Introducing cpp11armadillo: R and Armadillo integration using the header-only cpp11 R package

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The goal of cpp11armadillo is to provide a novel approach to use the Armadillo C++ library by using the header-only cpp11 R package and to simplify things for the end-user.

The idea is to pass matrices/vectors from R to C++, write pure C++/Armadillo code for the computation, and then export the result back to R with the proper data structures.

This follows from the same goals as cpp11:

  • Enforcing copy-on-write semantics.
  • Improving the safety of using the R API from C++ code.
  • Using UTF-8 strings everywhere.
  • Applying newer C++11 features.
  • Having a more straightforward, simpler implementation.
  • Faster compilation time with lower memory requirements.
  • Growing vectors more efficiently.


You can install the development version of cpp11armadillo like so:


Minimal example

I have provided a package template for RStudio that also works with VS Code.

The idea of this package is to be naive and simple (like me).

From RStudio/VSCode create a new project and run:


Then follow the instructions from the README.

Here is a commented example from the package template:

#include <armadillo.hpp>
#include <cpp11.hpp>
#include <cpp11armadillo.hpp>

using namespace arma;
using namespace cpp11;
using namespace std;

[[cpp11::register]] doubles_matrix<> ols_mat(const doubles_matrix<>& y,
                                             const doubles_matrix<>& x) {
  Mat<double> Y = as_Mat(y);
  Mat<double> X = as_Mat(x);

  Mat<double> XtX = X.t() * X;
  Mat<double> XtX_inv = inv(XtX);
  Mat<double> beta = XtX_inv * X.t() * Y;

  return as_doubles_matrix(beta);

This code:

  1. Includes the Armadillo, cpp11 and cpp11armadillo libraries and allows interfacing C++ with R (i.e., the #include <XYZ.hpp> lines).
  2. Loads the corresponding namespaces (i.e., the using namespace XYZ lines) in order to simplify the notation (i.e., using Mat instead of arma::Mat).
  3. Declares a function ols_mat() that takes inputs from R, does the computation on C++ side, and it can be called from R scripts. The use of const and & are specific to the C++ language and allow to pass data from R to C++ while avoiding copying the data, therefore saving time and memory.
  4. as_Mat() is a C++ template (i.e., a “diplomat” function) that puts R and C++ data types in conversation and facilitates communications between those two. The templates for doubles/integers matrices are provided by cpp11armadillo.
  5. XtX = X.t() * X calculates the product of the transpose of X and X.
  6. inv(XtX) calculates the inverse of XtX.
  7. XtX_inv * X.t() * Y calculates the OLS estimator.
  8. as_doubles_matrix() is another template that takes beta, expressed as a C++ data structure, and converts it to a data structure that cpp11 and R understand.

Certainly, the goal is to use linear algebra. This is a very simple example and you are better-off using the lm() function from R for this particular case.

For other tasks, you are better-off with C++-side computation because C++ can address:

  1. Loops that cannot be easily vectorised because subsequent iterations depend on previous ones.
  2. Recursive functions, or problems which involve calling functions thousands/ millions of times.
  3. The overhead of calling a function in C++ is much lower than in R (and Python).
  4. Problems that require advanced data structures and algorithms that R does not provide.
  5. Through the Standard Template Library (STL), C++ has efficient implementations of many important data structures, from ordered maps to double-ended queues.
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