Baby Steps

A blog about programming, and tiny ways to improve it.

Serialization Without Type Information via Impls

My current implementation of the auto-serialization code generator requires full type information. This is a drag. First, macros and syntax extension currently run before the type checker, so requiring full type information prevents the auto-serialization code from being implemented in the compiler, as it should be. At first I wanted to change how the compiler works to provide type information, but after numerous discussions with pcwalton and dherman, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a bad idea: it requires exposing an API for the AST and for type information and introduces numerous other complications.

I’ve come up with an alternative design that seems to solve this problem. It also addresses another concern I had: how do you allow users to customize the (de)-serialization for a given type without forcing them to customize (de)-serialization for all types? One interesting aspect of this plan, though, is that it requires non-hygienic macros.

My basic plan is to allow type declarations to be decorated with a tag like #[auto_serialize], which will look something like this:

type spanned<T> = { node: T, span: span };

Here I have deliberately chosen a generic type declaration to use as my running example because (as we shall see) they are particularly complex. Then a pass will run in the compiler which finds all types annotated with #[auto_serialize] and generates serialization and deserialization code that live alongside the declaration. Let’s look first at serialization and then at deserialization: as we shall see, the solution that we use for serialization doesn’t quite work for deserialization, so we have to handle them slightly differently.


My original concern was, without type information, how do I know how to serialize the contents of the type? After all, all I have is the AST, so I know some names but that’s it. In the case of spanned<T>, for example, I know there are two fields, one with the type T and one with the type span. I can figure out that T is a type parameter, but I don’t know that span is an import of syntax::codemap::span, and I certainly don’t know that syntax::codemap::span is defined as a record itself.

So how do I generate code to serialize a type like T or span without knowing anything about what that type is? It turns out that we have a nice language tool for doing that: ifaces and impls (a.k.a., typeclasses).

So, for spanned<T>, I will generate something like:

impl of serializable<T: serializable> for spanned<T> {
    fn serialize<S: serialization::serializer>(s: S) {
        s.emit_rec {||
            s.emit_rec_field("node", 0u) {||
            s.emit_rec_field("span", 1) {||

You can see that generating this code does not require any information that is external to the type declaration. It just assumes that, for example, there will be a suitable implementation of the serialize() method for the field self.span. Similarly, by parameterizing the impl with the type T and specifying that T must itself be serializable, we can make the same assumption for the field self.node. Pretty nifty.

One very appealing aspect of this is that if I wanted to make custom serialization code for the type span, say, I could just write my own impl for the serialize method. The auto-generated code for serializing spanned<T> would then link to my custom code, no problem. Similarly, I can write custom code that uses auto-generated code without difficulty.


However, this approach does not work for deserialization. After all, we can’t invoke something like data.deserialize(d), as the data is what we are trying to produce!

Therefore, we will generate a different pattern for deserialization. It will look something like this:

fn deserialize_spanned<D: serialization::deserializer,T>
   (d: D, t: fn(D) -> T) -> spanned<T> {

   d.read_rec {||
           node: d.read_rec_field("node", 0u) {|| t() },
           span: d.read_rec_field("span", 1u) {|| deserialize_span(d) }

Here, we generate a deserialize_X() function where X is the (unqualified) name of the type being deserialized. The number of arguments expected by this deserialize_X() function varies: the first argument is always a deserializer, but then there are additional arguments for any type arguments. These parameters are dealt with implicitly when using ifaces and impls, but since that machinery won’t work for us we have to thread it through manually now.

More interesting than the case of the field node, actually, is the field span: here, we don’t even try resolve the identifier, we just generate a dangling reference to a function deserialize_span() and we assume that the user has either imported this function or defined it locally. This is where the lack of hygiene is required.

Some other cases that don’t appear here:

  • if the type of a field is a path like a::b::c, then we generate a call to a function like a::b::deserialize_c(d).

  • if the type of a field is parameterized, like spanned<item_>, then we generate a call like deserialize_spanned(d, {|| deserialize_item_(d) }), where the sugared closure {||...} represents the code to unpack the type argument.


I am 100% positive people have solved this problem before in a million ways, no doubt including this one. Am I missing something obvious? Also, would it be better to avoid using iface/impl for serialization and just generate functions named serialize_X() just as I do with deserialize_X()? I thought it’d be nice if the serialization were as natural to write as possible, but I guess that if you have to write custom serialization code, you generally need custom deserialization code too, so it doesn’t help so much.