4 minute read

Lately I’ve been designing and writting a serialization system for the CUBOS. game engine. I had the following goals in mind:

  • keep it simple: the goal isn’t to implement deep serialization, but to have a ‘predictable’ (de)serializer which would be easy to use but not too hard to develop.
  • make it as generic as possible: serializing to raw binary data, to JSON or to YAML should be the same and require as little extra effort as possible.
  • make it flexible: objects may require extra context to be (de)serialized, and providing this context should be easy.
  • stream agnostic: the (de)serializer shouldn’t care about where the data is coming from/going to.


Making the (de)serializer stream agnostic meant that I needed an abstract stream class, which provided the interface required for reading and writing data. I considered using the C++ STL streams, but I wanted to implement my own streams later on (compressed streams for example) and the STL is too hard/obscure to extend. This plus the fact that implementing a tiny streams library seemed fun pushed me down the I’ll do it myself route.

So, I studied some stream libraries (including STL) and decided that the Stream class should provide the following abstract methods:

  • read(data, size): reads data from the stream, and returns the number of bytes actually read.
  • write(data, size): writes data to the stream, and returns the number of bytes actually written.
  • tell(): returns the current position in the stream.
  • seek(offset, origin): seeks to a position in the stream.
  • eof(): used to check if there’s no more data to read from the stream.
  • peek(): used to read the next byte of the stream without removing it.

Although these methods are technically sufficient and you can perfectly implement a binary serializer with them, any kind of text processing required in, for example, a JSON serializer, would be very painful to implement. To solve this, I wrote some utility methods in the Stream class such as print, printf, parse and readUntil, which called the other abstract methods.

I also wrote two implementations of this Stream class: StdStream and BufferStream. The StdStream is just a wrapper around a FILE* from stdio.h, which allows me to write to files and, for example, stdout, with my streams. The BufferStream is used to write data to/read data from a buffer.


Now that I had streams ready to be used, delving into actual serialization was next. I decided to split the serialization functionality into two classes: Serializer and Deserializer. It doesn’t make sense to serialize and deserialize from the same stream at the same time, and the classes would become too large. Both the Serializer and the Deserializer are associated to a stream when constructed, and write to/read from that stream exclusively.

The Serializer class contains abstract methods for writing trivial types (eg: uint8_t, double), and also strings. The same goes for the Deserializer but for reading instead of writting.

This seems okay, but there’s one problem: this would be sufficient for sequential binary data serialization, but, how would the values be serialized to, for example, JSON?

In order to solve this, I added a name argument to every write function on the Serializer class. This way, I could set names for the fields while serializing. How would you differentiate between diffent objects then? I decided to add a beginObject(name) and a endObject(), both abstract methods. This way, the Serializer knows how to group the values being written into objects. I also added a beginObject() and endObject() to the Deserializer, for consistency.

Still, this approach wasn’t perfect: what if I didn’t know the number of values I would be serializing/deserializing? This would be a problem while trying to deserialize arrays and dictionaries. My solution was to add the beginArray(length, name), endArray(), beginDictionary(length, name) and endDictionary() abstract methods to the Serializer. I added the equivalent methods to the Deserializer, but, instead of passing the length, the length of current array/dictionary is returned. The dictionary ‘mode’ assumes that values will be written in ‘key value’ order.

These new methods allowed me to implement methods such as write(array, length), write(vector), write(map) and the equivalent deserialization methods. Here is an example of how you could use the serializer and deserializer as it is:

Serializer* s = ...;


s->write("John", "name");
s->write(43, "age");
s->write(75.6, "weight");

s->beginDictionary(2, "inventory");

// If you have a std::unordered_map, you also just
// write it directly:
// s->write(map, "inventory");

Deserializer* s = ...;

std::string name;
int age;
double weight;
std::unordered_map<std::string, int> inventory;


Whats next?

In the next post I will write about how I implemented the serialization methods on serializable/deserializable types, and how context is passed to them. We still need to provide an actual Serializer/Deserializer implementation, since right now we have only still defined abstract classes.