This FTP is rejected

Rejection rationale

Given the amount of feedback and comments on this FTP, we‘ve decided to withdraw (i.e. self-reject) the proposal. That said, it still has some great ideas: we’ll be taking those ideas and publishing them as separate FTPs with smaller scope, to enable clearer discussion and separate independent features into their own FTPs.

FTP-032 was spun out of this FTP.

FTP-026: Envelopes Everywhere



This FTP has two goals:

  1. Improve the efficiency of the existing [envelope] format, by making envelopes more than twice as compact.
  2. Use envelopes as the sole means of referencing all out-of-line objects. This increases the consistency of the wire format, and the uniformity of protocol design and implementation.

A side-effect of both (1) and (2) is that optionality (nullability) can be efficiently implemented for all types, not just structs, handles, vectors, strings, tables and (extensible) unions[1]


Envelopes are the foundation for extensible, evolvable data structures (tables and extensible unions). Making envelopes more efficient enables those extensible structures to be used in more contexts where performance and wire size matter.

FIDL also has several pervasive types that are used for dynamically-sized data: vectors & strings. These types are required to be out-of-line since the size of the FIDL primary object is expected to be statically known. If envelopes can be used to represent all out-of-line data, we can simplify both the protocol and implementation, reducing implementation cost and room for error.

Additionally, FIDL would benefit from a holistic, consistent approach to optionality. This leads to better ergonomics, optionality for more types than the current mechanisms allow for, and a simplified user mental model. Envelopes fulfill these goals by enabling optionality for all types in a uniform manner.


Envelopes can refer to data that is either:

  • out-of-line, similar to the existing envelope format, or
  • inline, where data is stored in the envelope itself. This can be used for “small-sized” types that are fixed-size and less than 64 bits.

Out-Of-Line Envelopes {#out_of_line-envelopes}

An out-of-line envelope is:

Figure: out of line envelope, 64 bit little endian, lower 48 bits size withleast significant bit zero, 16 bits handle_count

As a C struct:

typedef struct {
  uint64_t size:48;  // Low bit will be 0
  uint16_t handle_count;
} fidl_out_of_line_envelope_t;

The out-of-line envelope has the following changes vs the existing envelope format:

  • Size (num_bytes) is 48 bits instead of 32 bits, enabling larger payloads.
    • The size includes the size of any sub-objects that may be recursively encoded.
      • For example, the size of a vector<string> includes the size of the outer vector's inner string sub-objects.
      • This matches the existing behavior for the current envelope implementation's size field.
    • A legitimate out-of-line object's size will always be a multiple of 8, due to out-of-line objects being eight-byte aligned. This implies that size % 8 == 0, which means that
      • the lowest three bits of the size field — and thus the LSB of the size field — will be zero, thus
      • the envelope's LSB — since the size field is in the LSB of the envelope — will always also be zero.
      • This is important, as discussed in the Tag Bit below.
    • See Encoding Sizes for Out-of-Line Envelopes below for performance implications of calculating the recursive size.
  • The handle_count is 16 bits, instead of 32 bits.
    • It's not currently possible to send > 64 handles over a Zircon channel; we feel that 16 bits provides enough headroom for future needs.
    • The handle_count includes the handle count for all recursive sub-objects.
  • The presence/absence field is dropped.
    • Presence is represented by a non-zero value in either the size or handle_count field.
    • Absence is represented by the size & handle_count fields both being zero.
      • We call this a zero envelope.

Decoders MAY overwrite the envelope with a pointer to the envelope data, assuming they know the static type (schema) of the envelope‘s contents. See the Decoder Callback section for recommendations on how to process an envelope if the content’s type is unknown.

Tag Bit

An out-of-line envelope explicitly has the size occupying the least significant bits, and the handle count occupying the most significant bits. As discussed in the Envelope section,

  • since the lowest bit of the size field will always be zero (due to the size being a multiple of 8),
  • the lowest bit of the envelope will also always be zero.

We call the lowest bit of the envelope the tag bit.

  • If the tag bit is zero, the envelope's data is out-of-line.
  • If the tag bit is one, the envelope's data is inline.

Since the tag bit is one for inline data, an inline envelope also cannot be an actual pointer on architectures that require 64-bit alignment, since pointers will be a multiple of 8 and also require the lowest three bits to be zero. This is useful for a decoder to be able to distinguish inline envelopes from an actual pointer, since decoders typically overwrite out-of-line envelopes — but not inline envelopes — with a pointer to the envelope's content.

Inline Envelopes

Inline envelopes are encoded as:

Figure: in line envelope, 64 bit little endian, least significant bitis the value 1 indicating tag, 31 bits reserved, then 8, 16, or 32bits of inline data

As a C struct:

typedef struct {
  uint8_t tag:1;  // == 1
  uint32_t reserved:31;
  union {
    _Bool bool;
    uint32_t uint32;
    int32_t int32;
    uint16_t uint16;
    int16_t int16;
    uint8_t uint8;
    int8_t int8;
    float float32;
    zx_handle_t handle;  // Only when decoded (see Handles for more details)
} fidl_inline_envelope_t;
  • Inline envelopes have their LSB set to 1, which differentiates them from out-of-line envelopes and actual pointers.
  • The upper 32 bits of the envelope are used to represent the inline value, which can be an int8, uint8, int16, uint16, int32, uint32, float32, bool, or a handle.
    • The lowest bits of the upper 32 bits are used to represent the value if the value is less than 32 bits wide, which is standard little-endian representation.
  • Encoders MUST encode reserved bits as zero unless a future FTP specifies how those bits are to be interpreted.
  • Decoders and validators MUST ignore reserved bits unless a future FTP specifies how those bits are to be interpreted.
  • Decoders SHOULD leave inline envelopes as-is during decoding.
    • Since inline data has the data inline instead of needing to be referenced out-of-line, decoders do not need to replace them with a pointer when decoding in-place (unlike out-of-line envelopes).

Should Encoders Encode as Out-of-Line or Inline?

An encoder MUST:

  • encode data inline iff the type is a bool, (u)int8, (u)int16, (u)int32, float32 or handle. (Informally: if the type is fixed-size and <= 32 bits.)
  • encode data out-of-line for all other types. (Informally: if the type is >= 64 bits or variable-sized.)


There are three contexts for handle declaration:

  1. a non-optional handle in a non-extensible container, e.g. struct S { handle h; };
  2. an optional handle in a non-extensible container, e.g. struct S { handle? h; };
  3. a handle in an extensible container, e.g. table T { handle h; }

For (1), a non-optional handle in a non-extensible container, we propose keeping the existing wire format, which is a uint32. There is no need for a non-optional handle in a non-extensible container to be an envelope, since envelopes are designed to carry optional or dynamically-sized data.

For (3), a handle in an extensible container: since envelopes are the foundation for extensible containers, an envelope must be used to encode the handle. To encode a handle, an encoder MUST encode it as an out-of-line envelope, with size set to 0, and handle_count set to 1:

Figure: little-endian 64 bit data field with bottom 48 bits of size set tozero and next 16 bits indicating handle_count set to 1

This encoding instructs a decoder to look up the handle value in the out-of-line handle table. If a decoder wishes to decode in-place, the decoder SHOULD:

  • look up the handle in the out-of-line handle table, to determine the actual handle value.
  • set the tag bit to 1, which changes the envelope from out-of-line to inline.
  • set the handle field of the fidl_inline_envelope_t struct to the actual handle value.

Figure: little-endian 64 bit data field with least significant bit tag setto 1, next 31 bits reserved, next 32 bits handle_value

See the Examples section for an example encoded/decoded handle.

We choose this dual encoded/decoded form since it is compatible with both the out-of-line and inline envelope encodings. While this does result in specialized code for handles in envelopes, we believe that having more uniform, i.e. fewer, data encodings is a better trade-off than simpler code that requires more encodings.

For (2), an optional handle in a non-extensible container: we also propose using the same envelope representation as context (3) for the wire format, i.e. the dual out-of-line-encoded/inline-decoded form. Unfortunately, this representation of an optional handle is less compact than the existing optional handle wire format, which is a uint32. However, we still advocate using the envelope-based representation, since

  • using an envelope for an optional handle is consistent with using envelopes for any optional type,
  • optional handles are relatively rare in a FIDL message vs other message types[2], so the extra 4 bytes of envelope overhead should not significantly impact message size,
  • keeping the existing uint32 wire format for optional handles would result in three encodings and three separate code paths for handles: non-optional, optional, and handle-in-envelope. Using the envelope representation for optionals eliminates one encoding and one code path, which increases uniformity and decreases specialized code.

The encoding for (2) — optional handles in a non-extensible container — is explicitly listed in the Design Decisions section below, since the more compact uint32 representation for an optional handle could be worth considering.

Strings & Vectors

The current wire format for non-nullable Strings and Vectors are stored as 16 bytes:

  • a uint64 for the number of elements (vector) or number of bytes (string),
  • a uint64 for the presence/absence/pointer.

We propose using an envelope to represent both strings and vectors, either nullable or non-nullable:

  • The number of elements (vector) or bytes (string) is moved out-of-line.
    • This enables a vector/string to be represented by an envelope (only), so envelopes become the sole means of referencing any out-of-line data, for all FIDL types, enabling a consistent representation for all out-of-line data.
    • The vector/string contents are in a separate out-of-line object, and immediately follow the element/byte count.
  • Presence/absence is determined by the envelope either being zero or non-zero.

For vectors, note that the vector element count is not the same as the envelope's size:

  • The envelope's size is the vector element count multiplied by the element size.
  • If the vector contains sub-objects (e.g. vector<Table>, vector<vector<string>>), the envelope's size includes the size of all recursive sub-objects.

Nullable strings/vectors, and strings/vectors inside extensible containers, are represented the same way as non-nullable strings and vectors: the zero envelope is used to indicate an absent string/vector.

Conversely, if a string/vector is non-nullable, a validator MUST error if it encounters a zero envelope.

This may be a source-breaking change for code that uses the C bindings, which expect the memory layout for a fidl_vector_t and fidl_string_t to exactly match the wire format. We can, however, implement a transitional plan before a wire format change (e.g. change the C API to use functions or macros) that enable this to be a soft transition.

Note that it's still possible to represent this new string/vector layout as a C struct via flexible array members (e.g. struct { uint64 element_count; element_type data[]; };).

Optional (Nullable) Types

Currently, structs, strings, vectors, handles, unions, tables and extensible unions can be optional (nullable).

Using envelopes everywhere enables all types to be optional:

  • Present optional data is stored with an envelope, either out-of-line or inline.
  • Absent optional data is stored as a zero envelope.

Note that for small-sized types, inline data can store optional types as compactly as non-optional types, depending on the container's alignment requirements.

C/C++ Structs for Encoded/Decoded Forms

The encoded form of an envelope can be represented by a union of either an inline or out-of-line envelope. Similarly, a decoded envelope can either be inline, a pointer to the envelope data, or a callback-determined value (see the Decoder Callback section for details).

typedef union {
  fidl_inline_envelope_t inline;            // Low bit is 1
  fidl_out_of_line_envelope_t out_of_line;  // Low bit is 0
} fidl_encoded_envelope_t;

typedef union {
  fidl_inline_envelope_t inline;  // Low bit is 1
  void* data;                     // Low bit is 0
  uintptr_t callback_data;  // Value determined by callback (see Decoder Callback)
} fidl_decoded_envelope_t;

static_assert(sizeof(fidl_encoded_envelope_t) == sizeof(void*));
static_assert(sizeof(fidl_decoded_envelope_t) == sizeof(void*));

Unknown data

Receivers — validators & decoders — may not know the type of an envelope when they‘re used in an evolvable data structure, such as a table or extensible union. If a receiver doesn’t know the type of an envelope:

  • Inline envelopes can be safely ignored.
    • Handles MUST be encoded with out-of-line envelopes, not inline envelopes, which makes all inline envelopes safe to ignore.
  • Out-of-line envelopes can be minimally parsed and skipped.
    • The envelope's size determines the amount of out-of-line data to skip.
    • If the envelope's handle count is non-zero, a validator MUST process the specified number of handles.
      • The default processing behavior MUST be to close all handles.
    • A decoder MAY overwrite the unknown envelope with a pointer to the envelope's contents, if it wishes to decode in-place.
      • If a decoder does overwrite the envelope with a pointer, it will lose the size & handle count information in the envelope. If this is problematic, see the Decoder Callback section for an alternative.

Note that embedding the size in the out-of-line envelope enables rapid linear seeking through a FIDL message if many unknown types need to be skipped.

Decoder Callback

As mentioned in the Unknown Data section, an unknown envelope may be overwritten by a decoder: if this happens, the decoder will lose the size and handle count information. As an alternative, a decoder MAY have a callback attached to it that can process the envelope and override the default behavior. The callback API can look similar to the following function prototype:

void set_unknown_envelope_callback(
    unknown_envelope_callback_t callback,  // a callback
    void* context                          // client-specific data storage

typedef uintptr_t (*unknown_envelope_callback_t)(
    const void* message,  // pointer to the envelope's containing message
    size_t offset,        // offset in the message where the unknown envelope is
    size_t size,          // the envelope's size
    size_t handle_count,  // the envelope's handle count
    const char* bytes,    // pointer to the envelope's data
    void* context         // a context pointer set via set_unknown_envelope_callback()

The callback returns a uintptr_t, which the decoder can use to overwrite the unknown envelope with. This enables the decoder to copy the size and handle count from the unknown envelope, and overwrite the envelope with a pointer to the decoder's own custom data structure.

Encoding Sizes for Out-of-Line Envelopes {#encoding-sizes-for-out_of_line-envelopes}

This FTP requires that out-of-line envelopes have the correct (recursive) size for present out-of-line data. This requirement can impose additional burden on an encoder, since if the envelope's type is expected to be known by the receiver, the size field is unnecessary since the decoder can compute the size[3]. Thus, the encoder is arguably performing additional work for no apparent benefit. This argument also applies to the handle count.

However, we still recommend that the size and handle count MUST be present, for several reasons:

  1. Consistency: requiring the size means that the envelope encoding is consistent for all use cases, whether it's inside an extensible container or not. The increased uniformity leads to less code, and a simpler cognitive model.
  2. We can change this later. A future FTP has the option of using a sentinel value for the size (e.g. UINT48_MAX) or reserving one of the three LSBs in the size field to indicate that the size is unknown, in which case the decoder must traverse the out-of-line payload and calculate the size itself. This change would not affect the wire format, since the structure of the fields remain the same. It can also be landed as a soft transition since decoders can implement the logic first, before encoders are updated.

Overall, the FTP authors believe that requiring an encoding for an unknown size is possible premature optimization, and advocate starting with a simple, more consistent, uniform design. If we feel that this decision should be re-visited in the future — e.g. a zero-copy vectored I/O encoder becomes available so encoders don't have to patch up envelopes to write the correct size — there is a clear path to implementing it in as a soft transition.


An optional uint stored inline:

uint32? u = 0xdeadbeef;  // an optional uint: stored inline.

C++ representation:

    vector<uint8_t> object{
        0x01, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00,                          // inline tag
                                0xEF, 0xBE, 0xAD, 0xDE,  // inline data

An optional vector<uint16> stored out-of-line:

vector<uint16>? v = { 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 };  // an optional vector<uint16>; stored out-of-line.

The out-of-line size is 24:

  • 8 bytes for element count stored out of line as its own secondary object,
    • 10 for vector contents (5 elements * sizeof(uint16_t)),
  • = 18, rounded up to 24 for alignment.

C++ representation:

    vector<uint8_t> object{
      0x18, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00,              // envelope size (24)
                                          0x00, 0x00,  // handle count

    vector<uint8_t> sub_objects{
      // element count
      0x05, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00,
      // vector data
      0x0A, 0x00, 0x0B, 0x00, 0x0C, 0x00, 0x0D, 0x00,
      0x0E, 0x00,
      // padding
                  0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00,

A table with three fields:

table T { 1: int8 i; 2: reserved; 3: int64 j; } = { .i: 241, .j: 71279031231 };

C++ representation:

    // a table is a vector<envelope>, which is represented with an
    // out-of-line envelope
    vector<uint8_t> object{
      0x28, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00,              // envelope size (40)
                                          0x00, 0x00,  // handle count

    vector<uint8_t> sub_objects{
      // vector element count (max table ordinal)
      0x03, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00,
      // vector[0], 1: int8, stored inline
      0x01, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00,                          // inline tag
                              0xF1, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00   // 241
      // vector[1], 2: reserved
      0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00,  // zero envelope
      // vector[2], 3: int64, stored out-of-line
      0x08, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00,              // envelope size
                                          0x00, 0x00,  // handle count
      // vector[2] content
      0xBF, 0xB3, 0x8F, 0x98, 0x10, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00   // 71279031231

A handle:

handle h;  // decoded to 0xCAFEF00D

C++ representation:

    vector<uint8_t> encoded_form{
      0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00,              // envelope size
                                          0x01, 0x00,  // handle count

    vector<uint8_t> decoded_form{
      0x01, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00,                          // inline tag
                              0x0D, 0xF0, 0xFE, 0xCA,  // inline data

Implementation strategy

This FTP is a breaking wire format change. Both FIDL peers need to understand the new wire format — and communicate that understanding to its peer — for both parties to use the new format.

A soft transition is possible. Two approaches are:

  1. There is a uint32 reserved/flags field in the transactional message header. We can reserve 1 bit for the initiating peer to indicate that it understands the new wire format, and soft transition in stages:
    1. Ensure all clients & servers can understand the old & new wire format. We keep using the old wire format.
    2. Enable the new wire format by having a peer set the bit in the transactional message header. If both parties have the bit set, both parties can switch to the new wire format.
    3. Once the soft transition has rolled through all the layers, all of Fuchsia can use the new wire format. We can remove setting the bit in the transactional message header.
    4. Delete the code for the old wire format, and unreserve the transactional message header bit.
  2. We could decorate specific FIDL message types, interfaces, or both, with a [WireFormat=EnvelopeV2] attribute (or similar) that indicates that the message/interface should use the new wire format.
    1. While decorating an interface with a [WireFormat] attribute seems to align better with a wire format change, it should be easier to implement a WireFormat change on a struct, since the struct could be used in different interfaces, and bindings would need extra logic to determine the context for which the struct is used.
    2. We recommend that an interface [WireFormat] attribute affect the wire format of the interface‘s method arguments only, without recursively affecting the argument’s structs.
    3. This enables partial migration and opt-in to the new wire format, and lets teams move at their own pace.
    4. Once all structs and interfaces have the [WireFormat] attribute, we can drop the old wire format, assume all structs & interfaces use the new wire format, and ignore the attribute.

Both these soft transition approaches involve a lot of development time, testing time, and room for error. Implementing the code to do either approach correctly, executing on the plan, and following up successfully to remove old code is a large effort.

It is likely that we will have code to handle both the old & new wire format at the same time; otherwise, it would not be possible to progressively land CLs as we implement support for the new wire format. Given that the code to handle both wire formats will exist, we recommend prototyping whether a soft transition is feasible using either approach. If not, c'est la vie; hard transition it is.

For either a soft or hard transition, any instances in Fuchsia where FIDL messages are hand-rolled would need to also be upgraded to the new wire format.

We should also use this wire format change to fold in other changes that need to happen (e.g. a proposed ordinal size change).

Note that this is an easier transition than FIDL1 to FIDL2, which changed language bindings significantly. We do not propose calling this FIDL3 since there are no user-visible changes[4]

Backwards compatibility

The proposed wire format change is API (source) compatible, with one exception: C bindings will be a breaking API change if we move the vector/string element count to be out-of-line. We can mitigate this by planning ahead and abstracting the current C bindings with macros or functions, before the new wire format lands.

The wire format change is ABI-incompatible, but it is possible to achieve ABI compatibility with existing code via the strategies outlined in the Implementation Strategy section.


This FTP significantly shrinks the size required for envelopes, which seems like it would be an overall significant net benefit. However, the overall performance implications are less clear. In favor of better performance:

  • FIDL messages that use extensible data structures (tables & extensible unions) will become significantly more compact.
  • Having a uniform representation for envelopes and optionality may reduce code size and improve cache locality, since envelope code can be shared.


  • If extensible data structures become more pervasive due to their better efficiency, this may be outweighed by their increased usage, which may result in less compact messages and more dynamic allocation, vs using non-extensible data structures.
  • Introducing optionality for all types may make FIDL messages slightly larger, since users may use this feature to make some previously non-optional types optional.
  • Optional handles become less efficient, if we decide to use the envelope encoding for optional handles.
  • As discussed in Encoding Sizes for Out-of-Line Envelopes, encoding the size and handle count in an envelope for a type that a receiver will know is a performance regression from the current behavior.


  • Optionality can be enabled for all FIDL types. This is an ergonomic improvement, since optionality becomes consistent, instead of only for specific types.
  • More efficient extensible data structures enable them to be used in more contexts where efficiency matters, so users need to worry less about their performance, and can gain the benefits of extensibility where they would previously need to use non-extensible structures.
    • We may even wish to recommend that tables should be used by default for FIDL data structures, and structs should be reserved for high-performance contexts.
    • Extensible unions (FTP-015) are already attempting to remove static unions.


  • The wire format documentation needs to be updated.
  • When updating the documentation, envelopes should be explained as a first-class concept: this enables better cognitive chunking once readers encounter the wire format for optionality and extensible data structures.
  • We should update the FIDL style guide to make recommendations for when optional types should be used (vs non-optional types with sentinel values).


  • There should no significant security implications from this FTP.
  • However, the bit-twiddling needed to manipulate the out-of-line and inline envelope formats should be significantly well tested and conservative to ensure that code properly handles edge cases. We do feel that the use of standard C/C++ struct/unions to represent envelopes — as opposed to manual bit shifts & masking — greatly increases our confidence in code correctness.


  • Since this FTP is changing the wire format for envelopes, we feel that the existing FIDL test suite — particularly compatibility tests — will adequately test all scenarios where envelopes are used.
  • We will add unit tests for envelope parsing, encoding and decoding for out-of-line and inline forms, since that is a potentially error-prone area.
  • If we agree to land the wire format change as a soft transition (see the Implementation Strategy section), we will add tests for peers to negotiate and possibly switch to the new wire format.
  • If we agree to expose optionality for all types as part of this change, we will need to add tests for any types that can become optional.

Drawbacks, alternatives, and unknowns

  • We can keep the existing wire format if we believe the efficiency gains in this proposal are not worth the implementation cost. If so, we will want to find an alternative strategy to implement optionality for all types.
  • Using specialized representations for extensible containers and optional types will likely be more efficient than using an envelope for all cases. However, since this FTP exists, we obviously feel that the increased genericity and uniformity that envelopes provide outweigh the efficiency gains for specialized representations.

Design Decisions

While this FTP makes recommendations, we are actively seeking input and consensus on the following decisions:

  • See the Strings & Vectors section for discussion about moving the element count (vector) and byte count (string) out-of-line, which affects the C bindings. We can opt not to do this, at the cost of less uniformity: strings & vectors become exceptions to envelopes being used for all out-of-line references. (An envelope can still be used to refer to the out-of-line vector/string data.)
  • Do we want to consider a soft transition or a hard transition? See the Implementation Strategy section for pros & cons.
  • We propose using 48 bits for size and 16 bits for handles in the out-of-line envelope. For comparison, the current envelope format uses 32/32 bits. Is 48 bits for size reasonable?
    • For size, we can encode a size up to 50 bits by right-shifting 2 bits in the encoded form, since the envelope size is always a multiple of 8. (We cannot right-shift three bits, since that cannot guarantee that the tag bit is 0.) The decoder would left-shift two bits to determine the size. We then lose two extra bits that may be used for flags or more tags.
    • While current 64-bit architectures typically don't allow the entire 64-bit memory space to be addressed, and typically allow up to 48 bits, some architectures are already enabling address spaces up to 57 bits large. See References for more details.
    • Is 16 bits for handles reasonable?
  • We propose using an envelope to encode an optional handle in a non-extensible container, which is less compact than the current optional handle encoding (8 bytes vs 4 bytes).
    • There is a trade-off between compactness & more specialized code vs consistency here. We believe consistency and uniformity is more important than a specialized, more compact representation since optional handles are likely to be relatively rare use case. (37 optional uses in code vs 187 non-optional.)
  • Do we enable optionality immediately?
    • We propose exposing optionality for all types in a separate transition from upgrading the wire format, since the change can be done incrementally.
    • Implementing such optionality would require changes to the parser, encoders, validators and decoders, which feels large enough to warrant being its own transition.
  • We propose inlining types that are <= 32 bits; we could inline more aggressively.
    • We can inline any data <= 63 bits, since the tag bit only uses one bit in the 64-bit envelope.
    • We can inline small strings & vectors by using a specialized representation for them, e.g. one byte for the element/byte count, followed by the string/vector data. (See Prior Art for inspiration).
    • We discarded these approaches even though they‘re more efficient, since inlining based on the content instead of the type means that (1) decoders cannot know in advance whether to expect an inline or out-of-line envelope or not based on the type, and (2) changing a field’s contents means that it can be encoded differently, which seems contrary to FIDL's goals and static focus.

Prior art and references

The authors took a lot of inspiration from existing uses of tagged pointers, which have a long history in dynamic and functional languages. In particular, the Objective-C 64-bit runtime makes heavy use of them for better performance (even going so far as using specialized 5/6-bit encodings for inline strings).

Since current 64-bit platforms tend to use 48 bits (or less) to encode a pointer, we considered stealing more bits from the decoded pointer with bit-shifting to attempt to encode an out-of-line object's size along in the pointer. However, some architectures are already expanding their physical address space past 48 bits (ARM64, x64-64 5-level paging), so stealing more pointer bits may not be very future-proof.


Envelopes enable optionality for all types; however, exposing this optionality to end-users can (and perhaps should) be done separately.


As of 1/28/19, there appears to be 37 uses of optional handles in the Fuchsia code base. This is a conservative number, as it does not count optional protocol handles, nor protocol request handles.


This only applies to envelopes in non-extensible containers, i.e. structs and static unions. Extensible containers must encode the recursive size since decoders may not know the type, and need to know how much data to ignore.


Except allowing optionality on more types, if we wish to do that simultaneously.