#codec #data-encoding #binary-encoding #byte #message #binary-data #field-value

no-std bilrost

A compact protobuf-like serializer and deserializer for the Rust Language

11 releases (7 breaking)

new 0.1006.0 Apr 15, 2024
0.1005.1 Apr 6, 2024
0.1004.0 Mar 4, 2024
0.1003.1 Feb 25, 2024
0.0.1 Nov 22, 2023

#233 in Encoding

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Bilrost is an encoding format designed for storing and transmitting structured data, such as in file formats or network protocols. The encoding is binary, and unsuitable for reading directly by humans; however, it does have other other useful properties and advantages. This crate, bilrost, is its first implementation and its first instantiation.

Bilrost is designed with the following goals in mind:

  • A stable encoding format, simple to specify and relatively easy to implement even in other languages
  • Durable encoded data, suitable to retain across many versions of the application that generated it or to transmit between applications that have very different versions[^extensions]
  • Good performance, comparable to what is achievable in encodings with similar design
  • Canonical encoding and distinguished decoding
  • Unintrusive: implementations should be able to efficiently implement encoding and decoding on structs that are similar to or exactly like the structs that would be manually specified, rather than forcing users to use structs code-generated by a tool[^derive-codegen]

[^derive-codegen]: The bilrost Rust library implements encoding and decoding for message types via derive macros. Technically this is generated code, but it does not require extra tooling to generate or commit that code, nor does it have any effect on the definition of the struct!

[^extensions]: Bilrost's design, like protobuf's, is oriented towards versioning by introducing new fields to the encoding (and possibly deprecating old ones) in a way that can still be mutually intelligible by both the old and new versions of the application.

Non-goals include[^lol]:

  • A self-describing format
  • The most compact or compressible format[^octet-aligned]
  • The fastest format[^memcpy-fast]

[^lol]: Also a non-goal, not listed here: a small readme :)

[^octet-aligned]: Bilrost is octet-aligned and does not try to save bytes by stuffing or commingling data between field keys and their values, a practice which can save space but increases complexity and makes distinguished decoding harder and more prone to mistakes in implementation.

[^memcpy-fast]: Many of the decisions made in Bilrost in order to achieve stable representation across versions of an evolving schema, extensibility, and general simplicity sacrifice opportunities for extreme performance. These are deliberate tradeoffs that often preclude the ability to perform fast & branchless encoding similar to what is seen in some other encodings, which are often more similar to directly copying the memory of a struct than to distinctly encoding the value of each field. In exchange schemas are simpler to describe and more portable and the encoded data is more durable.

Bilrost at the encoding level is based upon Protocol Buffers (protobuf) and shares many of its traits, but is incompatible. It is in some ways simpler and less rigid in its specification, and is designed to improve on some of protobuf's deficiencies. In doing so it breaks wire-compatibility with protobuf.

Bilrost (as a specification) strives to provide a superset of the capabilities of protocol buffers while reducing some of the surface area for mistakes and surprises; bilrost (the implementing library) strives to provide access to all of those capabilities with maximum convenience.

bilrost is implemented for the Rust Language. It is a direct fork of prost, and shares many of its performance characteristics. (It is not the fastest possible encoding library, but it is still pretty fast and comes with unique advantages.) Like prost, bilrost can enable writing simple, idiomatic Rust code with derive macros that serialize and deserialize structs from binary data. Unlike prost, bilrost is free from most of the constraints of the protobuf ecosystem and required semantics of protobuf message types. Bilrost (the specification) and this library allow much wider compatibility with existing struct types and their normal semantics. Rather than relying on producing generated code from a protobuf .proto schema definition, bilrost is designed to be easily used "by hand," as a pure enhancement to types the user would already have written rather than as a system that railroads the user into using opinionated and specialized struct types designed only for encoding and decoding.



This readme is the result of a lot of work, and we want it to be good! If anything is unclear or could be improved, please feel free to submit issues or pull requests!

Conceptual overview

Bilrost is an encoding scheme for converting in-memory data structs into plain byte strings and vice versa. It's generally suitable for both network transport and data retained over the long-term. Its encoded data is not human-readable, but it is encoded quite simply. It supports integral and floating point numbers, strings and byte strings, nested messages, and recursively nested messages. All of the above are supported as optional values, repeated values, sets of unique values, and key/value mappings where sensible. With appropriate choices of encodings (which determine the representation), most of these constructs can be nested almost arbitrarily.

Encoded Bilrost data does not include the names of its fields; they are instead assigned numbers agreed upon in advance by the message schema that specifies it. This can make the data much more compact than "schemaless" encodings like JSON, CBOR, etc., without sacrificing its extensibility: new fields can be added, and old fields removed, without necessarily breaking backwards compatibility with older versions of the encoding program. In the typical "expedient" decoding mode, any field not in the message schema is ignored when decoding, so if fields are added or removed over time the fields that remain in common will still be mutually intelligible between the two versions of the schema. In this way, Bilrost is very similar to protobuf. See also: Design philosophy, Comparisons to other encodings, and the Encoding specification.

Bilrost also has the ability to encode and decode data that is guaranteed to be canonically represented: see the section on distinguished decoding.

Design philosophy

Bilrost is designed to be an encoding format that is simple to specify, simple to implement, simple to port across languages and machines, and easy to use correctly.

Schema-ful encoding

It is designed as a data model that has a schema, though it can of course also be used to encode representations of "schemaless" data. There are advantages and disadvantages to this form. The encoded data is significantly smaller, since repetitive names of fields are replaced with surrogate numbers. At the same time, it may be less clear what the data means because the inherent documentation of the fields' names is missing. Schemaless encodings like JSON can be decoded and accessed dynamically as pure data with far simpler, unified decoder implementations, whereas encodings like Bilrost and protobuf require a schema to even be sure of the values.

One argument is that even if fields' names are all specified in the encoding, they are merely low-information documentation that aids guessing or reverse-engineering. They can help diagnose where lost data belongs, or what mystery data means by lightly self-documenting, but the meaning of the data is still determined by the code that emitted it. Data has meaning based on where it is found, and the documentation of that meaning cannot be fully replaced by simply including the names of all the fields in the data.

Once that argument is conceded and a project is committed to maintaining schemas for its encoded data, there are no further distinct disadvantages. Numeric field tags should not be reused after they are deprecated, but neither should field names in a schemaless encoding.

Perhaps the biggest caveat is the simultaneous invention problem. If multiple parties were to implement extensions without communicating with each other they may choose the same tags, which would cause conflicts in the meaning of those fields. Sequential numeric tags are more likely to be chosen in conflict by both parties than names would be. The best way to resolve this is to plan ahead for extensions and encourage potential collaborators to synchronize and choose allocated tags from some range reserved for extensions, or provide space for extensions within the schema that have names or UUIDs.

Non-coercion of data

Bilrost aims to ensure that when a message is decoded without error, all the recognized values in its schema will have the exact value they were encoded with. This means that:

  • For boolean fields, 0 represents false and 1 represents true; if the value 2 is encountered, this is always an error.
  • For numeric fields, out-of-range values are never truncated to fit in a smaller numeric type.
  • In bilrost (this Rust library), floating point values always round trip with the precise bits of their representation. NaN bits and -0.0 are always preserved.
  • If an key appears in a mapping multiple times, the whole message is considered invalid; likewise for values in sets. There should be no room for alternate interpretations of data that keep only the first or last such entry, or that discard information about a set with repeated elements.

Bilrost does not enforce these same constraints for unknown field data; if fields with tags not present in the schema are found in data, it will not be considered canonical but decoding may succeed. Because those fields are discarded, they are also not being coerced into different values so the promise holds.

Designed for canonicity

Bilrost is designed to make several classes of non-canonical states unrepresentable, making detection of non-canonical data far less complex.

The biggest change is that message fields encoded out of order are unrepresentable; in protobuf this has long been an observed behavior for most message types, but has never been promised for a few reasons that are less relevant here (and are discussed below). This increases the complexity of encoding the data only when a "oneof" (set of mutually exclusive fields) has tag numbers that may appear in different places in the ordering of a message's fields; in practice this is quite rare.

The smaller change is that the varint representation that makes up the core of the encoding is designed to guarantee that there can only be a single representation for any given number. This may be marginally more expensive than traditional LEB128 varints, but not by as much as one might think; rapid decoding of LEB128 varints is quite complex, and the biggest optimization for most varints is to take a shortcut when the value is small enough to fit in one byte, the range in which Bilrost's varints encode identically.

Distinguished decoding

In some applications, it's desirable to be able to encode a message in a guaranteed-canonical form, and to be able to decode that message type while distinguishing between canonical and non-canonical encodings. Bilrost can provide this, and does so with less complexity and overhead than many other encodings.

It is possible in bilrost to derive an extended trait, DistinguishedMessage, which provides a distinguished decoding mode. Decoding in distinguished mode comes with an additional canonicity check: the decoding result makes it possible to know whether the decoded message data was canonical. Any message type that can implement distinguished decoding will always encode in its fully canonical form; there is not an alternate encoding mode that is "more canonical".

Formally, when a message type implements DistinguishedMessage, values of the message type are bijective to a subset of all byte strings, each of which is considered to be a canonical encoding for that message value. Each different possible byte string decodes in distinguished mode to a message value that is distinct from the message values decoded from every other such byte string, or will produce an error or non-canonical result when decoded in this mode. If a message is successfully and canonically decoded from a byte string in distinguished mode, is not modified, and is then re-encoded, it will emit the exact same byte string.

For this reason, bilrost will refuse to derive DistinguishedMessage if there are any ignored fields, as they may also participate in the type's equality.

The best proxy of this expectation of an equivalence relation in Rust is the Eq trait, which denotes that there is an equivalence relation between all values of any type that implements it. Therefore, this trait is required of all field and message types in order to implement distinguished decoding in bilrost.

bilrost distinguishes between canonical values of the type in a way that matches the automatically derived implementation of Eq (that is, it matches based on the Eq trait of each constituent field). It is strongly recommended, but not required, that the equality traits be derived automatically. bilrost does not directly rely on the implementation of the type's equality at all; rather, it acts as a contractual guardrail, setting a minimum expectation.

Normal ("expedient") decoding may accept other byte strings as valid encodings of a given value, such as encodings that contain unknown fields or non-canonically encoded values[^noncanon]. Most of the time, this is what is desired.

[^noncanon]: "Non-canonical" value encodings in Bilrost principally include fields that are represented in the encoding even though their value is considered empty. For message types, such as nested messages, it also includes the message representation containing fields with unknown tags.

To support this "exactly 1:1" expectation for distinguished messages, certain types are forbidden and not implemented in disinguished mode, even though they theoretically could be. This primarily includes floating point numbers, which have incompatible equality semantics. In the Bilrost encoding, floating point numbers are represented in their standard IEEE 754 binary format standard to most computers today. This comes with particular rules for equality semantics that are generally uniform across all languages, and which don't form an equivalence relation. "NaN" values are never equal to each other or to themselves.

Canonical order and distinguished representation

Bilrost specifies most of what is required to make these message schemas portable not just across architectures and programs, but to other programming languages as well. There is currently one minor caveat: The sort order of values in Bilrost may matter.

In distinguished decoding mode, canonical data must always be represented with sets and maps having their items in sorted order. When the item type of a set (or the key type of a map) is not a simple type with an already-standardized sorting order (such as an integer or string), the canonical order of the items depends on that type's implementation, and care must be taken to standardize that order in addition to the schema of the message's fields when defining distinguished types.

Floating point values and distinguished decoding

Equivalence relations are also not quite sufficient to describe the desired properties of a distinguished type in Bilrost, either; not only must the values themselves be considered equivalent, they must also encode to the same bytes. When encoding and decoding floating point values, bilrost takes care to preserve even the distinction between +0.0 and -0.0, which are considered to be equal to each other in IEEE 754; this has been a problem for other encodings in the past. Even if it is not always necessary, when a value is encoded in bilrost, decoding that value again is guaranteed to produce the same value with the exact same bits.

For this reason it is not yet considered a good idea to implement distinguished decoding for third-party wrappers for Rust's floating point types that implement Eq and Ord (such as ordered_float and decorum) because they still consider some sets of values that have different bits to be equal. Any future implementation of such a type would have to take special care to unify the encoded representation of any equivalence classes in these types and standardize this in a portable way, which also de facto induces some data loss when round tripping. It is not guaranteed this will ever be considered worthwhile or implemented.

If it is desirable to have a distinguished encoding for the bit-wise representations of a floating point value, it should first be cast to its bits as an unsigned integer and encoded that way. This reduces the surface area for mistakes, and makes it clearer that floating point numbers need special handling in code that cares very much about distinguished representations.

Using the library

Getting started

To use bilrost, we first add it as a dependency in Cargo.toml, either with cargo add bilrost or manually:

bilrost = "0.1006"

Then, we derive bilrost::Message for our struct type:

use bilrost::Message;

#[derive(Debug, PartialEq, Message)]
struct BucketFile {
    name: String,
    shared: bool,
    storage_key: String,

let foo_file = BucketFile {
    name: "foo.txt".to_string(),
    shared: true,
    storage_key: "public/foo.txt".to_string(),

// Encoding data is simple.
let encoded = foo_file.encode_to_vec();
// The encoded data is compact, but not very human-readable.
assert_eq!(encoded, b"\x05\x07foo.txt\x04\x01\x05\x0epublic/foo.txt");

// Decoding data is likewise simple!
let decoded = BucketFile::decode(encoded.as_slice()).unwrap();
assert_eq!(foo_file, decoded);

Later, more fields can be added to that same struct and it will still decode the same data.

# use bilrost::Message;
#[derive(Debug, Default, PartialEq, Message)]
struct BucketFile {
    name: String,
    mime_type: Option<String>,
    size: Option<u64>,
    shared: bool,
    storage_key: String,
    bucket_name: String,

let new_file = BucketFile::decode(
    BucketFile {
        name: "foo.txt".to_string(),
        shared: true,
        storage_key: "public/foo.txt".to_string(),

Crate features

The bilrost crate has several optional features:

  • "std" (default): provides support for HashMap and HashSet.
  • "derive" (default): includes the bilrost-derive crate and re-exports its derive macros. It's unlikely this should ever be disabled if bilrost is used normally.
  • "detailed-errors" (default): the decode error type returned by messages will have more information on the path to the exact field in the decoded data that encountered an error. With this disabled errors are more opaque, but may be smaller and faster.
  • "no-recursion-limit": removes the recursion limit designed to keep data from nesting too deeply.
  • "extended-diagnostics": with a small added dependency, attempts to provide better compile-time diagnostics when derives and derived implementations don't work. Somewhat experimental.
  • "bytestring": provides first-party support for bytestring::Bytestring
  • "hashbrown": provides first-party support for hashbrown::{HashMap, HashSet}
  • "smallvec": provides first-party support for smallvec::SmallVec
  • "thin-vec": provides first-party support for thin-vec::ThinVec
  • "tinyvec": provides first-party support for tinyvec::TinyVec

no_std support

With the "std" feature disabled, bilrost has full no_std support. no_std-compatible hash-maps are still available if desired by enabling the "hashbrown" feature.

To enable no_std support, disable the std features in bilrost (and bilrost-types, if it is used):

bilrost = { version = "0.1006", default-features = false, features = ["derive"] }

Derive macros

We can now import and use its traits and derive macros. The main three are:

  • Message: This is the basic working unit. Derive this for structs to enable encoding and decoding them to and from binary data.
  • Enumeration: This is a derive only, not a trait, which implements support for encoding an enum type with bilrost. The enum must have no fields, and each of its variants will correspond to a different u32 value that will represent it in the encoding.
  • Oneof: This is a trait and derive macro for enumerations representing mutually exclusive fields within a message struct. Each variant must have one field, and each variant must have a unique field tag assigned to it, both within the oneof and within the message of which it is a part. Types with Oneof derived do not have bilrost APIs useful to library users except when they are included in a Message struct.

Deriving Message

The Message trait can be derived to allow encoding just about any struct as a Bilrost message, as long as its fields' types are supported.

If not otherwise specified, fields are tagged sequentially in the order they are specified in the struct, starting with 1.

Tags can also be explicitly specified. If a field's tag is the only attribute provided, the number of the tag can be provided with no ceremony as the only content of the "bilrost" attribute, like #[bilrost(1)]. If other attributes are included, the "tag" attribute must be specified by name; for example, like #[bilrost(tag(1), encoding(fixed))]. The "tag" attribute can also be spelled tag = 1 or tag = "1".

We may skip tags which have been reserved, or where there are gaps between sequentially occurring tag values by specifying the tag number to skip to with the tag attribute on the first field after the gap. The following fields will be tagged sequentially starting from the next number.

When defining message types for interoperation, or when fields are likely to be added, removed, or shuffled, it may be good practice to explicitly specify the tags of all fields in a struct instead, but this is not mandatory.

use bilrost::{Enumeration, Message};

#[derive(Clone, PartialEq, Message)]
struct Person {
    #[bilrost(tag = 1)]
    pub id: String, // tag=1
    // NOTE: Old "name" field has been removed
    // pub name: String,
    // given_name has tag 6
    pub given_name: String,
    // family_name has tag 7
    pub family_name: String,
    // formatted_name has tag 8
    pub formatted_name: String,
    // age has tag 3
    #[bilrost(tag = "3")]
    pub age: u32,
    // height has tag 4
    pub height: u32,
    // gender has tag 5
    pub gender: u32,
    // NOTE: Skip to less commonly occurring fields
    pub name_prefix: String, // has tag 16  (eg. mr/mrs/ms)
    pub name_suffix: String, // has tag 17  (eg. jr/esq)
    pub maiden_name: String, // has tag 18

#[derive(Clone, Copy, Debug, PartialEq, Eq, Enumeration)]
pub enum Gender {
    Unknown = 0,
    Female = 1,
    Male = 2,
    Nonbinary = 3,

Oneof fields

Bilrost messages can have sets of mutually exclusive fields, only one of which may be present at a time. These are represented by enum types where each variant has one field and is assigned a field tag; the Oneof derive macro can then be used to derive an implementation that allow the oneof to be included in a message.

Example message with a oneof
use bilrost::{Message, Oneof};

enum NameOrUUID {
    #[bilrost(tag(3), encoding(plainbytes))]
    UUID([u8; 16]),

struct Widget {
    id: u32,
    #[bilrost(oneof(2, 3))]
    label: Option<NameOrUUID>,
    description: String,

When the oneof is included in a message, it has to be declared with the "oneof" attribute, providing a comma-separated list of all its field tags. (This attribute can also be spelled like oneof = "2, 3".)[^tagranges] It isn't possible for the derive macro to know what those tag numbers are when it runs because it can't have access to the definitions of the field's type, but the list of tags declared in this attribute and the list of tags that the oneof actually has are statically checked for equality at compile time.

use bilrost::{Message, Oneof};

enum Abc {

#[derive(Default, Message)]
struct TagsDontMatch {
    #[bilrost(oneof(1, 2))] // These tags don't match the oneof!
    label: Option<Abc>,

// In older versions of rust, the build may not fail until the message trait is
// actually used somewhere.
let _ = TagsDontMatch::default().encoded_len();

[^tagranges]: The way the full list of tags is specified within the oneof attribute and the reserved_tags attribute is the same: the whole list is comma separated, and each item may be either a single tag number or an inclusive range from minimum to maximum separated with a dash (like 1-5). For both reserved_tags and oneof, the following are all exactly equivalent: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5; 1-5; 4, 5, 1-3

The field tags in the oneof must be unique, both within the oneof itself and within any message containing it. Oneof variants can only contain types that can be nested (so "unpacked" collections cannot be supported). Mechanically, a oneof works exactly the same as if there were an Option<T> field for each of its variants, except at most one of them can be Some.

In the example above, the NameOrUUID oneof must be nested in an Option to enable it to represent the empty state where none of its fields are present. It is also possible to include up to one unit variant in a oneof enum. Any such variant will be used to represent its empty state.

Example of a oneof with an "empty" variant
use bilrost::{Message, Oneof};

enum NameOrUUID {
    #[bilrost(tag(3), encoding(plainbytes))]
    UUID {
        octets: [u8; 16],

struct Widget {
    id: u32,
    #[bilrost(oneof(2, 3))]
    label: NameOrUUID,
    description: String,

When a oneof enum type has the empty variant, it can only be included in a message directly; when it has none, it can only be included nested within an Option.


bilrost message fields and oneof variants can be annotated with an "encoding" attribute that specifies which encoding type is used when encoding and decoding that field's value. bilrost provides several standard encodings which can be used and composed to choose how the field is represented.

# use bilrost::Message;
struct Foo {
    name: String,

Encoding attributes can be specified two ways, either in the form shown above or as a string, like #[bilrost(encoding = "general")]. The value of this attribute specifies a type name, using normal Rust type syntax. The standard encodings are also available and can be addressed explicitly; there is no practical reason to do this, but as a demonstration:

# use bilrost::Message;
struct Bar(
    // This is the same type as "general"
    #[bilrost(encoding = "::bilrost::encoding::General")] String,


Where these encodings' type names are evaluated the standard encodings are made available as aliases, all-lower-cased to ensure that these aliases are unlikely to collide with other type names that are in scope. These standard aliases are:

  • general: the default encoding, suitable for most field types. Delegates encoding of collections (vecs and sets) to unpacked<general> and mapping types to map<general, general>.
  • varint: primitive numeric types and bool, encodes as varint.
  • fixed: fixed-width four- and eight-byte values for integers, floats, and byte arrays. Delegates encoding of collections to unpacked<fixed>
  • plainbytes: encodes byte arrays, Vec<u8>, and Cow<[u8]> as length-delimited values. Delegates encoding of Vec<Vec<u8>> and Vec<Cow<[u8]>> to unpacked<plainbytes>
  • unpacked (unpacked<E = general>): : encodes collections with their values unpacked as zero or more normally encoded fields, one per value. The fields are encoded with the parametrized encoding E, which defaults to general
  • packed (packed<E = general>): encodes collections with their values packed into a single length-delimited value. The values are encoded with the parametrized encoding E, which defaults to general
  • map<KE, VE>: encodes mappings with their keys (encoded with parametrized encoding KE) and values (encoded with VE) packed alternating into a single length-delimited value.

It's possible that more standard encodings may be added in the future, but they will be similarly lower-cased.

Other attributes

There are a few other attributes available inside the "bilrost" attribute:

Reserving tags
  • "reserved_tags": When placed on the message itself, this declares that the given tags and tag ranges[^tagranges] are not used in the field. This has no effect other than as a compile-time guard; if a field uses a tag that was declared to be reserved the compilation will err.
# use bilrost::Message;
#[bilrost(reserved_tags(2, 6-10, 25))]
struct Foo {
    #[bilrost(tag(5), encoding(general))]
    name: String,
    age: int64, // Oops! Uses tag 6! Compile error
Ignoring fields
  • "ignore": Must be alone, with no tag or other attribute. This causes the field to be ignored by the generated message implementation. If any fields in a message are ignored, it must implement Default to implement Message so there will be a value for those fields to take on when they are created from encoded data.

    Ignored fields are not currently considered compatible with distinguished decoding.

Helper methods
  • "enumeration": If a field is of type u32 or Option<u32>, this causes the message type to have helper methods named after the type that get and set its value as the enumeration type specified by this attribute.
Writing recursive messages
  • "recurses": It is possible to nest messages recursively in bilrost. If they are, the Message traits are currently all always disabled because there is an unresolvable circular dependency of a message type on its own traits:
# use bilrost::Message;
//       ^^^^^^^ the trait `Encoder<Vec<Tree>>` is not implemented for `General`
struct Tree {
    name: String,
    children: Vec<Tree>,

Somewhere along the line, we have to break this circular chain of dependencies. To do that, annotate one of the fields in the chain with the "recurses" attribute and its type will no longer participate in the where clause of the message implementations, the cycle will be broken, and the message can be used:

# use bilrost::Message;
struct Tree {
    name: String,
    children: Vec<Tree>,

Distinguished derive macros

There are two derivable companion traits, DistinguishedMessage and DistinguishedOneof, that implement the extended traits for distinguished decoding when possible. Both messages and oneofs must contain only fields that support distinguished decoding in order to support it themselves. Distinguished encoding requires Eq be implemented for each field, oneof, and message type; the trait is not used directly, but is trivial to derive for any compatible type.

Encoding and decoding messages

There are a variety of methods and associated functions available for encoding and decoding data in Message implementations.

The most straightforward ways to encode and decode a message are encode_fast, encode_to_vec, and decode. Methods are available for encoding and decoding messages to and from several types and traits, both with and without prefixed length delimiters. (Length delimiters for encoded messages always take the form of a normal Bilrost varint.)

  • encode_fast, encode_length_delimited_fast: encodes the message into a ReverseBuffer and returns it. See the section on that type for more information. The ..length_delimited.. variant likewise encodes the message then also prefixes the encoded data with its length, such that it's appropriate to be decoded with the corresponding "length_delimited" decoding function.
  • encode_to_vec, encode_to_bytes, and ..length_delimited.. variants: encodes the message into a new vec or bytes and returns that container. This is not quite as efficient as encode_fast, but always produces an encoding that is contiguous in memory.
  • encode, encode_length_delimited: encodes the message into a &mut bytes::BufMut, appending it after any data that is already there.
  • prepend: encodes the message into a &mut bilrost::buf::ReverseBuf, before any data that is already there.
  • decode, decode_length_delimited: decodes the message type from a bytes::Buf. The length-delimited version of the call will consume only as many bytes as the length delimiter (read from the front of the Buf) indicates, while the plain version of the method will attempt to decode the entire contents.
  • replace_from, replace_from_length_delimited: like decode, but rather than returning a Result with a new instance of the message, these are mutating methods that replace the value in an existing instance. If decoding fails, the message will be left with its fields empty.
  • There are also encode_dyn, replace_from_slice, and replace_from_dyn methods for encoding and decoding that do not provide anything the above methods do not, but are callable from a trait object.

Decoding in distinguished mode

DistinguishedMessage has corresponding methods for decoding and replacing named decode_distinguished_.. and replace_distinguished_... Instead of returning Result<(), DecodeError> or Result<Foo, DecodeError>, these return Result<Canonicity, DecodeError> or Result<(Foo, Canonicity), DecodeError>. Canonicity is a simple enum that indicates whether the decoded data was Canonical, HasExtensions, or is NotCanonical.

The bilrost::WithCanonicity trait is made available to unwrap values and results that have canonicity information:

  • .canonical(): Converts to an error if not fully canonical, otherwise unwraps
  • .canonical_with_extensions(): Converts to an error if any known fields were not canonical, otherwise unwraps
  • .value(): Always unwraps, discarding the canonicity information.

This trait is implemented for Canonicity itself, (T, Canonicity), Result types where the value implements WithCanonicity and the error is convertible to DecodeErrorKind, and corresponding references/.as_ref() types. The error in the returned result types is DecodeErrorKind, which discards any "detailed-errors" information that would have indicated which field a decode error occurred in; if that information is needed, check the decoding error before the canonicity error.

Using dyn with object-safe message traits

The Message and DistinguishedMessage traits are object-safe and can be used via trait objects. All of their functionality (except the decode methods for creating a message value from data ex nihilo) is available via object-safe alternatives. Messages can be cleared (reset to empty values); measured for their encoded byte length; encoded to Vec<u8>, Bytes, or into a &mut dyn Buf; or decoded (replacing the value) from &[u8] slice or a &mut dyn BufMut.

Methods that decode to or from trait object buffers are likely to be less efficient than their generic, non-object-safe counterparts; it is preferable to use encode(..) rather than encode_dyn(..), and likewise for any other "_dyn" method. Likewise, replace_from_slice(..) is equivalent to replace_from(..), just object safe; the same goes for other "_slice" methods.

Supporting types and traits


bilrost::buf::ReverseBuf is a trait corresponding to bytes::BufMut which works in almost all the same ways, except chunks of bytes that are written to it are added before the data already in the buffer, rather than after it. This can make writing length-delimited encodings such as Bilrost significantly more efficient to write, especially as they contain more values and deeper nesting.

ReverseBuf declares bytes::Buf as a supertrait, so any value of this type can be consumed as a buffer.


bilrost::buf::ReverseBuffer is the main provided implementation of the ReverseBuf trait. It has amenities for reserving capacity, fetching the whole buffer as a slice if it's contiguous in memory, and has the method reader() which returns a read-only view of the buffer that also implements bytes::Buf but does not cause the buffer to be consumed when it is read through that trait.

ReverseBuffer allocates lazily, grows exponentially, and stores its data in multiple allocations of increasing size. It is typically the most efficient type to encode a bilrost message into, and it offers many of the same amenities as the other options (Vec and Bytes).

Encoding and decoding example

use bilrost::{
    DistinguishedMessage, DistinguishedOneof, Message, Oneof,
use bytes::Bytes;
use std::collections::BTreeMap;

#[derive(Debug, PartialEq, Eq, Oneof, DistinguishedOneof)]
enum PubKeyMaterial {

use PubKeyMaterial::*;

#[derive(Debug, PartialEq, Eq, Message, DistinguishedMessage)]
struct PubKey {
    #[bilrost(oneof(1, 2))]
    key: PubKeyMaterial,
    expiry: i64, // See also: `bilrost_types::Timestamp`

#[derive(Debug, Default, PartialEq, Eq, Message, DistinguishedMessage)]
struct PubKeyRegistry {
    keys_by_owner: BTreeMap<String, PubKey>,

let mut registry = PubKeyRegistry::default();
    PubKey {
        key: ED25519(Bytes::from_static(b"not a secret")),
        expiry: 1600999999,
    PubKey {
        key: Rsa(Bytes::from_static(b"pkey")),
        expiry: 1500000001,
let encoded = registry.encode_to_vec();

// The binary of this encoded message breaks down as follows:
// (The first and only field, containing a map from String to PubKey)
// 05 - field key: tag 0+1 = 1, wire type 1 = length-delimited
//   2c - length: 44 bytes
//     (The key of the first map item, a String value)
//     05 - length: 5 bytes
//       "Alice"
//     (The value of the first map item, a PubKey message)
//     14 - length: 20 bytes
//       (The "ED25519" variant of the PubKeyMaterial oneof)
//       09 - field key: tag 0+2 = 2, wire type 1 = length-delimited
//         (A String value)
//         0c - length: 12 bytes
//           "not a secret"
//       (The "expiry" field of the PubKey message, an i64)
//       04 - field key: tag 2+1 = 3, wire type 0 = varint
//         fec7e9f50a - varint 3201999998, which is +1600999999 in zig-zag
//     (The key of the second map item, a string value)
//     03 - length: 3 bytes
//       "Bob"
//     (The value of the second map item, another PubKey message)
//     0c - length: 12 bytes
//       (The "RSA" variant of the PubKeyMaterial oneof)
//       05 - field key: tag 0+1 = 1, wire type 1 = length-delimited
//         (A String value)
//         04 - length: 4 bytes
//           "pkey"
//       (The "expiry" field of the PubKey message, an i64)
//       08 - field key: tag 1+2 = 3, wire type 0 = varint
//         82bbc0950a - varint 3000000002, which is +1500000001 in zig-zag

      \x05Alice\x14\x09\x0cnot a secret\x04\xfe\xc7\xe9\xf5\x0a\

let decoded = PubKeyRegistry::decode_distinguished(encoded.as_slice())
    .canonical() // Check that the decoded data was canonical
assert_eq!(registry, decoded);

Supported message field types

bilrost structs can encode fields with a wide variety of types:

Encoding Value type Encoded representation Distinguished
general & fixed f32 fixed-size 32 bits no
general & fixed u32, i32 fixed-size 32 bits yes
general & fixed f64 fixed-size 64 bits no
general & fixed u64, i64 fixed-size 64 bits yes
general & varint u64, u32, u16 varint yes
general & varint i64, i32, i16 varint yes
general & varint bool varint yes
general derived Enumeration[^enum] varint yes
general String* length-delimited yes
general impl Message[^boxmsg] length-delimited maybe
varint u8, i8 varint yes
plainbytes Vec<u8>* length-delimited yes
(E1, E2, ... EN) (T1, T2, ... TN) length-delimited if each field is

*Alternative types are available! See below.

[^enum]: Enumeration types can be directly included if they have a value that has a Bilrost representation of zero (represented as exactly the expression 0 either via a #[bilrost(0)] attribute or, absent an attribute, via a normal discriminant value). Otherwise, enumeration types must always be nested.

[^boxmsg]: Message types inside Box still impl Message, with a covering impl; message types can nest recursively this way.

Any of these types may be included directly in a bilrost message struct. If that field's value is empty, no bytes will be emitted when it is encoded.

In addition to including them directly, these types can also be nested within several different containers:

Encoding Value type Encoded representation Re-nestable Distinguished
any encoding Option<T> identical; at least some bytes are always encoded if Some, nothing if None no when T is
unpacked<E> Vec<T>, BTreeSet<T> the same as encoding E, one field per value no when T is
unpacked<E> [T; N][^arrays] the same as encoding E, one field per value no when T is
unpacked * (the same as unpacked<general>) no *
packed<E> Vec<T>, BTreeSet<T> always length-delimited, successively encoded with E yes when T is
packed<E> [T; N][^arrays] always length-delimited, successively encoded with E yes when T is
packed * (the same as packed<general>) yes *
map<KE, VE> BTreeMap<K, V> always length-delimited, alternately encoded with KE and VE yes when K & V are
general Vec<T>, BTreeSet<T> (the same as unpacked) no *
general BTreeMap (the same as map<general, general>) yes *

[^arrays]: Fixed-size array types ([T; N]) act similarly to collections that additionally require an exact number of items. Where other kinds of collections are considered empty when they have no items, arrays are considered empty when each of their values is empty.

Many alternative types are also available for both scalar values and containers!

Value type Alternative Supporting encoding Distinguished Feature to enable
Vec<u8> Blob[^blob] general yes (none)
Vec<u8> Cow<[u8]> plainbytes yes (none)
Vec<u8> bytes::Bytes[^bzcopy] general yes (none)
Vec<u8> [u8; N][^plainbytearr] plainbytes yes (none)
u32, u64 [u8; 4], [u8; 8] fixed yes (none)
String Cow<str> general yes (none)
String bytestring::ByteString[^bzcopy] general yes "bytestring"

[^bzcopy]: When decoding from a bytes::Bytes object, both bytes::Bytes and bytes::ByteString have a zero-copy optimization and will reference the decoded buffer rather than copying. (This could also work for any other input type that has a zero-copy bytes::Buf::copy_to_bytes() optimization.)

[^plainbytearr]: Plain byte arrays, as we might expect, only accept one exact length of data; other lengths are considered invalid values.

[^blob]: bilrost::Blob is a transparent wrapper for Vec<u8> in that is a drop-in replacement in most situations and is supported by the default general encoding for maximum ease of use. If nothing but Vec<u8> will do, the plainbytes encoding will still encode a plain Vec<u8> as its bytes value.

Container type Alternative Distinguished Feature to enable
Vec<T> Cow<[T]> when T is (none)
Vec<T> arrayvec::ArrayVec<[T; N]>[^bounded] when T is "arrayvec"
Vec<T> smallvec::SmallVec<[T]> when T is "smallvec"
Vec<T> thin_vec::ThinVec<[T]> when T is "thin-vec"
Vec<T> tinyvec::ArrayVec<[T; N]>[^bounded] when T is "tinyvec"
Vec<T> tinyvec::TinyVec<[T]> when T is "tinyvec"
BTreeMap<T> HashMap<T>[^hashnoncanon] no "std" (default)
BTreeSet<T> HashSet<T>[^hashnoncanon] no "std" (default)
BTreeMap<T> hashbrown::HashMap<T>[^hashnoncanon] no "hashbrown"
BTreeSet<T> hashbrown::HashSet<T>[^hashnoncanon] no "hashbrown"

[^bounded]: Some containers, notably ArrayVec flavors, have a built-in maximum capacity. When more bytes or items than will fit in these containers are encountered while decoding, decoding will fail with an "invalid value" error.

[^hashnoncanon]: Hash-table-based maps and sets are implemented, but are not compatible with distinguished encoding or decoding. If distinguished decoding is required, a container which stores its values in sorted order must be used.

While it's possible to nest and recursively nest Message types with Box, Vec, etc., bilrost does not do any kind of runtime check to avoid infinite recursion in the event of a cycle. The chosen supported types and containers should not be able to become infinite as implemented, but if the situation were induced to happen anyway it would not end well. (Note that creative usage of Cow<[T]> can create messages that encode absurdly large, but the borrow checker keeps them from becoming infinite mathematically if not practically.)


Tuple types can be included in messages, but there are some notable features that merit additional explanation.

Tuples can have each of their members' encodings specified by using an encoding that is shaped just like the value. For example, (i8, String, u32) can use the encoding (varint, general, fixed)! This method of specifying the encoding can be nested as well.

Tuples encode and decode exactly as if they were nested messages with the same field types and encodings, and the tags assigned to those fields are the same as the index of the member of the tuple. So, he assigned tags start at zero; this is in contrast to derived message implementations which by default will assign tags starting at 1.

The general encoding is also directly applicable to tuple types as long as each of the tuple's fields is compatible with the general encoding itself, and all the fields will use that encoding.

Like most of the Rust standard library, bilrost implements encoding for tuples up to arity 12.


bilrost can derive the required implementations for a numeric enumeration type from an enum with no fields in its variants, where each variant has either

  1. an explicit discriminant that is a valid u32 value, or
  2. a #[bilrost = 123] or #[bilrost(123)] attribute that specifies a valid u32 const expression and match pattern (here with the example value 123).
#[derive(Clone, PartialEq, Eq, bilrost::Enumeration)]
enum SimpleEnum {
    Unknown = 0,
    A = 1,
    B = 2,
    C = 3,

const FOUR: u32 = 4;

#[derive(Clone, PartialEq, Eq, bilrost::Enumeration)]
#[repr(u8)] // The type needn't have a u32 repr
enum ComplexEnum {
    One = 1,
    #[bilrost = 2]
    // When both discriminant and attribute exist, bilrost uses the attribute.
    Five = 8,

All enumeration types are encoded and decoded by conversion to and from the Rust u32 type, using Into<u32> and TryFrom<u32, Error = bilrost::DecodeError>. In addition to deriving trait impls with Enumeration, the following additional traits are also mandatory: Clone and Eq (and thus PartialEq as well).

If the discriminants of an enumeration conflict at all, compilation will fail; the discriminants must be unique within any given enumeration.

# use bilrost::Enumeration;
#[derive(Clone, PartialEq, Eq, Enumeration)]
enum Foo {
    A = 1,
    #[bilrost(1)] // error: unreachable pattern
    B = 2,

For an enumeration type to qualify for direct inclusion as a message field rather than only as a nested value (within Option, Vec, etc.), one of the discriminants must be spelled exactly "0".

Compatible Widening

While many types have different representations and interpretations in the encoding, there are several classes of types which have the same encoding and the same interpretation as long as the values are in range for both types. For example, it's possible to change an i16 field and change its type to i32, and any number that can be represented in i16 will have the same encoded representation for both types.

Widening fields along these routes is always supported in the following way: Old message data will always decode to an equivalent/corresponding value, and those corresponding values will re-encode from the new widened struct into the same representation.

Change Corresponding values Backwards compatibility breaks when...
bool --> u8 --> u16 --> u32 --> u64, all with general or varint encoding true/false becomes 1/0 value is out of range of the narrower type
bool --> i8 --> i16 --> i32 --> i64, all with general or varint encoding true/false becomes -1/0 value is out of range of the narrower type
String --> Vec<u8> string becomes its UTF-8 data value contains invalid UTF-8
T --> Option<T> default value of T becomes None Some(default) is encoded, then decoded in distinguished mode
Option<T> --> Vec<T> (with unpacked encoding) maybe-contained value is identical multiple values are in the Vec
[T; N] --> Vec<T> when each array value is empty, the Vec will be empty instead of filled with empty values data is a nonzero length different than that of the array
Option<[T; N]> --> Vec<T> no change data is a length different than that of the array

Vec<T> and other list- and set-like collections that contain repeated values can also be changed between unpacked and packed encoding, as long as the inner value type T does not have a length-delimited representation. This will break compatibility with distinguished decoding in both directions whenever the field is present and not empty because it will also change the encoded representation, but expedient decoding will still work.

Strengths, Aims, and Advantages

Strengths of Bilrost's encoding include those of protocol buffers:

  • Encoded messages are very durable, with greatly extensible forward compatibility
  • Encoded messages are relatively very compact, and their representation "on the wire" is very simple
  • The encoding is minimally[^floatbits] platform-dependent; each byte is specified, and there are no endianness incompatibility issues
  • When decoding, text-string and byte-string data is represented verbatim and can be referenced without copying
  • Skipping irrelevant, undesired, or unknown-extension data is inexpensive as most nested and repeated fields are stored with a length prefix

...as well as more:

  • In Bilrost, decoded data means what it says. If a value is decoded, it contains all the information that was present in the encoding (no silent integer truncation!)
  • Bilrost supports distinguished decoding for types where it makes sense, and is designed from a protocol level to make invalid values unrepresentable where possible
  • Bilrost is more compact than protobuf without incurring significant overhead. nuances of representation in protobuf that Bilrost cannot represent or has no analog for are either permanently deprecated, or all conforming decoders are required to discard the difference anyway.
  • bilrost aims to be as ergonomic as is practical in plain rust, with basic annotations and derive macros. It's possible for such a library to be quite nice to use!

[^floatbits]: The main area of potential incompatibility is with the representation of signaling vs. quiet NaN floating point values; see f64::from_bits().

What Bilrost and the library won't do

Bilrost does not have a robust reflection ecosystem. It does not (yet) have an intermediate schema language like protobuf does, nor implementations for very many languages, nor RPC framework support, nor an independent validation framework. These things are possible, they just don't exist yet.

This library also does not have support for encoding/decoding its message types to and from JSON or other readable text formats. However, because it supports deriving Bilrost encoding implementations from existing structs, it is possible (and recommended) to use other, preexisting tools to do this. Debug can also be derived for a bilrost message type, as can other encodings that similarly support deriving implementations from preexisting types.

Encoding specification

Philosophically, there are two "sides" to the encoding scheme: the opaque data that comprises it, and conventions for how that data is interpreted.

Opaque format

Values in bilrost are encoded opaquely as strings of bytes or as non-negative integers not greater than the maximum value representable in an unsigned 64 bit integer (2^64-1). The only four scalar types supported by the encoding format itself are these integers, byte strings of any (64-bit representable) length, and byte strings with lengths of exactly 4 or exactly 8.

This opaque format should remain entirely stable, and is (for what it is worth) self-describing. The meaning of the tags and their values is likely to vary widely depending on the schema in use (which is not self-describing), but outside of the opaque data's interpretation the format will not vary.


The basic functional unit of encoded Bilrost data is a message. An encoded message is some string of zero or more bytes with a specific length.


Encoded messages are comprised of zero or more encoded fields.

Each field is encoded as two parts: first its key, and then its value. The field's key is always encoded as a varint. The interpretation of the encoded value of that varint is in two parts: the value divided by 4 is the tag-delta, and the remainder of that division determines the value's wire-type. The tag-delta encodes the non-negative difference between the tag of the previously-encoded field (or zero, if it is the first field) and the tag of the field the key is part of. Wire-types map to the remainder, and determine the form and representation of the field value as follows:

0: varint - the value is an opaque number, encoded as a single varint.

1: length-delimited - the value is a string of bytes; its length in bytes is encoded first as a single varint, then immediately followed by exactly that many bytes comprising the value itself.

2: fixed-length 32 bits - the value is a string of exactly 4 bytes, encoded with no additional prelude.

3: fixed-length 64 bits - the value is a string of exaclty 8 bytes, encoded with no additional prelude.

Note that because field keys encode only the delta from the previous tag, it is not possible to encode fields in anything but sorted order according to their tags. Unsorted fields are unrepresentable.

If a field key's tag-delta indicates a tag that is greater than would fit in an unsigned 32 bit integer (2^32-1), the encoded message is not valid and must be rejected.

Varints (LEB128-bijective encoding)

Varints are a variable-length encoding of an unsigned 64 bit integer value. Encoded varints are between one and nine bytes, with lesser numeric values having shorter representations in the encoding. At the same time, each number in this range has exactly one possible encoded representation.

  1. The final byte of a varint is the first byte that does not have its most significant bit set, or the ninth byte, whichever comes first.
  2. The value of the encoded varint is the sum of each byte's unsigned integer value, multiplied by 128 (shifted left/up by 7 bits) for each byte that preceded it.
  3. Varints representing values greater than 2^64-1 are invalid.

Several outstanding examples of very similar varint encodings exist:

Implementation Format Limits length? Endianness Bijective
sqlite base 128 with continuation bit yes (9 bytes) big no
protobuf base 128 with continuation bit no (10th byte uses only 1 bit) little no
git base 128 with continuation bit no (large values generally not relevant) big yes
bilrost base 128 with continuation bit yes (9 bytes) little yes

Bilrost's varint representation is a base 128 bijective numeration scheme with a continuation bit. In such a numbering scheme, each possible values in a given scheme is greater than each possible value with fewer digits. (Many people are already unknowingly familiar with bijective numeration via the column names in spreadsheet software: A, B, ... Y, Z, AA, AB, ...)

Classical bijective numerations have no zero digit, but represent zero with the empty string. This doesn't work for us because we must always encode at least one byte to avoid ambiguity. Consider instead:

  • A base 128 bijective numeration,
  • which represents the digits valued 1 through 128 with the byte values 0 through 127,
  • is encoded least significant digit first with a continuation bit in the most significant bit of each byte,
  • and encodes the represented value plus one...

...this is almost exactly the Bilrost varint encoding. The sole exception is that, starting at the value 9295997013522923648 (hexadecimal 0x8102_0408_1020_4080, encoded as [128, 128, 128, 128, 128, 128, 128, 128, 128, 0]) and the maximum 18446744073709551615 (hexadecimal 0xffff_ffff_ffff_ffff, encoded as [255, 254, 254, 254, 254, 254, 254, 254, 254, 0]), there is always a tenth byte and it is always zero.

For practical applications it's not necessary to be able to encode byte lengths outside the 64 bit range, it is rare to need to encode values outside the range, and if it were desirable to encode integer-like values larger than this (for example, 128-bit UUIDs) it is more efficient to represent them in length-delimited values, which take 1 extra byte to represent their size. For these reasons, in the Bilrost varint encoding we do not encode this trailing zero byte.

Example varint values and algorithms
Some examples of encoded varints
Value Bytes (decimal)
0 [0]
1 [1]
101 [101]
127 [127]
128 [128, 0]
255 [255, 0]
256 [128, 1]
1001 [233, 6]
16511 [255, 127]
16512 [128, 128, 0]
32895 [255, 255, 0]
32896 [128, 128, 1]
1000001 [193, 131, 60]
1234567890 [150, 180, 252, 207, 3]
987654321123456789 [149, 237, 196, 218, 243, 202, 181, 217, 12]
12345678900987654321 [177, 224, 156, 226, 204, 176, 169, 169, 170]
(maximum u64: 2^64-1) [255, 254, 254, 254, 254, 254, 254, 254, 254]
Varint algorithm

The following is python example code, written for clarity rather than performance:

def encode_varint(n: int) -> bytes:
    assert 0 <= n < 2**64
    bytes_to_encode = []
    # Encode up to 8 preceding bytes
    while n >= 128 and len(bytes_to_encode) < 8:
        bytes_to_encode.append(128 + (n % 128))
        n = (n // 128) - 1
    # Always encode at least one byte
    return bytes(bytes_to_encode)

def decode_varint_from_byte_iterator(it: Iterable[int]) -> int:
    n = 0
    for byte_index, byte_value in enumerate(it):
        assert 0 <= byte_value < 256
        n += byte_value * (128**byte_index)
        if byte_value < 128 or byte_index == 8:
            # Varints encoding values greater than 64 bits MUST be rejected
            if n >= 2**64:
                raise ValueError("invalid varint")
            return n
    # Reached end of data before the end of the varint
    raise ValueError("varint truncated")

Standard interpretation

To make the encoding useful, these opaque values have standard interpretations for many common data types.

The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT", "SHOULD", "SHOULD NOT", "RECOMMENDED", "MAY", and "OPTIONAL" in this section are to be interpreted as described in RFC 2119.

In general, whenever a decoded value represents a value that is outside the domain of the type of the field it is being decoded into (for instance, when the field type is u16 but the value is a million, or when the field type is an enumeration and there is no corresponding variant of the enumeration) the decoding must be rejected with an error in any decoding mode.

Unsigned integers represented as varints are interpreted exactly. The varint encoding of the number 10 has the same meaning in u8, u16, u32, and u64 field types.

Signed integers represented as varints are always zig-zag encoded, with the sign of the number denoted in the least significant bit. Thus, non-negative integers are translated to unsigned for encoding by doubling them, and negative integers are translated by negating, then doubling, then subtracting one.

Booleans use the varint value 0 for false, and 1 for true.

Unsigned integers encoded in fixed-width must be encoded in little-endian byte order; signed integers must likewise be encoded in little-endian byte order, and must have a two's complement representation.

Floating point numbers must be encoded in little-endian byte order, and must have IEEE 754 binary32/binary64 standard representation. Floating point numbers are encoded as four- and eight-byte fixed-width values.

Arrays, plain byte strings, and collections must be encoded in order, with their lowest-indexed (first) bytes or items encoded first. For example, the fixed-width encodings of the u8 array [1, 2, 3, 4] and the 32 bit unsigned integer 0x04030201 (67305985) are identical.

Demonstration of the above
use bilrost::Message;

struct Foo<T>(#[bilrost(encoding(fixed))] T);

// Both of these messages encode as the bytes `b'\x06\x01\x02\x03\x04'`
    Foo([1u8, 2, 3, 4]).encode_to_vec(),

String values must always be valid UTF-8 text, containing the canonical encoding for some sequence of Unicode codepoints. Codepoints with over-long encodings and surrogate codepoints should be rejected with an error in any decoding mode, and must be considered non-canonical. Bilrost does not impose any restrictions on the ordering or presence of valid non-surrogate codepoints; it may be desirable in an application to constrain text to a canonicalized form (such as NFC), but that should be considered outside the scope of Bilrost's responsibilities of encoding and decoding and instead part of validation, which is the responsibility of the application.

Nested messages should be represented as a length-delimited value containing the bytes of that message's encoding. There cannot be any extra bytes following that value, and nested messages' validity must include the results of decoding every byte of the value.

Collections of items (such as Vec<String>) encoded in the unpacked representation consist of one field for each item. Collections encoded in the packed representation consist of a single length-delimited value, containing each item's value encoded one after the other. In expedient decoding mode, decoding should succeed when expecting a packed representation but detecting an unpacked representation, or vice versa (though the encoding must be considered non-canonical). Detecting this situation is only possible when the values themselves never have a length-delimited representation, in which case the wire-type of the field can be used to distinguish the two cases.

Sets (collections of unique values) are encoded and decoded in exactly the same form as non-unique collections. If a value in a set appears more than once when decoding, the message must be rejected with an error in any decoding mode. The items must be in canonical order for the encoding to be considered canonical.

Mappings are represented as a length-delimited value, containing alternately encoded keys and values for each entry in the mapping. Keys must be distinct, and if a map is found to have two equivalent keys the message must be rejected with an error in any decoding mode. In distinguished decoding mode, the entries in the mapping must be encoded in canonical order for the encoding to be considered canonical.

Any field whose value is empty should always be omitted from the encoding. The presence of any field represented in the encoding with an empty value must cause the encoding to be considered non-canonical.

Fields whose types do not encode into multiple fields must not occur more than once. If they do, the message must be rejected with an error in any decoding mode. This currently includes every type of field not encoded with an unpacked representation.

Oneofs, sets of mutually exclusive fields, must not have conflicting values present in the encoding. If they do, the message must be rejected with an error in any decoding mode.

If a field whose tag that is not known/specified in the message is encountered in expedient decoding mode, it should be ignored for purposes of decoding.

Distinguished constraints

In distinguished decoding mode, in addition to the above constraints on value ordering in sets and mappings, all values must be represented in exactly the way they would encode. If an empty value is found to be represented in the encoding, the message is not canonical. (In the case of an optional field, Some(0) is not considered empty, and is distinct from the always-empty value None; this is the purpose of optional fields.)

Also in distinguished mode, if fields whose tags are not in the message's schema are encountered the encoding can no longer be considered canonical.

Empty values

The type of each field of a Bilrost message has an "empty" value, which is never represented as encoded data on the wire.

Type Empty value
boolean false
any integer 0
any floating point number exactly +0.0
fixed-size byte array all zeros
text string, byte string, collection, mapping, or set containing zero bytes or items
tuples (A, B, C, ...) each item is empty
arrays [T; N] each item is empty
Enumeration type the variant represented by 0
Message each field of the message is empty
Oneof None or the empty variant
any optional value (Option<T>) None

The empty byte string is always a valid and canonical encoding of any Bilrost message type, and represents the value of the message in which every field has its empty value.

Canonical ordering

For supported non-message types, the following orderings are standardized:

Type Standard ordering
boolean false, then true
integer ascending numeric value
text string, byte string, byte array lexicographically ascending, by bytes or UTF-8 bytes[^u8bytes]
collection (vec, set, etc.) lexicographically ascending, by nested values
mapping lexicographically ascending, by alternating key-then-value
floating point number (not specified, nor recommended)
Enumeration types (not specified)
Message types (not specified)
Option<T> (not applicable, cannot repeat)
Oneof types (not applicable, not a single value, cannot repeat)

[^u8bytes]: Bytes are considered to be unsigned. The least-valued byte is the nul byte 0x00, and the greatest is 0xff.

This standardization corresponds to the existing definitions of Ord in the Rust language for booleans, integers, strings, arrays/slices, ordered sets, and ordered maps.

bilrost vs. prost

bilrost is a direct fork of the prost crate, though it has been mostly rewritten since then. Both libraries are designed for largely the same purpose, but have different capabilities and have strengths in different situations.

prost is an implementation of Protobuf, and as a consequence it brings many concerns and heavy tooling of that ecosystem with it, for better and for worse. Protobuf messages are specified by a dedicated schema file, and the code that implements those types is then usually automatically generated. prost has tooling to do this via the "protoc" compiler; other implementations variously do the same thing or reimplement complete parsers for that DSL.

bilrost by comparison is an implementation of a new encoding that isn't compatible with Protobuf. If Protobuf isn't specifically required, consider the tradeoffs and comparison to the Protobuf encoding.

The code generated by prost-build is relatively messy and explicit, at least when compared to handwritten code. This generated code in turn uses derive macros to generate the more complex parts of the implementation, so the generated code can in theory be committed and modified too, but it's not significantly more flexible used this way.

bilrost refactors the encoding implementations to use trait-based dispatch instead of explicit implementations that have to be selected for each field type. This allows bilrost to have very broad type support without requiring explicit annotations on most fields, and makes it very comfortable and easy to use without any generated code other than the derive macros. (This same trait-based dispatch could be back-ported to prost to make it easier to use, but it might be a significant API break.)

bilrost has also implemented a couple requested features not yet available in prost:

  • message fields can be ignored via attribute
  • implementations are available for no_std-compatible hash maps, vecs that inline short values, ByteString, etc.
  • Message and DistinguishedMessage traits are object-safe and provide full functionality as trait objects. At time of writing, prost 0.12.3 has very little functionality exposed in an object-safe way; the only object-safe methods compute the encoded length of the message and clear its fields.

Differences from Protobuf

The Bilrost encoding is heavily based upon that of Protobuf, with a small number of key changes.

  • Bilrost supports more types
  • Bilrost is slightly more compact
  • Bilrost has first-class support for distinguished canonical encoding
  • Bilrost removes some mistake-prone choices
  • Bilrost does not have a giant ecosystem
In greater detail
  • The varint encoding is different: Bilrost varints are bijective (having only one possible representation per value) and have a shorter maximum length, as it doesn't make sense to extend the encoding beyond 64 bit integers.

    Despite Protobuf varints being nominally simpler, since they directly transpose the bits of the encoding into the final value, it is difficult to impossible to realize this simplicity as improved performance in reality; almost all of the cost on modern computing hardware is consumed by the fact that the values are a variable number of bytes in size.

    Protobuf varints are also subject to zero-extension, because they are not bijective. This is a recurring problem whenever attempts are made to guarantee canonical representation in Protobuf data, and requires extra care.

  • Messages are only representable with their fields in ascending tag order, something Protobuf has declined to enforce or guarantee for decades and probably won't begin any time soon.

    Compliant Protobuf implementations allow several interesting operations by not guaranteeing or enforcing field order:

    • Unknown fields can be preserved as entirely opaque runs of bytes and concatenated to a message
    • Concatenating fields to a message has a merge semantic: singular fields' values are replaced (or merged, if they are messages), and repeated fields are appended to. This means that sometimes messages can be blindly concatenated with patches that override some of their fields.

    By guaranteeing field order in Bilrost, these (vanishingly rarely used or wanted) abilities are lost, but several powerful advantages are gained:

    • It is always trivially obvious when a field occurs more than once in a message when it shouldn't. No decisions need to be made or special checks performed to handle this case.
    • If desired (it probably isn't), it is even possible to enforce the required presence of particular fields in the encoding at run-time without maintaining presence data for those fields when decoding.

    Another hidden benefit of the obligate field ordering is that, because field tags are encoded as deltas, messages with very large numbers of fields are significantly smaller to encode. Protobuf field keys with tags above 15 always take multiple bytes to encode; in Bilrost, the only time a field key takes more than a single byte is when more than 31 tags have been skipped in a row.

  • Fields' tags are less constrained. In Protobuf field tags are restricted to the range [1, 2^29-1]; in Bilrost we have made the decision to continue numbering them naturally from 1, but to otherwise allow any unsigned 32 bit integer as a tag number.

  • Protobuf uses three bits in field keys for the wire type, and has six of these wire types allocated; two are used as data-less delimiting markers for "groups", which are a legacy and long-deprecated method of nesting data within messages.

    In nearly twenty years, the Protobuf authors have never found cause to populate the final two unallocated wire types, which gives us at least some measure of confidence that the four that Bilrost has borrowed are sufficient for practical use.

There are also a couple key changes to how values are interpreted in Bilrost, informed by experience with Protobuf:

  • Bilrost representations of signed integers are always zig-zag encoded. In Protobuf there are two different modes for signed integers: "int32" is always encoded like two's complement, and "sint32" is zig-zag encoded. In practice this is a tremendous footgun, because any negative integer always becomes ten bytes on the wire. Yes, even the 32 bit ones, because they are sign-extended all the way to 64 bits in case the field is to be widened in the future.

  • Learning again from the footguns and mistakes of Protobuf (and C/C++ in general), Bilrost also enforces errors when values are out of range. Protobuf values will coerce to smaller types by truncation, and any nonzero varint will silently convert to the boolean value true. This is often surprising, bug-prone, and undesirable.

  • bilrost makes special effort to preserve every bit of floating-point numbers when they are encoded and decoded. Whenever possible this should be matched by Bilrost libraries for other languages.

  • Bilrost is much more permissive of nested values. Length-delimited values are permitted to be encoded in a "packed" representation, with warnings to the user; this allows nesting vecs within vecs, maps within maps, and more without creating explicit sub-message schemas for every single level of nesting.

  • Bilrost has first-class mappings. Maps in Protobuf are a construct of unpacked repeated values that are nested sub-messages with keys and values in fields tagged 1 and 2, a situation whose official field types and APIs came long after it was already in production. Protobuf also to this day forbids byte strings as map keys, for unclear reasons possibly relating to the usage of nul-terminated C-strings as the representation of map keys in some implementations.

    Because Bilrost maps are packed into a single length-delimited value, they can freely have optional presence or be repeated or nested at will.

Distinguished representation on the wire in bilrost

Leveraging the changes to varint representation and field order, Bilrost standardizes easily-distinguishable canonical encodings for many message types. Zero-extension of varints and unordered fields are the two main things that can lead Protobuf encodings to vary for the same meaning, and most of what remains involves enforcing that empty values are never encoded, packed/unpacked collections have a matching representation, map keys are in sorted order, and keeping track of whether any unknown fields exist in the encoding.

Comparisons to other encodings

A very incomplete comparison of various alternative encodings we might consider.

In addition to this general summary, benchmarks are now also available in rust_serialization_benchmark.

Encoding Encoding complexity Schemaless? Backwards/forwards compatible? Human readable? Canonical encodings? Better than Bilrost Worse than Bilrost
Bilrost very low schemaful yes no yes! 🌈 🌈
Protobuf almost as simple schemaful yes no no big ecosystem, has a schema DSL slightly less compact, more footguns, less type support
ASN.1 DER quite high schemaful yes no yes highly standardized & validated canonicity painful to use & implement
Cap'n Proto medium schemaful yes no no very fast, supports zero-copy style decoding, schema DSL, lots of languages supported less compact, heavily relies on generated types
Flatbuffers medium schemaful yes no no very fast, supports zero-copy style decoding, schema DSL, lots of languages supported less compact, heavily relies on generated types
rkyv ? fixed to struct no no ? extremely fast zero-copy archival encoding built for a very different purpose
bincode low fixed to struct no no ? faster, more compact not compatible when new fields are added
JSON medium-low schemaless yes yes standardized, might be supported near-universal support, readability less compact, more lossy, poor fit for many value types
BSON medium schemaless yes no no it's JSON but compact less compact, not canonical
msgpack medium schemaless yes no no it's JSON but compact less compact, not canonical
CBOR medium schemaless yes no yes standardized, it's JSON but compact less compact
XML high philosophers disagree yes yes apparently yes you've heard of it, you know it, it's everywhere far less compact, an inelegant weapon from a bygone era


  1. Why another one?

Because I can make one that does what I want.

Protobuf, for all its power and grace, is burdened with decades of legacy in both stored data and usage in practice that prevent it from changing. Bizarre corner case behaviors in practice that were originally implemented out of expediency have deeply ramified themselves into the official specification of the encoding (such as how repeated presence of nested messages in a non-repeated field merges them together, etc.).

With a careful approach to a newer standard, we can solve many of these problems and make a very similar encoding that is far more robust against shenanigans and edge cases with little overhead (if fields are unordered, detecting that they have repeated requires overhead, but if they must be ordered it is trivial). Along with this, with only a little more work, we also achieve inherent canonicalization for our distinguished message types. Accomplishing the same thing in protobuf is an onerous task, and one I have almost never seen correctly described in the wild. Quite a few people have, as the saying goes, tried and died.

tl;dr: I had the conceit that I could make the protobuf encoding better. For my personal purposes, this is true. Perhaps the same will be even true for you as well.

  1. Could the Bilrost encoding be implemented as a serializer for Serde?

Probably not, though serde experts are free to weigh in. There are multiple complications with trying to serialize Bilrost messages with Serde:

  • Bilrost fields bear a numbered tag, and currently there appears to be no mechanism suitable for this in serde.
  • Bilrost fields are also associated with a specific encoding, such as general or fixed, which may alter their representation. Purely trait-based dispatch will work poorly for this, especially when the values become nested within other data structures like maps and Vec and encodings may begin to look like map<plainbytes, packed<fixed>>.
  • Bilrost messages must encode their fields in tag order, which may (in the case of oneof fields) vary depending on their value, and it's not clear how or if this could be solved in serde.
  • Bilrost has both expedient and distinguished decoding modes, and promises that encoding a message that implements DistinguishedMessage always produces canonical output. This may be beyond what is practical to implement.

Despite all this, it is possible to place serde derive tags onto the generated types, so the same structure can support both bilrost and Serde.

Why "Bilrost?"

Protocol Buffers, originating at Google, took on the portmanteau "protobuf". In turn, Protobuf for Rust became "prost".

To fork that library, one might call it... "Frost"? But that name is taken. "Bifrost" is a nice name, and a sort of pun on "frost, 2"; but that is also taken. "Bilrost" is another name for the original Norse "Bifrost", and it is quite nice, so here we are.


bilrost is distributed under the terms of the Apache License (Version 2.0).

See LICENSE & NOTICE in the source for details, or the license and notice on github.

Copyright 2023-2024 Kent Ross
Copyright 2022 Dan Burkert & Tokio Contributors


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