Type Alchemy

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We regularly work with data whose size is not fixed or known ahead-of-time – text, especially C strings, are a prominent example of this – and manipulating it safely requires effort. Part of my work involves using streams of structured, unsized, data, with as little indirection and discontinuity as possible.



The second draft of this article was 4,000 words long before I wrote the heading “The Point of This Article, No Really I Mean It This Time” and that’s when I decided maybe I should scrap it and start over. Third time’s the charm.

One of the primary concerns of my company’s engineering is in data serialization and deserialization (henceforth <dfn>ser/des</dfn> for short). We also have some significant concerns in the radio network that lets us talk to orbital hardware, but ser/des is what makes that network useful. So we think about it a lot.

Our spacecraft are usually flying software written in C or C++, or firmware written in Verilog or VHDL, talking to ground sites running applications in C♯, Java, Ruby, or one specific Rust program that I wrote. The correct ser/des of messages between all of these languages is of paramount importance. Because it’s a polyglot environment, we can’t just use Python’s pickle or Ruby’s Marshal or C’s “obtain a pointer to the struct, cast it to unsigned char*, ship it” or any such language-specific ser/des mechanism.

So we have standardized grammars for message description formats, such as COSMOScommand and telemetry format, which describe the meaning and patterns for a sequence of bytes, and it is up to everyone on the network to appropriately implement ser/des between native types and these byte sequences.

C has a fairly simple, though not necessarily easy, job of this. For any given COSMOS block definition, create a struct that matches it (where possible given C’s limitations) and memmove and cast pointers.

Here is an example COSMOS block, taken (and scrubbed) from my current project.

TELEMETRY BLOG_POST FOO_TLM BIG_ENDIAN "I stripped the real names, obviously."
  APPEND_ITEM    LEN              16 UINT        "Packet Length"
  ## This is a magic number that is used for type-match. I'll cover it later.
  APPEND_ID_ITEM OPCODE           16 UINT 0xABCD "Packet Opcode"
  APPEND_ITEM    GPSW             16 UINT        "GPS Week"
  APPEND_ITEM    GPSM             32 UINT        "GPS Millisecond of week"
  APPEND_ITEM    FRT              64 UINT        "Free running timer"
  APPEND_ITEM    ResetCount       16 UINT        "Processor Reset Count"
  APPEND_ITEM    NetLogicalAddress 8 UINT        "Network Logical Address"
  ## This is also a magic typematch number.
  APPEND_ID_ITEM ProtocolId        8 UINT 0x42   "Network Protocol ID"
  APPEND_ITEM    AsciiData        -8 STRING      "Payload text buffer"
  ITEM           NetCrc         -8 8 UINT        "CRC"

The above block means “for a sequence of bytes with magic numbers in cells 2, 3, and 21, interpret the first 22 bytes as these fields, the last bytes as this other field, and everything from byte 22 to the penultimate as text.”

COSMOS provides Ruby code for building modules and classes from these definitions, as well as ser/des methods. I do not know of similar libriaries in other languages, though I am attempting to write one in Rust. That effort is what motivates this post.

Data Format

For various reasons not worth exploring here, we do not always write our message layouts in ways optimally suited for ease of transmutation by C or Rust. The above message is an example of this: it has an unsized type (AsciiData -8 STRING) that is not at the tail end of the message, and the 4- and 8- byte wide fields are not aligned for ease of access on the ground.

A C struct naïvely declared to match this description would be (a) illegal, due to the non-terminal unsized array, and (b) incorrect, because the compiler would insert holes that this serialized message format does not have.

So the simplest type transmutation, casting a pointer to this message as a pointer to a matching struct, doesn’t work, and actual ser/des functions are required.

It helps that we know, because it’s in the documentation, that the LEN field of a BLOG_POST FOO_TLM message (henceforth <dfn>BPFT</dfn>) is the width of the entire message (not the width of the AsciiData field) and we can use that for bookkeeping.

Example Type and Deserialization in C

Let’s get some basic C types down that we’ll then build on. We need an enum of all messages in the project and a tagged-union to contain them, as well as a struct definition of the BPFT type.

enum Message {
  /* others */
/* ... other struct definitions ... */
struct BlogPost_FooTlm {
  unsigned char* ascii_data;
  /* C integer types are terrible */
  unsigned long long frt;
  unsigned int gpsm;
  unsigned short len;
  unsigned short gpsw;
  unsigned short reset_count;
  unsigned char net_logical_address;
  unsigned char net_crc;
struct TypedMessage {
  enum Message ty;
  union {
    /* others */
    struct BlogPost_FooTlm bpft,
    void* none,
  } msg;
/* Blanks a TypedMessage struct to a safe NONE state */
void blank_typed_message(struct TypedMessage* self) {
  memset(&(self->msg), 0, sizeof(self->msg));
  self->ty = Message_NONE;

My mission docs state that all 74 packet types have opcodes in the same place, which makes first-level detection easier. Let’s see what a BPFT-specific deserializer looks like, and a general function that reads from the network and returns some deserialized message.

/* Deserialize a packet into a BPFT structure */
int deser_bpft(unsigned char* pkt, struct BlogPost_FooTlm* out) {
  out->len = ntohs(*(unsigned short*)pkt);
  out->gpsw = ntohs(*(unsigned short*)&pkt[4]);
  out->gpsm = ntoh(*(unsigned int*)&pkt[6]);
  out->frt = ntohl(*(unsigned long long*)&pkt[10]);
  out->reset_count = ntohs(*(unsigned short*)&pkt[18]);
  out->net_logical_address = ntoh(*(unsigned char*)&pkt[20]);
  out->ascii_data = malloc(out->len - 23);
  if (out->ascii_data == NULL) {
    return -1;
  memmove(out->ascii_data, &pkt[22], out->len - 23);
  out->net_crc = pkt[out->len - 1];
  return 0;
/* Deserialize a packet into _some_ structure */
struct TypedMessage deser(unsigned char* pkt, int len) {
  /* Set up a return value */
  struct TypedMessage out;
  /* Early abort if needed */
  if (len < 4) {
    goto fail;
  /* Switch on the globally known identifier position */
  switch ntohs(*(unsigned short*)&pkt[2]) {
  /* A message family */
  case 0xABCD:
    switch pkt[21] {
    /* BPFT specifically */
    case 0x42:
      /* Deserialize as BPFT into the return structure */
      if (deser_bpft(pkt, (void*)&(out.msg)) != 0) {
        goto fail;
      /* Set the type flag */
      out.ty = Message_BPFT;
      goto exit;
      goto fail;
    goto fail;
  return out;

This is absolutely error-prone C code. For one, all the dereferences as multi-byte types are massively undefined behavior because there’s no guarantee that their offsets in the packet are at valid alignments. That switch stack is also extremely brittle. This is for a blog post, not a deliverable; I don’t write like this in real life and neither should you.

Let me break down what’s happening here:

  1. The deser function is called on a packet freshly received from the network layer. It has had all its transport wrappings removed, has been recombined if needed, and should look like one of the 74 message types declared in this project. This function looks at bytes 2 and 3 as a single 16-bit value and compares against known magic numbers.

  2. If the discovered number is the magic number indicating one of a family of telemetry messages, we enter into another block to finish determining type. This means inspecting byte 21 and branching on its value. If it is the magic number of a BPFT, we deserialize and return a tagged union over all message struct types.

  3. To deserialize a BPFT, we have to do the previously-described transformations of the data stream on every field (except the magic indicators), and also allocate an array elsewhere on the heap to store the string. We can’t store it inline, because C doesn’t allow non-final variable-width struct fields.

  4. The caller of deser() can inspect the .ty field of the returned struct to determine what kind of structure was returned, and then access the struct with .msg.bpft.ascii_data or other field names.

Lessons From the Example

This example code should illustrate a couple issues with the C type and logic systems, bad code smells notwithstanding.

First of all, C has no concept of type parameters, so it can only presume types have either totally known, constant, sizes, or absolutely unknown sizes for which it punts responsibility to the programmer.

Secondly, C has no awareness of field coupling, and only limited awareness of collection widths. Given compile-time-constant arrays (but not strings), the C compiler can provide information about their widths, but it lacks the ability to provide this behavior at runtime. Furthermore, the relationship between fields (such as the number in LEN and the actual size of a message sequence) is unknown to, and thus unenforced by, the compiler, and so relies on good behavior from the programmer and every component in the system.

These are both cases that Rust is in a position to address, and has much of the groundwork laid to do so.

Rust’s Current Type System

At present, Rust kind of has fields integrated into type knowledge; for example, its slice type is a <dfn>wide pointer</dfn> that looks like this:

pub struct SliceRef<T> {
  ptr: *const T,
  len: usize,

and anytime a slice is generated from a collection, the len parameter is bound to the instance and the compiler is able to make intelligent optimizations about staying within the slice length and not breaking out of logically correct memory. As I understand it, this compiler awareness does not extend to other types. This means that, for example, we cannot yet create a Rust struct that would read a BPFT serialized byte sequence and know within the type system how to build a safe, correct, BPFT struct out of it.

Rust, like C, shares the limitation that variable-width types must be last in a struct, and cause the entire struct to become unsized (or in Rust, !Sized) and unable to be used as a direct value.

There is one particular area where C++ has features up to which Rust needs to catch: type-level integers. Rust does not have these, though there are RFCs in progress to add these to the type system. Once these RFCs land, we will be able to solve the problem of non-tailing unsized types and, I hope, uncoupled fields. For the rest this article, I will be using Rust syntax that assumes type level integers have landed according to the linked RFCs.

Solving Unsized Types

The message description specification for my project, as for all data formats, includes a means of determining the finite size of the item. C strings are the most prominent exception to this rule, which do not carry length out of band but rather use a special marker value in the stream to signal termination.

We know that for all message formats that carry their own length information as a field, there is a finite range of possible sizes, because integers in the computer science sense of the word are finitely ranged. For the BPFT message I laid out above, the total length of the message must be no greater than 0xFFFF as that is the maximum value an unsigned 16-bit integer can hold.

We also know, from the fields contained in a BPFT message, that its minimum size is 23 bytes: the sum of the widths of all fields other than the AsciiData, which can have zero bytes to itself (as evidenced by the fact that it begins at bit offset -8, and the NetCrc field ALSO begins at bit offset -8).

This means that, for the definition of the BPFT message, there are 65,512 possible versions of the BPFT struct that can exist and have concretely known sizes.

Since writing out sixty-five thousand variants of the same type declaration is stupid, we will instead use the forthcoming type-level integer feature of Rust’s type system to do the same thing we currently do with type-level types: make a BPFT type family, that is monomorphized at runtime, just as Rust traits currently do.

Generically-Sized Types

pub struct BlogPost_FooTlm<const N>
where N: u16,
//  the proposed `with` keyword is
//  equivalent to `where` but for math,
//  rather than type logic
with N >= 23,
  ascii_data: Box<[u8; N - 23]>,
  frt: u64,
  gpsm: u32,
  len: N,
  gpsw: u16,
  reset_count: u16,
  net_logical_address: u8,
  net_crc: u8,

In this declaration, I specify that the type family BlogPost_FooTlm is generic over possible values of a constant called N, and then specify that N must have the type u16 and the value constraints >= 23. I then state that the field len is an instance of this type parameter. I also state that the field ascii_data is a pointer to an array of bytes allocated somewhere else that is of a length directly coupled to the type parameter N.

The compiler is now aware that the concrete type instance of a BPFT is linked to the value of one of its fields.

However, this still mirrors my C struct above, and does NOT mirror the field layout of the BLOG_POST FOO_TLM message when serialized as bytes. This means that transmuting between the in-memory struct and the serialized byte sequence requires implementing semi-complex functions akin to my C deser_bpft function above.

I’m not going to implement them in Rust. You already saw the gist of the logic above, and nothing’s changed. Instead, I’m going to showcase an extension of previously unsafe and/or impossible behavior that type-level integers can make possible and safe.

Safed Superpowers: Zero-Cost Transmutation

Let’s first of all declare a Rust structure that exactly mirrors the COSMOS description text. Thanks to type-level integers, the ascii_data field is no longer unsized, and so we can have it in a non-tailing position.

pub struct BlogPost_FooTlm<const N>
where N: u16,
with N >= 23,
  len: N,
  opcode: u16,
  gpsw: u16,
  gpsm: u32,
  frt: u64,
  reset_count: u16,
  net_logical_address: u8,
  protocol_id: u8,
  ascii_data: [u8; N - 23],
  net_crc: u8,

We now have a family of BPFT structures that exactly mirror the BPFT description text. Note that the OPCODE and ProtocolId fields have made a comeback.

The end result of all this work in Rust’s type system is that we can go back to using C-style programming, but safely:

use std::convert::{From, Into};

impl From<[u8; N as usize]> for BlogPost_FooTlm<N>
where N: u16,
with N >= 23,
  fn from(mut src: [u8; N as usize]) -> Self<N> {
    let mut out = unsafe { std::mem::transmute(src) };

impl Into<[u8; N as usize]> for BlogPost_FooTlm<N>
where N: u16,
with N >= 23,
  fn into(mut self) -> [u8; N as usize] {
    unsafe { std::mem::transmute(self) }

That’s it. The only thing these functions do is inform the type checker that the byte sequence in memory that used to be one type, are now another type, and because the type parameter is encoded in a known position in the byte sequence, the compiler is able to generate code that will handle all this correctly, safely, and completely transparently to the programmer.

Handling Concrete-Type Explosions

However, this requires a great deal of work to take place at runtime, and unlike with standard type generics where all types are known and planned at compile time, the compiler must not emit sixty-five thousand versions of the struct and functions to handle it.

The solution to this problem is already partially solved with Rust’s trait system, and will be further solved when the impl Trait RFC lands.

Rust is very good at recognizing large structures and rewriting things behind the scenes to use pointers instead of values, so that functions manipulating large types can work without having to perform lots of redundant copies and moves. This intelligence will need to be brought to bear for integer-typed families like BPFT. Rather than making a slew of similar functions and structs with individual variants of the type family, Rust will simply state that types are a member of the BPFT or other family, and rely on its deep knowledge of how BPFT and similar types are constructed to handle runtime-only behavior.

impl<const N> BlogPost_FooTlm<N>
where N: u16,
with N >= 23,
  pub fn extract_ascii_data(self) -> [u8; N - 23] {

Rust does not need to construct a slew of these functions and choose between them based on inspection of self.len at runtime; it will instead rewrite this function to consume and return pointers to memory.

If Rust is able to make intelligent optimiziation choices, which it often is, it may likely simply cause this function to evaporate, and replace it with compile time knowledge that calling it will free 22 bytes before the array and one byte after it, and open up these memory locations for use elsewhere. It may also do nothing, and merely forbid access to the now-logically-destroyed fields until such time as it can free the entire memory block formerly owned by the BPFT instance.

Sentinel Values in Type Declarations

So, types that can be generic over integer values will have solved one of my two problems discovered in the course of my work. What about the other, that I have so far barely acknowledged?

In order to deserialize an arbitrary byte stream into well-formed, typed, structured, data, the code acting upon it must be able to find a way of deciding which type to generate. The COSMOS declaration text provides these markers with ID_ITEM fields, as I have mentioned, and the parsing code can look for these magic numbers in their magic positions to determine if a byte sequence represents a valid instance of a declared type.

Rust has good support for matching patterns based on what data “looks like” when matching on values already of a known good type, like this:

struct Foobar {
  a: i32,
  b: i32,

let f: foobar = Foobar { a: 1, b: 2 };
match f {
  Foobar { a, b: 1 } => println!("Found a Foobar with a/{} and b/1", a),
  Foobar { a: 1, b } => println!("Found a Foobar with a/1 and b/{}", b),
  m @ Foobar { .. } => println!("Found a {:?}", m),

This code will run the middle arm, as f matches the pattern given (a Foobar with its a field equal to 1).

The final arm just says “if the given value is a Foobar, give me a handle to the entire thing at the symbol m; don’t destructure into inner fields at all.”

This is the foundation of what I want to accomplish when inspecting [u8] streams for the type into which they should be deserialized. Rust currently does not offer a way to accomplish this in the type system; it must be done like we did in C: read from a known location in the stream and match on it:

enum Message {
fn deser(pkt: &[u8]) -> Message {
  use Message::*;
  let opcode = NetworkEndian::read_u16(&src[2 .. 4]);
  match opcode {
    0xCDAB => {
      let proto_id = src[21];
      match proto_id {
        case 0x42 => BPFT(box src.into()),
        _ => None,
    _ => None,

What if, since we defined our message struct types to be byte-equivalent to the [u8] byte streams that are their serialized form, we could just test if the packet byte stream fits in a type? This is an extension of type-level integers that I’m not sure I’ve yet seen, so I’m treating it as a separate offshoot.

Magic Constants

I’m going to redefine BPFT yet again, getting even further from valid Rust.

pub struct BlogPost_FooTlm<N>
where N: u16,
with N >= 23,
  len: N,
  //  Keep this flip in mind
  const opcode: u16 = 0xCDAB,
  gpsw: u16,
  gpsm: u32,
  frt: u64,
  reset_count: u16,
  net_logical_address: u8,
  const protocol_id: u8 = 0x42,
  ascii_data: [u8; N - 23],
  net_crc: u8,

This declares that not only is there a type family of BPFT structures dependent on values of len, but that it is illegal for BPFT instances to exist whose opcode and protocol_id fields are anything but the stated values. This could have been done by adding additional type parameters

pub struct BlogPost_FooTlm_Extra<N, O, P>
where N: u16, O: u16, P: u8,
with N >= 23, O == 0xABCD, P == 0x42,
{ .. }

but, in my opinion, that adds lots of extraneous syntax noise and ugliness. Besides, I’m of the opinion that these magic constants are describing a pattern of the type, rather than a logic of it. Coupling the value of len to the type information of the struct is a logical decision that determines which particular variant of BPFT is chosen as the type, while the value of opcode determines if a byte sequence can even fit in a BPFT pattern. I see those as two separate concerns, even though they are both built upon type-level integers.

So suppose we had Rust syntax that supported assigning magic constants to fields in the manner I just described. We could then, possibly, extend that as follows for deserialization:

fn deser<O, const N>(src: [u8; N]) -> Result<Box<O>, &'static str>
where N: usize, O: As<[u8; N]>
  match src {
    bpft @ BlogPost_FooTlm<N> { .. } => Ok(box bpft.from_be()),
    _ => Err("Invalid byte sequence"),

This dummy example assumes a currently non-existent trait called As that is simply a marker for “calling std::mem::transmute between these two types is safe and logically valid.”

See up above where I said the magic constant for BPFT.opcode was not 0xABCD? The pattern matcher cannot mutate the source field in any way during inspection, as this has the possibility to invalidate not only future checks but past checks also. This means that the matcher has to attempt to compare the source bytes against the pattern of destination type bytes (here, check if [2 .. 4] match [0xAB, 0xCD] and [21] matches[0x42]) without altering the source, and it is nonsensical to call to_be() on a type, rather than an instance. Extending Rust’s grammar far enough to be able to call manipulator functions on a type with magic constant is, even in my opinion, too much to ask.

So this function would check at compile time if all left hand patterns were types that could be represented as [u8; N] with a simple transmutation, no computation or alteration of any kind, and then create code to check the correct bytes of the source data with the correct bytes of the target pattern. It’s basically just an implementation of my C switch stack far far above, but done in the type system rather than by manually inspecting numbers.

If a match occurs, we enter the appropriate arm with a binding to the source data as if we had called transmute() on the source data. Since the message bytes are in network endian but this is almost assuredly happening on a little endian machine, we then call .from_be() on the binding, which invokes the type’s correct endian converter, and returns the now-altered result.


I’m at 4,000 words again, so rather than my planned conclusion of “reasons this would be useful to anyone other than me,” I’ll just end here. I’ll build on this article more in the future, I’m sure.

I recognize that everything I just wrote is entirely the result of one person spitballing from one particular problem, and is very far from being ready to write into a proper RFC, much less adding to the compiler. However, if any of this sounds interesting to you, I’d love to hash this out and refine it into a better, more general form that might one day land.


I want std::mem::transmute() to be type-safe and give Rust programs run-time type inference that is statically known to be logically sound.

And also be competitive in speed and behavior with manually tuned C code.