FlatBuffers
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FlatBuffers white paper

This document tries to shed some light on to the "why" of FlatBuffers, a new serialization library.

Motivation

Back in the good old days, performance was all about instructions and cycles. Nowadays, processing units have run so far ahead of the memory subsystem, that making an efficient application should start and finish with thinking about memory. How much you use of it. How you lay it out and access it. How you allocate it. When you copy it.

Serialization is a pervasive activity in a lot programs, and a common source of memory inefficiency, with lots of temporary data structures needed to parse and represent data, and inefficient allocation patterns and locality.

If it would be possible to do serialization with no temporary objects, no additional allocation, no copying, and good locality, this could be of great value. The reason serialization systems usually don't manage this is because it goes counter to forwards/backwards compatability, and platform specifics like endianness and alignment.

FlatBuffers is what you get if you try anyway.

In particular, FlatBuffers focus is on mobile hardware (where memory size and memory bandwidth is even more constrained than on desktop hardware), and applications that have the highest performance needs: games.

FlatBuffers

This is a summary of FlatBuffers functionality, with some rationale. A more detailed description can be found in the FlatBuffers documentation.

Summary

A FlatBuffer is a binary buffer containing nested objects (structs, tables, vectors,..) organized using offsets so that the data can be traversed in-place just like any pointer-based data structure. Unlike most in-memory data structures however, it uses strict rules of alignment and endianness (always little) to ensure these buffers are cross platform. Additionally, for objects that are tables, FlatBuffers provides forwards/backwards compatibility and general optionality of fields, to support most forms of format evolution.

You define your object types in a schema, which can then be compiled to C++ or Java for low to zero overhead reading & writing. Optionally, JSON data can be dynamically parsed into buffers.

Tables

Tables are the cornerstone of FlatBuffers, since format evolution is essential for most applications of serialization. Typically, dealing with format changes is something that can be done transparently during the parsing process of most serialization solutions out there. But a FlatBuffer isn't parsed before it is accessed.

Tables get around this by using an extra indirection to access fields, through a vtable. Each table comes with a vtable (which may be shared between multiple tables with the same layout), and contains information where fields for this particular kind of instance of vtable are stored. The vtable may also indicate that the field is not present (because this FlatBuffer was written with an older version of the software, of simply because the information was not necessary for this instance, or deemed deprecated), in which case a default value is returned.

Tables have a low overhead in memory (since vtables are small and shared) and in access cost (an extra indirection), but provide great flexibility. Tables may even cost less memory than the equivalent struct, since fields do not need to be stored when they are equal to their default.

FlatBuffers additionally offers "naked" structs, which do not offer forwards/backwards compatibility, but can be even smaller (useful for very small objects that are unlikely to change, like e.g. a coordinate pair or a RGBA color).

Schemas

While schemas reduce some generality (you can't just read any data without having its schema), they have a lot of upsides:

  • Most information about the format can be factored into the generated code, reducing memory needed to store data, and time to access it.
  • The strong typing of the data definitions means less error checking/handling at runtime (less can go wrong).
  • A schema enables us to access a buffer without parsing.

FlatBuffer schemas are fairly similar to those of the incumbent, Protocol Buffers, and generally should be readable to those familiar with the C family of languages. We chose to improve upon the features offered by .proto files in the following ways:

  • Deprecation of fields instead of manual field id assignment. Extending an object in a .proto means hunting for a free slot among the numbers (preferring lower numbers since they have a more compact representation). Besides being inconvenient, it also makes removing fields problematic: you either have to keep them, not making it obvious that this field shouldn't be read/written anymore, and still generating accessors. Or you remove it, but now you risk that there's still old data around that uses that field by the time someone reuses that field id, with nasty consequences.
  • Differentiating between tables and structs (see above). Effectively all table fields are optional, and all struct fields are required.
  • Having a native vector type instead of repeated. This gives you a length without having to collect all items, and in the case of scalars provides for a more compact representation, and one that guarantees adjacency.
  • Having a native union type instead of using a series of optional fields, all of which must be checked individually.
  • Being able to define defaults for all scalars, instead of having to deal with their optionality at each access.
  • A parser that can deal with both schemas and data definitions (JSON compatible) uniformly.