GVariant D-Bus Message Serialization

We stay as close to the original dbus1 framing as possible, but make certain changes to adapt for GVariant. dbus1 has the following framing:

1. A fixed header of "yyyyuu"
2. Additional header fields of "a(yv)"
3. Padding with NUL bytes to pad up to next 8byte boundary
4. The body

Note that the body is not padded at the end, the complete message hence might have a non-aligned size. Reading multiple messages at once will hence result in possibly unaligned messages in memory.

The header consists of the following:

y  Endianness, 'l' or 'B'
y  Message Type
y  Flags
y  Protocol version, '1'
u  Length of the body, i.e. the length of part 4 above
u  32bit Serial number

= 12 bytes

This header is then followed by the fields array, whose first value is a 32bit array size.

When using GVariant we keep the basic structure in place, only slightly alter the header, and define protocol version ‘2’. The new header:

y  Endianness, 'l' or 'B'
y  Message Type
y  Flags
y  Protocol version, '2'
u  Reserved, must be 0
t  64bit Cookie

= 16 bytes

This is then followed by the GVariant fields array (“a{tv}”), and finally the actual body as variant (v). Putting this altogether a packet on dbus2 hence qualifies as a fully compliant GVariant structure of (yyyyuta{tv}v).

For details on gvariant, see:


Regarding the framing of dbus2, also see:


The first four bytes of the header are defined the same way for dbus1 and dbus2. The first bytes contain the endianness field and the protocol version, so that the remainder of the message can be safely made sense of just by looking at the first 32bit.

Note that the length of the body is no longer included in the header on dbus2! In fact, the message size must be known in advance, from the underlying transport in order to parse dbus2 messages, while it is directly included in dbus1 message headers. This change of semantics is an effect of GVariant’s basic design.

The serial number has been renamed cookie and has been extended from 32bit to 64bit. It is recommended to avoid the higher 32bit of the cookie field though, to simplify compatibility with dbus1 peers. Note that not only the cookie/serial field in the fixed header, but also the reply_cookie/reply_serial additional header field has been increased from 32bit to 64bit, too!

The header field identifiers have been extended from 8bit to 64bit. This has been done to simplify things, and has no effect on the serialization size, as due to alignment for each 8bit header field identifier 56 bits of padding had to be added.

Note that the header size changed, due to these changes. However, consider that on dbus1 the beginning of the fields array contains the 32bit array size (since that is how arrays are encoded on dbus1), thus, if one considers that size part of the header, instead of the array, the size of the header on dbus1 and dbus2 stays identical, at 16 bytes.

          0               4               8               12              16
  Common: | E | T | F | V | ...

   dbus1: |  (as above)   | Body Length   | Serial        | Fields Length | Fields array ...

gvariant: |  (as above)   | Reserved      | Cookie                        | Fields array ...

And that’s already it.

Note: To simplify parsing, valid dbus2 messages must include the entire fixed header and additional header fields in a single non-memfd message part. Also, the signature string of the body variant all the way to the end of the message must be in a single non-memfd part too. The parts for this extended header and footer can be the same one, and can also continue any amount of additional body bytes.

Note: The GVariant “MAYBE” type is not supported, so that messages can be fully converted forth and back between dbus1 and gvariant representations.