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xtring - External String Module by Chip Salzenberg <email@example.com> OVERVIEW This Lua module provides the abstraction "xstring", or "external string". An external string is a userdata object that represents a string (more generally, a memory area) not owned by any Lua instance. It solves the problem of performance loss and memory usage caused by Lua's taking an internal copy of all strings before working with them. The xstring implementation is based on two C structures: the xsbuf and the xstr. An xsbuf is a structure with a reference count, a pointer, and a size. An xstr is the structure inside the userdata of the Lua xstring objects, which refers to a portion of an xsbuf. The xsbuf and xstr structures are both quite small and simple; it is therefore extremely inexpensive to create and destroy them. Their only complexity is actually an efficiency hack: each xstr actually represents a *substring* of a given memory area (usually, however, this is the substring of the whole). This allows for sub-xstring creation without forcing conversion to an interned Lua string ... which would defeat the entire purpose of having xstrings in the first place. COSTS AND BENEFITS The benefits of the xstring module is as already stated: In the right circumstances it can be stunningly efficient compared to interned strings. In the original target application, this speed improvement makes Lua usable where it would otherwise not be. Costs, in turn, are modest, and one of them can be overcome with some small effort: 1. Any function that works directly with xstrings must perforce be written in C/C++. Of course such operations on xstrings will not be complex, so writing those functions will be no great challenge. 2. External strings are read-only. This was the obvious first step in the project, and meets the author's immediate needs. Mutable xstrings would need some API work and some internal refactoring. For example, the simple refcounting of xbufs would need to become the more complex copy-on-write refcounting of C++ std::string. On the good side, the existing Lua "allocation function" typedef is perfect as a possible fourth element of a mutable xsbuf. HOW TO CREATE THEM An xstring-using application will first, at the C level, create an xsbuf with the xsbuf_new() function. The application may then choose to create one or more xstring objects; each of them is a Lua userdata object containing an xstr structure. The xstr points to the xsbuf; the xsbuf's reference count is increased for each "user". (The original creator code is considered the first user, so xsbufs are born with a refcount of one.) What happens next depends on the lifetime of the target memory: 1. If the target memory area will outlive the Lua instance, then the creator code can safely let Lua clean up the xsbuf whenever it is no longer needed, so it may simply call xsbuf_discard() on the xsbuf and walk away. 2. If the target memory area will become unavailable before the Lua instance is closed, then the creator code must hold onto the xsbuf pointer and, when the memory is no longer available, call xsbuf_kill() on the xsbuf; only *then* may it call xsbuf_discard() and walk away. HOW TO USE THEM Within C code that uses xstrings, the primary functions are lauxlib-style argument checkers: const char * xstring_check(lua_State *L, int n, size_t *l); const char * xstring_toaddr(lua_State *L, int n, size_t *l); Both of these functions return the address of the external string at position "n", and also set *l to the string's length (if "l" is not null). If position "n" is not an xstring, then xstring_check() throws an argument error, while xstring_toaddr() simply returns NULL.