Natural Polyglot Machine


    0.1.1 • Public • Published

    A streaming tokenizer for NodeJS.

    Parsing data coming off the wire in an event-driven environment can be a difficult proposition, with naive implementations buffering all received data in memory until a message has been received in its entirety. Not only is this infficient from a memory standpoint, but it may not be possible to determine the that a message has been fully received without attempting to parse it. This requires a parser that can gracefully handle incomplete messages and pick up where it left off. To make this task easier, node-strtok provides

    • Tokenizing primitives for common network datatypes (e.g. signed and unsigned integers in variois endian-nesses).
    • A callback-driven approach well suited to an asynchronous environment (e.g. to allow the application to asynchronously ask another party for information about what the next type should be)
    • An easily extensible type system for adding support for new, application-defined types to the core.
    • Very good performance; the built-in MsgPack parser performs within 30% of the native C++ implementation.


    The node-strtok library has only one method: parse(). This method takes a net.Stream (really any EventEmitter that pumps out data events) and a callback, which is invoked when a complete token has been read from the stream. The callback takes a single argument: the token just read from the stream, and is expected to return the type of token to read from the stream next (e.g. strtok.UINT32_BE). It is this callback that ultimately implements the application protocol, consuming the provided tokens and instructing node-strtok the type of the next token to read. It is this inverted control flow that allows node-strtok to function efficiently as an interruptable parser well suited to NodeJS.

    The meat of implementing an application protocol is to be found in what it does in its callback function.

    When parse() is invoked, it immediately invokes the callback with a value of undefined. In this way, the application can indicate the type of token to read from the stream first. For example, the MsgPack implementation always reads a strtok.UINT8 when it doesn't know what's coming next; it interprets the resulting value as a type (e.g. integer, array, etc) to determine what type of value is coming next.

    Implicit in this model is that the callback itself must maintain all protocol-specific state on its own. Often this will include what type of structure it's attmpting to parse from the stream, and the progress made so far in parsing that structure.


    node-strtok supports a wide variety of numerical tokens out of the box:

    • UINT8
    • UINT16_BE, UINT16_LE
    • UINT32_BE, UINT32_LE
    • INT8
    • INT16_BE
    • INT32_BE

    One might notice that there is no support for 64-bit tokens, since JavaScript seems to limit value size to less than 2^64. Rather than wrapping up an additional math library to handle this, I wanted to stick with JavaScript primitives. Maybe this will change later if this becomes important.

    Special tokens

    There are a handful of "special" tokens which have special meaning when returned from the protocol callback: DONE and DEFER.

    The DONE token indicates to strtok.parse() that the protocol parsing loop has come to an end, and that no more data need be read off of the stream. This causes strtok.parse() to disengage from the stream. The callback will not be invoked again. In addition, upon receiving DONE, strtok.parse() may have excess data buffers which it has pulled off of the stream, but which it did not consume while being directed by the protocol callback. Rather than dropping this data on the floor, strtok.parse() will synthesize and emit data events on the stream which it was operating on. The idea is to facilitate protocol stacks which want to use node-strtok to parse some portion of the protocol and then hand off processing to some other codepath(s). In this case, it is expected that the protocol callback will add data event listeners to the stream immediately before returning DONE.

    The DEFER token indicates that the protocol doesn't know what type of token to read from the stream next. Perhaps the protocol needs to consult some out-of-process datastructure, or wait for some other event to occur. To support this case, the protocol callback is actually invoked with 2 arguments: the value and a defer callback. It is this second parameter, a callback, that must be invoked with the desired token type once the protocol layer has figured this out. Note that between the time DEFER is returned and the callback is invoked, strtok.parse() is buffering all data received from the stream.

    Complex tokens

    The token types returned from the protocol callback are simply objects with

    1. a get() method that takes a Buffer and an offset and returns the token value, and 2) a len field that indicates the number of bytes to consume. Any JavaScript object that meets this criteria can be returned from the protocol callback. node-strtok ships with two built-in types for supporting common behavior that take advantage of this
    • BufferType -- consume a fixed number of bytes from the stream and return a Buffer instance containing these bytes.
    • StringType -- consume a fixed number of bytes from the stream and return a string with a specified encoding.

    Implementing such types is extremely simple. The BufferType implementation is given below:

    var BufferType = function(l) {
        var self = this;
        self.len = l;
        self.get = function(buf, off) {
            return buf.slice(off, off + this.len);
    exports.BufferType = BufferType;

    A simple example

    Below is an example of a parser for a simple protocol. Each message is a UTF-8 string, prefixed with a big-endian unsigned 32-bit integer used as a length specifier.

    var strotk = require('strtok');
    var s = ... /* a net.Stream workalike */;
    var numBytes = -1;
    strtok.parse(s, function(v, cb) {
        if (v === undefined) {
            return strtok.UINT32_BE;
        if (numBytes == -1) {
            numBytes = v;
            return new strtok.StringType(v, 'utf-8');
        console.log('Read ' + v);
        numBytes = -1;
        return strtok.UINT32_BE;

    When the callback is first invoked, we aren't in the midst of reading a message, so we ask for a UINT32_BE to get the length of the subsequent string. At this point, on every invocation of our callback, we use our internal numBytes variable to determine if we're reading a number-of-bytes value or a string value. In the former case, we're called with the number-of-bytes value and return a StringType instance that knows to read the specified number of bytes from the stream. In the latter case, we get the string itself, log it, and then ask for a length again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

    A more complex example

    The examples/msgpack/msgpack.js file contains an implementation of the MsgPack serialization spec.


    An example run of the built-in examples/msgpack/bench.js:

      pack:   14674 ms (100% of json)
      unpack: 50479 ms (100% of json)
      pack:   15334 ms (104% of json)
      unpack: 32835 ms (65% of json)
      pack:   15861 ms (108% of json)
      unpack: 46650 ms (92% of json)




    npm i strtok

    DownloadsWeekly Downloads






    Last publish


    • pgriess