The Postcard Wire Format

Postcard is responsible for translating between items that exist as part of The Serde Data Model into a binary representation.

This is commonly referred to as Serialization, or converting from Serde Data Model elements to a binary representation; or Deserialization, or converting from a binary representation to Serde Data Model elements.

Stability

The Postcard wire format is considered stable as of v1.0.0 and above of Postcard. Breaking changes to the wire format would be considered a breaking change to the library, and would necessitate the library being revised to v2.0.0, along with a new version of this wire format specification addressing the v2.0.0 wire format.

Non Self-Describing Format

Postcard is NOT considered a "Self Describing Format", meaning that users (Serializers and Deserializers) of postcard data are expected to have a mutual understanding of the encoded data.

In practice this requires all systems sending or receiving postcard encoded data share a common schema, often as a common Rust data-type library.

Backwards/forwards compatibility between revisions of a postcard schema are considered outside of the scope of the postcard wire format, and must be considered by the end users, if compatible revisions to an agreed-upon schema are necessary.

varint encoded integers

For reasons of portability and compactness, many integers are encoded into a variable length format, commonly known as "leb" or "varint" encoded.

For the remainder of this document, these variable length encoded values will be referred to as varint(N), where N represents the encoded Serde Data Model type, such as u16 (varint(u16)) or i32 (varint(i32)).

Conceptually, all varint(N) types encode data in a similar way when considering a stream of bytes:

  • The most significant bit of each stream byte is used as a "continuation" flag.
    • If the flag is 1, then this byte is NOT the last byte that comprises this varint
    • If the flag is 0, then this byte IS the last byte that comprises this varint

All varint(N) types are encoded in "little endian" order, meaning that the first byte will contain the least significant seven data bits.

Specifically, the following types are encoded as varints in postcard:

TypeVarint Type
u16varint(u16)
i16varint(i16)
u32varint(u32)
i32varint(i32)
u64varint(u64)
i64varint(i64)
u128varint(u128)
i128varint(i128)

As u8 and i8 types always fit into a single byte, they are encoded as-is rather than encoded using a varint.

Additionally the following two types are not part of the Serde Data Model, but are used within the context of postcard:

TypeVarint Type
usizevarint(usize)
isizevarint(isize)

See the section isize and usize below for more details on how these types are used.

Unsigned Integer Encoding

For example, the following 16-bit unsigned numbers would be encoded as follows:

DecHexvarint EncodedLength
00x00_00[0x00]1
1270x00_7F[0x7F]1
1280x00_80[0x80, 0x01]2
163830x3F_FF[0xFF, 0x7F]2
163840x40_00[0x80, 0x80, 0x01]3
163850x40_01[0x81, 0x80, 0x01]3
655350xFF_FF[0xFF, 0xFF, 0x03]3

Signed Integer Encoding

Signed integers are typically "natively" encoded using a Two's Compliment form, meaning that the most significant bit is used to offset the value by a large negative shift. If this form was used directly for encoding signed integer values, it would have the negative effect that negative values would ALWAYS take the maximum encoded length to store on the wire.

For this reason, signed integers, when encoded as a varint, are first Zigzag encoded. Zigzag encoding stores the sign bit in the LEAST significant bit of the integer, rather than the MOST significant bit.

This means that signed integers of low absolute magnitude (e.g. 1, -1) can be encoded using a much smaller space.

For example, the following 16-bit signed numbers would be encoded as follows:

DecHex*Zigzag (hex)varint EncodedLength
00x00_000x00_00[0x00]1
-10xFF_FF0x00_01[0x01]1
10x00_010x00_02[0x02]1
630x00_3F0x00_7E[0x7E]1
-640xFF_C00x00_7F[0x7F]1
640x00_400x00_80[0x80, 0x01]2
-650xFF_BF0x00_81[0x81, 0x01]2
327670x7F_FF0xFF_FE[0xFF, 0xFF, 0x02]3
-327680x80_000xFF_FF[0xFF, 0xFF, 0x03]3

*: This column is represented as a sixteen bit, two's compliment form

Maximum Encoded Length

As the values that an integer type (e.g. u16, u32) are limited to the expressible range of the type, the maximum encoded length of these types are knowable ahead of time. Postcard uses this information to limit the number of bytes it will process when decoding a varint.

As varints encode seven data bits for every encoded byte, the maximum encoded length can be stated as follows:

bits_per_byte = 8
enc_bits_per_byte = 7
encoded_max = ceil((len_bytes * bits_per_byte) / enc_bits_per_byte)

The following table expresses the maximum encoded length for each type:

TypeVarint TypeType length (bytes)Varint length max (bytes)
u16varint(u16)23
i16varint(i16)23
u32varint(u32)45
i32varint(i32)45
u64varint(u64)810
i64varint(i64)810
u128varint(u128)1619
i128varint(i128)1619

Canonicalization

The postcard wire format does NOT enforce canonicalization, however values are still required to fit within the Maximum Encoded Length of the data type, and to contain no data that exceeds the maximum value of the integer type.

In this context, an encoded form would be considered canonical if it is encoded with no excess encoding bytes necessary to encode the value, and with the excess encoding bits all containing 0s.

For example in the following u16 encoded data:

Value (u16)Encoded FormCanonical?Accepted?
0[0x00]YesYes
0[0x80, 0x00]No*Yes
0[0x80, 0x80, 0x00]No*Yes
0[0x80, 0x80, 0x80, 0x00]No*No**
65535[0xFF, 0xFF, 0x03]YesYes
131071[0xFF, 0xFF, 0x07]No***No***
65535[0xFF, 0xFF, 0x83, 0x00]No*No**
  • *: Contains excess encoding bytes
  • **: Exceeds the Maximum Encoded Length of the type
  • ***: Exceeds the maximum value of the encoded type

isize and usize

The Serde Data Model does not address platform-specific sized integers, and instead supports them by mapping to an integer type matching the platform's bit width.

For example, on a platform with 32-bit pointers, usize will map to u32, and isize will map to i32. On a platform with 64-bit pointers, usize will map to u64, and isize will map to i64.

As these types are all varint encoded on the wire, two platforms of dissimilar pointer-widths will be able to interoperate without compatibility problems, as long as the value encoded in these types do not exceed the maximum encodable value of the smaller platform. If this occurs, for example sending 0x1_0000_0000usize from a 64-bit target (as a u64), when decoding on a 32-bit platform, the value will fail to decode, as it exceeds the maximum value of a usize (as a u32).

Variable Quantities

Several Serde Data Model types, such as seq and string contain a variable quantity of data elements.

Variable quantities are prefixed by a varint(usize), encoding the count of subsequent data elements, followed by the encoded data elements.

Tagged Unions

Tagged unions consist of two parts: The tag, or discriminant, and the value matching with that discriminant.

Tagged unions in postcard are encoded as a varint(u32) containing the discriminant, followed by the encoded value matching that discriminant.

Serde Data Model Types

The following describes how each of the Serde Data Model types are encoded in the Postcard Wire Format.

1 - bool

A bool is stored as a single byte, with the value of 0x00 for false, and 0x01 as true.

All other values are considered an error.

2 - i8

An i8 is stored as a single byte, in two's compliment form.

All values are considered valid.

3 - i16

An i16 is stored as a varint(i16).

4 - i32

An i32 is stored as a varint(i32).

5 - i64

An i64 is stored as a varint(i64).

6 - i128

An i128 is stored as a varint(i128).

7 - u8

An u8 is stored as a single byte.

All values are considered valid.

8 - u16

A u16 is stored as a varint(u16).

9 - u32

A u32 is stored as a varint(u32).

10 - u64

A u64 is stored as a varint(u64).

11 - u128

A u128 is stored as a varint(u128).

12 - f32

An f32 will be bitwise converted into a u32, and encoded as a little-endian array of four bytes.

For example, the float value -32.005859375f32 would be bitwise represented as 0xc200_0600u32, and encoded as [0x00, 0x06, 0x00, 0xc2].

NOTE: f32 values are NOT converted to varint form, and are always encoded as four bytes on the wire.

13 - f64

An f64 will be bitwise converted into a u64, and encoded as a little-endian array of eight bytes.

For example, the float value -32.005859375f64 would be bitwise represented as 0xc040_00c0_0000_0000u64, and encoded as [0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0xc0, 0x00, 0x40, 0xc0].

NOTE: f64 values are NOT converted to varint form, and are always encoded as eight bytes on the wire.

14 - char

A char will be encoded in UTF-8 form, and encoded as a string.

15 - string

A string is encoded with a varint(usize) containing the length, followed by the array of bytes, each encoded as a single u8.

16 - byte array

A byte array is encoded with a varint(usize) containing the length, followed by the array of bytes, each encoded as a single u8.

17 - option

An option is encoded in one of two ways, depending in its value.

If an option has the value of None, it is encoded as the single byte 0x00, with no following data.

If an option has the value of Some, it is encoded as the single byte 0x01, followed by exactly one encoded Serde Data Type.

18 - unit

The unit type is NOT encoded to the wire, meaning that it occupies zero bytes.

19 - unit_struct

The unit_struct type is NOT encoded to the wire, meaning that it occupies zero bytes.

20 - unit_variant

A unit_variant is an instance of a Tagged Union, consisting of a varint(u32) discriminant, with no additional encoded data.

21 - newtype_struct

A newtype_struct is encoded as the Serde Data Type it contains, with no additional data preceding or following it.

22 - newtype_variant

A newtype_variant is an instance of a Tagged Union, consisting of a varint(u32) discriminant, followed by the encoded representation of the Serde Data Type it contains.

23 - seq

A seq is encoded with a varint(usize) containing the number of elements of the seq, followed by the array of elements, each encoded as an individual Serde Data Type.

24 - tuple

A tuple is encoded as the elements that comprise it, in their order of definition (left to right).

As tuples have a known size, their length is not encoded on the wire.

25 - tuple_struct

A tuple_struct is encoded as a tuple consisting of the elements contained by the tuple_struct.

26 - tuple_variant

A tuple_variant is an instance of a Tagged Union, consisting of a varint(u32) discriminant, followed by a tuple consisting of the elements contained by the tuple_variant.

27 - map

A map is encoded with a varint(usize) containing the number of (key, value) elements of the map, followed by the array of (key, value) pairs, each encoded as a tuple of (key, value).

28 - struct

A struct is encoded as the elements that comprise it, in their order of definition (top to bottom).

As structs have a known number of elements with known names, their length and field names are not encoded on the wire.

29 - struct_variant

A struct_variant is an instance of a Tagged Union, consisting of a varint(u32) discriminant, followed by a struct consisting of the elements contained by the struct_variant.