DBMS client applications need to store SQL query results in local memory or local files. The format is flat and the fields are ordered -- that's "serialization". The most important serializer format uses human-readable markup, like
[start of field] [value] [end of field]
and the important ones in the MySQL/MariaDB world are CSV (what you get with SELECT ... INTO OUTFILE or LOAD INFILE), XML (what you get with --xml or LOAD XML), and JSON (for which there are various solutions if you don't use MySQL 5.7).
The less important serializer format uses length, like
[length of value] [value]
and this, although it has the silly name "binary serialization", is what I want to talk about.
The length alone isn't enough, we also need to know the type, so we can decode it correctly. With CSV there are hints such as "is the value enclosed in quotes", but with binary serializers the value contains no hints. There has to be an indicator that says what the type is. There might be a single list of types for all of the records, in which case the format is said to "have a schema". Or there might be a type attached to each record, like
[type] [length of value] [value]
in which case the format is often called "TLV" (type-length-value).
Binary serializers are better than markup serializers if you need "traversability" -- the ability to skip to field number 2 without having to read every byte in field number 1. Binary TLV serializers are better than binary with-schema serializers if you ned "flexibility" -- when not every record has the same number of fields and not every field has the same type. But of course TLV serializers might require slightly more space.
A "good" binary serializer will have two Characteristics:
#1 It is well known, preferably a standard with a clear specification, but otherwise a commonly-used format with a big sponsor. Otherwise you have to write your own library and you will find out all the gotchas by re-inventing a wheel. Also, if you want to ship your file for import by another application, it would be nice if the other application knew how to import it.
#2 It can store anything that comes out of MySQL or MariaDB.
Unfortunately, as we'll see, Characteristic #1 and Characteristic #2 are contradictory. The well-known serializers usually were made with the objective of storing anything that comes out of XML or JSON, or that handled quirky situations when shipping over a wire. So they're ready for things that MySQL and MariaDB don't generate (such as structured arrays) but not ready for things that MySQL and MariaDB might generate (such as ... well, we'll see as I look at each serializer).
To decide "what is well known" I used the Wikipedia article Comparison of data serialization formats. It's missing some formats (for example sereal) but it's the biggest list I know of, from a source that's sometimes neutral. I selected the binary serializers that fit Characteristic #1. I evaluated them according to Characteristic #2.
I'll look at each serializer. Then I'll show a chart. Then you'll draw a conclusion.
Has schemas. Not standard but sponsored by Apache.
I have a gripe. Look at these two logos. The first one is for the defunct British/Canadian airplane maker A.V.Roe (from Wikipedia). The second one is for the binary serializer format Apache Avro (from their site).
Although I guess that the Apache folks somehow have avoided breaking laws, I think that taking A.V.Roe's trademark is like wearing medals that somebody else won. But putting my gripe aside, let's look at a technical matter.
The set of primitive type names is:
null: no value
Well, of course, in SQL a NULL is not a type and it is a value. This is not a showstopper, because I can declare a union of a null type and a string type if I want to allow nulls and strings in the same field. Um, okay. But then comes the encoding rule:
null is written as zero bytes.
I can't read that except as "we're like Oracle 12c, we think empty strings are NULLs".
ASN means "abstract syntax notation" but there are rules for encoding too, and ASN.1 has a huge advantage: it's been around for over twenty years. So whenever any "why re-invent the wheel?" argument starts up on any forum, somebody is bound to ask why all these whippersnapper TLVs are proposed considering ASN.1 was good enough for grand-pappy, eh?
Kidding aside, it's a spec that's been updated as recently as 2015. As usual with official standards, it's hard to find a free-and-legitimate copy, but here it is: the link to a download of "X.690 (08/2015) ITU-T X.690 | ISO/IEC 8825-1 ISO/IEC 8825-1:2015 Information technology -- ASN.1 encoding rules: Specification of Basic Encoding Rules (BER), Canonical Encoding Rules (CER) and Distinguished Encoding Rules (DER)" from the International Telecommunication Union site: http://www.itu.int/rec/T-REC-X.690-201508-I/en.
It actually specifies how to handle exotic situations, such as
** If it is a "raw" string of bits, are there unused bits in the final byte?
** If the string length is greater than 2**32, is there a way to store it?
** Can I have a choice between BMP (like MySQL UCS2) and UTF-8 and other character sets?
** Can an integer value be greater than 2**63?
... You don't always see all these things specified except in ASN.1.
Unfortunately, if you try to think of everything, your spec will be large and your overhead will be large, so competitors will appear saying they have something "simpler" and "more compact". Have a look at trends.google.com to see how ASN.1 once did bestride the narrow world like a colossus, but nowadays is not more popular than all the others.
TLV. Sponsored by MongoDB.
Although BSON is "used mainly as a data storage and network transfer format in the MongoDB [DBMS]", anybody can use it. There's a non-Mongo site which refers to independent libraries and discussion groups.
BSON is supposed to make you think "binary JSON" but in fact all the binary serializers that I'm discussing (and I few that I'm not discussing such as UBJSON) can do a fair job of representing JSON-marked-up-text in binary format. Some people even claim that MessagePack does a better job of that than BSON does.
There is a "date" but it is milliseconds since the epoch, so it might be an okay analogue for MySQL/MariaDB TIMESTAMP but not for DATETIME.
TLV. Proposed standard.
CBOR is not well known but there's an IETF Internet Standards Document for it (RFC 7049 Concise Binary Object Representation), so I reckoned it's worth looking at. I don't give that document much weight, though -- it has been in the proposal phase since 2013.
The project site page mentions JSON data model, schemalessness, raw binary strings, and concise encoding -- but I wanted to see distinguishing features. There are a few.
I was kind of surprised that there are two "integer" types: one type is positive integers, the other type is negative integers.
In other words -5 is
[type = negative number] [length] [value = 5]
rather than the Two's Complement style
[type = signed number] [length] [value = -5]
but that's just an oddness rather than a problem.
There was an acknowledgment in the IETF document that "CBOR is inspired by MessagePack". But one of MessagePack's defects (the lack of a raw string type) has been fixed now. That takes away one of the reasons that I'd have for regarding CBOR as a successor to MessagePack.
TLV. Uses a standard.
After seeing so much JSON, it's nice to run into an international standard that specifies a binary encoding format for the XML Information Set (XML Infoset) as an alternative to the XML document format". Okay, they get points for variety.
However, it's using ASN.1's underlying encoding methods, so I won't count it as a separate product.
TLV. Not standard but widely used.
It's got a following among people who care a lot about saving bytes; for example see this Uber survey where MessagePack beat out some of the other formats that I'm looking at here.
One of the flaws of MessagePack, from my point of view, is its poor handling for character sets other than UTF-8. But I'll admit: when MessagePack's original author is named Sadayuki Furuhashi, I'm wary about arguing that back in Japan UTF-8 is not enough. For some of the arguing that happened about supporting other character sets with MessagePack, see this thread. Still, I think my "The UTF-8 world is not enough" post is valid for the purposes I'm discussing.
And the maximum length of a string is 2**32-1 bytes, so you can forget about dumping a LONGBLOB. I'd have the same trouble with BSON but BSON allows null-terminated strings.
TLV. Sort of a standard for a particular industry group.
Open Platform Communications - Unified Architecture has a Binary Encoding format.
Most of the expected types are there: boolean, integer, float, double, string, raw string, and datetime. The datetime description is a bit weird though: number of 100 nanosecond intervals since January 1, 1601 (UTC). I've seen strange cutover dates in my time, but this is a new one for me.
For strings, there's a way to indicate NULLs (hurrah).
I have the impression that OPC is an organization for special purposes (field devices, control systems, etc.) and I'm interested in general-purpose formats, so didn't look hard at this.
Has schemas. Not standard but sponsored by Google.
Like Avro, Google's Protocol Buffers have a schema for the type and so they are schema + LV rather than TLV. But MariaDB uses them for its Dynamic Columns feature, so everybody should know about them.
Numbers and strings can be long, but there's very little differentiation -- essentially you have integers, double-precision floating point numbers, and strings. So, since I was objecting earlier when I saw that other serialization formats didn't distinguish (say) character sets, I have to be fair and say: this is worse. When the same "type" tag can be used for multiple different types, it's not specific enough.
Supposedly the makers of Protocol Buffers were asked why they didn't use ASN.1 and they answered "We never heard of it before". That's from a totally unreliable biased source but I did stop and ask myself: is that really so unbelievable? In this benighted age?
Can be TLV but depends on protocol. Not standard but sponsored by Apache, used a lot by Facebook.
I looked in vain for what one might call a "specification" of Thrift's binary serialization, and finally found an old stackoverflow discussion that said: er, there isn't any. There's a "Thrift Missing Guide" that tells me the base types, and a Java class describer for one of the protocols to help me guess the size limits.
Thrift's big advantage is that it's language neutral, which is why it's popular and there are many libraries and high-level tutorials. That makes it great as a communication format, which is what it's supposed to be. However, the number of options is small and the specification is so vague that I can't call it "good" according to the criteria I stated earlier.
I depend on each serializer's specification, I didn't try anything out, I could easily have made some mistakes.
For the "NULL is a value" row, I say No (and could have added "Alackaday!") for all the formats that say NULL is a data type. Really the only way to handle NULL is with a flag so this would be best:
[type] [length] [flag] [value]
and in fact, if I was worried about dynamic schemas, I'd be partial to Codd's "two kinds of NULLs" arguments, in case some application wanted to make a distinction between not-applicable-value and missing-value.
For most of the data-type rows, I say Yes for all the formats that have explicit defined support. This does not mean that it's impossible to store the value -- for example it's easy to store a BOOLEAN with an integer or with a user-defined extension -- but then you're not using the format specification so some of its advantages are lost.
For dates (including DATETIME TIMESTAMP DATE etc.), I did not worry if the precision and range were less than what MySQL or MariaDB can handle. But for DECIMAL, i say No if the maximum number of digits is 18 or if there are no post-decimal digits.
For LONGBLOB, I say No if the maximum number of bytes is 2**32.
For VARCHAR, I say Yes if there's any way to store any encoded characters (rather than just bytes, which is what BINARY and BLOB are). In the "VARCHAR+" row I say Yes if there is more than one character set, although this doesn't mean much -- the extra character sets don't match with MySQL/MariaDB's variety.
I'll say again that specifications allow for "extensions", for example with ASN.1 you can define your own tags, but I'm only looking at what's specific in the specification.
|Avro||ASN.1||BSON||CBOR||Message Pack||OPC UA||Protocol Buffers||Thrift|
|NULL is a value||no||no||no||no||no||YES||no||no|
|BINARY / BLOB||YES||YES||YES||YES||YES||YES||YES||YES|
You have multiple choice:
(1) Peter Gulutzan is obsessed with standards and exactness,
(2) Well, might as well use one of these despite its defects
(3) We really need yet another binary serializer format.