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AVSystem commons library contains a typesafe, typeclass-based serialization framework, similar to other Scala serialization libraries like Circe or uPickle. However, GenCodec is not a JSON library even though it has support for JSON serialization.

API reference

Table of Contents generated with DocToc


  • GenCodec is generic - it supports many serialization formats. There is a JSON backend provided by default but it can support any format structurally similar to JSON (one that supports writing simple values, lists and objects). Enabling support for a particular serialization format is a matter of providing adequate implementations of Input and Output. This is particularly easy to do for any of the popular JSON AST representations (Circe, Play, uPickle, etc.). Even though GenCodec supports JSON serialization, it's not a JSON library. Therefore, it does not provide its own JSON AST representation.
  • GenCodec is typesafe - it is typeclass-based, i.e. type T can be serialized/deserialized only when there is an implicit GenCodec[T] available. This is fundamental when it comes to type safety. Thanks to how typeclasses work in Scala, data types that the programmer wants to serialize are thoroughly validated during compilation to determine whether they can be serialized or not. For example List[T] is serializable only when T is serializable and a case class is serializable only if its fields are serializable. This validation goes arbitrary levels deep. Typeclass also helps making the serialization format more compact and platform independent, by avoiding usage of runtime reflection.
  • GenCodec is boilerplate-free - it provides macros for automatic derivation of codecs for case classes (and case class like types) and sealed hierarchies. This includes complex types like recursively-defined case classes and GADTs. These macro generated codecs can be further customized with annotations.
  • GenCodec is fast - the speed primarily comes from avoiding any intermediate representations during serialization and deserialization, like some JSON AST or shapeless' Generic used by many other Scala serialization libraries. See Performance for benchmark results.
  • GenCodec works in ScalaJS. Macro-generated codecs compile to compact and fast JavaScript.

GenCodec typeclass

The central trait of the framework is the GenCodec typeclass:

trait GenCodec[T] {
  def read(input: Input): T
  def write(output: Output, value: T): Unit

A GenCodec[T] can read a value of type T from an Input and write a value of type T to an Output. Input and Output are abstract, raw, stream-like, mutable entities which perform the actual serialization and deserialization using some particular format hardwired into them, like JSON. Therefore, GenCodec by itself is not bound to any format. It only depends on the fact that this format is capable of serializing following types and structures:

  • integer numbers, arbitrarily large (Bytes, Shorts, Ints, Longs and BigInts)
  • decimal numbers, arbitrarily large (Floats, Doubles and BigDecimals)
  • Chars, Strings, Booleans and nulls
  • arbitrary byte chunks
  • millisecond-precision timestamps
  • arbitrarily nested lists
  • arbitrarily nested objects, i.e. sequences of fields - key-value mappings where each key is a string

Not all of these types must be supported "natively". Some of them may be represented using others, e.g. Bytes and Shorts using Ints or timestamps using Longs with number of milliseconds since Unix epoch. Serialization format is not required to keep type information. It should only ensure that writing and reading the same types is consistent, e.g. when an Int was written by a codec then it should be also able to successfully read an Int. However, it is the responsibility of the codec itself to have writing and reading logic consistent with each other.

The only exception to this rule is null handling - every Input implementation must be able to distinguish null value from any other values through its readNull() method. This means that e.g. empty string cannot be used as a representation of null because it would be then indistinguishable from an actual empty string. Every Input/Output pair must have a dedicated representation for null.

Writing and reading simple (primitive) values

Every Output exposes a SimpleOutput instance through its writeSimple method. SimpleOutput aggregates methods for writing simple/primitive values like Int, String, etc. These values are considered "simple" because they can be written as a whole with a single method call.

NOTE: SimpleOutput's methods like writeString MUST NEVER be passed null as the value to write. Instead, GenCodec must manually do null checking and use Output's writeNull() method for explicit null values. Fortunately, there are helpers for creating nullsafe codecs, e.g. GenCodec.nullableSimple.

Similarly, every Input exposes a SimpleInput instance through readSimple method which can be used to read simple values. GenCodec should always read the same type as was written. For example, if writeInt is used to write then readInt should be used to read by the same codec implementation.

If the codec wants to be nullsafe, then it can use readNull() on Input. Unlike other reading methods, readNull() returns a boolean value which indicates if the value held by Input was actually a null. If false is returned then the codec may proceed to read its actual type, e.g. with readString.

Writing and reading lists

In order to write a list, which is an ordered sequence of arbitrary values, the codec must obtain a ListOutput by calling writeList on Output. Then, it may use its writeElement() to obtain a fresh Output for each consecutive element. Output returned for each element must be fully written before obtaining Output for next element. After all elements are written, the codec is required to call finish() on the ListOutput.

Reading a list from an Input is analogous. The codec must obtain a ListInput using Input's readList() method. ListInput exposes a hasNext method to check whether there are more elements to read and a nextElement method which provides an Input instance for next list element. This Input instance must be fully read before hasNext or nextElement is called again. At the very end, the codec may want to call skipRemaining() on then ListInput in order to skip any remaining elements (only necessary when list is not read until hasNext returns false - e.g. when a fixed number of elements is expected).

Note that because serialization formats are not required to keep type information, lists may sometimes be indistinguishable from some primitive values. For example, JsonStringOutput may use JSON arrays of numbers to represent binary values (which are written through SimpleInput's writeBinary method). In such situation, calling readList() on the JSON input will succeed even if writeBinary was originally used on the JSON output.

Writing and reading objects

An object is a mapping between non-null String keys and arbitrary values. Internally, each serialization format may represent an object either as an ordered key-value pair sequence or as a random access key-value mapping (i.e. it must either preserve order of fields or provide random access to fields by field name).

In order to write an object, writeObject() must be called on Output to obtain an ObjectOutput instance. The codec may then obtain an Output instance for each named field through writeField method. This instance must be fully written before writeField can be called again. At the very end, finish() must be called on the ObjectOutput.

In order to read an object, the codec must call readObject() on Input in order to obtain an ObjectInput instance. Similarly to ListInput, ObjectInput provides a hasNext method to check whether there are any remaining fields in the ObjectInput. In order to read each field, the codec may use nextField() method with returns a FieldInput - a subinterface of Input which additionally provides field name.

If serialization format implemented by particular Input/Output implementation preserves field order then nextField is guaranteed to return fields in the same order as they were written by ObjectOutput. However, if the serialiaztion format does not preserve field order then it must provide random field access instead. This is done by peekField method. Codec implementations must be prepared for both situations.

If you need a custom object serialization for your type then your best bet is probably to implement appropriate apply and unapply methods on companion object of your type. And even if you can't do it (e.g. because you're writing a codec for a third party type) then you can still use fromApplyUnapplyProvider and avoid implementing your codec manually.

Finally, if you really need to write your object codec by hand then you can make it easier by using getNextNamedField helper method on ObjectInput instead of nextField and peekField directly.

More about object field order

For most serialization formats, it's completely natural to retain object field order. For example, a JSON string naturally has object fields stored in the order that they were written to JsonObjectOutput. For these formats it is required that an ObjectInput returns object fields in exactly the same order as they were written to a corresponding ObjectOutput. This normally includes all serialization formats backed by strings, byte sequences, streams, etc.

However, there are also serialization formats that use memory representation where an object is usually backed by a hashtable. Such representations cannot retain field order. GenCodec can still work with these but as an alternative to preserving field order, they must implement random field access (field-by-name access). This is done by overriding peekField on ObjectInput.

To summarize, an ObjectInput is generally not guaranteed to retain order of fields as they were written to an ObjectOutput but if it doesn't then it must provide random field access by field name. Also, note that out of all the default and macro-generated codecs provided, only flat sealed hierarchy codecs actually depend on this requirement. All the other (non-custom) codecs ignore field order during deserialization so you can e.g. freely reorder fields in your case classes if they use macro generated codecs.

Writing custom "native" types

Input and Output interfaces provide some "backdoors" which make it possible for codec implementations to take advantage of particular serialization format's additional capabilities which are not exposed in standard Input/Output APIs. For example, BSON used by MongoDB has special representation for Object IDs which we would like to use. Input and Output implementations for BSON may support it through their writeCustom and readCustom methods. See their documentation for more details.

Reading metadata from an Input

As mentioned before, serialization formats in general are not required to keep any type information (except distinguishing null values from others). This way they can be as simple and compact as possible. However, many common formats naturally do keep some type information. For example, when reading a JSON we can easily check whether it contains an object, an array, a string, a number, a boolean or a null value. Codecs could use this in order to optimize layout of their serialized values and avoid manual writing of their own type information.

Input may expose type information through its readMetadata method. Output on the other hand may tell the codec whether its corresponding Input is capable of keeping this type information - this is done by Output's keepsMetadata method. See their documentation for more details.

Implementations of Input and Output available by default

Implementations of Input and Output provided by scala-commons by default are:

  • SimpleValueInput/SimpleValueOutput - translate serialized values into simple Scala objects. Primitive types are represented by themselves, lists are represented by standard Scala List[T] values and objects are represented by standard Scala Map[String, T] values.
  • JsonStringInput/JsonStringOutput - JSON implementations that work directly on String values, without intermediate JSON AST
  • CborInput/CborOutput - Concise Binary Object Representation, CBOR
  • StreamInput/StreamOutput - simple opaque binary format
  • HoconInput (in commons-hocon module) - for reading from Human Optimized Config Object Notation, HOCON
  • BsonReaderInput/BsonWriterOutput,BsonWriterNamedOutput,BsonValueOutput (in commons-mongo module) - for reading and writing from Binary JSON, BSON, format used by MongoDB wire protocol.

Codecs available by default

In order to serialize/deserialize value of some type, there needs to be an implicit value of type GenCodec[T] available. The library by default provides codecs for common Scala and Java types:

  • Unit, Null, String, Symbol, Char, Boolean, Byte, Short, Int, Long, Float, Double, java.util.Date, Array[Byte], BigInt, BigDecimal and all their Java boxed counterparts (like java.lang.Integer).
  • Any Scala tuple, provided that every tuple element type can be serialized. Tuples are serialized into lists.
  • Any Array[T], provided that T can be serialized
  • Any Scala collection extending scala.collection.Seq[T] or scala.collection.Set[T], provided that T can be serialized and there is an appropriate instance of Factory (e.g. GenCodec[List[T]] requires Factory[T, List[T]]). All standard library collections have this Factory instance so you only have to worry about it when dealing with custom collection implementations.
  • Any java.util.Collection[T], provided that T can be serialized
  • Any scala.collection.Map[K,V] provided that V can be serialized and there is an implicit GenKeyCodec available for K so that it can be converted to a string and used as object key. There must also be an appropriate instance of Factory for particular Map implementation (e.g. HashMap[K,V] requires Factory[(K, V), HashMap[K, V]]). All standard library map implementations have this Factory instance so you only have to worry about it when dealing with custom map implementations.
  • Any java.util.Map[K,V], with the same restrictions as for Scala maps (there must be GenCodec for V and GenKeyCodec for K)
  • Option[T], Opt[T], OptArg[T], NOpt[T], OptRef[T], provided that T can be serialized.
  • Either[A,B], provided that A and B can be serialized.
  • NamedEnums whose companion object extends NamedEnumCompanion. This includes ValueEnums.
  • Java enums


For serialization of maps, there is an auxilliary typeclass - GenKeyCodec. It provides the ability to translate values of some type into String keys that can be used as object keys by GenCodecs for Scala and Java Map types. By default, following types have GenKeyCodec provided:

  • String
  • Boolean, Char, Byte, Short, Int, Long
  • JBoolean, JCharacter, JByte, JShort, JInteger, JLong
  • NamedEnums whose companion object extends NamedEnumCompanion. This includes ValueEnums.
  • Java enums

Serializing and deserializing examples

To serialize and deserialize values, you can use the read and write methods directly. However, most of the backends (Input/Output implementations) provide some helper method which you can use instead of instantiating Input and Outputs manually and passing them to GenCodec.

For example, the JsonStringOutput and JsonStringInput companion objects provide read and write functions that require an implicit GenCodec instance and convert directly between serialized types and JSON strings.

import com.avsystem.commons.serialization.json._
// primitive types like `Int` are represented by themselves
JsonStringOutput.write[Int](123) // JSON: 123[Int]("123") // 123

// `Option`, `Opt`, `NOpt`, `OptRef` and `OptArg` are represented either as `null` (when empty) or directly
// as the underlying value (when non-empty). `Some(null)` should not be used - it is indistinguishable from
// `None` unless the codec for the type wrapped in `Option` has some special `null` handling.
val raw = JsonStringOutput.write[Option[String]](None) // JSON: null[Option[String]]("null") // None

val raw = JsonStringOutput.write[Option[String]](Some("sth")) // "sth"[Option[String]]("sth") // Some("sth")

// all collections are represented as lists
val raw = JsonStringOutput.write(Set(1,2,3)) // JSON: [1,2,3][Set[Int]](raw) // Set(1,2,3)

// maps are represented as objects
val raw = JsonStringOutput.write(Map("1" -> 1, "2" -> 2)) // JSON: {"1":1,"2":2}[Map[String,Int]](raw) // Map("1" -> 1, "2" -> 2)

// maps without GenKeyCodec instance for key type are represented as lists of key-value pairs
val raw = JsonStringOutput.write(Map(1.0 -> 1, 2.0 -> 2)) // JSON: [{"k":1.0,"v":1},{"k":2.0,"v":2}][Map[Double,Int]](raw) // Map(1.0 -> 1, 2.0 -> 2)

// tuples are represented as heterogeneous lists
val raw = JsonStringOutput.write((1, "sth", 2.0)) // JSON: [1,"sth",2.0][(Int,String,Double)](raw) // (1, "sth", 2.0)

Making your own types serializable

In order to make your own (or third-party) classes and types serializable, you need to provide an instance of GenCodec for it. You can implement it manually, but in most cases you'll probably rely on one of the predefined codecs (primitive types, collections, standard library classes, etc.) or materialize it automatically by making the companion object of your type extend HasGenCodec or by using the GenCodec.materialize macro directly.

Simple wrappers

When your type is a simple wrapper over a type that already has a GenCodec instance, the easiest way to provide a codec for the wrapper type is to use TransparentWrapperCompanion as base class for its companion object:

case class BinaryData(bytes: Array[Byte]) extends AnyVal
object BinaryData extends TransparentWrapperCompanion[Array[Byte], BinaryData]

NOTE: if your type wraps String, Int or Long then you can use StringWrapperCompanion, IntWrapperCompanion and LongWrapperCompanion for brevity.

Using TransparentWrapperCompanion not only derives a GenCodec instance from the wrapped type's instance but also other typeclass instances, e.g. GenKeyCodec. This mechanism is extensible and can be used by any typeclass that wants to "understand" wrapping. Therefore, TransparentWrapperCompanion is a generic tool, not specifically bound in any way to GenCodec.

Case classes

case class Person(name: String, birthYear: Int)
object Person extends HasGenCodec[Person]

By making companion object of Person extend HasGenCodec[Person] you're making the compiler automatically materialize an instance of GenCodec[Person] and inject it into the companion object. The same works for case classes, case class like types (i.e. ones that have appropriate apply and unapply methods in their companion object) and sealed hierarchies.

There are also other flavors of HasGenCodec. For example, HasPolyGenCodec handles parameterized (generic) data types and HasGenCodecWithDeps allows injecting additional implicits into macro materialization. Even if none of the available base companion classes fits your needs, it should be relatively painless to write your own.

The macro-materialized codec for case class serializes it into an object where field names serve as keys and field values as associated values. For example, Person("Fred", 1990) would be represented (using JsonStringOutput) as {"name":"Fred","birthYear":1990}.

The macro will only compile if it can find a GenCodec instance for every field of your case class. Otherwise, you'll get a compilation error telling you that some field can't be serialized because no implicit GenCodec is defined for its type. This way the macro will fully validate your case class. This is good - you'll never serialize any type by accident and if you forget to make any type serializable, the compiler will tell you about it. This way you avoid problems usually associated with runtime reflection based serialization, particularly popular in Java ecosystem.

In general, the serialization framework requires that the serialized representation retains order of object fields and during deserialization supplies them in exactly the same order as they were written during serialization. This is usually a reasonable assumption because most serialization formats are either textual, binary or stream-like (the word "serialization" itself indicates a sequential order). If field order is not preserved, serialization format must support random field access instead - see object field order.

The codec materialized for case class guarantees that the fields are written in the order of their declaration in constructor. However, during deserialization the codec is lenient and does not require that the order of fields is the same as during serialization. It will successfully deserialize the case class as long as all the fields are present in the serialized format (in any order) or have a default value defined (either as Scala-level default parameter value or with @whenAbsent annotation). Any superfluous fields will be simply ignored. This allows the programmer to refactor the case class without breaking compatibility with serialization format - fields may be reordered and removed. New fields may also be added, as long as they have a default value defined.

The way macro materializes the codec may be customized with annotations. All annotations are governed by the same annotation processing rules.

  • Using @name you can change the raw field name used for serialization of each case class field.

    case class Entity(@name("_id") id: String, data: Int)

    This is useful in particular when you want to refactor your case class and change the name of some field without changing the serialized format (in order to remain backwards compatible). Note that the annotation (like all other annotations used to customize serialization) may also be inherited from implemented/overridden member.

  • Using @whenAbsent you can provide a fallback value for case class field. This value is used during deserialization when the field is missing in the encoded data. Alternatively to using @whenAbsent, you can simply provide Scala-level default parameter value and it will also be picked up as fallback value for deserialization. However, @whenAbsent is better when you want the default value to be used only during deserialization, without affecting programming interface.

  • Using @generated annotation on some additional members of your case class you can instruct the codec to serialize some additional fields into the resulting format. This can be useful when some case class field has been removed or converted to a regular val or def but we want the serialized format to be backwards compatible. Sometimes it may also be necessary to generate additional fields for the purpose of database indexing.

    case class Person(name: String, birthYear: Int) {
      @generated def upperName: String = name.toUpper

    Generated members may also be customized with @name annotation. During serialization, generated fields are emitted after all the "regular" fields have been written. Unlike for the regular fields, there is no guarantee about the order of generated fields in the serialized format. During deserialization, generated fields are simply ignored.

  • If one of the fields in your case class has a default value (in Scala or with @whenAbsent), you might want to not serialize that field if its value is the default one. To instruct the codec to omit default values, @transientDefault annotation can be used.

    case class Person(name: String, birthYear: Int, @transientDefault planet: String = "Earth")

    This comes in handy especially when your field might not have a value at all. You can express it using Opt which is serialized either as null (when empty) or directly as the value inside it (when non-empty). By specifying Opt.Empty as default value and applying @transientDefault annotation, you can completely avoid emitting the field when there is no value.

    case class Person(name: String, birthYear: Int, @transientDefault maidenName: Opt[String] = Opt.Empty)

    Note that the absence of a field with default value in the serialized data does not cause any errors during deserialization - if the field is missing, the codec will simply use its default value (it works even without @transientDefault annotation).

  • If your case class has exactly one field, you might want to avoid it being wrapped in an object and simply serialize the value of that field. This way your class would be a "transparent wrapper" over some type. Wrapping a primitive type into nicely named wrapper is a common technique to increase readability and type safety. In Scala, value classes are often utilized for this purpose. If your case class has exactly one field, you can annotate is as @transparent and the macro materialized codec will simply serialize the wrapped value.

    @transparent case class DatabaseId(raw: String) extends AnyVal

Safe evolution and refactoring - summary

Following changes can be made to a case class while keeping it backwards compatible with the old format (the old format will successfully deserialize to the new case class):

  • renaming the case class or moving to a different package, object, etc. - case class name is not serialized (unless it's a part of a sealed hierarchiy)
  • reordering fields
  • removing a field
  • renaming a field, as long as the old name is provided using @name annotation
  • adding a field, as long as it has default value defined
  • changing the type of a field, as long as the old and new type serialize to the same format
  • adding generated fields
  • adding implicit parameters (they must be available at the codec materialization site and will be embedded in the codec itself)
  • case class may also be safely lifted to a sealed hierarchy (when using @flatten and @defaultCase - see sealed hierarchies for details)

Case class like types

If, for whatever reason, your class can't be a case class, but you still want it to be serialized like a case class would be, you can make it look like a case class. In order to do this, simply provide your own implementations of apply and unapply methods in the companion object of your trait/class. For case classes, these methods are generated automatically by the compiler.

class Person(val name: String, val birthYear: Int)
object Person extends HasGenCodec[Person] {
  def apply(name: String, birthYear: Int): Person = new Person(name, birthYear)
  def unapply(person: Person): Option[(String, Int)] = Some((, person.birthYear))

NOTE: if apply method takes a repeated (varargs) parameter, then there must be an unapplySeq method instead of unapply and the repeated parameter should correspond to a Seq in the unapplySeq return type.

NOTE: the Option in return type of unapply/unapplySeq may be replaced with other similar types, e.g. Opt, NOpt, etc. thanks to the name based extractors feature in Scala. This way you may avoid boxing associated with Options.

You can use all the customization features available for regular case classes - @name, @transientDefault (applied on apply parameters), @generated, @transparent, etc.


GenCodec.materialize macro is also able to generate (trivial) codecs for singletons, i.e. objects or types like this.type. Singletons always serialize into empty object (unless @generated fields are defined). When using SimpleValueOutput, empty object is represented by empty Map.

object SomeObject {
  implicit val codec: GenCodec[SomeObject.type] = GenCodec.materialize[SomeObject.type]

Just like case classes, singletons might define or inherit members annotated as @generated - their values will be serialized as the only object fields and ignored during deserialization.

Singletons will successfully deserialize from any object, ignoring all its fields.

Singleton codecs may not seem very useful as standalone codes - they're primarily used when the object is a part of a sealed hierarchy.

Sealed hierarchies

HasGenCodec base companion class and all its variants can also be used to derive a GenCodec for a sealed trait or class. There are two possible serialization formats for sealed hierarchies: nested (the default one) and flat (enabled using @flatten annotation). The nested format is the default one for historical reasons - it is generally recommended to use the flat format as it's more robust and customizable. The advantage of nested format is that it does not depend on the order of object fields.

Nested format

sealed trait Timeout
case class FiniteTimeout(seconds: Int) extends Timeout
case object InfiniteTimeout extends Timeout
object Timeout extends HasGenCodec[Timeout]

In nested format, values of sealed traits or classes are serialized into objects with just one field. The name of that field is the name of actual class being serialized. The value of that field will be the serialized class itself, using its own codec. For example, FiniteTimeout(60) would be represented (using JsonStringOutput) as {"FiniteTimeout":{"seconds":60}}

GenCodec for each case class/object may be provided explicitly or left for the macro to materialize. In other words, the materialize macro called for sealed trait will descend into its subtypes and materialize their codecs recursively. However, it will still not descend into any case class fields.

Flat format

The other format is called "flat" because it does not introduce the intermediate single-field object. It is enabled by annotating your sealed hierarchy root with @flatten annotation, e.g.

@flatten sealed trait Timeout
case class FiniteTimeout(seconds: Int) extends Timeout
case object InfiniteTimeout extends Timeout
object Timeout extends HasGenCodec[Timeout]

Instead of creating a single-field object, now the materialize macro will assume that every case class/object serializes to an object (e.g. JSON object) and will use this object as a representation of the entire sealed type. In order to differentiate between case classes during deserialization, an additional discriminator field containing class name is added at the beginning of resulting object. For example, FiniteTimeout(60) would be represented (using JsonStringOutput) as {"_case":"FiniteTimeout","seconds":60}

Customizing sealed hierarchy codecs

Similarly to case classes, sealed hierarchy codecs may be customized with annotations. All annotations are governed by the same annotation processing rules.

  • Using @name you can change the class name saved as marker field name in nested format or as marker field value in flat format.

    sealed trait Tree
    @name("L") case class Leaf(value: Int) extends Tree
    @name("B") case class Branch(left: Tree, right: Tree) extends Tree
    object Tree extends HasGenCodec[Tree]
  • When using flat format, name of the marker field (_case by default) may be customized by passing it as an argument to @flatten annotation, e.g. @flatten("type").

  • When using flat format, one of the case classes may be annotated as @defaultCase. When marker field is missing during deserialization, the codec will assume that it's deserializing the case class annotated as @defaultCase. This mechanism is useful to retain backwards compatibility when refactoring a case class into a sealed hierarchy with multiple case classes.

  • It's important to remember that deserialization of the flat format relies on the preservation of field order by serialization backend (or random field access): In particular, the marker field must be known to the codec before it reads other fields so that it knows which class to create and how to deserialize the rest of the fields. There is one escape hatch from this requirement - a field present in one or more of case classes in the sealed hierarchy may be marked as @outOfOrder. See the documentation of this annotation for more details. The direct motivation for introducing this annotation was to support deserialization of _id field in MongoDB documents - the database server always serves documents with _id being the very first field.

Nested vs flat format

Advantages of nested format:

  • Codec materialized for sealed hierarchy may reuse already existing codecs for its case classes
  • Each case class may serialize to arbitrary representation while flat format requires every case class to serialize to an object
  • It does not rely on object field order

Advantages of flat format:

  • When some field is present in more than one case class, it may be extracted from serialized form in uniform way, regardless of which case class it comes from. This may greatly simplify querying and indexing databases used to store sealed hierarchies.
  • Case class serialized with flat sealed hierarchy codec may be safely deserialized using codec of the case class itself.
  • Using @defaultCase annotation, a case class may be safely refactored into a sealed hierarchy.

In other words, when the serialized form is opaque and you don't care about it as long as it deserializes properly to the same value then the nested format should be better. If you care about how the serialized form looks like and you want to retain it through refactorings then probably the flat format is easier to maintain.

Third party classes

When you need to serialize a type that comes from a third party library, you must implement a GenCodec for it, put somewhere in your codebase and remember to import it when needed. You must import it because it's not possible to put it in companion object of the type being serialized. However, you can still use all the goodness of macro materialization only if you can make the third party type "look like" a case class by defining a "fake" companion for that type and passing it explicitly to GenCodec.fromApplyUnapplyProvider. For example, here's an easy way to make a typical Java bean class serializable with GenCodec:

This is the third party Java class:

public class JavaPerson {
    private String name;
    private int birthYear;
    public String getName() { return name; }
    public void setName(String name) { = name; }
    public int getBirthYear() { return birthYear; }
    public void setBirthYear(int birthYear) { this.birthYear = birthYear; }

This is your Scala code to make it serializable:

object JavaPersonFakeCompanion {
  def apply(name: String, birthYear: Int): JavaPerson = {
    val result = new JavaPerson
  def unapply(javaPerson: JavaPerson): Option[(String, Int)] =
    Some((javaPerson.getName, javaPerson.getBirthYear))
  implicit val javaPersonCodec: GenCodec[JavaPerson] = 

Now, as long as JavaPersonFakeCompanion.javaPersonCodec is in scope, JavaPerson instances will serialize just as if it was a regular Scala case class. The macro derives serialization format from signatures of apply and unapply methods and uses them to create and deconstruct JavaPerson instances.

Injecting additional implicits into GenCodec materialization

When possible, you should keep all your GenCodec instances (and other implicits) in companion objects of your data types. This way they will be effectively globally visible and won't need to be imported. However, this is not always possible - a GenCodec instance for a third party class is the most common example of such situation.

Of course, you can always import third party implicits explicitly into the scope. However, this is problematic because it doesn't always work (presumably due to compiler bugs) and IDEs like IntelliJ IDEA tend to recognize such imports as unused. Because of this, GenCodec comes with a handy base companion class, similar to HasGenCodec but capable of injecting additional implicits. It is called HasGenCodecWithDeps.

object MyAdditionalImplicits {
  implicit val javaPersonCodec: GenCodec[JavaPerson] = ...

case class UsesJavaPerson(javaPerson: JavaPerson)
object UsesJavaPerson extends HasGenCodecWithDeps[MyAdditionalImplicits.type, JavaPerson]

In order to reduce boilerplate, you can make your own base companion class which automatically injects desired implicits:

abstract class HasCustomizedGenCodec[T](
  implicit macroCodec: MacroInstances[MyAdditionalImplicits.type, () => GenCodec[T]]
) extends HasGenCodecWithDeps[MyAdditionalImplicits.type, T]


GenObjectCodec is a subinterface of GenCodec which directly exposes methods that write to ObjectOutput and read from ObjectInput. You can use this typeclass instead of plain GenCodec if you want to be sure that some particular type serializes to an object. GenObjectCodec instances are provided similarly to GenCodec instances - there is a GenObjectCodec.materialize macro and HasGenObjectCodec companion base class.


Codec dependencies

The materialize macro will only generate GenCodec implementation for case class or sealed hierarchy if all fields of case classes are already serializable (i.e. their types have their own GenCodec instances). For example, the following code will not compile:

case class Address(city: String, zipcode: String)
case class Person(name: String, address: Address)
object Person {
  implicit val codec: GenCodec[Person] = GenCodec.materialize[Person] // error!

The materialize macro does not descend into case class fields and will therefore refuse to generate codec for Person because it doesn't have a codec for Address. This behavior is intentional and serves to avoid making types serializable by accident. However, there is an alternative macro which does descend into dependencies, GenCodec.materializeRecursively:

case class Address(city: String, zipcode: String)
case class Person(name: String, address: Address)
object Person {
  implicit val codec: GenCodec[Person] = GenCodec.materializeRecursively[Person]

materializeRecursively will generate a codec for Address. However, this codec will be visible only by the Person codec. That means you can now serialize Person objects, but you still can't serialize Address objects by themselves. Also, remember that materializeRecursively descends into dependencies only when it actually needs to do it, i.e. first it tries to use any already declared GenCodec.

Types supported by automatic materialization

materialize and materializeRecursively macros work for:

  • case classes, provided that all field types are serializable
  • case class like types, i.e. classes or traits whose companion object contains a pair of matching apply/unapply methods defined like in case class companion, provided that all field types are serializable
  • singleton types, e.g. types of objects or this.type
  • sealed traits or sealed abstract classes, provided that GenCodec can also be materialized for all non-abstract subtypes (typically case classes). If the nested serialization format is used (i.e. @flatten annotation is not used) then GenCodecs for subtypes may also be declared explicitly and will be reused by sealed trait's codec.

Recursive types, generic types and GADTs (generalized algebraic data types)

A recursively defined case class:

case class SimpleTree(children: List[SimpleTree])
object SimpleTree extends HasGenCodec[SimpleTree]

A generic (and recursive) data type:

sealed trait Tree[T]
case class Leaf[T](value: T) extends Tree[T]
case class Branch[T](left: Tree[T], right: Tree[T]) extends Tree[T]
object Tree extends HasPolyGenCodec[Tree]

A generalized algebraic data type (also recursive):

sealed trait Expr[T]
case class StringLiteral(value: String) extends Expr[String]
case class IntLiteral(value: Int) extends Expr[Int]
case object NullLiteral extends Expr[Null]
case class Plus[T](lhs: Expr[T], rhs: Expr[T]) extends Expr[T]
object Expr extends HasGadtCodec[Expr]

Note that for generic types we must use HasPolyGenCodec or HasGadtCodec instead of HasGenCodec. It should also be relatively easy to create custom versions of these base companion classes for whatever combination of type kind, bounds and implicit dependencies you need to use.

Customizing annotations

All annotations are governed by annotation processing rules.

Safely introducing changes to serialized classes (retaining backwards compatibility)

  1. Changing order of fields in case class is always safe - case class decoding is field order agnostic.
  2. Adding a field to case class is safe as long as you provide default value for that field (Scala-level or with @whenAbsent). Deserializer will use that value if field is missing in the serialized data.
  3. Removing a field from case class is always safe - case class codecs simply skip unknown fields.
  4. Changing name of case class field is safe as long as you annotate that field with @name annotation to retain the old name in serialized format.
  5. Changing the type of case class field is safe as long as you ensure that both old and new type have the same representation. The @transparent annotation may be useful when changing a type into some type that wraps the original type.
  6. Changing default value of case class field is always safe (i.e. will not crash), but already serialized data will still contain old default value (unless you use @transientDefault annotation).
  7. Adding classes or objects to sealed hierarchy is always safe.
  8. Changing name of an object or class in sealed hierarchy is safe as long as you annotate that class/object with @name annotation to retain the old name in serialized format.
  9. Lifting a case class into a sealed hierarchy is safe as long as the flat format is used for the sealed hierarchy and existing case class remains one of the cases in the sealed hierarchy, annotated as @defaultCase.

Of course, the above rules are guaranteed to work only for macro-materialized codecs. If you implement your codecs manually, you're on your own.


There are JMH benchmarks implemented for JSON serialization, comparing GenCodec with Circe and uPickle.

Example results (higher score is better):

[info] Benchmark                                      Mode  Cnt        Score        Error  Units
[info] JsonReadingBenchmark.readCCCirce              thrpt   10   649967.336 ±  12828.283  ops/s
[info] JsonReadingBenchmark.readCCGenCodec           thrpt   10  1050431.352 ±  16007.544  ops/s
[info] JsonReadingBenchmark.readCCUpickle            thrpt   10   698061.199 ±  13618.354  ops/s
[info] JsonReadingBenchmark.readFlatSHGenCodec       thrpt   10   457469.129 ±   7083.221  ops/s
[info] JsonReadingBenchmark.readFoosCirce            thrpt   10     3016.276 ±     39.010  ops/s
[info] JsonReadingBenchmark.readFoosGenCodec         thrpt   10     3098.885 ±     39.858  ops/s
[info] JsonReadingBenchmark.readFoosUpickle          thrpt   10     3083.453 ±     29.865  ops/s
[info] JsonReadingBenchmark.readPrimitivesCirce      thrpt   10  1438760.846 ±  26739.354  ops/s
[info] JsonReadingBenchmark.readPrimitivesGenCodec   thrpt   10  1852565.866 ±  16059.918  ops/s
[info] JsonReadingBenchmark.readPrimitivesUpickle    thrpt   10  1889290.939 ±  24997.719  ops/s
[info] JsonReadingBenchmark.readSHCirce              thrpt   10   278322.679 ±   3304.612  ops/s
[info] JsonReadingBenchmark.readSHGenCodec           thrpt   10   533291.220 ±   4675.452  ops/s
[info] JsonReadingBenchmark.readSHUpickle            thrpt   10   298463.522 ±   3644.145  ops/s
[info] JsonWritingBenchmark.writeCCCirce             thrpt   10   688167.968 ±   8117.737  ops/s
[info] JsonWritingBenchmark.writeCCGenCodec          thrpt   10  1529662.369 ±  26909.344  ops/s
[info] JsonWritingBenchmark.writeCCUpickle           thrpt   10   985345.145 ±  43860.322  ops/s
[info] JsonWritingBenchmark.writeFlatSHGenCodec      thrpt   10   810840.889 ±  52376.100  ops/s
[info] JsonWritingBenchmark.writeFoosCirce           thrpt   10     2896.501 ±    327.638  ops/s
[info] JsonWritingBenchmark.writeFoosGenCodec        thrpt   10     4520.711 ±    182.557  ops/s
[info] JsonWritingBenchmark.writeFoosUpickle         thrpt   10     3096.716 ±    199.797  ops/s
[info] JsonWritingBenchmark.writePrimitivesCirce     thrpt   10  1263376.319 ±  49751.056  ops/s
[info] JsonWritingBenchmark.writePrimitivesGenCodec  thrpt   10  2904553.884 ± 207071.275  ops/s
[info] JsonWritingBenchmark.writePrimitivesUpickle   thrpt   10  2142443.367 ±  85212.161  ops/s
[info] JsonWritingBenchmark.writeSHCirce             thrpt   10   190421.595 ±   4475.344  ops/s
[info] JsonWritingBenchmark.writeSHGenCodec          thrpt   10   912956.930 ±  17628.358  ops/s
[info] JsonWritingBenchmark.writeSHUpickle           thrpt   10   239291.635 ±   8626.623  ops/s
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