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2.7 struct: Binary Data Structures

The struct module includes functions for converting between strings of bytes and native Python data types such as numbers and strings.

2.7.1 Functions Versus Struct Class

A set of module-level functions is available for working with structured values, as well as the Struct class. Format specifiers are converted from their string format to a compiled representation, similar to the way regular expressions are handled. The conversion takes some resources, so it is typically more efficient to do it once when creating a Struct instance and call methods on the instance instead of using the module-level functions. All of the following examples use the Struct class.

2.7.2 Packing and Unpacking

Structs support packing data into strings, and unpacking data from strings using format specifiers made up of characters representing the type of the data and optional count and endianness indicators. Refer to the standard library documentation for a complete list of the supported format specifiers.

In this example, the specifier calls for an integer or long integer value, a two-byte string, and a floating-point number. The spaces in the format specifier are included to separate the type indicators, and are ignored when the format is compiled.

Listing 2.60: struct_pack.py

     import struct
     import binascii

     values = (1, 'ab'.encode('utf-8'), 2.7)
     s = struct.Struct('I 2s f')
     packed_data = s.pack(*values)

     print('Original values:', values)
     print('Format string  :', s.format)
     print('Uses           :', s.size, 'bytes')
     print('Packed Value   :', binascii.hexlify(packed_data))

The example converts the packed value to a sequence of hex bytes for printing with binascii.hexlify(), since some of the characters are nulls.

     $ python3 struct_pack.py

     Original values: (1, b'ab', 2.7)
     Format string  : b'I 2s f'
     Uses           : 12 bytes
     Packed Value   : b'0100000061620000cdcc2c40'

Use unpack() to extract data from its packed representation.

Listing 2.61: struct_unpack.py

     import struct
     import binascii

     packed_data = binascii.unhexlify(b'0100000061620000cdcc2c40')

     s = struct.Struct('I 2s f')
     unpacked_data = s.unpack(packed_data)
     print('Unpacked Values:', unpacked_data)

Passing the packed value to unpack(), gives basically the same values back (note the discrepancy in the floating point value).

     $ python3 struct_unpack.py

     Unpacked Values: (1, b'ab', 2.700000047683716)

2.7.3 Endianness

By default, values are encoded using the native C library notion of endianness. It is easy to override that choice by providing an explicit endianness directive in the format string.

Table 2.3: Byte Order Specifiers for Struct




Native order


Native standard






Network order

Listing 2.62: struct_endianness.py

  import struct
  import binascii

  values = (1, 'ab'.encode('utf-8'), 2.7)
  print('Original values:', values)

  endianness = [
      ('@', 'native, native'),
      ('=', 'native, standard'),
      ('<', 'little-endian'),
      ('>', 'big-endian'),
      ('!', 'network'),

  for code, name in endianness:
      s = struct.Struct(code + ' I 2s f')
      packed_data = s.pack(*values)
      print('Format string :', s.format, 'for', name)
      print('Uses           :', s.size, 'bytes')
      print('Packed Value   :', binascii.hexlify(packed_data))
      print('Unpacked Value :', s.unpack(packed_data))

Table 2.3 lists the byte order specifiers used by Struct.

  $ python3 struct_endianness.py

  Original values: (1, b'ab', 2.7)

  Format string  : b'@ I 2s f' for native, native
  Uses           : 12 bytes
  Packed Value   : b'0100000061620000cdcc2c40'
  Unpacked Value : (1, b'ab', 2.700000047683716)
  Format string  : b'= I 2s f' for native, standard
  Uses           : 10 bytes
  Packed Value   : b'010000006162cdcc2c40'
  Unpacked Value : (1, b'ab', 2.700000047683716)
  Format string  : b'< I 2s f' for little-endian
  Uses           : 10 bytes
  Packed Value   : b'010000006162cdcc2c40'
  Unpacked Value : (1, b'ab', 2.700000047683716)
  Format string  : b'> I 2s f' for big-endian
  Uses           : 10 bytes
  Packed Value   : b'000000016162402ccccd'
  Unpacked Value : (1, b'ab', 2.700000047683716)
  Format string  : b'! I 2s f' for network
  Uses           : 10 bytes
  Packed Value   : b'000000016162402ccccd'
  Unpacked Value : (1, b'ab', 2.700000047683716)

2.7.4 Buffers

Working with binary packed data is typically reserved for performance-sensitive situations or passing data into and out of extension modules. These cases can be optimized by avoiding the overhead of allocating a new buffer for each packed structure. The pack_into() and unpack_from() methods support writing to pre-allocated buffers directly.

Listing 2.63: struct_buffers.py

     import   array
     import   binascii
     import   ctypes
     import   struct

     s = struct.Struct('I 2s f')
     values = (1, 'ab'.encode('utf-8'), 2.7)
     print('Original:', values)

     print('ctypes string buffer')

     b = ctypes.create_string_buffer(s.size)
     print('Before :', binascii.hexlify(b.raw))
     s.pack_into(b, 0, *values)
     print('After   :', binascii.hexlify(b.raw))
     print('Unpacked:', s.unpack_from(b, 0))


     a = array.array('b', b'\0' * s.size)
     print('Before :', binascii.hexlify(a))
     s.pack_into(a, 0, *values)
     print('After   :', binascii.hexlify(a))
     print('Unpacked:', s.unpack_from(a, 0))

The size attribute of the Struct tells us how big the buffer needs to be.

      $ python3 struct_buffers.py

      Original: (1, b'ab', 2.7)

      ctypes string buffer
      Before  : b'000000000000000000000000'
      After   : b'0100000061620000cdcc2c40'
      Unpacked: (1, b'ab', 2.700000047683716)

      Before  : b'000000000000000000000000'
      After   : b'0100000061620000cdcc2c40'
      Unpacked: (1, b'ab', 2.700000047683716)
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