Extensible json serializer/deserializer library

pip install ejson==0.1.6


Extensible serialization spec

There are countless scenarios that we need to exchange data between different systems, implemented in different languages and technologies. Even in the same system, when implementing data exchange between the backend and the frontend we face the need to convert the language data types to another format and then do the oposite when the data arrives in the other side of the wire.

A very simple and flexible format that seems to fit most of our needs is the JavaScript Object Notation, or simple json. It is very hard to find a programming language these days that does not support it, even the low level ones, like C, C++, etc.

Json is enough when we need to exchange data types like integers, doubles, strings, lists and hash tables. The problem starts when we need to exchange a complex data type. And it's the exact aim of this document: providing an API to extend the json library to make it easy to register new serializers and new deserializers.

How to identify a data type

Before talking about how to serialize or deserialize a data type, it is important to know how we identify the type of a complex python object. Let's start with the basic ones. The number 1 is just an instance of the built-in class int. The literal "stuff" is translated to something like str("stuff") and is an instance of the str class. Lists and dictionaries are the same:

mylist = [1, 2, 3]
isinstance(mylist, list) # Yeah, it's an instance of the list class
mydict = {"a": 1, "b": 2}
isinstance(mydict, dict) # Also, it's an instance of the dict class

But what about a home made class? Like this this one:

class A(object):
    def __init__(self):
        self.myint = 42
        self.mystr = "nothing special"
        self.mylist = [self.myint, self.mystr]

As we know, python classes are also python types. So, if you create a new instance of A(), let's say, like this: a = A(). You can say that the type of the a variable is A, just like the type of 1 is int. In other words, the built-in function isinstance() will tell you if an instance type is equals to a given type/class.

What the json library knows about types

So, the json module knows how to deal with these built-in types, but it does not understand the complex types. Have you tried to dump a datetime.datetime instance with the json library? Here's what you get:

Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
  File ".../encoder.py"
    raise TypeError(repr(o) + " is not JSON serializable")
TypeError: datetime.datetime(2012, 8, 22, 12, 19, 12, 577078) is not JSON serializable

It happens because the json library doesn't know how to deal with these objects. A simple fix would be doing something like this:

>>> import json
>>> def converter(val):
...     if isinstance(val, datetime):
...         return val.isoformat()
...     raise TypeError
>>> date = datetime(2012, 8, 22, 12, 23)
>>> json.dumps({'a': 'b', 'b': date}, default=converter)
'{"a": "b", "b": "2012-08-22T12:23:00"}'

How to extend the json library in an elegant way

Instead of creating a module with all the types that you are willing to support in your system, this spec suggests the introduction of an API that register types and their handlers.

It is a two step process. First, let's declare a complex type called Person. The second step consists in letting the ejson library know how to serialize objects of that class. To do that, you need to register a serializer. Take a look at the full example:

>>> class Person(object):
...     def __init__(self, name, age, gender):
...        self.name = name
...        self.age = age
...        self.gender = gender
>>> import ejson
>>> @ejson.register_serializer(Person)
... def serialize_person(instance):
...     return {
...         'name': instance.name,
...         'age': instance.age,
...         'gender': instance.gender,
...     }
>>> from ejson import dumps
>>> dumps(Person('Lincoln', 25, 'male'))
'{"__class__": "steadymark.core.Person", "__value__": {"gender": "male", "age": 25, "name": "Lincoln"}}'

One more step serializing complex objects

In order to find the right deserializer for a given value, we also add the dotted path that leads to the factory that built the instance to the json info returned by our custom dumps() function.

Deserializing objects is a little bit harder

In the last example, we've serialized an instance of the Person class with the help of the registered serializer. But, what happens if we need to deserialize that object after receiving its json description from the wire?

It is not simple to guess that a dictionary with the "name", "age" and "gender" keys is a Person instance. To make it a bit easier to handle this scenario, this spec suggests the introduction of a registry of deserializers and an easy way to retrieve them. Thus, if you are writing a component that needs to handle a field that you are sure that represents a Person, you can do something like this:

>>> import ejson
>>> import json
>>> class Person(object):
...     def __init__(self, name, age, gender):
...        self.name = name
...        self.age = age
...        self.gender = gender
>>> @ejson.register_deserializer(Person)
... def deserialize_person(data):
...     return Person(data['name'], data['age'], data['gender'])
>>> import ejson
>>> content = '{"gender": "male", "age": 25, "name": "Lincoln"}'
>>> obj = json.loads(content)
>>> person = ejson.deserialize(Person, obj)
>>> isinstance(person, Person)

Automating deserialization

The json.loads function is not aware of our special parameter __class__, so we also provide a wrapper for it, called ejson.loads. Writing code to deserialize objects that were serialized by the ejson library should be as simple as this following example:

# steadymark: ignore
>>> import ejson
>>> from yourapp.person import Person
>>> person = ejson.loads(http_response.content)
>>> isinstance(person, Person) == True