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Moved to @endo/marshal


0.5.0 • Public • Published


"Marshalling" refers to the conversion of structured data (a tree or graph of objects) into a string, and back again.

The marshal module helps with conversion of "capability-bearing data", in which some portion of the structured input represents "pass-by-proxy" or "pass-by-presence" objects. These should be serialized into markers that refer to special "reference identifiers". These identifiers are collected in an array, and the serialize() function returns a two-element structure known as "CapData": a body that contains the usual string, and a new slots array that holds the reference identifiers. unserialize() takes this CapData structure and returns the object graph. The marshaller must be taught (with a pair of callbacks) how to create the presence markers, and how to turn these markers back into proxies/presences.

marshal uses JSON to serialize the object graph, but knows how to serialize Javascript objects that cannot be expressed directly as JSON, such as BigInt objects, undefined, NaN, and others.


This module exports a makeMarshal() function, which can be called with two optional callbacks (convertValToSlot and convertSlotToVal), and returns an object with serialize and unserialize properties. If the callback arguments are omitted, they default to the identity function.

import '@agoric/install-ses';
import { makeMarshal } from '@agoric/marshal';

const m = makeMarshal();
const o = harden({a: 1});
const s = m.serialize(o);
console.log(s); // { body: '{"a":1}', slots: [] }
const o2 = m.unserialize(s);
console.log(o2); // { a: 1 }

Frozen Objects Only

The entire object graph must be "hardened" (recursively frozen), such as done by the ses module (installed with @agoric/install-ses). The serialization function will refuse to marshal any graph that contains a non-frozen object.

Beyond JSON

marshal uses a special marker object to represent both Presences and data which cannot be expressed directly in JSON. This marker uses a property named @qclass that identifies the type of the object. For example, a Javascript NaN is serialized into:

// { body: '{"@qclass":"NaN"}', slots: [] }

Cyclic data structures are handled by tracking the objects we've serialized before in a WeakMap, and replacing them with an index number if they appear a second time. This results in an "ibid" structure. When unserializing, a matching table is maintained, and "ibid" markers caues additional references to previously-unpacked to be added to the reconstructed object graph:

const o = harden({a: 1});
const oo = harden([o, o]);
const soo = m.serialize(oo);
// { body: '[{"a":1},{"@qclass":"ibid","index":1}]', slots: [] }
const oo2 = m.unserialize(soo);
// [ { a: 1 }, { a: 1 } ]
console.log(oo2[0] === oo2[1]); // true

const cycle = [];
// { body: '[{"@qclass":"ibid","index":0}]', slots: [] }

This "ibid table" is new for each invocation of m.serialize() or m.unserialize(), so each serialized CapData is independent.

(TODO) To tolerate a @qclass property appearing in the data being serialized, the library uses a structure known as a "Hilbert Hotel", which wraps the troublesome object in a new layer of serialization.

Pass-by-Presence vs Pass-by-Copy

marshal makes a distinction between objects that are pass-by-presence, and those which are pass-by-copy.

To qualify as pass-by-presence, all enumerable properties of the object (and of all objects in the inheritance hierarchy) must be methods, not data. Pass-by-presence objects usually have identity (assuming the convertValToSlot and convertSlotToVal callbacks behave well), so passing the same object through multiple calls will result in multiple references to the same output object.

To qualify as pass-by-copy, the enumerable string-named properties of the object must data, not methods: they can be Arrays, strings, numbers, and other pass-by-copy objects, but not functions. In addition, the object must either inherit from Object.prototype or null. Pass-by-copy objects do not generally have identity: the unserializer is not obligated to produce the same output object for multiple appearances of the input object.

Mixed objects (some data properties, some functions) are rejected.

Empty objects (which qualify as both types) are treated as pass-by-presence, so they can be used as marker objects which can be compared for identity. These are especially useful as keys WeakMaps for the "rights amplification" pattern.

convertValToSlot / convertSlotToVal

When m.serialize() encounters a pass-by-presence object, it will call the convertValToSlot callback with the value to be serialized. Its return value will be used at the slot identifier to be placed into the slots array. In the serialized body, this will be represented by the record

{ "@qclass": "slot", "index": index }

where index is the index in the slots array of that slot.

The array of slot identifiers is returned as the slots portion of the CapData structure.

Each time m.unserialize() encounters such a record, it calls convertSlotToVal with that slot from the slots array. convertSlotToVal should create and return a proxy (or other representative) of the pass-by-presence object.

As a direct alternative to JSON

This marshal package also exports stringify and parse functions that can serve as a direct substitute for JSON.stringify and JSON.parse, with the following differences. These alternate functions are built on the marshal encoding of passable data explained above.

Compared to JSON, marshal's stringify and parse is both more tolerant and less tolerant of what data it accepts. Marshal is more tolerant in that it will encode NaN, Infinity, -Infinity, BigInts, and undefined. Marshal is less tolerant in that accepts only pass-by-copy data according to the semantics of our distributed object model, as enforced by marshal---the Passable type exported by the marshal package. For example, all objects-as-records must be frozen, inherit from Object.prototype and have only enumerable string-named own properties. When JSON encounters something it does not like, JSON rejects it by skipping it. Marshal rejects it by throwing an error terminating the whole serialization.

The JSON methods have more than one parameter, enabling customization of the operation, for example with replacers or revivers. These marshal-based alternative do not.

The full marshal package will serialize Passable objects containing presences and promises, because it serializes to a CapData structure containing both a body string and a slots array. Marshal's stringify function serializes only to a string, and so will not accept any presences or promises. If any are found in the input, this stringify will throw an error. The OnlyData type exported by this marshal represents that restriction.

Any encoding into JSON of data JSON does not directly represent, such as NaN relies on some kind of escape which signals the decoding side to decode that encoding rather than passing it through literally. For marshal this is signaled by the presence or absence of a property named "@qclass" as explained above. If you feed such a structure into stringify as data, stringify will reject it, just as normal marshal's serialize would. This prohibition is not the ideal solution. We could instead use another level of "@qclass" to encode the "@qclass" data so that it decoded into "@qclass" data. However, this is unlikely enough to fail by accident, and is safely stopped when it happens maliciously. Thus adding this extra level of encoding is not urgent. In the meantime, the prohibition does catch the accident where it happens when it was not supposed to happen. This is probably the more important case to optimize for anyway.

Unfortunately, at the present time, because of Empty objects are surprising (#2018) plain empty objects, which should be valid OnlyData and serialize fine, are instead rejected because they are currently classified as a presence. We are in the process of fixing this.



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