TL;DR

We’ve added a new API which makes it easy to use the RDKit from programming languages other than C++, Python, Java or C#.

Intro

The majority of the RDKit is written in C++, but we also make wrappers allowing you to use it from other programming languages. The main one of these, and the most complete, is for Python and is written by hand (using Boost::Python). The Java and C# wrappers are generated more or less automatically using SWIG.

Back in 2019 we decided to do a JavaScript (JS) wrapper which follows a slightly different approach: instead of wrapping the whole toolkit the new JS wrappers provide access to a useful subset of RDKit functionality provided as functions. We called this MinimalLib and there’s more information in an earlier blog post.

We’ve now extended MinimalLib and made it useable from any programming language which supports calling into external libraries written in C (often called using a “C Foreign Function Interface”, or CFFI). Since most common programming languages support CFFI, I think this will help bring chemistry to a bunch of other languages.

How it works

This is easiest explained with an example. Since each programming language implements CFFI slightly differently, and I’m not even close to being good at some of the more intersting ones like go, Rust, or Julia, I’ll demonstrate using C itself and sample code adapted from cffi_test.c, one of the files used to test the new interface.

The general pattern when working with rdkit-cffi is to parse a molecule input format to get back a serialized (“pickled”) form of that molecule and then to pass that pickled molecule to other functions which do the chemistry operations you’re interested in.

Parsing molecule formats and operating on molecules

The “hello world” equivalent in cheminformatics is generating canonical SMILES. Here’s a full C program showing how you do that with rdkit-cffi, I will explain the rdkit-cffi functions and how they are used in more detail below:

#include <stdio.h>
#include <string.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include "cffiwrapper.h"

void canon_smiles(){
  char *pkl;
  size_t pkl_size;
  
  pkl = get_mol("c1cc(O)ccc1",&pkl_size,"");
  char *smiles=get_smiles(pkl,pkl_size,NULL);
  printf("Canonical SMILES: %s\n",smiles);
  free(smiles);
  free(pkl);
}

int main(){
  enable_logging();
  printf("hello %s\n",version()); 
  canon_smiles();
  return 0;
}

I compiled this on my linux machine as follows:

% cc -o demo.exe -I $RDBASE/Code demo.c $RDBASE/lib/librdkitcffi.so

Running it produces:

% ./demo.exe
hello 2021.09.1pre
Canonical SMILES: Oc1ccccc1

Let’s look at the rdkit-cffi parts of this, starting with the main() function.

We start by enabling the RDKit’s logging system:

  enable_logging();

If you skip this, you won’t see any of the usual RDKit errors or warnings.

Next we use the version() function to get the version of the RDKit which is being used and then print that out.

With that basic initialization out of the way we call the function canon_smiles(), which is where the real work happens. Here we start by parsing a SMILES using the get_mol() function:

  pkl = get_mol("c1cc(O)ccc1",&pkl_size,"");

get_mol() returns a binary string with the pickled representation of the molecule and uses the pkl_size argument (an integer) to return the length of that string (this is an unfortunately necessary implementation detail). The final argument to get_mol(), the empty string, can be used to pass in an JSON string containing additional arguments controlling the parsing (we could have also passed this argument as NULL). get_mol() currently supports constructing molecules from SMILES (and CXSMILES), Mol/SDF, and the RDKit’s JSON format; it recognized automatically which parser should be used. We will be expanding the list of supported formats in the future.

After we have the molecule processed we can get the canonical SMILES for it by calling the get_smiles() function:

  char *smiles=get_smiles(pkl,pkl_size,NULL);

get_smiles() follows the general pattern for rdkit-cffi functions which operate on molecules: the first two arguments are the pickled molecule and the length of the pickle string, the third argument is a JSON string with additional options to be used when generating the SMILES; in this case we want the defaults, so we pass a NULL pointer (we could also have used the empty string "").

Finally, and not to be overlooked when working in C, we need to free the memory which was allocated to hold the molecule pickle and the SMILES:

  free(smiles);
  free(pkl);

The functions which are available are declared in cffiwrapper.h.

Modifying molecules

Some rdkit-cffi functions modify the molecule. In this case the general pattern is the modify the molecule in place, i.e. to modify the current molecule instead of returning a new one.

Here’s a simple function which parses a SMILES, add Hs to the molecule, generates a 3D conformer using a fixed random seed, and then prints out the molblock for the modified molecule:

void generate_conformer(){
  char *pkl;
  size_t pkl_size;
  
  pkl = get_mol("c1cc(O)ccc1",&pkl_size,NULL);

  add_hs(&pkl,&pkl_size);

  set_3d_coords(&pkl,&pkl_size,"{\"randomSeed\":42}");

  char *molb = get_molblock(pkl,pkl_size,NULL);
  printf("%s\n",molb);
  free(molb);
  free(pkl);
}

We’ve already seen get_mol(). As mentioned above add_hs() modifies the molecule in place, so you need to pass pointers to the pickle string and pickle size so that they can be modifed. set_3d_coords() also modifies the molecule in place to add the conformer. This is also the first time we use the JSON string that most of the functions take as their last argument: here we set the random number seed used in the conformer generation so that we get reproducible results. Finally get_molblock(), like get_smiles(), returns a string with the MOL file data for the molecule. This can be saved to a file and opened in most chemistry software.

An aside about an interesting way rdkit-cffi could be used

The RDKit has a lot of functionality, and covering all of that in the interface exposed by rdkit-cffi is not a goal. We want to provide a useful (hopefully very useful) subset of the functionality for use in other languages. If there’s something you think is missing, please ask about it.

I think you there’s another interesting use case for this though. Suppose you have an idea for some interesting new piece of cheminformatics functionality, and you’d like to work in a language like Rust or Julia but you don’t want to have to deal with all the basic cheminformatics plumbing yourself. rdkit-cffi can really help here. The key functionality for this mode is the get_json() function, which returns an easily parsed JSON representation of the molecule using the RDKit’s extension to the commonchem JSON format.

void json_output(){
  char *pkl;
  size_t pkl_size;
  
  pkl = get_mol("c1cc(O)ccc1",&pkl_size,"");
  char *json=get_json(pkl,pkl_size,NULL);
  printf("%s\n",json);
  free(json);
  free(pkl);
}

The output here (after running through a JSON pretty printer) is:

{
  "commonchem": {
    "version": 10
  },
  "defaults": {
    "atom": {
      "z": 6,
      "impHs": 0,
      "chg": 0,
      "nRad": 0,
      "isotope": 0,
      "stereo": "unspecified"
    },
    "bond": {
      "bo": 1,
      "stereo": "unspecified"
    }
  },
  "molecules": [
    {
      "atoms": [
        {
          "impHs": 1
        },
        {
          "impHs": 1
        },
        {},
        {
          "z": 8,
          "impHs": 1
        },
        {
          "impHs": 1
        },
        {
          "impHs": 1
        },
        {
          "impHs": 1
        }
      ],
      "bonds": [
        {
          "bo": 2,
          "atoms": [0,1]
        },
        {
          "atoms": [1,2]
        },
        {
          "atoms": [2,3]
        },
        {
          "bo": 2,
          "atoms": [2,4]
        },
        {
          "atoms": [4,5]
        },
        {
          "bo": 2,
          "atoms": [5,6]
        },
        {
          "atoms": [6,0]
        }
      ],
      "extensions": [
        {
          "name": "rdkitRepresentation",
          "formatVersion": 1,
          "toolkitVersion": "2021.09.1pre",
          "aromaticAtoms": [0,1,2,4,5,6],
          "aromaticBonds": [0,1,3,4,5,6],
          "atomRings": [[0,6,5,4,2,1]
          ]
        }
      ]
    }
  ]
}

It should be easy to parse this with the JSON parser in any modern programming language, and the format provides all the information you need to reconstruct a molecule in whatever representation you’re using in your language of choice. But you can do it without having to worry about dealing with chemistry perception, ring finding, etc.

Status

The new CFFI interface is currently available on the RDKit master branch. It hasn’t yet been officially released, but I’m publicizing it now because I’d like to try and get people using it and providing feedback and suggestions so that we can get it as polished and useful as possible before the 2021.09 release later this year.

I’ve setup a separate repo in github which has a link to Azure Pipelines to automatically do builds of the CFFI wrappers and make the shared libraries available. The README there also includes links you can use to download the most recent builds for Linux and the Mac (I still need to get the automated Windows builds working). I haven’t figured out how to actually make this easy (unless you have the azure CLI installed, in which case there’s a single command you can execute), so there are a number of clicks needed:

Start by picking the build you want from the README:

Now click the build identifier (this page also has the azure CLI command to get the build directly):

Pick the appropriate job:

Click the “1 artifact” link:

now you can actually download the artifact:

sigh I will try to find a way to make this simpler…

Wrapping up

I will likely do another post on rdkit-cffi before the next release, most likely one looking at things like performance (since that’s something I tend to do). In the meantime please let me know if you start using it!