AMQP framing and codec in amqplib

Nestled amongst the treasure hoard that is AMQP 0-9-1 lie no fewer than four encoding schemes, all slightly different, with overlapping sets of primitive types (which are helpfully given different names in different places). Each of these needs its own slightly different approach, although certain things are common of course. What follows is an explanation of the various encoding schemes, their quirks, and their implementation in amqplib, my AMQP client library for Node.JS.

Parsing frames

At the bottom layer, bytes on the wire are sent in sequential frames, of a handful of set layouts. Each frame looks like this:

Frame format:

0      1         3               7              size+7
+------+---------+-------------+ +------------+ +-----------+
| type | channel | size        | | payload    | | frame-end |
+------+---------+-------------+ +------------+ +-----------+
 octet  short     long            size octets    octet

The type identifies the kind of frame, and thus the meaning and layout of the payload. The 16-bit channel identifies a multiplexed stream (more on this another time). Connection-level frames -- heartbeats and some performatives -- always have a channel of 0 (so you could argue that channel ought to be part of the next layer). The frame-end is a delimiter of set value 0xCE, which is a intended to act as a check that the frame size really is the frame size, to save having to parse the frame to check that it's valid. (Even though it'll have to be parsed anyway; of course, the byte in that position might have that value by coincidence. Luckily, the byte spent on the redundant frame delimiter is more than saved elsewhere by two slightly different ridiculous bit-packing algorithms1.)

Naturally, in amqplib, the incoming byte stream is a Readable, and amqplib uses a bitsyntax pattern to break it into frames, proceeding only when it has a full and correctly-delimited frame. It explicitly checks the size against a maximum then slices, rather than doing the slice in the pattern -- we don't want to get a huge, bogus size and read from the socket forever trying to accumulate enough bytes.

If there are too few bytes the match will fail (return false), in which case an outer loop reads the next chunk of bytes and tries again with all the bytes thus far collected.

By the way, using bitsyntax is just a compact and convenient means of code generation, and one could certainly write equivalent code by hand. It is perhaps slightly sub-optimal to try the full match every time new bytes come in. An improvement might be to have distinct header-reading and payload-accumulation states, which would probably make bitsyntax overkill here. (While writing this I checked whether bitsyntax would exit early if it has a fixed-size pattern and too few bytes -- it doesn't. One for the TODO list.)

Decoding and encoding methods and headers

Depending on the frame type, the payload will contain nothing (for heartbeats), message content, one of several kinds of AMQP method (a command), or one of one kind of message header. These latter two have similar encoding schemes with a statically-defined sequence of fields per method or header, the encoded values of which are simply concatenated.

Since I have all the method and header definitions in a JSON file, I can mechanically generate encoding and decoding procedures for them. I could hand-code them, but there are quite a few methods and it would take a long and boring time, and I doubt there are any benefits to doing so, optimisation- or other-wise.

The definitions look like this:

{"id": 10,
 "arguments": [
   {"type": "octet", "name": "version-major", "default-value": 0},
   {"type": "octet", "name": "version-minor", "default-value": 9},
   {"domain": "peer-properties", "name": "server-properties"},
   {"type": "longstr", "name": "mechanisms", "default-value": "PLAIN"},
   {"type": "longstr", "name": "locales", "default-value": "en_US"}],
 "name": "start",
 "synchronous" : true}

A method frame payload starts with a 32-bit integer denoting the specific method, then the encoded fields for that method concatenated together. Here's an encoded ConnectionStart method:

Sadly, I can't easily use bitsyntax here, because the field encodings are rather ... idiosyncratic. I could do some precalculation (of sizes, and packed bit fields), then construct the whole frame with a pattern. But, I have to generate code anyway, so I may as well do the whole lot.

After some unsavoury string concatenation (view through your fingers here), something like the following decoder procedure is generated for each method:

This is deliberately simple-minded, using local variables as registers of a sort, to keep the code-generating code uniform per stanza and make debugging easier. In principle. The result is run through uglify to tighten it up; or, at least, to pretty-print it.

Note that you won't see the generating code in the npm package, only the generated code (which is likewise not in the git repo). The code generation is done as a prepublish script.

Encoder procedures are also generated. These are not symmetric to the decoders: they generate a whole frame at once. Otherwise, the method fields would just have to be concatenated with the few bytes in the frame header and the frame delimiter at the end, involving another buffer copy operation.

A few methods, by virtue of the types of their fields, have a fixed size. For these I allocate an exactly-sized buffer to encode into. Most, however, contain at least one string or table, so need a dynamically-sized buffer. Since there's no such thing (well at least, not without me implementing one), I use a "safely-sized" buffer, one that is very likely to be big enough in practice. There's a few improvements I think can be made in this respect:

  • Once I'm given the values to be encoded, I could allocate a buffer to size. A complication is tables (and arrays, though they only appear inside tables), for which the size can only be calculated with an encoding pass. Still, since I encode those into their own buffers anyway, I could do that first then allocate the whole thing.

  • Similarly, encoding frames or even series of frames into a single buffer is bound to be more efficient than encoding pieces into individual frames then constructing from there. When sending a message, there are at least two, and usually at least three, frames (the deliver method, the headers, and one or more content frames). It may be worth making some special cases for writing all of these at once.

  • In the absence of the above, I ought at least to detect if I'm going to overrun the "safely-sized" buffer, even if it's unlikely. In AMQP 0-9-1 frames have a maximum size, negotiated per connection, and it is not specified what is supposed to happen if a method cannot be encoded within a single frame. So one could say I am acting in the spirit of the protocol.

Mapping primitive types to JavaScript

AMQP 0-9-1 values inhabit a smallish set of types, including UTF8 strings, integers of various widths, floats, a couple of wildcards decimal and timestamp, maps (called 'field tables'2) and arrays (called 'field arrays').

In method fields the types are specified, so the domains are known and can be checked when encoding. timestamp and decimal don't appear as method fields, so I don't have to deal with those there.

Some method fields are tables: these are maps containing arbitrary keys and values of the types above, including timestamps, decimals, tables themselves, and arrays of arbitrary values. The obvious choice for table values is to accept objects. The values in tables present a problem though: they will be arbitrary JavaScript values and I have to decide for each what type it will be given.

Since JavaScript has only one number type, 64-bit floats, I choose the smallest encoding that includes the supplied number. I'm relying on the other end -- either the server or a client somewhere -- promoting the number if it's expecting something wider or floatier. If JavaScript number is greater than 2^50, it's impossible to determine if the number is "supposed" to be an integer or floating point, so it gets encoded as a double. An improvement here would be to accept 64-bit integers from one or more big-number libraries.

Strings in AMQP method fields are short -- 8-bit-sized UTF8. These correspond nicely to JavaScript strings. In table fields, there are only 32-bit-sized longstrs of no particular string encoding, and 32-bit-sized byte arrays which are like, totally different to longstrs. In tables and arrays, strings get encoded as AMQP longstrs (no shortstrs allowed as values sorry), and decoded as UTF8 strings3. Buffers get encoded as byte arrays and vice versa.

Because some JavaScript values may represent AMQP values of more than one type, there is a type tagging mechanism: wrapping any value in an object with a '!' property giving the AMQP type forces it to be encoded as that type. For example, one could supply a table as the JavaScript value

    received: {'!': timestamp,
               'value': +new Date}

A decimal has no direct JavaScript equivalent, so is represented as an object {'!': 'decimal', digits: uint32, places: uint8}. Intriguingly, the digits part is defined in the AMQP specification as an unsigned integer, so one cannot encode negative decimals. Now that's optimism.


Another benefit of a machine-readable protocol specification is that I can generate test cases. I do so using claire, a property-based testing library. I have to define all the base types:

The sum combinator claire.choice, has derivatives claire.Object and claire.Array, which I can use for field-tables and field-arrays respectively:

With the product combinator claire.sequence, I can use the specification to generate the methods, frames, and so on.

Now that I have representations of the methods, I can construct traces of frames, and test that they are encoded and parsed correctly.

In the above, each generated trace is encoded, then partitioned into chunks in different ways, to make sure the parsing code deals with irregular packets as might come in off the wire.


[1] "ridiculous bit-packing"

1) The presence of header fields are given in a 2n byte bitset. If a bit is not set, the corresponding field is skipped. For bit-typed fields absence is overloaded to mean false. The lowest bit in each two byte segment is a continuation bit, which if set, signifies another two bytes of bitset. None of the one kind of message header frame has more than fifteen fields, making this embellishment pointless. Oh, and the number of fields for a header frame is statically known anyway.

2) Consecutive bit-typed (boolean) fields in methods are packed into consecutive bits in one or more bytes. To be fair, there are a couple of methods with consecutive bit-typed fields, e.g., ExchangeDeclare. So perhaps this is not so ridiculous. By contrast, booleans in tables and arrays take two bytes a pop: one to mark the value as a boolean, and one to encode the value.

I'll stop now.

[2] Field tables and field arrays

I don't know why these are called what they are called. Maybe because they are tables (maps) or arrays of values that otherwise appear as method fields? Or because they are only used in paddocks? Or because they outrank other officer tables and arrays. Oh, tables of field values. Yeah, maybe.

[3] Strings are long but also short and sometimes UTF8

Methods can contain fields of either longstr (which are not required to be UTF8) and shortstr (which are). Since, in principle, I might get a longstr field value that is not UTF8, I have to treat longstrs in method fields as byte buffers. If an object to be encoded as a field-table contains a string value, however, I have no choice but to encode it as a longstr, since shortstr values do not appear in tables.

Please send help. Not to me though -- send it back in time, to the AMQP authors.


  1. AMQP framing and codec in amqplib
  2. Multiple dispatch in JavaScript, part deux
  3. Multiple dispatch in JavaScript