Heavy Duty Persistence for Lua 5.2 and 5.3
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Eris - Heavy Duty Persistence for Lua

First things first: this is essentially a rewrite of Pluto, targeting Lua 5.2. If you need something like this for Lua 5.1 I strongly suggest you have a look at that. In fact, have a look at it anyway, because the documentation isn't half bad, and a lot of it applies to Eris, too.

Although my implementation is strongly influenced by Pluto, in my humble opinion there are still sufficient changes in the architecture that a new name is appropriate. So, to stick with the theme, I named it Eris. Note that all those changes are internal. The API is almost left untouched to make a transition easier.

Eris can serialize almost anything you can have in a Lua VM and can unserialize it again at a later point, even in a different VM. This in particular includes yielded coroutines, which is very handy for saving long running, multi-session scripting systems, for example in games: just persist the state into the save file and unpersist it upon load, and the scripts won't even know the game was quit inbetween.

Eris currently comes with Lua 5.2.3. It should also build with 5.2.2. It may build with earlier 5.2.x versions, but I have not tried it. It won't work with other Lua implementations, such as LuaJIT, because Eris works directly on some internal structures of vanilla Lua and uses non-API macros and functions.

I think Eris can be considered stable. I have distributed it in a piece of software that has been used by many users on varying platforms, and there were no problems that had to do with Eris at all. There are also the testcases that came with Pluto - extended with some Lua 5.2 specific ones, such as yielded pcalls - run through successfully.


Think of Eris as a custom "distribution" of Lua. Compile and install Eris like you would Lua. You will get a shared and/or static library that will contain both Lua and Eris. The version string has been adjusted to reflect this: Lua+Eris 5.2.3.



Like Pluto, Eris offers two functions to persist to or read from an arbitrary source. Eris uses the Lua typedefs lua_Writer and lua_Reader for this purpose, the replacements of lua_Chunkwriter and lua_Chunkreader used by Pluto.

  • void eris_dump(lua_State *L, lua_Writer writer, void *ud); [-0, +0, e]
    This provides an interface to Eris' persist functionality for writing in an arbitrary way, using a writer. When called, the stack in L must look like this:

    1. perms:table
    2. value:any

    That is, perms must be a table at stack position 1. This table is used as the permanent object table. value is the value that should be persisted. It can be any persistable Lua value. 'writer' is the writer function used to store all data, ud is passed to the writer function whenever it is called.

    This function is equivalent to pluto_persist.

  • void eris_undump(lua_State *L, lua_Reader reader, void *ud); [-0, +1, e]
    This provides an interface to Eris' unpersist functionality for reading in an arbitrary way, using a reader. When called, the stack in L must look like this:

    1. perms:table

    That is, perms must be a table at stack position 1. This table is used as the permanent object table. This must hold the inverse mapping present in the permanent object table used when persisting. reader is the reader function used to read all data, ud is passed to the reader function whenever it is called. The result of the operation will be pushed onto the stack.

    This function is equivalent to pluto_unpersist. The function will only check the stack's top. Like Pluto, Eris uses Lua's own ZIO to handle buffered reading. Note that unlike with Pluto, the value can in fact be nil.

In addition to these, Eris also offers two more convenient functions, if you simply wish to persist an object to a string. These behave like the functions exposed to Lua.

  • void eris_persist(lua_State *L, int perms, int value); [-0, +1, e]
    It expects the permanent object table at the specified index perms and the value to persist at the specified index value. It will push the resulting binary string onto the stack on success.

  • void eris_unpersist(lua_State *L, int perms, int value); [-0, +1, e]
    It expects the permanent object table at the specified index perms and the binary string containing persisted data at the specified index value. It will push the resulting value onto the stack on success.

The subtle name change from Pluto was done because Lua's own dump/undump works with a writer/reader, so it felt more consistent this way.

Finally, you can change some of Eris' behavior via settings that can be queried and adjusted via the following functions:

  • void eris_get_setting(lua_State *L, const char *name); [-0, +1, e]
    This will push the current value of the setting with the specified name onto the stack. If there is no setting with the specified name an error will be thrown. Available settings are:

    • debug, a boolean value indicating whether to persist debug information of function prototypes, such as line numbers and variable names. The default is true.
    • maxrec, an unsigned integer value indicating the maximum complexity of objects: the number of "persist" recursions, for example for nested tables. If an object has a higher complexity we throw an error. This can be used to avoid segfaults due to deep recursion when handling user-provided data. The default is 10000.
    • path, a boolean value indicating whether to generate the "path" in the object to display it when an error occurs. Important: this adds significant overhead and should only be used to debug errors. The default is false.
    • spio, a boolean value indicating whether to pass IO objects along as light userdata to special persistence functions. When enabled, this will pass the lua_Writer and its associated void* in addition to the original object when persisting, and the ZIO* when unpersisting. The default is false.
    • spkey, a string that is the name of the field in the metatable of tables and userdata used to control persistence (see Special Persistence). The default is __persist.
  • void eris_set_setting(lua_State *L, const char *name, int value); [-0, +0, e]
    This will change the value of the setting with the specified name to the value at the specified stack index value. The names are the same as described in eris_get_setting(). If the specified is invalid, an error will be thrown. If the value at the specified index has the wrong type for the specified setting, an error will be thrown. Specify a nil value to reset the setting to its default value.

Note that all settings are stored in the registry of the provided Lua state, so they will be shared across all coroutines.


You can either load Eris as a table onto the Lua stack via luaopen_eris() or just call luaL_openlibs() which will open it in addition to all other libraries and register the global table eris. As with Pluto, there are the two functions for persisting/unpersisting in this table. In addition, there is a function that allows configuring Eris on the fly:

  • string eris.persist([perms,] value)
    This persists the provided value and returns the resulting data as a binary string. Note that passing the permanent object table is optional. If only one argument is given Eris assumes it's the object to persist, and the permanent object table is empty. If given, perms must be a table. value can be any type.

  • any eris.unpersist([perms,] value)
    This unpersists the provided binary string that resulted from an earlier call to eris.persist() and return the unpersisted value. Note that passing the permanent object table is optional. If only one argument is given Eris assumes it's the data representing a persisted object, and the permanent object table is empty. If given, perms must be a table. value must be a string.

  • [value] eris.settings(name[, value])
    This allows changing Eris' settings for the Lua VM the script runs in (Eris stores its settings in the registry). For available settings see the documentation of the corresponding C functions above. If this function is called with only a name it will return the current value of that setting. If it is called with a value also, it will set the setting to that value and return nothing.



Eris will persist most objects out of the box. This includes basic value types (nil, boolean, light userdata (as the literal pointer value), number) as well as strings, tables, closures and threads. For tables and userdata, metatables are also persisted. Tables, functions and threads are persisted recursively, i.e. each value referenced in them (key/value, upvalue, stack) will in turn be persisted.

C closures are only supported if the underlying C function is in the permanent object table. Userdata is only supported if the special persistence metafield is present (see below).

Like Pluto, Eris will store objects only once and reference this first occasion whenever the object should be persisted again. This ensures that references are kept across persisting an object, and has the nice side effect of keeping the size of the output small.

Permanent Objects

Whenever Eris tries to persist any non-basic value (i.e. not nil, boolean, light userdata or number) it will check if the value it is about to persist is a key in the table of permanent objects. If it is, Eris will write the associated value instead (the "permanent key"). When unpersisting, the opposite process takes place: for each value persisted this way Eris will look for the permanent key in the permanent object table, and use the value associated with that key.

For example, this allows persisting values that reference API functions, i.e. C functions provided by the native host. These cannot be persisted literally, because what it boils down to is that those are function pointers, and these may change over multiple program runs or between machines.

Note that Eris requires the value type to be the same before persisting and after unpersisting. That is, if the value replaced with a key from the permanent object table was a string, it must be a string that is stored permanent object table used for unpersisting at that key:

> eris.unpersist({[1] = "asd"}, eris.persist({["asd"] = 1}, "asd")) -- OK
> eris.unpersist({[1] = true}, eris.persist({["asd"] = 1}, "asd"))
stdin:1: bad permanent value (string expected, got boolean)

The permanent object table must not contain two identical values, i.e. two different objects must not be persisted with the same permanent key. This would lead to errors when unpersisting if the original types mismatch, and weird behavior otherwise. You must ensure this yourself, Eris does no checks in this regard.

Permanent keys starting with __eris. are reserved for internal use. For now they are used for functions internal to Lua's libraries, namely the resume functions for yieldable C functions such as pcall.

Special Persistence

Another concept carried over from Pluto is "special persistence". Tables and userdata can be annotated with a metatable field (named __persist per default). This field can be one of three types: nil for default behavior, boolean or function:

  • true marks the object for literal persistence. This is the default for tables. Trying to literally persist userdata without this will result in an error. If set, however, the userdata's memory block will be written as-is, and read back as-is. Note that the table's or userdata's metatable will also be persisted, if present. If you do not want that you'll have to use special persistence (see function).

  • false marks the object as "forbidden". When such an object is encountered an error will be thrown.

  • function is very special indeed. If present, this function will called when the object should be persisted. It must return a closure, which is persisted in place of the original object. The returned closure is then run when unpersisting, and is expected to return an object of the object's original type (i.e. table or userdata). Per default, the function stored in the metatable will receive one parameter, the original object. You can configure Eris to also pass along the used writer and userdata associated with it (see eris_dump()).

    Here is an example, originally from the Pluto documentation:

    vec = { x = 2, y = 1, z = 4 }
    setmetatable(vec, { __persist = function(oldtbl)
      local x = oldtbl.x
      local y = oldtbl.y
      local z = oldtbl.z
      local mt = getmetatable(oldtbl)
      return function()
        newtbl = {}
        newtbl.x = x
        newtbl.y = y
        newtbl.z = z
        setmetatable(newtbl, mt)
        return newtbl
    end })

    Also from the Pluto documentation:

    It is important that the fixup closure returned not reference the original table directly, as that table would again be persisted as an upvalue, leading to an infinite loop. Also note that the object's metatable is not automatically persisted; it is necessary for the fixup closure to reset it, if it wants.

Cross-platform compatibility

There are three components to this: byte order (little endian, big endian, ...), architecture (16 Bit, 32 Bit, 64 Bit) and floating point representation.

  • The way values are persisted is endian-agnostic (big endianness tested on a MIPS Debian running in QEMU). Note that the testcase for literal userdata persistence fails when performed cross-platform. This is to be expected, since that data is actually an integer and Eris has no concept of the actual data stored in a userdatum.
  • All potentially architecture-specific values are persisted as they are, i.e. when persisting in a 32-bit application size_t will usually be 4 bytes long, when persisting in a 64-bit application it'll be 8 bytes long. This means data will never be truncated when writing. We write the sizes of these types (int and size_t) in the persisting application into the header and check for truncation when reading. If there is data loss due to this, Eris will throw an error. At least errors when reading 64-bit data in a 32-bit application should be quite unlikely, however, since usually int will still be 4 bytes long, and size_t is only used for stack size and locations - and the maximum stack size is usually smaller than the maximum value of a 32-bit unsigned integer - for string lengths and userdata size, both of which should rarely be that large. What could be an issue, is light userdata.
  • The binary floating point representation is expected to be the same on all systems sharing persisted data, which will usually be IEEE 754. Also, all systems have to use the same type, i.e. float or double. You cannot load data persisted from a Lua installation using float into one that uses double. Eris performs a small check as part of its header and if the local model is incompatible to the data it will throw an error.

So all in all, Eris should be largely cross-platform compatible.

If you need more control over how things are persisted on your system: it should be relatively easy to adjust Eris in that regard, since reading and writing of the different elementary types is already split up into a couple of functions.


  • C functions cannot be persisted. Put them in the permanent object table.
    • C closures can only be persisted if the underlying C function is in the permanent object table.
  • Hook information is not persisted. You have to re-install hooks for persisted threads after unpersisting them.
  • Metatables of basic types are not persisted. A workaround may be to add a dummy table with a __persist callback, which in turn stores these metatables, reinstalls them and returns a dummy table upon unpersisting.
  • Neither the thread running Eris nor its parents can be persisted. More generally: no running thread can be persisted, only suspended ones - either because they were not started yet, or because they yielded.
  • Threads that yielded out of a hook function cannot be persisted. I have not even tested this, since this seems to only be possible for certain hooks (line and count) and when the hook function yields from C itself.
  • When the loaded data contains functions, this is like loading compiled code, and may therefore be potentially unsafe. You should only unpersist trusted data.
  • Loops in the permanent value table (e.g. {a = "b", b = "a"}) will result in an infinite loop when persisting. Make sure there aren't any.

Core library

You will notice that I decided to bundle this with Lua directly, instead of as a standalone library. This is in part due to how deeply Eris has to interact with Lua. It has to manually create internal data structures and populate them. Later versions of Pluto worked around this by extracting the used internal functions and only bundling those with the library. I decided against this for now, since with Lua 5.2 there's another thing that I need access to: the internally used C resume functions, used for yieldable C calls in the libraries (e.g. pcall). I had to patch the library sources by adding a function that pushed these C functions to the table with permanent values. These patches are very unintrusive: they just add a couple of lines to the end of the relevant library files. This means it is possible to persist a yielded pcall out of the box.


Eris uses the same test suite Pluto uses, extended with a couple of Lua 5.2 specific tests, such as persisting yielded pcalls. The executables are built automatically into the test folder when building normally and can be run using make test. I only tested this on Windows (MinGW 32 and 64 bit) and Linux (Mint 64 bit). If this causes issues on other platforms please submit a patch, thanks.

Differences to Pluto

Quite obviously most design choices were taken from Pluto, partially to make it easier to migrate for people already familiar with Pluto, largely because they are pretty good as they are. There are some minute differences however.

  • The resulting persisted data, while using the same basic idea, is structured slightly differently.

  • On the C side, Eris provides two new functions, eris_persist and eris_unpersist which work on with the stack, so you don't have to write your own lua_Writer/lua_Reader implementation.

  • Better error reporting. When debugging, I recommend enabling path generation, e.g. from Lua via eris.settings("path", true). This will result in all error messages containing a "path" that specifies where in the object the error occurred. For example:

    > eris.persist({
    >> good = true,
    >> [false] = setmetatable({}, {
    >>   __index = setmetatable({}, {__persist = false})
    >> })})
    stdin:1: attempt to persist forbidden table (root[false]@metatable.__index)

    This is disabled per default due to the additional processing and memory overhead.