Lilliputian Structures


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I really wish I’d actually thought of calling it this when I first started this project. Unfortunately, I did not.

This project is a Rust library that provides a trait, Endian, that declares mechanisms of endian transformations on types that implement it. The trait requires four methods: from_be(), from_le(), to_be(), and to_le() that convert their receiver from or to, big or little endian, respectively.

The primary crate, endian_trait also implements this trait on (almost) all of Rust’s primitives. It provides implementations on all standard integer types, bool, f32/f64, and char, and permits users to opt-in to implementations on the 128-bit integers (currently requiring the nightly compiler, as 128-bit integers are not yet stabilized), and on arrays of any type that implements Endian up to and including 256 elements in size.

Rust does not yet have type-level integers, which means I have to define implementations of Endian on [T: Endian; N] for each value of N that I want to support.

The secondary crate, endian_trait_derive, provides a custom-derive procedural macro that will implement Endian on any struct or tuple whose fields are all themselves Endian.

Rationale and Use Case

The endianness, or order of bytes in multi-byte units, is of critical importance in correctly interpreting data. Multi-byte types can be stored in memory with either the most-significant byte at the lowest address and the least-significant at the highest (big-endian), or vice versa (little-endian). The reasons behind each choice are endless and not important here. What’s important is that the x86_64 architecture used by practically all desktops and laptops is little-endian, the cores I use at work are often big-endian, and also one of the Internet RFCs defines the byte order for data traversing the network as big-endian also.

So at my workplace, where transmitting data across radio networks is our whole raison d’être, we care about endian transformation at network boundaries. We also care about complex, structured, data, as that’s what we’re moving across the network.

As far as I’ve been able to see, this trivial crate I wrote is the first library that makes it convenient to command a data structure to flip all its bits in the correct fashion to depart or arrive from the network layer. C defines ntoh() and hton() functions, which I don’t believe operate on the various types of int and require user intervention to correctly do so (and so almost everyone rolls their own endian conversion code, like everything else in C).

Rust defines inherent methods on each numeric primitive to flip from local endian to big or little, and to flip back. The compiler knows that two of these four functions are always identity functions: on little-endian computers, from_le() and to_le() do nothing, and the same goes for big-endian computers and from_be()/to_be(). As such, it will erase them where appropriate, and user code need not worry about the architecture on which it will be compiled: after a to_ function is called, the data will be what it says it is, and after a from_ function, it will be machine-native, whether or not any byte flipping was actually performed.

This is okay for flipping individual integer types around, but the network boundary functions must still invoke it on each field.

My crate declares the Endian trait so that complex data types may state that they know how to flip all their components, and thus the Endian methods can be called on the composed type once, rather than on each field. It also provides a default derivation mechanism that will do this: any type on which #[derive(Endian)] is tagged will be given an implementation of Endian that simply delegates the Endian method call to each field. The fields must all themselves implement Endian, or the compiler will reject your code, and since the primitives all implement Endian (by using their inherent methods, or by pretending to be fixed integers and then using integer inherent methods), the Endian trait implementations all eventually resolve to “call the integer inherent method on each field” and the arbitrarily deep function stack disappears thanks to compiler optimization.

This means that network serialization of any type comes down to two steps:

On outbound, call the appropriate Endian::to_ method, then write as if it were a byte array.

On inbound, read from a byte array into the type, then call the appropriate Endian::from_ method.

Code Samples

Declare any standard struct, tuple struct, or zero sized type.

struct Foo {
  a: i32,
  b: char,
struct Bar(u32, bool);
struct Quux;

Implement Endian on them. You can do it yourself, but since endian conversions don’t change the order of fields, just of bytes within a single field, why would you? So you can impl Endian for Foo { ... }, or you can scrap the above and do

struct Foo { a: i32, b: char, }
struct Bar(u32, bool);
struct Quux;

Make instances of them, and call Endian methods.

let f = Foo {
  a: 0x01234567,
  b: 'A',
let b = Bar(0xFEDCBA98, true);
let q = Quux;

let fb = f.to_be();
let bl = b.to_le();
//  this does nothing, ever
let q = q.from_le();

That’s it.


After a to_ conversion, and before a from_ conversion, the data is tainted and absolutely cannot be used as anything other than a sequence of raw, meaningless bytes. Wrong-endian floats will be massively incorrect; wrong-endian chars might not be valid at all (they have a max value of 0x10ffff), and while integer types will still be valid representations, their numeric value will be FAR from correct. Once a data type is flipped out of native endian, it is just bytes, and will remain so until flipped back.

Also, Rust’s memory model isn’t stabilized, so you can’t rely on transmuting a struct to [u8; size_of<Struct>] and writing it directly; you still have to use a real conversion function to write into and read out of a buffer. You could do this with a #[repr(C)] or #[repr(packed)] annotation, but those tend to make working with real instances of the struct less pleasant.