools import setup, Extension

    ext_modules=[Extension("maths", ["maths.c"])]

Now, we can build our module by running python build. This will create a build directory with a lib directory inside it. This lib directory contains our compiled module. We can import this module in Python and use it.

>>> import maths
>>> maths.square(5)

Instead of testing our module by importing it in Python, we can also test it by running python test. This will run the tests in the test directory. We can create a test directory and create a file called inside it. This is where we will write our tests.

import unittest

import maths

class TestMaths(unittest.TestCase):
    def test_square(self):
        self.assertEqual(maths.square(5), 25)

Distributing a C extension module

Now that we have built our module, we can distribute it. We can distribute it as a source distribution or a binary distribution. A source distribution is a zip file that contains the source code of our module. We can distribute our module as a source distribution by running python sdist. This will create a dist directory with a zip file inside it. This zip file contains our source code.

However, source distribution of C extension modules is not recommended. This is because the user needs to have a C compiler installed on their machine to build the module. Most users just want to pip install the module and use it. So, we need to distribute our module as a binary distribution.

We can use cibuildwheel package to build wheels across all platforms. We can install it by running pip install cibuildwheel.

To build a wheel for a specific platform and a specific architecture, we can run cibuildwheel --platform <platform> --architecture <architecture>. For example, to build a wheel for Linux x86_64, we can run cibuildwheel --platform linux --architecture x86_64. This will create a wheelhouse directory with a wheel file inside it. This wheel file contains our compiled module.

cibuildwheel runs on most CI servers. With proper workflows, we can easily get wheels for all platforms and architectures. We can then upload these wheels to PyPI and users can easily install these wheels.


In this article, we saw how to build and distribute a Python C extension module using wheels. We saw how to build a C extension module and how to distribute it as a binary distribution. We also saw how to use cibuildwheel to build wheels across all platforms and architectures.