Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Netstring format

A netstring is a formatting method for byte strings that uses a declarative notation to indicate the size of the string.
Netstrings store the byte length of the data that follows, making it easier to unambiguously pass text and byte data between programs that could be sensitive to values that could be interpreted as delimiters or terminators (such as a null character).

Eg: the text "hello world!" encodes as:
12:hello world!,
And an empty string as:

Since the format is easy to generate and to parse, it is easy to support by programs written in different programming languages. In practice, netstrings are often used to simplify exchange of bytestrings, or lists of bytestrings. For example, see its use in the Simple CGI and the Quick Mail Queuing Protocol (QMQP).
Netstrings avoid complications that arise in trying to embed arbitrary data in delimited formats. For example, XML may not contain certain byte values and requires a nontrivial combination of escaping and delimiting, while generating multipart MIME messages involves choosing a delimiter that must not clash with the content of the data.
Note that since netstrings pose no limitations on the contents of the data they store, netstrings can not be embedded verbatim in most delimited formats without the possibility of interfering with the delimiting of the containing format.
In the context of network programming it is potentially useful that the receiving program is informed of the size of the data that follows, as it can allocate exactly enough memory and avoid the need for reallocation to accommodate more data.

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