DSL for specifying data layout
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DSL for describing data layouts. Currently this is Apache-2.0 licensed, but future versions/implementations may be under different licenses (definitely FOSS); we'll play it by ear.

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The Problem

When doing low-level programming -- writing hardware drivers, implementing networking protocols, binary file formats, and so forth, you often need to deal with some structures that don't nicely map to a construct in your programming language. Examples:

  • The x86 GDT entries.
  • ACPI tables.
  • IP/Tcp packets

For the GDT entry, Zero defines the following struct:

struct GDTEnt {
    uint16_t limit_low;
    uint16_t base_low;
    uint8_t base_mid;
    uint8_t access;
    uint8_t flags_limit_high;
    uint8_t base_high;

Note the following:

  • We need __attribute__((packed)), because otherwise C may introduce unwanted space between some of the fields
  • We have conceptually-single fields spread across multiple locations in the struct; base spans three different struct fields.
  • Some fields don't divide evenly into bytes, so they're awkwardly sharing variables. flags_limit_high is conceptually a four-bit flags field, and a four-bit chunk of the limit.
  • Some fields are smaller than a single byte; both flags and access are made up of smaller bit fields.
  • Sometimes we do want padding, but not the way the compiler will do it. For example, two of the bits in the flags field are supposed to just be zero, and one of the bits in access must always be 1.

Working with these structures is a bit awkward.

The trouble is that data definitions in C, and almost every other programming language, really aren't designed to specify such awkward structures. They simply can't express many of the patterns you see in this space.

C's data types are also also somewhat oriented towards making the compiler's job easier; generating machine code that splits a logical value across three different locations isn't quite as trivial as storing a value in a word-aligned memory location.

Rust doesn't even define the memory representation for its types, and with good reasons. See this section of the Rustonomicon for details.

..Though note that you can impose layout restrictions like those in C, if needed.

Finally, as described in the Rustonomicon, using packed structs like the above can be a little risky, since it opens up the possibility of doing unaligned loads and stores.

Proposed solution

A DSL for defining bit-level data layouts in an expressive way. Tools can be written to derive getters and setters for these types, or to generate constant values to embed in executables, or potentially other applications.

This is still very WIP. Below we describe an overview of current thinking. The prototype directory has the beginnings of an implementation of a tool that generates getters and setters as suggested below. The file grammar.md contains a (partial) formal grammar, but it may not be entirely up to date with what the prototype implementation does. The spec will become more accurate once the language itself is more stabilized. examples/ contains some examples.


For each data type, we define two things:

  1. The logical structure of the data type
  2. Its physical layout.


/* Declares a logical view of the data; base is one conceputal
 * field, so we express it that way. */
type GDTEnt struct {
    // The `uint` type can be parametrized over any bit length:
    base: uint<32>
    limit: uint<20>

    flags: struct {
        gr, sz: bool

    access: struct {
        ac, rw, dc, ex, pr: bool
        privl: uint<2>

/* Declares the physical layout of the data. The whole thing is
 * declared to be little endian; this is inherited by component
 * fields unless they specifically override it (see the section on
 * endianness, below).
 * Endianness is unspecified by default, but if left unspecified
 * may only be used as part of a larger structure.
layout GDTEnt (little) {
    // Denotes the bottom 16 bits of the limit field. Can be specified as
    // either [hi:lo] or [lo:hi]. We allow both to make transcribing
    // from hardware manuals easier. The range is *inclusive*, with
    // the lowest bit having index 0.


    access {
        // Without the slice notation, we embed the whole field.
        // Booleans are assumed 1 bit, true = 1, false = 0.
        ac rw dc ex

        // A bit that is always 1. Syntax is Verilog inspired, of
        // the form <length>'<radix><value>. The radix `b` is
        // base 2.

        privl // 2 bits wide; derived from the type declaration.

    flags {
        2'0b0 // 2 bit field with the value 0.

A tool could then be used to generate C code that could be called like so:

GDTEnt_set_base(&ent, 0xffffffff); // set the value of the `base` field.
uint32_t lim = GDTEnt_get_limit(&ent); // get the value of the `limit` field.

Or in a language that has a bit more powerful mechanisms for abstraction, such as C++ or rust:

ent.base = 0xffffffff;
uint32_t lim = ent.limit;


Endianness can be declared explicitly on an entire layout, or on any field, and is inherited by sub-components unless they specifically override it. As an example, suppose we have some sort of packet, with big-endian headers and trailers, but whose payload is little endian. We might have a layout like this:

layout Packet (big) {
    // other header fields
    payload (little) {
        // ...
    // trailer fields

A layout is permitted to omit endianness information at the top level, e.g:

layout Foo {

In this case, the data type can only be used as part of a larger structure that does define the overall endianness.


Alignment could be specified with an annotation similar to that used for endianness, e.g:

layout Foo (little,align=8B) {
    // ...

Would denote a little-endian structure that must be 8-byte aligned.

Tools should detect inconsistencies in alignment specifications and report them as errors, e.g:

type foo {
    x: bar

type bar {
    y: bool

layout foo (align=4) {

layout bar (align=8) {
    y 63'b0

In this case, foo will be aligned on a 4-byte boundary, but one of it's members (x) demands an 8-byte alignment.

Recommendations for code-generation tools

The most obvious class of tool that uses this language is one which generates data types and getters/setters for a programming language, such as C, C++, or Rust. This section lists some general recommendations for these tools.

Setters should check inputs

In many cases, the host language will not be able to capture the required constraints in its type system. For example, C does not have a 2-bit unsigned integer type, so a setter for the privl field in the GDTEnt structure defined above could be passed values that don't actually fit in the field.

Setters should check inputs and panic/abort if they are invalid. In some contexts this may a problem for performance, in which case it is acceptable to generate *_unsafe variants, but APIs should discourage their use.

Open Questions

This section is basically a brain dump of other things we could add if desired. My inclination is to take wait-and-see approach with these, and try to avoid mission/feature creep.

Sum types?

If we have a data structure like (OCaml syntax):

type t =
    | Foo of (uint32, uint64)
    | Bar of bool

A typical approach to laying this out in memory is to have something similar to this C declaration:

struct T {
    int tag;
    union {
        struct {
            uint32_t x;
            uint64_t y;
        } foo;
        struct {
            bool x;
        } bar;

I've seen similar structures (I think there's one that shows up in one of the APIC related tables?), but that have the "tag" in some weird spot in the middle of the data structure. I want to be able to express this sort of thing as well.

One stab, which is more verbose than I want:

type TTag enum(uint) {
    foo = 1
    bar = 7

type T union(TTag) {
    foo: struct {
        x: u32
        y: u64
    bar: struct {
        x: bool

layout T {

Also, this fails to capture more tricky cases like the mips instructions described below.


  • Relative vs absolute?
  • Physical/virtual address distinction?
  • "Far" pointers? Places this shows up:
    • real mode x86
    • Cap'N Proto

I see two ways of approaching this:

  • Mostly punt; keep this somewhat impoverished
  • Try to come up with a way to compose things. We're not going to capture every possible addressing model by just enumerating them.

MMIO/other constrained access methods.

MMIO structures tend to have requirements about the load/store sizes. The language should be able to capture this, and tools should generate code that respects this.

There are also other cases where data must be accessed in particular ways, e.g. port IO on x86, or filesystems stored on disk.

It may make sense to have field access constraints defined as a third facet, alongside logical and physical layout.

For now, the "default field access definition" assumes memory with specified alignments; portio and other weirder things are left as future work.

Variable length fields?

Sometimes you'll see data structures that look like this:

| length of A |
| A           |
| length of B |
| B           |
| ...         |

From an API standpoint, it would be nice to provide something iterator-like.

What code to gen?

  • What should the exposed APIs look like? What tools would be useful? We have some notions described above, but should keep thinking on this.


  • Would be nice if we could statically embed complex values. In Zero we do some hackery with C macros to have the final GDT embedded in the executable, so there's no run-time construction. In general many data structures are too difficult to express for this.

Things to look into

  • Read about various things like:
    • Filesystems
    • Network protocols
    • Hardware (pick through intel/arm manuals, maybe ppc and some more obscure architectures)
    • Instruction set encodings?
      • Mips includes some interesting challenges; See below. Probably similar examples in places I'm less familiar with.
      • This very well may be out of scope.
  • See what prior art exists.

Mips encoding

Mips has three basic encoding types: R, I, and J. In all cases, the first six bits are an opcode. For R-Type instructions, the opcode field is zero, and there is a secondary 'funct' field elsewhere in the instruction. The I and J types only have one opcode.

The naive sum type solution above doesn't work here, since you don't have two separate tags for the I vs. J distinction and for the individual opcodes between them.