Hacking Thy Fearful Symmetry

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Journey to Neovim: MessagePack Decoder

September 3, 2015

Recap: I'm playing with a rewrite of Vim-X for neovim. For that to happen, I have to write an encoder and a decoder for MessagePack, the weirdo binary encoding its RPC API is using. Last time, I've dealt with the encoder. This time around, I'm tackling the decoder.

At its core, the decoding is not harder than the encoding -- it's merely the reverse operation. But there is one detail that brings some spice to the salsa: whereas for the encoding we have the struct we're operating on from the get go, for the decoding we're not so lucky, and we have to be prepared for a stream of bytes trickling in. And MessagePack encoding doesn't come with a header that tells us how many bytes the incoming structure will have, so we don't know when that stream will be done either.

Mind you, there are several ways to deal with such a streaming input. One way would be to accumulate the incoming data in a buffer and try to decode a struct each time a new byte is added to the head. If we succeed, hurray, if we don't we revert and repeat the process the next time new bytes come in. It'd work, but I'm sure you'll agree it lacks... style.

Sometime much cooler would be to analyse each byte as they come in, and adapt the reader such that it'll treat the next bytes in the right context. For example, if we get a first byte that tells us the structure is an array of 3 elements, then we want the reader to prepare itself for the arrival of 3 new structures, and then put them together in the final array. In effect, we want to implement a state machine. Well, I want, that is. By now, I suspect dread is slowly creeping up your spine, and what you want is to know how dark and deep down the rabbit hole this blog entry will go.

The answer, I'm afraid, is down, down, down all the way to higher function programming.

(that, by the way, is your clue to reach out for the bottle of aspirins, or run away. Your choice)

High level description

So, what do I mean by higher-function programming? I mean that I'll be using functions that, upon reading an upcoming byte, will generate a new function that takes in a subsequent byte, and will output, yes, yet another function that has the same behavior, et cetera until the glorious moment where a structure is finally decoded and will be returned.

Now, let's try to explain that again in a way that makes the room spin slightly less sharply.

Assume that we have a code ref pointing to a function that takes one byte.

my $gen_next = sub { ... };

Assuming that this sub is a reader function as described above, then the next time a byte comes in, we can do

my $subsequent_gen_next = $gen_next->($byte);

Now, if all it took was 2 bytes to get the full structure, $subsequent_gen_next will contain it. If we still need more, then we'll have to continue playing that game a third time:

my $subsubsequent_gen_next = $subsequent_gen_next->($byte);

Of course, we have loops to take care of this. Assuming that the reader functions always return a code ref when more bytes required to decode the structure, and the structure when it's done, then reading a stream amounts to:

use Data::Printer;

my $gen_next = $mysterious_original_sub;

while( my $byte = $stream->read_next ) {
    $gen_next = $gen_next->($byte);

    next if ref $gen_next eq 'CODE';

    say "GOT ONE STRUCT!";
    p $gen_next;
    $gen_next = $mysterious_original_sub;

See? That's not that bad. We just have to figure out what hides behind that $mysterious_original_sub....

Moose says 'High!'

Before diving into the generating functions, let's set the base for the decoder.

package Decoder;

use 5.22.0;

use warnings;

use Moose;

use List::AllUtils qw/ reduce /;
use List::Gather;

use experimental 'signatures';

has buffer => (
    is      => 'rw',
    traits  => [ 'Array' ],
    default => sub { [] },
    handles => {
        has_buffer    => 'count',
        next          => 'shift',
        all           => 'elements',
        add_to_buffer => 'push',

after all => sub($self) {

has gen_next => (
    is =>  'rw',
    clearer => 'clear_gen_next',
    default => sub { 


sub is_gen($val) { ref $val eq 'CODE' and $val }

sub read($self,@values) {

    $self->add_to_buffer( gather {
            reduce {
                my $g = $a->($b);
                is_gen($g) or do { take $$g; gen_new_value() }
            } $self->gen_next => map { ord } map { split '' } @values
    } );


The interface is pretty simple: bytes come in via read(), and as soon as a structure is decode, it get pushed into the buffer. The innards of read() might look scary, but it's just a funky variation on the loop we saw in the previous section. I swear.

Now, for that gen_new_value() function...

High expectations

Following what we said so far, gen_new_value() will generate the function that will process the first byte from a new structure. Which will mostly be "if the byte is in that range, what's coming is a fixed array, so use that piece of code, if the byte is in that other range, what's coming is a fixed integer, so use that other piece of code". Doesn't that sound familiar to what we did in the encoding process? It sure does, so let's use the same tactic here:

sub gen_new_value { 
    sub ($byte) { $MessagePackGenerator->assert_coerce($byte); } 

Fine. But we only delayed the inevitable. What about $MessagePackGenerator?


We'll use pretty much the same technique as in the previous blog entry. But since we know we'll be coercing from bytes, we can simplify a little bit the main type and only require it to be a ref (more specifically, a coderef or a ref to the data structure) instead of a class.

use Types::Standard qw/ Ref /;
use Type::Tiny;

use experimental 'postderef';

my $MessagePackGenerator  = Type::Tiny->new(
    parent => Ref,
    name   => 'MessagePackGenerator',

my @msgpack_types = (
      # name             # range         # generating function
    [ PositiveFixInt => [    0, 0x7f ], \&gen_positive_fixint ],
    [ FixArray       => [ 0x90, 0x9f ], \&gen_fixarray ],
    [ FixMap         => [ 0x80, 0x8f ], \&gen_fixmap ],

$MessagePackGenerator = $MessagePackGenerator->plus_coercions(
    map {
        my( $min, $max ) = $_->[1]->@*;
            parent     => Int,
            name       => $_->[0],
            constraint => sub { $_ >= $min and $_ <= $max },
        ) => $_->[2]  
    } @msgpack_types

Boom. Types are set up. But still, the generation functions are yet to be defined...

High time

Those generation functions are the hardest part of the puzzle. For some types, they are not too bad. For example, the positive fixed int is pretty easy:

sub gen_positive_fixint { \$_  }

(remember, we return a reference to the value instead of the value itself because we need variables of the $MessagePackGenerator type to be references.)

We it get funnier is for types like array:

sub gen_fixarray {
    gen_array( $_ - 0x90 );

sub gen_array($size) {

    return \[] unless $size;

    my @array;

    @array = map { gen_new_value() } 1..$size;

    sub($byte) {
        $_ = $_->($byte) for first { is_gen($_) } @array;

        ( any { is_gen($_) } @array ) ? __SUB__ : \[ map { $$_ } @array ];

The way I implemented gen_array() might be, ah, let's say different. But let me assure you, it's roughly equivalent to the more bening:

sub gen_array($size) {

    return \[] unless $size;

    my @array;
    my $gen = gen_new_value();

    sub($byte) {
        $gen = $gen->($byte);

        unless( is_gen($gen) ) {
            push @array, $gen;

            return \@array if @array == $size;

            $gen = gen_new_value;

        return __SUB__;

The good news is that with gen_array implemented, all other arrays and hashes are only a few lines on top of its core:

sub gen_fixmap {
    gen_map($_ - 0x80);

sub gen_map($size) {
    return \{} unless $size;

    my $gen = gen_array( 2*$size );

    sub($byte) {
        $gen = $gen->($byte);
        is_gen( $gen ) ? __SUB__ : \{ @$$gen };

High ho!

And, guess what, that's all the little pieces that we need.

my $decoder = Decoder->new;
$decoder->read( join '', map { chr } 0x83, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 );

use Data::Printer;
say $decoder->has_buffer;   # will print '1'
p $decoder->next;           # will print { 1 => 2, 3 => 4, 5 => 6} 
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About the author

Yanick Champoux
Perl necrohacker , ACP writer, orchid lover. Slightly bonker all around. he/him/his