Lua Technical Note 7

Modules & Packages

by Roberto Ierusalimschy


This note describes a simple way to implement modules (also called packages) in Lua. The proposed method provides namespaces, privacy, and some other benefits.

The Problem

Many languages provide mechanisms to organize their space of global names, such as modules in Modula, packages in Java and Perl, and namespaces in C++. Each of these mechanisms has different rules regarding the use of elements declared inside a module, visibility rules, and other details. But all of them provide a basic mechanism to avoid collision among names defined in different libraries. Each library creates its own namespace, and names defined inside this namespace do not interfere with names in other namespaces.

Lua does not provide any explicit mechanism for packages. However, we can easily implement them using the basic mechanisms that the language provides. Actually, there are several ways to do that, and that creates a problem: There is no standard way to write a package in Lua. Moreover, it is up to you to follow the rules; there is neither a fixed way to implement packages, nor fixed operations to manipulate them.


A first solution, used by languages with no support for packages (such as C), is to choose a prefix, and use that prefix for all names in the package. (Lua itself is implemented that way; all its external names start with the prefix lua.) Despite its naivety, this is a quite satisfactory solution (at least it did not stop people from using C in huge projects).

In Lua, a better solution is to implement packages with tables: We only have to put our identifiers as keys in a table, instead of as global variables. The main point here is that we can store functions inside a table, just as any other value. For instance, suppose we are writing a library to manipulate complex numbers. We represent each number as a table, with fields r (real part) and i (imaginary part). To avoid polluting the global namespace, we will declare all our new operations in a table that acts as a new package:

Complex = {}
Complex.i = {r=0, i=1}

function (r, i) return {r=r, i=i} end

function Complex.add (c1, c2)
  return {r=c1.r+c2.r, i=c1.i+c2.i}

function Complex.sub (c1, c2)
  return {r=c1.r-c2.r, i=c1.i-c2.i}

function Complex.mul (c1, c2)
  return {r = c1.r*c2.r - c1.i*c2.i,
          i = c1.r*c2.i + c1.i*c2.r}

function Complex.inv (c)
  local n = c.r^2 + c.i^2
  return {r=c.r/n, i=c.i/n}

With this definition, we can use any complex operation qualifying the operation name, like this:

c = Complex.add(Complex.i,, 20))

The use of tables for packages does not provide exactly the same functionality as provided by real packages. In Lua, we must explicitly put the package name in every function definition. Moreover, a function that calls another function inside the same package must qualify the name of the called function. We can ameliorate those problems using a fixed local name for the package (Public, for instance), and then assigning this local to the final name of the package. Following this guideline, we would write our previous definition like this:

local Public = {}
Complex = Public           -- package name

Public.i = {r=0, i=1}
function (r, i) return {r=r, i=i} end

Whenever a function calls another function inside the same package (or whenever it calls itself recursively), it should access the called function through an upvalue of the local name of the package. For instance:
function Public.div (c1, c2)
  return %Public.mul(c1, %Public.inv(c2))
Following these guidelines, the connection between the two functions does not depend on the package name. Moreover, there is only one place in the whole package where we write the package name.


Usually, all names inside a package are exported; that is, they can be used by any client of the package. Sometimes, however, it is useful to have private names in a package, that is, names that only the package itself can use. A convenient way to do that is to define another local table for the private names in a package. That way, we distribute a package in two tables, one for public and the other for private names. Because we assign the public table to a global variable (the package name), all its components are accessible from the outside. But as we do not assign the private table to any global variable, it remains locked inside the package. To illustrate this technique, let us add to our example a private function that checks whether a value is a valid complex number. Our example now looks like this:

local Public, Private = {}, {}
Complex = Public

function Private.checkComplex (c)
  assert((type(c) == "table") and tonumber(c.r) and tonumber(c.i),
         "bad complex number")

function Public.add (c1, c2)
  return {r=c1.r+c2.r, i=c1.i+c2.i}


So, what are the pros and cons of this approach? All names in a package live in a separate namespace. Each entity in a package is clearly marked as public or private. Moreover, we have real privacy: Private entities are inaccessible outside the package. The main drawback of this approach is its verbosity when accessing other entities inside the same package: Every access needs a prefix (%Public. or %Private.). Despite the verbosity, these accesses are quite efficient; and we can mitigate this verbosity by providing shorter aliases for these two variables (with something like local E, I = Public, Private). There is also the problem that we have to change the prefixes whenever we change the status of a function between public and private. Nevertheless, I like this approach overall. For me, the negative side (its verbosity) is more than paid for by the simplicity of the language. After all, we can implement a quite satisfactory package system without needing any extra feature from the language.

Other Facilities

An obvious benefit of using tables to implement packages is that we can manipulate packages like any other table, and use the whole power of Lua to create extra facilities. There are endless possibilities. Here we will give only a few suggestions.

We do not need to define all public items of a package together. For instance, we can add a new item to our Complex package in a separate chunk:

function Complex.div (c1, c2)
  return %Complex.mul(c1, %Complex.inv(c2))
(But notice that the private part is restricted to one file, which I think is a good thing.) Conversely, we can define more than one package in the same file. All we have to do is to enclose each one inside a do ... end block, so that its Public and Private variables are restricted to that block.

If we are going to use some operations often, we can give them global (or local) names:

add = Complex.add
local i = Complex.i

c1 = add(, 20), i)
Or else, if we do not want to write the whole package name over and over, we can give a shorter local name to the whole package at once:
local C = Complex
c1 = C.add(, 20), C.i)

It is easy to write a function that opens the whole package, putting all its names in the global namespace:

function openpackage (ns)
  for n,v in ns do setglobal(n,v) end
c1 = mul(new(10, 20), i)
If you are afraid of name clashes when opening a package, you can check the name before the assignment:
function openpackage (ns)
  for n,v in ns do
    if getglobal(n) ~= nil then
      error(format("name clash: `%s' is already defined", n))

Because packages themselves are tables, we can even nest packages; that is, we can create a whole package inside another one. However, such facility is seldom necessary.

Typically, when we write a package, we put its whole code in a single file. Then, to open or import a package (that is, to make it available) we just execute that file. For instance, if we have a file complex.lua with the definition of our complex package, the command dofile("complex.lua") will open the package. To avoid waste when a package is loaded multiple times, we can start a package checking whether it is already loaded:

if Complex then return end

local Public, Private = {}, {}
Complex = Public

Now, if you run dofile("complex.lua") when Complex is already defined, the whole file is skipped. (Notice: the new function require, to be available in Lua 4.1, will turn this check obsolete.)

Last update: Mon Aug 12 15:51:10 EST 2002