pyRserve manual

This manual is written in sort of a walk-through-style. All examples can be tried out on the Python command line as you read through it.

Setting up a connection to Rserve

First of all startup Rserve if it is not yet running:

$ R CMD Rserve

If you started it on your local machine (i.e. localhost) without any extra options Rserve should be listening on port 6311 (its default). R puts itself into daemon mode, meaning that your shell comes back, and you have no way to shutdown R via ctrl-C (you need to call kill with it’s process id). However Rserve can be started in debug mode during development. In this mode it’ll print messages to stdout helping you to see whether your connection works etc. To do so Rserve needs to be started like:

$ R CMD Rserve.dbg

Now we can try to connect to it. From the python interpreter import the pyRserve package and by omitting any arguments to the connect() function setup the connection to your locally running Rserve:

$ python
>>> import pyRserve
>>> conn = pyRserve.connect()

To connect to a different location host and port can be specified explicitly:

pyRserve.connect(host='localhost', port=6311)


On some windows versions it might be necessary to always provide ‘localhost’ for connecting to a locally running Rserve instance.

The resulting connection handle can tell you where it is connected to:

>>> conn
<Handle to Rserve on localhost:6311>

The connection will be closed automatically when conn is deleted, or by explicitly calling the close()-method:

>>> conn.close()
>>> conn
<Closed handle to Rserve on localhost:6311>

Running operations on a closed pyRserve connector results in an exception. However a connection can be reopened by calling the connect() method. It reuses the previously given values (or defaults) for host and port:

>>> conn.connect()
<Handle to Rserve on localhost:6311>

To check the status of the connection use:

>>> conn.isClosed


When a remote connection to Rserve should be opened, and pyRserve cannot connect to it, most likely Rserve only listens to it’s own internal network connection. To force Rserve accepting connections from other machines create a file called /etc/Rserv.conf and add at least the following line:

remote enable

Then restart Rserve.

Shutting down Rserve remotely

If you need to shutdown Rserve from your client connection the following command can be called:

>>> conn.shutdown()

String evaluation in R

Having established a connection to Rserve you can run the first commands on it. A valid R command can be executed by making a call to the R name space via the connection’s eval() method, providing a string as argument which contains valid R syntax:

>>> conn.eval('3 + 5')

In this example the string "3 + 5" will be sent to the remote side and evaluated by the R interpreter. The result is then delivered back into a native Python object, a floating point number in this case. As an R expert you are probably aware of the fact that R uses vectors for all numbers internally by default. But why did we receive a single floating point number? The reason is that pyRserve looks at arrays coming from Rserve and converts arrays with only one single item into an atomic value. This behaviour is for convenience reasons only.

There are two ways to override this behaviour so that the result is a real (numpy) array:

  • Apply atomicArray=True to the eval()-method:

    >>> conn.eval('3 + 5', atomicArray=True)
    array([ 8.])

    This behaviour is then valid for one single call.

  • Apply atomicArray=True to the connect()-function to make it the default for all calls to eval():

    conn = pyRserve.connect(atomicArray=True)

    Then calling eval() would return a numpy array in every case:

    >>> conn.eval('3 + 5')
    array([ 8.])

conn.atomicArray will tell you how the connection handles results. This attribute contains the value of the atomicArray kw-argument given to connect. It can also be changed directly for a running connection.

>>> conn.atomicArray
>>> conn.atomicArray = False  # change value

More expression evaluation

Of course also more complex data types can be sent from R to Python, e.g. lists or real arrays. Here are some examples:

>>> conn.eval("list(1, 'otto')")
[1, 'otto']
>>> conn.eval('c(1, 5, 7)')
array([ 1.,  2.])

As demonstrated here R-lists are converted into plain Python lists whereas R-vectors are converted into numpy arrays on the Python side.

To set a variable inside the R namespace do:

>>> conn.eval('aVar <- "abc"')

and to request its value just do:

>>> conn.eval('aVar')

Expression evaluation without expecting a result

In the example above setting a variable in R did not only set the variable but also returned it back to Python:

>>> conn.eval('aVar <- "abc"')

This is usually not something one would expect or need, and especially in the case of very large data this can cause unnecessary network traffic. The solution to this is to either call eval() with another option void=True, or to use conn.voidEval() directly. The following two calls are identical and do not return the string ‘abc’:

>>> conn.eval('aVar <- "abc"', void=True)
>>> conn.voidEval('aVar <- "abc"')

Defining functions and calling them through expression evaluation

It is also possible to create functions inside the R interpreter through the connector’s namespace, or even to execute entire scripts. Basically you can do everything which is possible inside a normal R console:

# create a function and execute it:
>>> conn.voidEval('doubleit <- function(x) { x*2 }')
>>> conn.eval('doubleit(2)')

# store a mini script definition in a Python string ...
>>> my_r_script = '''
squareit <- function(x)
  { x**2 }
# .... and execute it in R:
>>> conn.eval(my_r_script)

The R namespace - setting and accessing variables in a more Pythonic way

Previous sections explained how to set a variable inside R by evaluation a statement in string format:

>>> conn.voidEval('aVar <- "abc"')

This is not very elegant and has limited ways to provide values already stored in Python variables. A much nicer way to do this is by setting the variable name in R as an attribute to a special variable conn.r which points to the namespace in R directly. The following statement does the same thing as the one above, just “more Pythonic”:

>>> conn.r.aVar = "abc"

So of course it is then possible to compute values or copy them from Python variables into R:

>>> conn.r.aVar = some_python_number * 1000.505

To retrieve a variable from R just use it as expected:

>>> print 'A value from R:', conn.r.aVar

In its current implementation pyRserve allows to set and access the following base types:

  • None (NULL)
  • boolean
  • integers (32-bit only)
  • floating point numbers (64 bit only), i.e. doubles
  • complex numbers
  • strings

Furthermore the following containers are supported:

  • lists
  • numpy arrays
  • TaggedList
  • AttrArray
  • TaggedArray

Lists can be nested arbitrarily, containing other lists, numbers, or arrays. TaggedList, AttrArray, and TaggedArray are special containers to handle very R-specific result types. They will be explained further down in the manual.

The following example shows how to assign a python list with mixed data types to an R variable called aList, and then to retrieve it again:

>>> conn.r.aList = [1, 'abcde', numpy.array([1, 2, 3], dtype=int)]
>>> conn.r.aList
[1, 'abcde', array([1, 2, 3])]

Numpy arrays can also contain dimension information which are translated into R matrices when assigned to the R namespace:

>>> arr = numpy.array(range(12))
>>> arr.shape = (3, 4)
>>> conn.r.aMatrix = arr
>>> conn.r('dim(aMatrix)')  # give me the dimension of aMatrix on the R-side
array([3, 4])

The result of the shape information is - in contrast to what one gets from numpy arrays - an array itself. There is nothing special about this, this is just the way R internally deals with that information.

Expression evaluation through the R namespace

Instead of using `conn.eval(‘1+1’) expressions can also be evaluate by making a function call on the R namespace directly. The following calls are producing the same result:

>>> conn.r('1+1')
>>> conn.eval('1+1')

conn.r(‘...’) also accepts the `void-option in case you want to suppress that a result is returned. Again the following three calls are producing the same result:

>>> conn.r('1+1', void=True)
>>> conn.eval('1+1', void=True)
>>> conn.voidEval('1+1')

Calling functions in R

Functions defined in R can be called as if they were a Python methods, declared in the namespace of R.

Before the examples below are usable we need to define a couple of very simple functions within the R namespace: func0() accepts no parameters and returns a fixed string, func1() takes exactly one parameter and funcKKW() takes keyword arguments with default values:

conn.voidEval('func0 <- function() { "hello world" }')
conn.voidEval('func1 <- function(v) { v*2 }')
conn.voidEval('funcKW <- function(a1=1.0, a2=4.0) { list(a1, a2) }')

Now calling R functions is as trivial as calling plain Python functions:

>>> conn.r.func0()
"hello world"
>>> conn.r.func1(5)
>>> conn.r.funcKW(a2=6.0)
[1.0, 6.0]

Of course you can also call functions built-in to R:

>>> conn.r.length([1,2,3])

Getting help with functions

If R is properly installed including its help messages those can be retrieved directly. Also here no surprise - just do it the Python way through the __doc__ attribute:

>>> print conn.r.sapply.__doc__
lapply                 package:base                 R Documentation

Apply a Function over a List or Vector


'lapply' returns a list of the same length as 'X', each element of
which is the result of applying 'FUN' to the corresponding element
of 'X'.

Of course this only works for functions which provide documentation. For all others __doc__ just returns None.

Applying an R function as argument to another function

A typical application in R is to apply a vector to a function, especially via sapply and its brothers (or sisters, depending how how one sees them).

Fortunately this is as easy as you would expect:

>>> conn.voidEval('double <- function(x) { x*2 }')
>>> conn.r.sapply(numpy.array([1, 2, 3]), conn.r.double)
array([ 2.,  4.,  6.])

Here a Python array and a function defined in R are provided as arguments to the R function sapply.

Of course the following attempt to provide a Python function as an argument into R makes no sense:

>>> def double(v): return v*2
>>> conn.r.sapply(array([1, 2, 3]), double)
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
NameError: name 'double' is not defined

This will result in a NameError error because the connector tries to reference the function ‘double’ inside the R namespace. It should be obvious that it is not possible to transfer function implementations from Python to R.

Applying a variable already defined in R to a function

To understand why this is an interesting feature one has to understand how Python and pyRserve works. The following code is pretty inefficient:

>>> conn.r.arr = numpy.array([1, 2, 3])
>>> conn.r.sapply(conn.r.arr, conn.r.double)

To see why it is inefficient it is reproduced here more explicitly, but doing exactly the same thing:

>>> conn.r.arr = numpy.array([1, 2, 3])
>>> arr = conn.r.arr
>>> conn.r.sapply(arr, conn.r.double)

Now it is clear that the value of conn.r.arr is first set inside R, then retrieved back to Python (in the second line) and then again sent back to the sapply function. This is pretty inefficient, it would be much better just to set the array in R and then to refer to conn.r.arr instead of sending it back and forth. Here the “reference” namespace called ref comes into play:

>>> conn.ref.arr
<RVarProxy to variable "arr">

Through conn.ref it is possible to only reference a variable (or a function) in the R namespace without actually bringing it over to Python. Such a reference can then be passed as an argument to every function called from conn.r. So the proper way to make the call above is:

>>> conn.r.arr = numpy.array([1, 2, 3])
>>> conn.r.sapply(conn.ref.arr, conn.r.double)

However it is still possible to retrieve the actual content of a variable proxy through its value() method:

>>> conn.ref.arr.value()
array([1., 2., 3.])

So using conn.ref instead of conn.r primarily returns a reference to the remote variable in the R namespace, instead of its value. Actually we have done that before with the function conn.r.double. This doesn’t return the R function to Python - something which would be pretty useless. Instead only a proxy to the R function is returned:

>>> conn.r.double
<RFuncProxy to function "double">

Actually functions are always returned as proxy references, both in the conn.r and the conn.ref namespace, so conn.r.<function> is the same as conn.ref.<function>.

Using reference to R variables is indeed absolutely necessary for variable content which is not transferable into Python, like special types of R classes, complex data frames etc.

Handling complex result objects from R functions

Some functions in R (especially those doing statistical calculations) return quite complex result objects.

The T-test is such an example. In the R shell you would see something like this (please ignore the silly values applied to the t test):

> t.test(c(1,2,3,1),c(1,6,7,8))

     Welch Two Sample t-test

data:  c(1, 2, 3, 1) and c(1, 6, 7, 8)
t = -2.3054, df = 3.564, p-value = 0.09053
alternative hypothesis: true difference in means is not equal to 0
95 percent confidence interval:
 -8.4926941  0.9926941
sample estimates:
mean of x mean of y
     1.75      5.50

This is what you would get to see directly in your R shell.

Now, how would this convoluted result be transferred into Python objects? For this to be possible pyRserve has defined three special classes that allow for a mapping from R to Python objects. These classes are explained the the following sections. Afterwards - with that knowledge - we have a final look at the result of the t-test again.


The first special type of container is called “TaggedList”. It reflects a list-type object in R where items can be accessed in two ways as shown here (this is now pure R code):

> t <- list(husband="otto", wife="erna", "5th avenue")
> t[1]
[1] "otto"

> t['husband']
[1] "otto"

So items in the list can be either accessed via their index position, or through their “tag”. Please note that the third list item (“5th avenue”) is not tagged, so it can only be accessed via its index number, i.e. t[3] (indexing in R starts at 1 and not at zero as in Python!).

There is no direct match to any standard Python construct for a TaggedList. Python dictionaries do not preserve their elements’ order and also don’t allow for missing keys (which is why an OrderDict also doesn’t help). NamedTuples on the other side would do the job but don’t allow items to be appended or deleted since they are immutable.

The solution was to provide a special class in Python which is called TaggedList. When accessing the list t from the example above you’ll obtain an instance of a TaggedList in Python:

>>> t = conn.eval('list(husband="otto", wife="erna", "5th avenue")')
>>> t
TaggedList(husband='otto', wife='erna', '5th avenue')

This TaggedList instance can be accessed in the same way as its R pendant, except for the fact the indexing is starting at zero in the usual Pythonic way:

>>> t[0]
>>> t['husband']
>>> t[2]
'5th avenue'

To retrieve its data suitable for instantiating another TaggedList on the Python side get its data as a list of tuples. This also demonstrates how a TaggedList can be created directly in Python:

>>> from pyRserve import TaggedList
>>> t.astuples
[('husband', 'otto'), ('wife', 'erna'), (None, '5th avenue')]
>>> new_tagged_list = TaggedList(t.astuples)


TaggedList does not provide the full list API that one would expect, some methods are just to entirely implemented yet. However it is useful enough to retrieve all information obtained out of a R result object.


An AttrArray is simply an normal numpy array, with an additional dictionary attribute called attr. This dicionary is used to store meta data associated to an array retrieved from R.

Let’s create such an AttrArray in R, and transfer it into to the Python side:

>>> conn.voidEval("t <- c(-8.49, 0.99)")
>>> conn.voidEval("attributes(t) <- list(conf.level=0.95)")
>>> conn.r.t
AttrArray([-8.49, 0.99], attr={'conf.level': array([ 0.95])})

To create such an array from Python in R is also possible via:

>>> from pyRserve import AttrArray
>>> conn.r.t =[-8.49, 0.99], {'conf.level': numpy.array([ 0.95])})

Instead of a list argument the new function also accepts a numpy array as well:

>>> conn.r.t =[-8.49, 0.99]), {'conf.level': numpy.array([ 0.95])})


The third special data type provided by pyRserve is the so called TaggedArray. It provides basically the same features as TaggedList above, however the underlying data type is a numpy-Array instead of a Python list. In fact, a TaggedArray is a direct subclass of numpy.ndarray, enhanced with some new features like accessing array cells by name as in TaggedList.

For the moment TaggedArrays only make real sense if they are 1-dimensional, so please do not change its shape. The results would not really be predictable.

To create a TaggedArray on the R side and transfer it to Python type:

>>> res = conn.eval('c(a=1.,b=2.,3.)')
>>> res
TaggedArray([ 1.,  2.,  3.], key=['a', 'b', ''])
>>> res[1]
>>> res['b']

The third element in the array did not obtain a name on the R side, so it is represented by an empty string in the TaggedArray object.

Although TaggedArray``s are normal numpy arrays they loose their tags when further processed in Python, but still present themselves (via ``__repr__) as TaggedArray. This is a current flaw in their implementation.

To create a TaggedArray directly in Python there is a constructor function new() which takes a normal 1-d numpy array as the first argument and a list of tags as the second. Both arguments must match in their size:

>>> from pyRserve import TaggedArray
>>> arr =[1, 2, 3]), ['a', 'b', ''])
>>> arr
TaggedArray([1, 2, 3], key=['a', 'b', ''])

Back to the t-test example

After TaggedList and TaggedArray have been introduced we can now go back to the t-test mentioned before. Let’s make the same call to the test function, this time just from the Python side, and then look at the result. Again there are two ways to call it, one via string evaluation by the R interpreter, one by directly providing native Python parameters. So:

>>> res = conn.eval('t.test(c(1,2,3,1),c(1,6,7,8))')


>>> res = conn.r.test(numpy.array([1,2,3,1]), numpy.array([1,6,7,8]))

does actually the same thing.

Looking at the result we get::
>>> res
 parameter=TaggedArray([ 3.56389482], tags=['df']),
 p.value=0.090532640733331213,[-8.49269413,  0.99269413], attr={'conf.level': array([ 0.95])}),
 estimate=TaggedArray([ 1.75,  5.5 ], tags=['mean of x', 'mean of y']),
 null.value=TaggedArray([ 0.], tags=['difference in means']),
 method='Welch Two Sample t-test','c(1, 2, 3, 1) and c(1, 6, 7, 8)')>

The result is an instance of a TaggedList, containing different types of list items.

So to access e.g. the confidence interval one would type in Python:

>>> res['']
AttrArray([-8.49269413,  0.99269413], attr={'conf.level': array([ 0.95])})

This returns an AttrArray where the confidence level is stored in an attribute called conf.level in the attr-dictionary:

>>> res[''].attr['conf.level']
array([ 0.95])

In the res-result data structure above there are also objects of a container called TaggedArray:

>>> res['estimate']
TaggedArray([ 1.75,  5.5 ], tags=['mean of x', 'mean of y'])
>>> res['estimate'][1]
>>> res['estimate']['mean of y']

Out Of Bounds messages (OOB)

Starting with version 1.7, Rserve allows OOB messages to be sent from R to Rserve clients, i.e. it allows for nested communication during an eval call.

This capability requires to start Rserve with a configuration enabling it, and loading Rserve itself as a library into the server. Both is easily accomplished in a config file (e.g. oob.config) like this:

oob enable
eval library(Rserve)

Then start Rserve using this config file:

R CMD Rserve --RS-conf oob.conf

OOB messaging works by calling self.oobSend or self.oobMessage in R, e.g.:

>>> conn.eval('self.oobSend(1)')

This does nothing but to indicate that it works. For real usefulness, one needs to register a callback that gets called with the sent data and user code as parameters:

>>> def printoobmsg(data, code): print(data, code)
>>> conn.oobCallback = printoobmsg
>>> conn.eval('self.oobSend("foo")')  # user code is 0 per default
<<< foo 0

The other function, self.oobMessage executes the callback and gives its return value to R:

>>> conn.oobCallback = lambda data, code: data**code
>>> conn.voidEval('dc <- self.oobMessage(2, 3)')
>>> conn.r.dc

The user code might be useful to create a callback convention used for switching callbacks based on agreed-upon codes:

>>> C_PRINT = conn.r.C_PRINT = 0
>>> C_ECHO  = conn.r.C_ECHO  = 1
>>> C_STORE = conn.r.C_STORE = 2
>>> store = []
>>> functions = {
...     C_PRINT: lambda data: print('<<<', data),
...     C_ECHO:  lambda data: data,
...     C_STORE: store.append,
... }
>>> def dispatch(data, code):
...     return functions[code](data)
>>> conn.oobCallback = dispatch
>>> conn.eval('self.oobMessage("foo", C_PRINT)')
<<< foo
>>> conn.eval('self.oobMessage("foo", C_ECHO)')
>>> conn.eval('self.oobMessage("foo", C_STORE)')
>>> store
>>> conn.eval('self.oobMessage('foo', 3)')
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
KeyError: 3

An example showing how nesting of OOB messages works

The previous examples were showing the bare application of OOB messages, but the real power of it comes when one understands how messages are getting nested within a eval call.

For that first create an R function which returns progress information during a “complicated” calculation:

>>> r_func = """
... big_job <- function(x)
... {
...     a <- x*2
...     self.oobSend('25% done')
...     b <- a * a
...     self.oobSend('50% done')
...     c <- a + b
...     self.oobSend('75% done')
...     d <- c**2
...     self.oobSend('100% done')
...     -1 * d
... }"""
>>> conn.eval(r_func)

Then create a progress report function, register it as a callback and then call the actual R function:

>>> def progress(msg, code): print msg
>>> conn.oobCallback = progress
>>> res = conn.r.big_job(5)
25% done
50% done
75% done
100% done
>>> res