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SerialBuffer - Reliable serial comms for Arduino

© 2012 Jason Frame [ / @jaz303 ]


This is a simple Arduino class implementing a buffer for reliable sending and receiving of delimited messages over the serial port.

Why do we need reliable serial comms?

Let's say we had a stream of 4-byte messages that we wanted to send down a serial port:

0xE2 0x56 0xC3 0x67     # message 1
0x67 0x6A 0x90 0x12     # message 2
0x34 0xA0 0xB1 0xCC     # message 3

Sure, we could just blast the raw bytes down the wire - 99% of the time it'll work fine. But what if you connected the serial port half way through the first message? The data stream would be 2 bytes out of sync so your endpoint would see this:

0xC3 0x76 0x67 0x6A     # message 1
0x90 0x12 0x34 0xA0     # message 2
0xB1 0xCC               # ???

The first step towards a solution is to introduce message start and stop bytes and wrap each message inside them. I've chosen 0x7F and 0x7E:

0x7F 0xE2 0x56 0xC3 0x67 0x7E     # message 1
0x7F 0x67 0x6A 0x90 0x12 0x7E     # message 2
0x7F 0x34 0xA0 0xB1 0xCC 0x7E     # message 3

Now, if the port is connected mid-message we can simply ignore any data received outside the delimiters. Let's say we missed the first 3 bytes:

0xC3 0x67 0x7E  # ignored! we're not in a message.
0x7F            # start of message
0x67            # message byte 1
0x6A            # message byte 2
0x90            # message byte 3
0x12            # message byte 4
0x7E            # end of message

Awesome. But what if we need to transmit the 2-byte message 0x7F 0x7E? Let's see.

0x7F    # message start
0x7F    # message byte 1... no wait... start of another message?
0x7E    # message byte 2... or is it 1... no surely it's the end of the message?
0x7E    # message end... again!

Madness. We need to find a way to distinguish between bytes with special meaning and those without. Taking a cue from C strings, let's introduce a new special byte - the escape byte (let's say 0x7D). Any time any of the special bytes (0x7F, 0x7E or 0x7D) appear inside the message, we prefix them with the escape byte. When receiving a message we know that whenever we see the escape byte, the following byte should not be interpreted as having any special meaning.

But hang on - we've just recreated our original problem; what if the escape byte wasn't received?

... port currently disconnected ...

0x7F    # message start
0x12    # message byte 1
0x7D    # escape byte

... port is connected ...

0x7F    # should be an escaped byte... but interpreted as message start

We need to find a way to keep all special bytes from appearing on the wire save for their intended purposes. There is no other solution - in the absence of context (whether caused by data corruption or disconnection) it is simply impossible to know how a potential special byte should be interpreted. The final little trick we use is to XOR escaped bytes with a known constant:

# message to send: 0x7F 0x7E 0x7D

0x7F    # message start
0x7D    # escape byte
0x5F    # == 0x7F XOR 0x20
0x7D    # escape byte
0x5E    # == 0x7E XOR 0x20
0x7D    # escape byte
0x5D    # == 0x7D XOR 0x20
0x7E    # message end

By adding a final rule that only special bytes are ever escaped, we have a simple, reliable protocol for ensuring complete messages have been received*. To decode the resulting messages, all we need is a simple state machine to keep track of whether the next byte is escaped (and hence requires XOR decoding). It is this state machine that is implemented by SerialBuffer, along with a corresponding API for reading and writing messages.

* Actually, not quite - there could be still be data corruption within the message body. This is a higher-level concern; if data corruption is problem, use a checksum in your protocol.



  • clone this repository into your Arduino library path or
  • create a SerialBuffer directory in your Arduino library path and copy SerialBuffer.cpp and SerialBuffer.h therein

Example Sketch

#include <SerialBuffer.h>

// change this to Serial1 etc if you're using an Arduino Mega
#define SERIAL_PORT Serial

#define BUFFER_SIZE 64
char buffer[BUFFER_SIZE];

// declare the serial buffer
SerialBuffer serialBuffer;

void setup() {

  // set up the buffer storage and maximum size
  serialBuffer.buffer = buffer;
  serialBuffer.bufferSize = BUFFER_SIZE;

  // reset the buffer

  // bring up the serial port


void loop() {
  int maxBytes = SERIAL_PORT.available();
  while (maxBytes--) {

    byte inputByte =;

    // present the input byte to the serial buffer for decoding
    // whenever receive() returns >= 0, there's a complete message
    // in the buffer ready for processing at offset zero.
    // (return value is message length)
    int bufferStatus = serialBuffer.receive(inputByte);

    if (bufferStatus >= 0) {
      // handle message
      // ...
      // ...