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Python Enhancement Proposals

PEP 688 – Making the buffer protocol accessible in Python

Jelle Zijlstra <jelle.zijlstra at>
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Standards Track
23-Apr-2022, 25-Apr-2022, 06-Oct-2022, 26-Oct-2022
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Table of Contents


This PEP is a historical document. The up-to-date, canonical documentation can now be found at Emulating buffer types.


See PEP 1 for how to propose changes.


This PEP proposes a Python-level API for the buffer protocol, which is currently accessible only to C code. This allows type checkers to evaluate whether objects implement the protocol.


The CPython C API provides a versatile mechanism for accessing the underlying memory of an object—the buffer protocol introduced in PEP 3118. Functions that accept binary data are usually written to handle any object implementing the buffer protocol. For example, at the time of writing, there are around 130 functions in CPython using the Argument Clinic Py_buffer type, which accepts the buffer protocol.

Currently, there is no way for Python code to inspect whether an object supports the buffer protocol. Moreover, the static type system does not provide a type annotation to represent the protocol. This is a common problem when writing type annotations for code that accepts generic buffers.

Similarly, it is impossible for a class written in Python to support the buffer protocol. A buffer class in Python would give users the ability to easily wrap a C buffer object, or to test the behavior of an API that consumes the buffer protocol. Granted, this is not a particularly common need. However, there has been a CPython feature request for supporting buffer classes written in Python that has been open since 2012.


Current options

There are two known workarounds for annotating buffer types in the type system, but neither is adequate.

First, the current workaround for buffer types in typeshed is a type alias that lists well-known buffer types in the standard library, such as bytes, bytearray, memoryview, and array.array. This approach works for the standard library, but it does not extend to third-party buffer types.

Second, the documentation for typing.ByteString currently states:

This type represents the types bytes, bytearray, and memoryview of byte sequences.

As a shorthand for this type, bytes can be used to annotate arguments of any of the types mentioned above.

Although this sentence has been in the documentation since 2015, the use of bytes to include these other types is not specified in any of the typing PEPs. Furthermore, this mechanism has a number of problems. It does not include all possible buffer types, and it makes the bytes type ambiguous in type annotations. After all, there are many operations that are valid on bytes objects, but not on memoryview objects, and it is perfectly possible for a function to accept bytes but not memoryview objects. A mypy user reports that this shortcut has caused significant problems for the psycopg project.

Kinds of buffers

The C buffer protocol supports many options, affecting strides, contiguity, and support for writing to the buffer. Some of these options would be useful in the type system. For example, typeshed currently provides separate type aliases for writable and read-only buffers.

However, in the C buffer protocol, most of these options cannot be queried directly on the type object. The only way to figure out whether an object supports a particular flag is to actually ask for the buffer. For some types, such as memoryview, the supported flags depend on the instance. As a result, it would be difficult to represent support for these flags in the type system.


Python-level buffer protocol

We propose to add two Python-level special methods, __buffer__ and __release_buffer__. Python classes that implement these methods are usable as buffers from C code. Conversely, classes implemented in C that support the buffer protocol acquire synthesized methods accessible from Python code.

The __buffer__ method is called to create a buffer from a Python object, for example by the memoryview() constructor. It corresponds to the bf_getbuffer C slot. The Python signature for this method is def __buffer__(self, flags: int, /) -> memoryview: .... The method must return a memoryview object. If the bf_getbuffer slot is invoked on a Python class with a __buffer__ method, the interpreter extracts the underlying Py_buffer from the memoryview returned by the method and returns it to the C caller. Similarly, if Python code calls the __buffer__ method on an instance of a C class that implements bf_getbuffer, the returned buffer is wrapped in a memoryview for consumption by Python code.

The __release_buffer__ method should be called when a caller no longer needs the buffer returned by __buffer__. It corresponds to the bf_releasebuffer C slot. This is an optional part of the buffer protocol. The Python signature for this method is def __release_buffer__(self, buffer: memoryview, /) -> None: .... The buffer to be released is wrapped in a memoryview. When this method is invoked through CPython’s buffer API (for example, through calling memoryview.release on a memoryview returned by __buffer__), the passed memoryview is the same object as was returned by __buffer__. It is also possible to call __release_buffer__ on a C class that implements bf_releasebuffer.

If __release_buffer__ exists on an object, Python code that calls __buffer__ directly on the object must call __release_buffer__ on the same object when it is done with the buffer. Otherwise, resources used by the object may not be reclaimed. Similarly, it is a programming error to call __release_buffer__ without a previous call to __buffer__, or to call it multiple times for a single call to __buffer__. For objects that implement the C buffer protocol, calls to __release_buffer__ where the argument is not a memoryview wrapping the same object will raise an exception. After a valid call to __release_buffer__, the memoryview is invalidated (as if its release() method had been called), and any subsequent calls to __release_buffer__ with the same memoryview will raise an exception. The interpreter will ensure that misuse of the Python API will not break invariants at the C level – for example, it will not cause memory safety violations.


To help implementations of __buffer__, we add inspect.BufferFlags, a subclass of enum.IntFlag. This enum contains all flags defined in the C buffer protocol. For example, inspect.BufferFlags.SIMPLE has the same value as the PyBUF_SIMPLE constant.

We add a new abstract base classes,, which requires the __buffer__ method. This class is intended primarily for use in type annotations:

def need_buffer(b: Buffer) -> memoryview:
    return memoryview(b)

need_buffer(b"xy")  # ok
need_buffer("xy")  # rejected by static type checkers

It can also be used in isinstance and issubclass checks:

>>> from import Buffer
>>> isinstance(b"xy", Buffer)
>>> issubclass(bytes, Buffer)
>>> issubclass(memoryview, Buffer)
>>> isinstance("xy", Buffer)
>>> issubclass(str, Buffer)

In the typeshed stub files, the class should be defined as a Protocol, following the precedent of other simple ABCs in such as or


The following is an example of a Python class that implements the buffer protocol:

import contextlib
import inspect

class MyBuffer:
    def __init__(self, data: bytes): = bytearray(data)
        self.view = None

    def __buffer__(self, flags: int) -> memoryview:
        if flags != inspect.BufferFlags.FULL_RO:
            raise TypeError("Only BufferFlags.FULL_RO supported")
        if self.view is not None:
            raise RuntimeError("Buffer already held")
        self.view = memoryview(
        return self.view

    def __release_buffer__(self, view: memoryview) -> None:
        assert self.view is view  # guaranteed to be true
        self.view = None

    def extend(self, b: bytes) -> None:
        if self.view is not None:
            raise RuntimeError("Cannot extend held buffer")

buffer = MyBuffer(b"capybara")
with memoryview(buffer) as view:
    view[0] = ord("C")

    with contextlib.suppress(RuntimeError):
        buffer.extend(b"!")  # raises RuntimeError

buffer.extend(b"!")  # ok, buffer is no longer held

with memoryview(buffer) as view:
    assert view.tobytes() == b"Capybara!"

Equivalent for older Python versions

New typing features are usually backported to older Python versions in the typing_extensions package. Because the buffer protocol is currently accessible only in C, this PEP cannot be fully implemented in a pure-Python package like typing_extensions. As a temporary workaround, an abstract base class typing_extensions.Buffer will be provided for Python versions that do not have available.

After this PEP is implemented, inheriting from will not be necessary to indicate that an object supports the buffer protocol. However, in older Python versions, it will be necessary to explicitly inherit from typing_extensions.Buffer to indicate to type checkers that a class supports the buffer protocol, since objects supporting the buffer protocol will not have a __buffer__ method. It is expected that this will happen primarily in stub files, because buffer classes are necessarily implemented in C code, which cannot have types defined inline. For runtime uses, the ABC.register API can be used to register buffer classes with typing_extensions.Buffer.

No special meaning for bytes

The special case stating that bytes may be used as a shorthand for other ByteString types will be removed from the typing documentation. With available as an alternative, there will be no good reason to allow bytes as a shorthand. Type checkers currently implementing this behavior should deprecate and eventually remove it.

Backwards Compatibility

__buffer__ and __release_buffer__ attributes

As the runtime changes in this PEP only add new functionality, there are few backwards compatibility concerns.

However, code that uses a __buffer__ or __release_buffer__ attribute for other purposes may be affected. While all dunders are technically reserved for the language, it is still good practice to ensure that a new dunder does not interfere with too much existing code, especially widely used packages. A survey of publicly accessible code found:

  • PyPy supports a __buffer__ method with compatible semantics to those proposed in this PEP. A PyPy core developer expressed his support for this PEP.
  • pyzmq implements a PyPy-compatible __buffer__ method.
  • mpi4py defines a SupportsBuffer protocol that would be equivalent to this PEP’s
  • NumPy used to have an undocumented behavior where it would access a __buffer__ attribute (not method) to get an object’s buffer. This was removed in 2019 for NumPy 1.17. The behavior would have last worked in NumPy 1.16, which only supported Python 3.7 and older. Python 3.7 will have reached its end of life by the time this PEP is expected to be implemented.

Thus, this PEP’s use of the __buffer__ method will improve interoperability with PyPy and not interfere with the current versions of any major Python packages.

No publicly accessible code uses the name __release_buffer__.

Removal of the bytes special case

Separately, the recommendation to remove the special behavior for bytes in type checkers does have a backwards compatibility impact on their users. An experiment with mypy shows that several major open source projects that use it for type checking will see new errors if the bytes promotion is removed. Many of these errors can be fixed by improving the stubs in typeshed, as has already been done for the builtins, binascii, pickle, and re modules. A review of all usage of bytes types in typeshed is in progress. Overall, the change improves type safety and makes the type system more consistent, so we believe the migration cost is worth it.

How to Teach This

We will add notes pointing to in appropriate places in the documentation, such as and the mypy cheat sheet. Type checkers may provide additional pointers in their error messages. For example, when they encounter a buffer object being passed to a function that is annotated to only accept bytes, the error message could include a note suggesting the use of instead.

Reference Implementation

An implementation of this PEP is available in the author’s fork.

Rejected Ideas


An earlier version of this PEP proposed adding a new types.Buffer type with an __instancecheck__ implemented in C so that isinstance() checks can be used to check whether a type implements the buffer protocol. This avoids the complexity of exposing the full buffer protocol to Python code, while still allowing the type system to check for the buffer protocol.

However, that approach does not compose well with the rest of the type system, because types.Buffer would be a nominal type, not a structural one. For example, there would be no way to represent “an object that supports both the buffer protocol and __len__”. With the current proposal, __buffer__ is like any other special method, so a Protocol can be defined combining it with another method.

More generally, no other part of Python works like the proposed types.Buffer. The current proposal is more consistent with the rest of the language, where C-level slots usually have corresponding Python-level special methods.

Keep bytearray compatible with bytes

It has been suggested to remove the special case where memoryview is always compatible with bytes, but keep it for bytearray, because the two types have very similar interfaces. However, several standard library functions (e.g., re.compile, socket.getaddrinfo, and most functions accepting path-like arguments) accept bytes but not bytearray. In most codebases, bytearray is also not a very common type. We prefer to have users spell out accepted types explicitly (or use Protocol from PEP 544 if only a specific set of methods is required). This aspect of the proposal was specifically discussed on the typing-sig mailing list, without any strong disagreement from the typing community.

Distinguish between mutable and immutable buffers

The most frequently used distinction within buffer types is whether or not the buffer is mutable. Some functions accept only mutable buffers (e.g., bytearray, some memoryview objects), others accept all buffers.

An earlier version of this PEP proposed using the presence of the bf_releasebuffer slot to determine whether a buffer type is mutable. This rule holds for most standard library buffer types, but the relationship between mutability and the presence of this slot is not absolute. For example, numpy arrays are mutable but do not have this slot.

The current buffer protocol does not provide any way to reliably determine whether a buffer type represents a mutable or immutable buffer. Therefore, this PEP does not add type system support for this distinction. The question can be revisited in the future if the buffer protocol is enhanced to provide static introspection support. A sketch for such a mechanism exists.


Many people have provided useful feedback on drafts of this PEP. Petr Viktorin has been particularly helpful in improving my understanding of the subtleties of the buffer protocol.


Last modified: 2024-02-16 16:11:53 GMT