EBML:   A binary encoding format
ebml-read/  optimistic

EBML: A binary encoding format

John Clements <[email protected]>


This is a Racket library to read and write EBML, the "extended binary markup language." It was designed by the implementors of the “matroska” project.

EBML is a packed format for representing structured data.

element = header data


header = encoded-id encoded-len


data = element ...

     | non-element

The encoded-id and encoded-len fields use a variable-length encoding. The first byte of this encoding indicates—through the number of leading zeros—how many bytes long the field is. the leading zeros and the first one are then trimmed from the given number of bytes, and the result is interpreted as a big-endian unsigned number.

So, for instance, the byte string

(bytes #b10001011)

... encodes the length 11, while the byte string

(bytes #b01000001 #b00000010)

... encodes the length 258. Note that there is more than one way to encode a given length; you could also encode the length 11 with the byte string

(bytes #b00100000 #b00000000 #b00001011)

Header IDs are limited to four bytes, and data lengths are limited to 8.

EBML has at least one big problem, which is that the packed representation is ambiguous. Specifically, there’s no way to reliably distinguish data that is a sequence of elements from data that is a binary blob.

To choose a concrete example, if you were using EBML to encode s-expressions, you might choose a particular header id (say, 1) to encode a pair, and another one (say, 2) to encode atoms (let’s use 3 to indicate null, just to simplify). The pairs would include two sub-elements, and the atoms would contain, say string or integer. When decoding an encoded stream, the reader needs to have a priori knowledge that the header id 1 contains sub-elements, and the headers 2 and 3 do not.

The reader and writer both use this representation of ebml-elements:

(define ebml-element?
   ([ebml-element? (list/c exact-nonnegative-integer?
                           (or/c bytes?
                                 (listof ebml-element?)))])

 (require ebml/reader) package: ebml


(ebml-read in)  ebml-element?

  in : (or/c input-port? path-string? bytes?)
Reads ebml elements from the given input-port, byte string, or file. It continues reading ebml elements until the source is exhausted. It signals an error if the end of the source doesn’t correspond with the end of an element.

Since the EBML parser has no way of knowing which elements are compound elements, using the parser usually requires manual recursion into the parser. So, for instance, if we used the encoding scheme given above where 1 encodes a pair, 2 encodes an atom, and 3 encodes null, a decoder might look like this:
;ping-pong required to know when to recur:
(define (read-ebml-sexps bytes)
  (map expand-ebml-sexp (ebml-read bytes)))
;recur on elements that are containers:
(define (expand-ebml-sexp element)
  (match element
    [(list 1 exps-bytes)
     (apply cons (read-ebml-sexps exps-bytes))]
    [(list 2 atom-bytes)
     (string->symbol (bytes->string/utf-8 atom-bytes))]
    [(list 3 atom-bytes)
The file "examples/sexp-ebml.rkt" contains a working example of this.


(ebml-read/optimistic in)  (listof ebml-element?)

  in : (or/c input-port? path-string? bytes?)
Read a sequence of ebml-elements from the input. Optimistically assume that any byte sequence that can be parsed as ebml elements should be. The danger is that a sequence that was supposed to represent a simple byte stream will be interpreted as a sequence of bytes.

 (require ebml/writer) package: ebml


(ebml-write elements [port])  void?

  elements : (listof ebml-element?)
  port : (output-port?) = (current-output-port)
Serialize the given elements onto the given output port.