Serialization in Qt - part 1

Almost all applications need to store some data and be able to read it later, whether it's a document file or just some application settings. The data can be anything from a few integers to a complex hierarchy of objects. Although the Qt framework doesn't have a built-in serialization support in the same sense as, for example, .NET or Java, it provides at least three mechanisms that can make storing and reading data easier:

  • QSettings - the standard Qt way of storing application settings. It supports both a variation of INI file format and platform specific storage, e.g Windows Registry.
  • QDomDocument - along with other classes from the QtXml module, it provides support for XML files.
  • QDataStream - can be used to read and write binary files.

Each solution has it's advantages and disadvantages. The XML format is sometimes considered as the only "right" way to store any kind of data. While it certainly has many advantages, the markup adds a lot of overhead, and being text based, it's not very suitable for storing data that is binary in it's nature. The INI format is perhaps more compact, but it's still text based and (arguably) human readable. Although it is possible to store anything that can be wrapped in a QVariant, for example a QImage, reading and writing such data is not very efficient (it has to be serialized in binary format and then converted to escaped textual representation). Also such INI file is no longer human readable, not to mention editable. That makes the benefit of using a INI file over a plain binary file questionable.

Personally I use QSettings only in two situations:

  • For manipulating Registry settings in a more comfortable way than by directly using the Windows API (for example to register a custom file extension).
  • For reading auxiliary configuration files that are rarely changed, but can be altered by the user in certain situations. For example, I store the list of available languages in an INI file. Because the list is not hard-coded, new translations can be created or installed without having to recompile the whole application.

Support for XML files is nice if we need to handle one of the numerous existing file formats which is based on XML, for example SVG, RSS or OpenDocument. However I personally don't see much point for a new, custom file format to be based on XML. Unless it needs to be embedded or mixed with other XML based file formats, or processed with a XSLT processor, using a binary format is usually a better idea. Sometimes XML based formats are seen as more "open", whatever that means, but from a technical point of view that's compeletely irrelevant. There are numerous examples of open, well documented binary formats.

A more reasonable argument is that XML based formats are more flexible, because new attributes and tags can be added without affecting compatibility with older and newer versions of the software. With some additional effort, this can also be achieved when using a binary format. I will write more about this topic in one of the next posts.

Another concern is the binary compatibility of data on various platform. QDataStream nicely takes care of it by ensuring proper endianness. We just have to use types like qint32 instead of the standard C++ types when reading from/writing to the stream, to ensure that data always has the same size. On the other hand, in case of XML it would be necessary to take ensure that numeric precision is not lost when converting values to/from text.

The advantage of binary serialization is that it's very simple, fast and memory efficient. There is no addional overhead of parsing the XML markup, storing the entire DOM tree in memory, etc. It also requires much less code that needs to be written. Manipulating the DOM tree is cumbersome and not very elegant, and using the more efficient SAX-style interface is even more difficult.

In the simplest case, the application settings can be represented by a single QVariantMap object (equivalent to QMap<QString, QVariant>). This is basically the same as what QSettings provides, except that the latter uses additional prefixes to emulate a hierarchy of groups. Note that almost anything can be a variant, including custom types, and even another QVariantMap. This makes it easy to create complex, nested data structures that can be saved and loaded back using a few lines of code:

QVariantMap settings;

MyClass instance;
settings.insert( "Key", QVariant::fromValue( instance ) );

QFile file( "settings.dat" ); QIODevice::ReadOnly );

QDataStream stream( &file );
stream << settings;

In order for a custom type to be serializable, it only has to implement the << and >> operators taking the data stream object. In addition, to be able to embed the custom type in a QVariant, it must be declared as a metatype using the Q_DECLARE_METATYPE macro and registered using the qRegisterMetaTypeStreamOperators function. I will post an example in the next article.

When reading settings back, it's important to remember about default values. Although defaults can be used when reading the values, it's often better to initialize default values which are missing from the map at startup, just after reading the configuration file. This way the default value is only provided once, and not everywhere it's used.

Note that we don't always have to use QVariant to serialize data. If we want to have a file which stores just a list of bookmarks, we can simply serialize a QList<Bookmark>. All we need is the pair of << and >> operators. There is no need to declare a metatype; the type is static, so it doesn't have to be dynamically resolved upon deserialization. Also note that the Bookmark could even contain a nested list of child bookmarks.

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