This first edition was written for Lua 5.0. While still largely relevant for later versions, there are some differences.
The fourth edition targets Lua 5.3 and is available at Amazon and other bookstores.
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28.5 – Light Userdata

The userdata that we have been using until now is called full userdata. Lua offers another kind of userdata, called light userdata.

A light userdatum is a value that represents a C pointer (that is, a void * value). Because it is a value, we do not create them (in the same way that we do not create numbers). To put a light userdatum into the stack, we use lua_pushlightuserdata:

    void lua_pushlightuserdata (lua_State *L, void *p);

Despite their common name, light userdata are quite different from full userdata. Light userdata are not buffers, but single pointers. They have no metatables. Like numbers, light userdata do not need to be managed by the garbage collector (and are not).

Some people use light userdata as a cheap alternative to full userdata. This is not a typical use, however. First, with light userdata you have to manage memory by yourself, because they are not subject to garbage collection. Second, despite the name, full userdata are inexpensive, too. They add little overhead compared to a malloc for the given memory size.

The real use of light userdata comes from equality. As a full userdata is an object, it is only equal to itself. A light userdata, on the other hand, represents a C pointer value. As such, it is equal to any userdata that represents the same pointer. Therefore, we can use light userdata to find C objects inside Lua.

As a typical example, suppose we are implementing a binding between Lua and a Window system. In this binding, we use full userdata to represent windows. (Each userdatum may contain the whole window structure or only a pointer to a window created by the system.) When there is an event inside a window (e.g., a mouse click), the system calls a specific callback, identifying the window by its address. To pass the callback to Lua, we must find the userdata that represents the given window. To find this userdata, we can keep a table where the indices are light userdata with the window addresses and the values are the full userdata that represent the windows in Lua. Once we have a window address, we push it into the API stack as a light userdata and use the userdata as an index into that table. (Note that the table should have weak values. Otherwise, those full userdata would never be collected.)