In Pursuit of Laziness

Manish Goregaokar's blog

Zero-Copy All the Things! (Zero-Copy #2)

Posted by Manish Goregaokar on August 03, 2022 in programming, rust

This is part 2 of a three-part series on interesting abstractions for zero-copy deserialization I’ve been working on over the last year. This part is about making zero-copy deserialization work for more types. Part 1 is about making it more pleasant to work with and can be found here; while Part 3 is about eliminating the deserialization step entirely and can be found here. The posts can be read in any order, though only the first post contains an explanation of what zero-copy deserialization is.


This section is the same as in the last article and can be skipped if you’ve read it

For the past year and a half I’ve been working full time on ICU4X, a new internationalization library in Rust being built under the Unicode Consortium as a collaboration between various companies.

There’s a lot I can say about ICU4X, but to focus on one core value proposition: we want it to be modular both in data and code. We want ICU4X to be usable on embedded platforms, where memory is at a premium. We want applications constrained by download size to be able to support all languages rather than pick a couple popular ones because they cannot afford to bundle in all that data. As a part of this, we want loading data to be fast and pluggable. Users should be able to design their own data loading strategies for their individual use cases.

See, a key part of performing correct internationalization is the data. Different locales1 do things differently, and all of the information on this needs to go somewhere, preferably not code. You need data on how a particular locale formats dates2, or how plurals work in a particular language, or how to accurately segment languages like Thai which are typically not written with spaces so that you can insert linebreaks in appropriate positions.

Given the focus on data, a very attractive option for us is zero-copy deserialization. In the process of trying to do zero-copy deserialization well, we’ve built some cool new libraries, this article is about one of them.

What can you zero-copy?

Speech bubble for character Positive pion
If you’re unfamiliar with zero-copy deserialization, check out the explanation in the previous article!

In the previous article we explored how zero-copy deserialization could be made more pleasant to work with by erasing the lifetimes. In essence, we were expanding our capabilities on what you can do with zero-copy data.

This article is about expanding our capabilities on what we can make zero-copy data.

We previously saw this struct:

#[derive(Serialize, Deserialize)]
struct Person {
    // this field is nearly free to construct
    age: u8,
    // constructing this will involve a small allocation and copy
    name: String,
    // this may take a while
    rust_files_written: Vec<String>,

and made the name field zero-copy by replacing it with a Cow<'a, str>. However, we weren’t able to do the same with the rust_files_written field because serde does not handle zero-copy deserialization for things other than [u8] and str. Forget nested collections like Vec<String> (as &[&str]), even Vec<u32> (as &[u32]) can’t be made zero-copy easily!

This is not a fundamental restriction in zero-copy deserialization, indeed, the excellent rkyv library is able to support data like this. However, it’s not as slam-dunk easy as str and [u8] and it’s understandable that serde wishes to not pick sides on any tradeoffs here and leave it up to the users.

So what’s the actual problem here?

Blefuscudian Bewilderment

The short answer is: endianness, alignment, and for Vec<String>, indirection.

See, the way zero-copy deserialization works is by directly taking a pointer to the memory and declaring it to be the desired value. For this to work, that data must be of a kind that looks the same on all machines, and must be legal to take a reference to.

This is pretty straightforward for [u8] and str, their data is identical on every system. str does need a validation step to ensure it’s valid UTF-8, but the general thrust of zero-copy serialization is to replace expensive deserialization with cheaper validation, so we’re fine with that.

On the other hand, the borrowed version of Vec<String>, &[&str] is unlikely to look the same even across different executions of the program on the same system, because it contains pointers (indirection) that’ll change each time depending on the data source!

Pointers are hard. What about Vec<u32>/[u32]? Surely there’s nothing wrong with a pile of integers?

Dracula, dispensing wisdom on the subject of zero-copy deserialization.

This is where the endianness and alignment come in. Firstly, a u32 doesn’t look exactly the same on all systems, some systems are “big endian”, where the integer 0x00ABCDEF would be represented in memory as [0x00, 0xAB, 0xCD, 0xEF], whereas others are “little endian” and would represent it [0xEF, 0xCD, 0xAB, 0x00]. Most systems these days are little-endian, but not all, so you may need to care about this.

This would mean that a [u32] serialized on a little endian system would come out completely garbled on a big-endian system if we’re naïvely zero-copy deserializing.

Secondly, a lot of systems impose alignment restrictions on types like u32. A u32 cannot be found at any old memory address, on most modern systems it must be found at a memory address that’s a multiple of 4. Similarly, a u64 must be at a memory address that’s a multiple of 8, and so on. The subsection of data being serialized, however, may be found at any address. It’s possible to design a serialization framework where a particular field in the data is forced to have a particular alignment (rkyv has this), however it’s kinda tricky and requires you to have control over the alignment of the original loaded data, which isn’t a part of serde’s model.

So how can we address this?

ZeroVec and VarZeroVec

A lot of the design here can be found explained in the design doc

After a bunch of discussions with Shane, we designed and wrote zerovec, a crate that attempts to solve this problem, in a way that works with serde.

The core abstractions of the crate are the two types, ZeroVec and VarZeroVec, which are essentially zero-copy enabled versions of Cow<'a, [T]>, for fixed-size and variable-size T types.

ZeroVec can be used with any type implementing ULE (more on what this means later), which is by default all of the integer types and can be extended to most Copy types. It’s rather similar to &[T], however instead of returning references to its elements, it copies them out. While ZeroVec is a Cow-like borrowed-or-owned type3, there is a fully borrowed variant ZeroSlice that it derefs to.

Similarly, VarZeroVec may be used with types implementing VarULE (e.g. str). It is able to hand out references VarZeroVec<str> behaves very similarly to how &[str] would work if such a type were allowed to exist in Rust. You can even nest them, making types like VarZeroVec<VarZeroSlice<ZeroSlice<u32>>>, the zero-copy equivalent of Vec<Vec<Vec<u32>>>.

There’s also a ZeroMap type that provides a binary-search based map that works with types compatible with either ZeroVec or VarZeroVec.

So, for example, to make the following struct zero-copy:

#[derive(serde::Serialize, serde::Deserialize)]
struct DataStruct {
    nums: Vec<u32>,
    chars: Vec<char>,
    strs: Vec<String>,

you can do something like this:

#[derive(serde::Serialize, serde::Deserialize)]
pub struct DataStruct<'data> {
    nums: ZeroVec<'data, u32>,
    chars: ZeroVec<'data, char>,
    strs: VarZeroVec<'data, str>,

Once deserialized, the data can be accessed with data.nums.get(index) or data.strs[index], etc.

Custom types can also be supported within these types with some effort, if you’d like the following complex data to be zero-copy:

#[derive(Copy, Clone, PartialEq, Eq, Ord, PartialOrd, serde::Serialize, serde::Deserialize)]
struct Date {
    y: u64,
    m: u8,
    d: u8

#[derive(Clone, PartialEq, Eq, Ord, PartialOrd, serde::Serialize, serde::Deserialize)]
struct Person {
    birthday: Date,
    favorite_character: char,
    name: String,

#[derive(serde::Serialize, serde::Deserialize)]
struct Data {
    important_dates: Vec<Date>,
    important_people: Vec<Person>,
    birthdays_to_people: HashMap<Date, Person>

you can do something like this:

// custom fixed-size ULE type for ZeroVec
#[derive(Copy, Clone, PartialEq, Eq, Ord, PartialOrd, serde::Serialize, serde::Deserialize)]
struct Date {
    y: u64,
    m: u8,
    d: u8

// custom variable sized VarULE type for VarZeroVec
#[zerovec::derive(Serialize, Deserialize)] // add Serde impls to PersonULE
#[derive(Clone, PartialEq, Eq, Ord, PartialOrd, serde::Serialize, serde::Deserialize)]
struct Person<'data> {
    birthday: Date,
    favorite_character: char,
    name: Cow<'data, str>,

#[derive(serde::Serialize, serde::Deserialize)]
struct Data<'data> {
    important_dates: ZeroVec<'data, Date>,
    // note: VarZeroVec always must reference the unsized ULE type directly
    important_people: VarZeroVec<'data, PersonULE>,
    birthdays_to_people: ZeroMap<'data, Date, PersonULE>

Unfortunately the inner “ULE type” workings are not completely hidden from the user, especially for VarZeroVec-compatible types, but the crate does a fair number of things to attempt to make it pleasant to work with.

In general, ZeroVec should be used for types that are fixed-size and implement Copy, whereas VarZeroVec is to be used with types that logically contain a variable amount of data, like vectors, maps, strings, and aggregates of the same. VarZeroVec will always be used with a dynamically sized type, yielding references to that type.

I’ve noted before that these types are like Cow<'a, T>; they can be dealt with in a mutable-owned fashion, but it’s not the primary focus of the crate. In particular, VarZeroVec<T> will be significantly slower to mutate than something like Vec<String>, since all operations are done on the same buffer format. The general idea of this crate is that you probably will be generating your data in a situation without too many performance constraints, but you want the operation of reading the data to be fast. So, where necessary, the crate trades off mutation performance for deserialization/read performance. Still, it’s not terribly slow, just something to look out for and benchmark if necessary.

How it works

Most of the crate is built on the ULE and VarULE traits. Both of these traits are unsafe traits (though as shown above most users need not manually implement them). “ULE” stands for “unaligned little-endian”, and marks types which have no alignment requirements and have the same representation across endiannesses, preferring to be identical to the little-endian representation where relevant4.

There’s also a safe AsULE trait that allows one to convert a type between itself and some corresponding ULE type.

pub unsafe trait ULE: Sized + Copy + 'static {
    // Validate that a byte slice is appropriate to treat as a reference to this type
    fn validate_byte_slice(bytes: &[u8]) -> Result<(), ZeroVecError>;

    // less relevant utility methods omitted

pub trait AsULE: Copy {
    type ULE: ULE;

    // Convert to the ULE type
    fn to_unaligned(self) -> Self::ULE;
    // Convert back from the ULE type
    fn from_unaligned(unaligned: Self::ULE) -> Self;

pub unsafe trait VarULE: 'static {
    // Validate that a byte slice is appropriate to treat as a reference to this type
    fn validate_byte_slice(_bytes: &[u8]) -> Result<(), ZeroVecError>;

    // Construct a reference to Self from a known-valid byte slice
    // This is necessary since VarULE types are dynamically sized and the working of the metadata
    // of the fat pointer varies between such types
    unsafe fn from_byte_slice_unchecked(bytes: &[u8]) -> &Self;

    // less relevant utility methods omitted

ZeroVec<T> takes in types that are AsULE and stores them internally as slices of their ULE types (&[T::ULE]). Such slices can be freely zero-copy serialized. When you attempt to index a ZeroVec, it converts the value back to T on the fly, an operation that’s usually just an unaligned load.

VarZeroVec<T> is a bit more complicated. The beginning of its memory stores the indices of every element in the vector, followed by the data for all of the elements just splatted one after the other. As long as the dynamically sized data can be represented in a flat fashion (without further internal indirection), it can implement VarULE, and thus be used in VarZeroVec<T>. str implements this, but so do ZeroSlice<T> and VarZeroSlice<T>, allowing for infinite nesting of zerovec types!

ZeroMap<T> works similarly to the litemap crate, it’s a map built out of two vectors, using binary search to find keys. This isn’t always as efficient as a hash map but it can work well in a zero-copy way since it can just be backed by ZeroVec and VarZeroVec. There’s a bunch of trait infrastructure that allows it to automatically select ZeroVec or VarZeroVec for each of the key and value vectors based on the type of the key or value.

What about rkyv?

An important question when we started down this path was: what about rkyv? It had at the time just received a fair amount of attention in the Rust community, and seemed like a pretty cool library targeting the same space.

And in general if you’re looking for zero-copy deserialization, I wholeheartedly recommend looking at it! It’s an impressive library with a lot of thought put into it. When I was refining zerovec I learned a lot from rkyv having some insightful discussions with David and comparing notes on approaches.

The main sticking point, for us, was that rkyv works kinda separately from serde: it uses its own traits and own serialization mechanism. We really liked serde’s model and wanted to keep using it, especially since we wanted to support a variety of human-readable and non-human-readable data formats, including postcard, which is explicitly designed for low-resource environments. This becomes even more important for data interchange; we’d want programs written in other languages to be able to construct and send over data without necessarily being constrained to a particular wire format.

The goal of zerovec is essentially to bring rkyv-like improvements to a serde universe without disrupting that universe too much. zerovec types, on human-readable formats like JSON, serialize to a normal human-readable representation of the structure, and on binary formats like postcard, serialize to a compact, zero-copy-friendly representation that Just Works.

How does it perform?

So off the bat I’ll mention that rkyv maintains a very good benchmark suite that I really need to get around to integrating with zerovec, but haven’t yet.

Speech bubble for character Negative pion
Why not go do that first? It would make your post better!

Well, I was delaying working on this post until I had those benchmarks integrated, but that’s not how executive function works, and at this point I’d rather publish with the benchmarks I have rather than delaying further. I might update this post with the Good Benchmarks later!

Speech bubble for character Negative pion

The complete benchmark run details can be found here (run via cargo bench at 1e072b32. I’m pulling out some specific data points for illustration:


Deserialization (with bincode)
Deserialize a vector of 100 u32s141.55 ns12.166 ns
Deserialize a vector of 15 chars225.55 ns25.668 ns
Deserialize and then sum a vector of 20 u32s47.423 ns14.131 ns
Element fetching performance
Sum a vector of 75 u32 elements4.3091 ns5.7108 ns
Binary search a vector of 1000 u32 elements, 50 times428.48 ns565.23 ns
Binary search a vector of 1000 u32 elements, 50 times428.48 ns565.23 ns
Serialize a vector of 20 u32s51.324 ns21.582 ns
Serialize a vector of 15 chars195.75 ns21.123 ns

In general we don’t care about serialization performance much, however serialization is fast here because ZeroVecs are always stored in memory as the same form they would be serialized at. This can make mutation slower. Fetching operations are a little bit slower on ZeroVec. The deserialization performance is where we see our real wins, sometimes being more than ten times as fast!


The strings are randomly generated, picked with sizes between 2 and 20 code points, and the same set of strings is used for any given row.

Deserialize (len 100)11.274 us2.2486 us1.9446 us
Count code points (len 100)728.99 ns1265.0 ns
Binary search for 1 element (len 500)57.788 ns122.10 ns
Binary search for 10 elements (len 500)451.40 ns803.67 ns

Here, fetching operations are a bit slower since they need to read the indexing array, but there’s still a decent win for zero-copy deserialization. The deserialization wins stack up for more complex data; for Vec<String> you can get most of the wins by using Vec<&str>, but that’s not necessarily possible for something more complex. We don’t currently have mutation benchmarks for VarZeroVec, but mutation can be slow and as mentioned before it’s not intended to be used much in client code.

Some of this is still in flux; for example we are in the process of making VarZeroVec’s buffer format configurable so that users can pick their precise tradeoffs.

Try it out!

Similar to yoke, I don’t consider the zerovec crate “done” yet, but it’s been in use in ICU4X for a year now and I consider it mature enough to recommend to others. Try it out! Let me know what you think!

Thanks to Finch, Jane, and Shane for reviewing drafts of this post

  1. A locale is typically a language and location, though it may contain additional information like the writing system or even things like the calendar system in use. 

  2. Bear in mind, this isn’t just a matter of picking a format like MM-DD-YYYY! Dates in just US English can look like 4/10/22 or 4/10/2022 or April 10, 2022, or Sunday, April 10, 2022 C.E., or Sun, Apr 10, 2022, and that’s not without thinking about week numbers, quarters, or time! This quickly adds up to a decent amount of data for each locale. 

  3. As mentioned in the previous post, while zero-copy deserializing, it is typical to use borrowed-or-owned types like Cow over pure borrowed types because it’s not necessary that data in a human-readable format will be able to zero-copy deserialize. 

  4. Most modern systems are little endian, so this imposes one fewer potential cost on conversion.