Coroutine 101 - A simple serializer

Jul 27, 2023

This is the first post in a series explaining C++20 coroutines by example.


The goal for this article is to create a simple non-recursive stream serializer, that can be used like this:

stream::serializer serialize_ints(std::vector<int> data)
  for (auto idx = 0u; idx < data.size(); idx++)
    if (idx != 0)
      co_yield ',';
    co_yield std::to_string(data[idx]);

int main(int argc, char *argv[])
  auto s = serialize_ints({1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10});
  std::string buffer;

  using std::operator""sv;

  assert(s.read_some(buffer) == "1,2,3,4,5,"sv);
  assert(s.read_some(buffer) == "6,7,8,9,10"sv);

  return 0;

That is we want a serializer coroutine that can co_yield strings and chars, and can get consumed by a simple sync interface.


The serializer interface itself is very simple:

struct serializer
  // The promise_type tells how to make this a coroutine.
  using promise_type = detail::serializer_promise;

  bool done() const;
  std::string_view read_some(std::span<char> buffer);

  // The data passed into read_some
  std::span<char> buffer_;
  // The amount written to the buffer
  std::size_t written_;
  // The bytes that couldn't be written bc the buffer was full.
  std::string_view remaining_;

  friend detail::serializer_promise;
  // The unique_handle is essentially a unique_ptr of a std::coroutine_handle (which doesn't free)
  detail::unique_handle<promise_type> impl_;

Next let’s quickly define the done & read_some functions:

bool serializer::done()  const
  // check if we have a coroutine attached & it's not done 
  // and that we don't have data remaining from a previously full buffer
  return (!impl_ || impl_.done()) && remaining_.empty();

std::string_view serializer::read_some(std::span<char> buffer)
  // consume data left from a previous co_yield.  
  auto n = (std::min)(remaining_.size(), buffer.size());
  std::copy_n(remaining_.begin(), n, buffer.begin());
  written_ = n;
  buffer_ = buffer;
  // if the coroutine is still active & we have buffer space left, resume it
  if (!done() && (buffer_.size() != written_))
    // tell the coroutine promise where to write the data
    impl_.promise().ser = this;
    // resume the coroutine to yield more data

  return {, written_};

The resume function will resume the serializer coroutine until it either yields or returns.


Before we get into the promise itself, we need to establish what awaitables are.

And awaitable is a type with three functions:

struct my_awaitable
   bool await_ready();
   void await_suspend(std::coroutine_handle<T>);
   T await_resume();

When a coroutine awaits an awaitable, it will call await_ready first. If it returns true the coroutine does not need to suspend and will call await_resume to the await result (always void in this example). If await_ready returns false, the coroutine suspends and await_suspend will be called with the coroutines handle passed it. Once the coroutine gets resumed (by calling resume() on the handle) it will call await_resume to get the result and return the value.

The main point is that await_ready can be used to avoid suspension of the coroutine, which can awaiting something an noop.

The standard provides two awaitables:

  • std::suspend_never
  • std::suspend_always

suspend_never will do nothing (await_ready returns true), while suspend_always will just suspend the coroutine (await_ready returns false).

Serializer Promise

With that cleared up, let’s look a the promise:

struct serializer_promise
  std::suspend_always initial_suspend() noexcept {return {};}
  std::suspend_always final_suspend  () noexcept {return {};}

  serializer get_return_object();

  void return_void() {}

  void unhandled_exception() { throw;  }

  struct conditional_suspend
    bool written;
    bool await_ready()
      if (written)
        return true;
        return false;
    void await_suspend(std::coroutine_handle<serializer_promise>) {}
    void await_resume() {}

  conditional_suspend yield_value(const char & c);
  conditional_suspend yield_value(std::string_view c);

  serializer * ser;

The next five functions are mandatory for any coroutine


The initial_suspend function gets called when the coroutine is created (i.e. when serialize_ints is called) and it’s result awaited. In this case want the coroutine to be lazy, i.e. do nothing until read_some resumes it. Therefor we return std::suspend_always.


Once the coroutine is past the co_return it will call final_suspend and wait the result. This can be used for continuations and cleanup. In our case, the serializer object holds the coroutine handle and will clean it up, so we also call std::suspend_always.


The get_return_object function is used to gets called to create the handle of the coroutine, in our case a serialize object.

The implementation is pretty straight forward:

serializer serializer_promise::get_return_object()
  serializer s;
  s.impl_ = detail::unique_handle<serializer_promise>::from_promise(*this);
  return s;


A coroutine either defines return_void if there is not return value or return_value if there is. Since we check the completion through the handle, we don’t need to do anything here.


If the coroutine exits with an exception it can be intercepted here. We just rethrow it, so the caller to .resume will receive it. That is it will be thrown from serializer.read_some.


The conditional_suspend is an awaitable that let’s you dynamically chose between std::suspend_never and std::suspend_always.

We use this so we only suspend if the buffer is full and we tell the compiler to optimize for this case using [[likely]].


The yield_value functions are needed when co_yield should be possible within the coroutine function.

The function will get called with one value and it’s return value will be awaited. This way we can conditionally suspend if the buffer is full. In our coroutine, we can yield a string_view and a single char.

auto serializer_promise::yield_value(const char & c) -> conditional_suspend
  // we got room in the buffer, just write the data
  if (ser->written_ < ser->buffer_.size())
    ser->buffer_[ser->written_] = c;
    // don't suspend, we sent the data.
    return conditional_suspend{true};
  else // the buffer is full. store it as remaining
    ser->remaining_ = {&c, 1u};
    return conditional_suspend{false};

auto serializer_promise::yield_value(std::string_view c) -> conditional_suspend

  if (ser->written_ < ser->buffer_.size())
    // write as many bytes to the buffer as you can.
    auto n = (std::min)(c.size(), (ser->buffer_.size() - ser->written_));
    std::copy_n(c.begin(), n, ser->buffer_.begin() + ser->written_);
    ser->written_ += n;

    if (!c.empty())
      ser->remaining_ = c;

    // suspend if we couldn't write all of the data
    return conditional_suspend{c.empty()};
    // not space remaining, suspend
    ser->remaining_ = c;
    return conditional_suspend{false};


And with that we can write a stream serializer without confusing syntax.

In the next article, we’ll make the serializer recursive, i.e. allow one serializer to await another one.

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