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#287 in Encoding

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Used in 82 crates (via minicbor)


1.5K SLoC


A companion crate to minicbor to allow deriving minicbor::Encode and minicbor::Decode traits.


Documentation is available at


This software is licensed under the Blue Oak Model License Version 1.0.0. If you are interested in contributing to this project, please read the file CONTRIBUTING.md first.


Procedural macros to derive minicbor's Encode and Decode traits.

Deriving is supported for structs and enums. The encoding is optimised for forward and backward compatibility and the overall approach is influenced by Google's Protocol Buffers.

The goal is that ideally a change to a type still allows older software, which is unaware of the changes, to decode values of the changed type (forward compatibility) and newer software, to decode values of types encoded by older software, which do not include the changes made to the type (backward compatibility).

In order to reach this goal, the encoding has the following characteristics:

  1. The encoding does not contain any names, i.e. no field names, type names or variant names. Instead, every field and every constructor needs to be annotated with an (unsigned) index number, e.g. #[n(1)].

  2. Unknown fields are ignored during decoding.

  3. Optional types default to None if their value is not present during decoding.

  4. Optional enums default to None if an unknown variant is encountered during decoding.

Item 1 ensures that names can be changed freely without compatibility concerns. Item 2 ensures that new fields do not affect older software. Item 3 ensures that newer software can stop producing optional values. Item 4 ensures that enums can get new variants that older software is not aware of. By "fields" we mean the elements of structs and tuple structs as well as enum structs and enum tuples. In addition, it is a compatible change to turn a unit variant into a struct or tuple variant if all fields are optional.

From the above it should be obvious that non-optional fields need to be present forever, so they should only be part of a type after careful consideration.

It should be emphasised that an enum itself can not be changed in a compatible way. An unknown variant causes an error. It is only when they are declared as an optional field type that unknown variants of an enum are mapped to None. In other words, only structs can be used as top-level types in a forward and backward compatible way, enums can not.


use minicbor::{Encode, Decode};

#[derive(Encode, Decode)]
struct Point {
    #[n(0)] x: f64,
    #[n(1)] y: f64

#[derive(Encode, Decode)]
struct ConvexHull {
    #[n(0)] left: Point,
    #[n(1)] right: Point,
    #[n(2)] points: Vec<Point>,
    #[n(3)] state: Option<State>

#[derive(Encode, Decode)]
enum State {
    #[n(0)] Start,
    #[n(1)] Search { #[n(0)] info: u64 }

In this example the following changes would be compatible in both directions:

  • Renaming every identifier.

  • Adding optional fields to Point, ConvexHull, State::Start or State::Search.

  • Adding more variants to State iff State is only decoded as part of ConvexHull. Direct decoding of State would produce an UnknownVariant error for those new variants.

Attributes and borrowing

Each field and variant needs to be annotated with an index number, which is used instead of the name, using either n or b as attribute names. For the encoding it makes no difference which one to choose. For decoding, b indicates that the value borrows from the decoding input, whereas n produces non-borrowed values (except for implicit borrows).

Encoding format

The actual CBOR encoding to use can be selected by attaching either the #[cbor(array)] or #[cbor(map)] attribute to structs, enums or enum variants. By default #[cbor(array)] is implied. The attribute attached to an enum applies to all its variants but can be overriden per variant with another such attribute.

Implicit borrowing

The following types implicitly borrow from the decoding input, which means their lifetimes are constrained by the input lifetime:

  • &'_ str
  • &'_ minicbor::bytes::ByteSlice
  • Option<&'_ str>
  • Option<&'_ minicbor::bytes::ByteSlice>

What about &[u8]?

&[u8] is a special case of &[T]. The lack of trait impl specialisation in Rust makes it difficult to provide optimised support for byte slices. The generic [T] impl of Encode produces an array of Ts. To specifically encode to and decode from CBOR bytes, the types ByteSlice and ByteVec are provided by minicbor. In addition, the attributes encode_with, decode_with and with can be used with &[u8] when deriving, e.g.

use minicbor::{Encode, Decode};

#[derive(Encode, Decode)]
struct Foo<'a> {
    #[cbor(with = "minicbor::bytes")]
    field0: &'a [u8],

    #[cbor(encode_with = "minicbor::bytes::encode")]
    #[cbor(decode_with = "minicbor::bytes::decode")]
    field1: &'a [u8],

    #[cbor(with = "minicbor::bytes")]
    field2: Option<&'a [u8]>,

    #[cbor(with = "minicbor::bytes")]
    field3: Vec<u8>

Explicit borrowing

If a type is annotated with #[b(...)], all its lifetimes will be constrained to the input lifetime.

If the type is a std::borrow::Cow<'_, str> or std::borrow::Cow<'_, minicbor::bytes::ByteSlice> type, the generated code will decode the inner type and construct a Cow::Borrowed variant, contrary to the Cow impl of Decode which produces owned values.

Other attributes

encode_with, decode_with and with

Fields in structs and enum variants may be annotated with #[cbor(encode_with = "path")], #[cbor(decode_with = "path")] or #[cbor(with = "module-path")] where path is the full path to a function which is used instead of Encode::encode to encode the field or Decode::decode to decode the field respectively. The types of these functions must be equivalent to Encode::encode or Decode::decode. The with attribute combines the other two with module-path denoting the full path to a module with two functions encode and decode as members, which are used for encoding and decoding of the field. These three attributes can either override an existing Encode or Decode impl or be used for types which do not implement those traits at all.


A #[cbor(transparent)] attribute can be attached to structs with exactly one field (aka newtypes). If present, the generated Encode and Decode impls will just forward the encode/decode calls to the inner type, i.e. the resulting CBOR representation will be identical to the one of the inner type.


Enumerations which do not contain fields may have the #[cbor(index_only)] attribute attached to them. This changes the encoding to encode only the variant index (cf. section CBOR encoding for details).

CBOR encoding

The CBOR values produced by a derived Encode implementation are of the following formats.


Array encoding

By default or if a struct has the #[cbor(array)] attribute, it will be represented as a CBOR array. Its index numbers are represened by the position of the field value in this array. Any gaps between index numbers are filled with CBOR NULL values and Options which are None likewise end up as NULLs in this array.

<<struct-as-array encoding>> =

Map encoding

If a struct has the #[cbor(map)] attribute, then it will be represented as a CBOR map with keys corresponding to the numeric index value:

<<struct-as-map encoding>> =
        `0` item_0
        `1` item_1
         n  item_n

Optional fields whose value is None are not encoded.


Unless the #[cbor(index_only)] attribute is used for enums without any fields, each enum variant is encoded as a two-element array. The first element is the variant index and the second the actual variant value. Otherwise, if enums do not have fields and the index_only attribute is present, only the variant index is encoded:

<<enum encoding>> =
    | `array(2)` n <<struct-as-array encoding>> ; if #[cbor(array)]
    | `array(2)` n <<struct-as-map encoding>>   ; if #[cbor(map)]
    | n                                         ; if #[cbor(index_only)]

Which encoding to use?

The map encoding needs to represent the indexes explicitly in the encoding which costs at least one extra byte per field value, whereas the array encoding does not need to encode the indexes. On the other hand, absent values, i.e. Nones and gaps between indexes are not encoded with maps but need to be encoded explicitly with arrays as NULLs which need one byte each. Which encoding to choose depends therefore on the nature of the type that should be encoded:

  • Dense types are types which contain only few Options or their Options are assumed to be Somes usually. They are best encoded as arrays.

  • Sparse types are types with many Options and their Options are usually Nones. They are best encoded as maps.

When selecting the encoding, future changes to the type should be considered as they may turn a dense type into a sparse one over time. This also applies to index_only which should be used only with enums which are not expected to ever have fields in their variants.


~19K SLoC