Zero-copy deserialization

Zero-copy deserialization is a technique that reduces the time and memory required to access and use data by directly referencing bytes in the serialized form.

This takes advantage of how we have to have some data loaded in memory in order to deserialize it. If we had some JSON:

{ "quote": "I don't know, I didn't listen." }

Instead of copying those characters into a String, we could just borrow it from the JSON buffer as a &str. The lifetime of that &str would depend on our buffer and we wouldn't be allowed to drop it until we had dropped the string we were using.

Partial zero-copy

Serde and others have support for partial zero-copy deserialization, where bits and pieces of the deserialized data are borrowed from the serialized form. Strings, for example, can borrow their bytes directly from the serialized form in encodings like bincode that don't perform any character escaping. However, a string object must still be created to hold the deserialized length and point to the borrowed characters.

A good way to think about this is that even though we're borrowing lots of data from the buffer, we still have to parse the structure out:

struct Example<'a> {
  quote: &'a str,
  a: &'a [u8; 12],
  b: u64,
  c: char,

So a buffer might break down like this:

I don't know, I didn't listen.AAAAAAAAAAAABBBBBBBBCCCC
 quote: str                    a: [u8; 12] b: u64  c: char

We do a lot less work, but we still have to parse, create, and return an Example<'a>:

Example {
  quote: str::from_utf8(&buffer[0..30]).unwrap(),
  a: &buffer[30..42],
  b: u64::from_le_bytes(&buffer[42..50]),
  c: char::from_u32(u32::from_le_bytes(&buffer[50..54]))).unwrap(),

And we can't borrow types like u64 or char that have alignment requirements since our buffer might not be properly aligned. We have to immediately parse and store those! Even though we borrowed 42 of the buffer's bytes, we missed out on the last 12 and still had to parse through the buffer to find out where everything is.

Partial zero-copy deserialization can considerably improve memory usage and often speed up some deserialiation, but with some work we can go further.

Total zero-copy

rkyv implements total zero-copy deserialization, which guarantees that no data is copied during deserialization and no work is done to deserialize data. It achieves this by structuring its encoded representation so that it is the same as the in-memory representation of the source type.

This is more like if our buffer was an Example:

struct Example {
  quote: String,
  a: [u8; 12],
  b: u64,
  c: char,

And our buffer looked like this:

^-----------------------------  ^---^---^-----------^-------^---
 quote bytes                    pointer  a           b       c
                                and len

In this case, the bytes are padded to the correct alignment and the fields of Example are laid out exactly the same as they would be in memory. Our deserialization code can be much simpler:

unsafe { &*buffer.as_ptr().add(32).cast() }

This operation is almost zero work, and more importantly it doesn't scale with our data. No matter how much or how little data we have, it's always just a pointer offset and a cast to access our data.

This opens up blazingly-fast data loading and enables data access orders of magnitude more quickly than traditional serialization.