PHP Internals Book

Magic interfaces - Comparable

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Magic interfaces - Comparable

Internal interfaces in PHP are very similar to their userland equivalents. The only notable difference is that internal interfaces have the additional possibility of specifying a handler that is executed when the interface is implemented. This feature can be used for various purposes like enforcing additional constraints or replacing handlers. We’ll make use of it to implement a “magic” Comparable interface, which exposes the internal compare_objects handler to userland.

The interface itself will look as follows:

interface Comparable {
    static function compare($left, $right);

First, let’s register this new interface in MINIT:

zend_class_entry *comparable_ce;

ZEND_BEGIN_ARG_INFO_EX(arginfo_comparable, 0, 0, 2)
    ZEND_ARG_INFO(0, obj1)
    ZEND_ARG_INFO(0, obj2)

const zend_function_entry comparable_functions[] = {
        compare, NULL, arginfo_comparable, ZEND_ACC_PUBLIC|ZEND_ACC_ABSTRACT|ZEND_ACC_STATIC

    zend_class_entry tmp_ce;
    INIT_CLASS_ENTRY(tmp_ce, "Comparable", comparable_functions);
    comparable_ce = zend_register_internal_interface(&tmp_ce TSRMLS_CC);

    return SUCCESS;

Note that in this case we can’t use PHP_ABSTRACT_ME, because it does not support static abstract methods. Instead we have to use the low-level ZEND_FENTRY macro.

Next we implement the interface_gets_implemented handler:

static int implement_comparable(zend_class_entry *interface, zend_class_entry *ce TSRMLS_DC)
    if (ce->create_object != NULL) {
        zend_error(E_ERROR, "Comparable interface can only be used on userland classes");

    ce->create_object = comparable_create_object_override;

    return SUCCESS;

// in MINIT
comparable_ce->interface_gets_implemented = implement_comparable;

When the interface is implemented the implement_comparable function will be called. In this function we override the classes create_object handler. To simplify things we only allow the interface to be used when create_object was NULL previously (i.e. it is a “normal” userland class). We could obviously also make this work with arbitrary classes by backing up the old create_object handler somewhere.

In our create_object override we create the object as usual but assign our own handlers structure with a custom compare_objects handler:

static zend_object_handlers comparable_handlers;

static zend_object_value comparable_create_object_override(zend_class_entry *ce TSRMLS_DC)
    zend_object *object;
    zend_object_value retval;

    retval = zend_objects_new(&object, ce TSRMLS_CC);
    object_properties_init(object, ce);

    retval.handlers = &comparable_handlers;

    return retval;

memcpy(&comparable_handlers, zend_get_std_object_handlers(), sizeof(zend_object_handlers));
comparable_handlers.compare_objects = comparable_compare_objects;

Lastly we have to implement the custom comparison handler. It will call the compare method using the zend_call_method_with_2_params macro, which is defined in zend_interfaces.h. One question that arises is which class the method should be called on. For this implementation we’ll simply use the first passed object, though this is just an arbitrary choice. In practice this means that for $left < $right the class of $left will be used, but for $left > $right the class of $right is used (because PHP transforms the > to a < operation).

#include "zend_interfaces.h"

static int comparable_compare_objects(zval *obj1, zval *obj2 TSRMLS_DC)
    zval *retval = NULL;
    int result;

    zend_call_method_with_2_params(NULL, Z_OBJCE_P(obj1), NULL, "compare", &retval, obj1, obj2);

    if (!retval || Z_TYPE_P(retval) == IS_NULL) {
        if (retval) {
        return zend_get_std_object_handlers()->compare_objects(obj1, obj2 TSRMLS_CC);

    result = ZEND_NORMALIZE_BOOL(Z_LVAL_P(retval));

    return result;

The ZEND_NORMALIZE_BOOL macro used above normalizes the returned integer to -1, 0 and 1.

And that’s all it takes. Now we can try out the new interface (sorry if the example doesn’t make particularly much sense):

class Point implements Comparable {
    protected $x, $y, $z;

    public function __construct($x, $y, $z) {
        $this->x = $x; $this->y = $y; $this->z = $z;

    /* We assume a point is smaller/greater if all its components are smaller/greater */
    public static function compare($p1, $p2) {
        if ($p1->x == $p2->x && $p1->y == $p2->y && $p1->z == $p2->z) {
            return 0;

        if ($p1->x < $p2->x && $p1->y < $p2->y && $p1->z < $p2->z) {
            return -1;

        if ($p1->x > $p2->x && $p1->y > $p2->y && $p1->z > $p2->z) {
            return 1;

        // not comparable
        return 1;

$p1 = new Point(1, 1, 1);
$p2 = new Point(2, 2, 2);
$p3 = new Point(1, 0, 2);

var_dump($p1 < $p2, $p1 > $p2, $p1 == $p2); // true, false, false

var_dump($p1 == $p1); // true

var_dump($p1 < $p3, $p1 > $p3, $p1 == $p3); // false, false, false

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