Implementing Deserialize

The Deserialize trait looks like this:

pub trait Deserialize<'de>: Sized {
    fn deserialize<D>(deserializer: D) -> Result<Self, D::Error>
        where D: Deserializer<'de>;
}

This method's job is to map the type into the Serde data model by providing the Deserializer with a Visitor that can be driven by the Deserializer to construct an instance of your type.

In most cases Serde's derive is able to generate an appropriate implementation of Deserialize for structs and enums defined in your crate. Should you need to customize the deserialization behavior for a type in a way that derive does not support, you can implement Deserialize yourself. Implementing Deserialize for a type tends to be more complicated than implementing Serialize.

The Deserializer trait supports two entry point styles which enables different kinds of deserialization.

  1. The deserialize_any method. Self-describing data formats like JSON are able to look at the serialized data and tell what it represents. For example the JSON deserializer may see an opening curly brace ({) and know that it is seeing a map. If the data format supports Deserializer::deserialize_any, it will drive the Visitor using whatever type it sees in the input. JSON uses this approach when deserializing serde_json::Value which is an enum that can represent any JSON document. Without knowing what is in a JSON document, we can deserialize it to serde_json::Value by going through Deserializer::deserialize_any.

  2. The various other deserialize_* methods. Non-self-describing formats like Bincode need to be told what is in the input in order to deserialize it. The deserialize_* methods are hints to the deserializer for how to interpret the next piece of input. Non-self-describing formats are not able to deserialize something like serde_json::Value which relies on Deserializer::deserialize_any.

When implementing Deserialize, you should avoid relying on Deserializer::deserialize_any unless you need to be told by the Deserializer what type is in the input. Know that relying on Deserializer::deserialize_any means your data type will be able to deserialize from self-describing formats only, ruling out Bincode and many others.

The Visitor trait

A Visitor is instantiated by a Deserialize impl and passed to a Deserializer. The Deserializer then calls a method on the Visitor in order to construct the desired type.

Here is a Visitor that is able to deserialize a primitive i32 from a variety of types.

use std::fmt;

use serde::de::{self, Visitor};

struct I32Visitor;

impl<'de> Visitor<'de> for I32Visitor {
    type Value = i32;

    fn expecting(&self, formatter: &mut fmt::Formatter) -> fmt::Result {
        formatter.write_str("an integer between -2^31 and 2^31")
    }

    fn visit_i8<E>(self, value: i8) -> Result<i32, E>
        where E: de::Error
    {
        Ok(value as i32)
    }

    fn visit_i32<E>(self, value: i32) -> Result<i32, E>
        where E: de::Error
    {
        Ok(value)
    }

    fn visit_i64<E>(self, value: i64) -> Result<i32, E>
        where E: de::Error
    {
        use std::i32;
        if value >= i32::MIN as i64 && value <= i32::MAX as i64 {
            Ok(value as i32)
        } else {
            Err(E::custom(format!("i32 out of range: {}", value)))
        }
    }

    // Similar for other methods:
    //   - visit_i16
    //   - visit_u8
    //   - visit_u16
    //   - visit_u32
    //   - visit_u64
}

The Visitor trait has lots more methods that are not implemented for I32Visitor. Leaving them unimplemented means a type error is returned if they get called. For example I32Visitor does not implement Visitor::visit_map, so trying to deserialize an i32 when the input contains a map is a type error.

Driving a Visitor

Deserialize a value by passing a Visitor to the given Deserializer. The Deserializer will call one of the Visitor methods depending on the input data, which is known as "driving" the Visitor.

impl<'de> Deserialize<'de> for i32 {
    fn deserialize<D>(deserializer: D) -> Result<i32, D::Error>
        where D: Deserializer<'de>
    {
        deserializer.deserialize_i32(I32Visitor)
    }
}

Note that a Deserializer will not necessarily follow the type hint, so the call to deserialize_i32 does not necessarily mean the Deserializer will call I32Visitor::visit_i32. For example JSON treats all signed integer types alike. The JSON Deserializer will call visit_i64 for any signed integer and visit_u64 for any unsigned integer, even if hinted a different type.

Other examples