Type Inspection (Serialization and String Conversion)

CAF is designed with distributed systems in mind. Hence, all message types must be serializable and need a platform-neutral, unique name that is configured at startup (see Adding Custom Message Types). Using a message type that is not serializable causes a compiler error (see Whitelisting Unsafe Message Types). CAF serializes individual elements of a message by using the inspection API. This API allows users to provide code for serialization as well as string conversion with a single free function. The signature for a class my_class is always as follows:

template <class Inspector>
typename Inspector::result_type inspect(Inspector& f, my_class& x) {
  return f(...);

The function inspect passes meta information and data fields to the variadic call operator of the inspector. The following example illustrates an implementation for inspect for a simple POD struct.

// POD struct foo
struct foo {
  std::vector<int> a;
  int b;

// foo needs to be serializable
template <class Inspector>
typename Inspector::result_type inspect(Inspector& f, foo& x) {
  return f(meta::type_name("foo"), x.a, x.b);

The inspector recursively inspects all data fields and has builtin support for (1) std::tuple, (2) std::pair, (3) C arrays, (4) any container type with x.size(), x.empty(), x.begin() and x.end().

We consciously made the inspect API as generic as possible to allow for extensibility. This allows users to use CAF’s types in other contexts, to implement parsers, etc.

Inspector Concept

The following concept class shows the requirements for inspectors. The placeholder T represents any user-defined type. For example, error when performing I/O operations or some integer type when implementing a hash function.

Inspector {
  using result_type = T;

  if (inspector only requires read access to the state of T)
    static constexpr bool reads_state = true;
    static constexpr bool writes_state = true;

  template <class... Ts>
  result_type operator()(Ts&&...);

A saving Inspector is required to handle constant lvalue and rvalue references. A loading Inspector must only accept mutable lvalue references to data fields, but still allow for constant lvalue references and rvalue references to annotations.


Annotations allow users to fine-tune the behavior of inspectors by providing addition meta information about a type. All annotations live in the namespace caf::meta and derive from caf::meta::annotation. An inspector can query whether a type T is an annotation with caf::meta::is_annotation<T>::value. Annotations are passed to the call operator of the inspector along with data fields. The following list shows all annotations supported by CAF:

  • type_name(n): Display type name as n in human-friendly output (position before data fields).
  • hex_formatted(): Format the following data field in hex format.
  • omittable(): Omit the following data field in human-friendly output.
  • omittable_if_empty(): Omit the following data field if it is empty in human-friendly output.
  • omittable_if_none(): Omit the following data field if it equals none in human-friendly output.
  • save_callback(f): Call f when serializing (position after data fields).
  • load_callback(f): Call f after deserializing all data fields (position after data fields).

Backwards and Third-party Compatibility

CAF evaluates common free function other than inspect in order to simplify users to integrate CAF into existing code bases.

Serializers and deserializers call user-defined serialize functions. Both types support operator& as well as operator() for individual data fields. A serialize function has priority over inspect.

When converting a user-defined type to a string, CAF calls user-defined to_string functions and prefers those over inspect.

Whitelisting Unsafe Message Types

Message types that are not serializable cause compile time errors when used in actor communication. When using CAF for concurrency only, this errors can be suppressed by whitelisting types with CAF_ALLOW_UNSAFE_MESSAGE_TYPE. The macro is defined as follows.

#define CAF_ALLOW_UNSAFE_MESSAGE_TYPE(type_name)                               \
  namespace caf {                                                              \
  template <>                                                                  \
  struct allowed_unsafe_message_type<type_name> : std::true_type {};           \

Splitting Save and Load Operations

If loading and storing cannot be implemented in a single function, users can query whether the inspector is loading or storing. For example, consider the following class foo with getter and setter functions and no public access to its members.

// no friend access for `inspect`
class foo {
  foo(int a0 = 0, int b0 = 0) : a_(a0), b_(b0) {
    // nop

  foo(const foo&) = default;
  foo& operator=(const foo&) = default;

  int a() const {
    return a_;

  void set_a(int val) {
    a_ = val;

  int b() const {
    return b_;

  void set_b(int val) {
    b_ = val;

  int a_;
  int b_;

Since there is no access to the data fields a_ and b_ (and assuming no changes to foo are possible), we need to split our implementation of inspect as shown below.

template <class Inspector>
typename std::enable_if<Inspector::reads_state,
                        typename Inspector::result_type>::type
inspect(Inspector& f, foo& x) {
  return f(meta::type_name("foo"), x.a(), x.b());

template <class Inspector>
typename std::enable_if<Inspector::writes_state,
                        typename Inspector::result_type>::type
inspect(Inspector& f, foo& x) {
  int a;
  int b;
  // write back to x at scope exit
  auto g = make_scope_guard([&] {
  return f(meta::type_name("foo"), a, b);

behavior testee(event_based_actor* self) {
  return {
    [=](const foo& x) {
      aout(self) << to_string(x) << endl;

The purpose of the scope guard in the example above is to write the content of the temporaries back to foo at scope exit automatically. Storing the result of f(...) in a temporary first and then writing the changes to foo is not possible, because f(...) can return void.