Eshan Singh
Misaligned Reward Function

Misaligned Reward Function

Practical Parsing in Rust with nom

Practical Parsing in Rust with nom

Parsing doesn't have to be the exclusive domain of über-nerds.

Eshan Singh's photo
Eshan Singh
·Oct 17, 2022·

8 min read

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Table of contents

  • Motivation
  • Numbers
  • Strings
  • Lists
  • Dictionaries
  • Putting It All Together

If you're a programmer who's done some research on CS fundamentals, or learned them in a college setting, you've probably heard of the term "parser-combinator".

As a largely self-taught script kiddie, this term - heard in quiet whispers and brushes with some tutorials every now and then - was scary to me for the longest time. Parsers in general are associated with even more esoteric words like "yacc", "lex", "tokenisation", "parse trees", "analytic grammar"... and too many more.

There's really no reason for it to be this way, though. Parsing is a hard problem, for sure, but it's also one of the most fundamental things programs do. Mastering it, or at least its foundational concepts, is a huge step towards unlocking higher-order levels of thinking about programming in general, because they're so widely applicable.

In this article, I want to demonstrate the power of parser-combinators in Rust, for a real use case that's not too simple and not too complex. Let me know in the comments if I succeeded!


In my particular case, me and a pairing partner at the Recurse Center named Jeff Zhang wanted to make a simple BitTorrent protocol client. An important part of this was parsing the torrent file to obtain information on the files to download, trackers, and other metadata; in a format we'd never heard of called Bencode. Bencode is a complex enough format that fumbling our way with manual implementations or regexes didn't seem like a great idea. I also wanted to overcome my deep-set fear of parsers without having to go all-in on reading the Dragon Book or something equally dense. So we found nom, which is a library that enables anyone to make simple, type-safe parsers in Rust.

Bencode as defined in BEP 0003 consists of two primitive types (numbers and strings) and two composite types (lists and dictionaries). We can model this easily with an enum corresponding to each of these types, with self-referential portions in the composite types:

#[derive(Debug, PartialEq, Eq, Clone)]
pub enum Bencode {
    Dict(BTreeMap<Vec<u8>, Bencode>),

The basic form of a parser using nom is a simple function returning an IResult, which is either an error or a tuple of the remaining input and the successfully parsed output. For example, a simple number parser could behave like so:

assert_eq!(parse_num(b"1"), Ok((b"", 1)));
assert_eq!(parse_num(b"1something"), Ok((b"something", 1)));

In our case, we need to define a signature for our overall parser like this:

pub fn parse_bencode(bencode_bytes: &[u8])
    -> IResult<&[u8], Bencode> {

In nom, parsers are created using combinations of other parsers. In our case, we can create four separate parsers for each of the types and combine them together easily, as we'll show later. nom also has its own primitive combinators so we don't have to rewrite common logic ourselves. You do need to import these from their respective modules, but for the sake of simplicity I'll be leaving out the imports. You can use the search in the nom docs to find them.


First, we'll implement the simplest parser: numbers. Bencode numbers are simply numbers wrapped in i and e on either end. For instance:

"i3e" // -> 3,
"i-3e" // -> -3
"i10e" // -> 10
"i2562e" // -> 2562
fn parse_number(bencode_bytes: &[u8])
    -> IResult<&[u8], i64> {
    // The `delimited` combinator runs a sequence
    // of three inner parsers and discards the
    // result of the first and third one if
    // they're successful.
        // `tag` is a parser that simply captures
        // the literal string it is passed.
        // The `map_res` combinator applies a
        // closure to the output of a parser,
        // converting any errors returned from the
        // closure into nom errors.
            // In this case, our parser is simply
            // capturing anything that isn't the
            // ending delimiter, which should be
            // the number itself.
            // Since our bytes here aren't the raw
            // number but rather a string of the
            // number (for instance, not the byte
            // 0x04 itself but 0x34, which is the
            // ASCII for "4") we must parse it
            // into one.
            |bytes| String::from_utf8_lossy(bytes).parse::<i64>()

The key thing to spot here is that since functions are first-class values in Rust, all of nom's combinators are in fact functions that return functions: see how at the very end we're passing bencode_bytes to the function that delimited returns. Many of them also take functions as arguments. This makes them very straightforward to compose and the code much better at expressing its underlying semantics.


Bencode strings are a number followed by a colon, then characters equal to that number. For instance:

"4:spam" // -> spam
"5:hello" // -> hello
"10:technology" // -> technology
"2:hello" // -> he

The string parser is only slightly more complex than the number parser, since there isn't a delimiter for them as there is for numbers.

fn parse_string(bencode_bytes: &[u8])
    -> IResult<&[u8], Vec<u8>> {
    // First, we need to capture the number of
    // characters, which is a number ending in a
    // colon. The `terminated` combinator runs its
    // first argument, then its second one and
    // discards the second. Otherwise, this is
    // similar to the number parser above.
    let (remaining, num_characters) = terminated(
            |digits| String::from_utf8_lossy(digits).parse::<usize>()

    // map is the same as map_res except the
    // closure is infallible instead of returning
    // a Result.
        // In this case, our parser is simply to
        // take a fixed number of characters.
        |bytestring: &[u8]| bytestring.to_vec()

Notice how we use two separate steps here and return only the results of our second step, since we don't care about the length of the string once we're done parsing it.


Lists are simply a series of Bencode values in succession, delimited by l and e. For example:

"l 4:spam 5:hello i3e e" // -> [spam, hello, 3]
// they do nest, unfortunately
"l 2:he i3e l i4e i5e e e" // -> [he, 3, [4, 5]]

I've separated with spaces to make this clearer, though real Bencode would not do that.

I initially thought this would be very difficult to implement correctly, since lists can nest arbitrarily into other lists and dictionaries, but once again, the simple nature of parsers, and the tools nom has to combine them, save us in a major way. This is the real payoff for parser-combinators, folks!

fn parse_list(bencode_bytes: &[u8])
    -> IResult<&[u8], Vec<Bencode>> {
        // We already defined `parse_bencode`
        // above, which will return Bencode
        // values. So all we need to do here is
        // use the combinator `many0` to run
        // `parse_bencode` over and over on
        // increasingly smaller remaining inputs
        // until it fails! This way, we already
        // handle recursive lists and dictionaries,
        // once we fully implement `parse_bencode`!


Dictionaries are delimited by d and e, and then contain a string followed by a value, in succession. For instance:

"d 3:cow 3:moo 4:spam 4:eggs e" // -> {cow: moo, spam: eggs}
"d 4:spam l 1:a 1:b e e" // -> {spam: [a, b]}
// yeah, these also nest :(
"d 4:spam d 3:cow l 1:a 1:b e e e" // -> {spam: {cow: [a, b]}}

Again, I've separated everything with spaces for clarity only.

Even these beasts turn out to be astonishingly simple to implement, and more importantly, to read, because of our composition superpowers!

fn parse_dictionary(bencode_bytes: &[u8])
    -> IResult<&[u8], BTreeMap<Vec<u8>, Bencode>> {
                // The `pair` combinator allows us
                // to combine capturing the output
                // of two parsers in succession
                // into a tuple!
                pair(parse_string, parse_bencode)
        // `pair` captures into tuples, and
        // `many0` collects them into `Vec`s. We
        // can simply collect these to a BTreeMap.
        |elements| elements.into_iter().collect()

Putting It All Together

Finally, we need to fill in the signature of our parse_bencode public-facing method by combining together all these individual parsers for our types. This also works beautifully thanks to the alt combinator.

pub fn parse_bencode(bencode_bytes: &[u8])
    -> IResult<&[u8], Bencode> {
    // The `alt` combinator takes a tuple of parsers and 
    // keeps running them in succession until one of them
    // succeeds, or until all of them fail.
        // We use `map` in all four cases to wrap
        // the result of the child parsers to the
        // specific enum variant they correspond to.
        map(parse_number, Bencode::Number),
        map(parse_string, Bencode::ByteString),
        map(parse_list, Bencode::List),
        map(parse_dictionary, Bencode::Dict),

Just like that, we've got a easy-to-understand, fully type-safe parser for Bencode, in a tad less than 100 lines of code. It's a little out of scope for this article, but using nom's VerboseError interface, you can also very easily extend this parser to keep track of where exactly its errors originate and display user-friendly error messages. Perhaps a topic for a part 2 - let me know if you're interested.

You can find the full code in the Rust Playground, along with an extensive litany of tests to prove its correctness.

Thanks for reading this long! I hope you came to appreciate the coolness of nom and parser-combinators in general the same way I did. If you have any feedback at all, I'd appreciate leaving some in the comments. If you learned something from this article, I'd appreciate a like as well!

Cover image courtesy of XKCD.

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