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Parsing binary data

Often, I've to parse simple binary protocols and in this article I describe the design pattern I often use to parse these binary protocols. They follow a couple of simple rules that you can apply to most binary protocols.

This code shows a simple, fast and easy to reproduce solution for parsing binary data. This technique is based on a couple of simple rules that are used in almost any application, file or protocol that stores binary data.

When someone writes binary data to a file or send it over the network it often contains a fixed-sized part and a variable-sized part. The technique in this document uses that information to create a fast, simple to implement parse function for that.

The parsing is based on a state machine; we keep track of the current state and read either the fixed-sized part, or the variable-sized + data part. I use the concept of data units, where a data-unit is build from: [ fixed-size + variable-size ]. For each data unit you create a two states, a SIZE and a READ state. For example: STATE_UPLOAD_SIZE and STATE_UPLOAD_READ.

SIZE: the size state checks if the buffer contains enough data for the fixed size part, and if it contains more (yes more) data then the fixed size, we read the fixed size. I say more, because we know that there will be more data that we need to parse, namely the [ variable-size ] part. After we've extracted the fixed-size part, we change the state to _READ where we read the actual data.

One thing which might be confusing, is that the fixed-size part, often contains information about how many bytes are stored in the variable-size part. So remember that the fixed-size part, is often just a uint32_t (or uint64_t) which contains the number of bytes stored in the variable-size part.

But that's not all.. the fixed size might also contains other, fixed size information, such as a COMMAND id (see below). In the example the fixed sizes contains the COMMAND id, which is stored as a uint32_t and the size of the string (also a uint32_t). Therefore the fixed size part in the code below is 8 bytes.

READ: once you've read the fixed size part and you know how many bytes are stored in the variable-sized we arrive in the _READ state, copy/process the data and change the state again. Note that we need to check if the buffer has the exact amount or more (>=) bytes stored, that we're looking for.

The other part of parsing relates to how we actually write a parse function. I tend to a simple switch() where I switch between states. Then I wrap this switch around a while(buffer.size()) loop so it will parse all data - or until only part of the data is stored in the buffer. Note that I follow simple rules for the separate cases which prevent getting in a never-ending loop. These are:

So a generic parse loop and case looks like:

int data_size = 0;
  while(buffer.size()) {
    switch(state) {
      case STATE_ENCODE_SIZE: {
        if(buffer.size() > 8) {
           // read the variable-size part here, and store it in data_size + change state
           buffer.erase(buffer.begin(), buffer.begin() + 8); // erase fixed size
      case STATE_ENCODE_READ: {
        if(buffer.size() >= data_size) {
          // read the variable data size here
          buffer.erase(buffer.begin(), buffer.begin() + data_size); // erase variable sized data

Working example

// tested on Mac 10.8, compile with: g++ main.cpp -o out
#include <iostream>
#include <vector>
#include <string>
#include <iterator>
#include <algorithm>
#include <stdint.h>
#define COMMAND_STRING 0x01
#define COMMAND_PERSON 0x02
int state = STATE_STRING_SIZE;
uint32_t data_size = 0;
struct person {
  std::string name;
  std::string address;
// -----------------------------------------------
void parse(std::vector<char>& buffer); 
void put_u32(std::vector<char>& buffer, uint32_t d);
void put_string(std::vector<char>& buffer, std::string str);
void put_bytes(std::vector<char>& buffer, const char* data, size_t nbytes);
int main() {
  printf("Binary Buffer Parsing Example\n");
  std::vector<char> buffer;
  // store a string
  std::string some_string = "This is just some string";
  put_u32(buffer, COMMAND_STRING);
  put_string(buffer, some_string);
  // store a person
  person p; = "roxlu";
  p.address = "Amsterdam";
  put_u32(buffer, COMMAND_PERSON);
  put_u32(buffer, COMMAND_PERSON);                        // our super simple protocol is based on [command] [string size] [string], so must repeat the command for each person string
  put_string(buffer, p.address);
  // parse the buffer
  printf("Buffer contains: %ld bytes\n", buffer.size());
  return EXIT_SUCCESS;
void parse(std::vector<char>& buffer) {
  while(buffer.size()) {
    switch(state) {
      // STEP 1: parse the fixed size length
      case STATE_STRING_SIZE: {
        if(buffer.size() > 8) {                                      // always use > and not >= for the fixed-size check, because this should only success when the buffer has more data then just the size (e.g. the string itself)
          memcpy((char*)&data_size, &buffer[4], 4);                  // always start reading from [0] because we always cleanup the data after us. note that we're not reading the command that we've added above (COMMAND_STRING), but we know that COMMAND_STRING = 4 bytes (uint32_t) and a string also stores at least 4 bytes so the fixed size is always 8
          buffer.erase(buffer.begin(), buffer.begin() + 8);          // and flush the buffer
          state = STATE_STRING_READ;
          printf("+ %d\n", data_size);
      // STEP 2: parse the variable size length         
      case STATE_STRING_READ: {
        if(buffer.size() >= data_size) {                              // when reading the data part, use >= and not > because we might receive the -exact- amount of data OR more (the buffer could contain the next command)
          std::string str((char*)&buffer[0], data_size);
          buffer.erase(buffer.begin(), buffer.begin() + data_size);   // and flush the buffer!
          state = STATE_STRING_SIZE;                                  // because our parser only handles one type of command we set it back to the read size state
          printf("> %s\n", str.c_str());
      default: {
void put_u32(std::vector<char>&buffer, uint32_t d) {
  char* ptr = (char*)&d;
  std::copy(ptr, ptr+4, std::back_inserter(buffer));
void put_string(std::vector<char>& buffer, std::string str) {
  if(str.size()) {
    put_u32(buffer, str.size());
    put_bytes(buffer, str.c_str(), str.size());
void put_bytes(std::vector<char>& buffer, const char* data, size_t nbytes) {
  std::copy(data, data+nbytes, std::back_inserter(buffer));