24 days of Rust - serde

Two years ago I wrote an article about working with JSON in Rust. JSON (de)serialization support was then baked in the standard library. However, at that time Rust was at version 0.13 and a lot of things happened since then. Mainly, the rustc-serialize crate got pulled out of the core libraries, but kept its close relation to the rustc compiler itself. (Hence the slightly awkward name.)

Meanwhile, a new contender arose: serde. It is also a generic serialization framework for Rust. It's more modern, actively maintained and gets lots of love from the community. There's a selection of supported data formats, including JSON, YAML, MessagePack as well as several others. Even the official docs for rustc-serialize say (emphasis mine):

While this library is the standard way of working with JSON in Rust, there is a next-generation library called Serde that's in the works (it's faster, overcomes some design limitations of rustc-serialize and has more features). You might consider using it when starting a new project or evaluating Rust JSON performance.

From struct to JSON

Remember our game configuration struct from a few days ago? Let's revisit it now.


extern crate serde_derive;
extern crate serde_json;

#[derive(Serialize, Deserialize, Debug, Default)]
struct GameConfig {
    save_dir: Option<String>,
    autosave: bool,
    fov: f32,
    render_distance: u32,

let config = GameConfig::default();
let json = serde_json::to_string(&config).expect("Couldn't serialize config");
println!("{}", json);
$ cargo run

The proc_macro feature gate allows us to use the new macro system (more on that in a moment). Macros located in serde_derive transparently implement custom derive-d traits. Our struct is a regular Rust data type, nothing fancy here apart from Serialize, Deserialize in the derive-able trait list. These come from serde and apply to things that can be (de)serialized.

Aside: We're using nightly Rust (1.15 as of today) to take advantage of new macro system. Historically, serde used a compiler plugin to generate boilerplate code for dealing with serialization of custom types. Compiler plugins, however, are inherently unstable; when the compiler internals change, the plugins should be updated as well. This is part of the motivation behind macros 1.1 RFC. This RFC even mentions serde directly.

So should we still use nightly for convenient (de)serialization? At this moment, yes. However, custom derive attributes will be stabilized! So in a few releases from now, we'll be able to use serde, diesel and a few other crates on stable Rust with the same ease as today on nightly.

If we would like the output to be more readable, we can replace the call to to_string() with to_string_pretty() and that's it.

let json = serde_json::to_string_pretty(&config).expect("Couldn't serialize config");
println!("{}", json);
$ cargo run
  "save_dir": null,
  "autosave": false,
  "fov": 0.0,
  "render_distance": 0

From YAML to struct

YAML is another popular format for human-readable configuration. We can use serde_yaml to read and write YAML with serde.

extern crate serde_yaml;

#[derive(Deserialize, Debug)]
struct Task {
    name: String,
    command: String,

#[derive(Deserialize, Debug)]
struct Play {
    host_list: String,
    tasks: Vec<Task>,

type Playbook = Vec<Play>;

let yaml = include_str!("../data/playbook.yml");
println!("{}", yaml);
let playbook = serde_yaml::from_str::<Playbook>(&yaml);
println!("{:?}", playbook);

In this example we're reading a minimal Ansible playbook. Ansible is an infrastructure automation tool which stores its configuration in YAML files, called playbooks by convention. If we model our playbook elements (such as tasks and plays) as Rust structs that derive Deserialize, reading a playbook is straightforward. One thing to note is that field names do not need to agree exactly between our struct and the data format. We can use #[serde(rename=<NAME>)] to tell serde to serialize the field under a different name. Here, a hosts key in the playbook will be mapped to host_list field of the struct.

$ cargo run
- hosts: all
    - name: tell the time
      command: date
Ok([Play { host_list: "all", tasks: [Task { name: "tell the time", command: "date" }] }])

This is a typical pattern when working with serde: define the types, either derive or implement Deserialize/Serialize manually, and that's all :) And if we mess up our struct or try to read some malformed data, serde and related crates have rather good and informative error types.

Further reading

Photo by Jon-Eric Melsæter and shared under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License. See https://www.flickr.com/photos/jonmelsa/6924608275/