Ben Marx

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Binary Pattern Matching with Elixir

Pattern matching is one of the more elegant aspects of Elixir (and Erlang). It makes for more readable, terse code. For instance, look at the following function heads.

defmodule Options do
  def parse(input) when is_binary(input), do: :binary
  def parse(input) when is_integer(input), do: :integer
  def parse(input) when is_list(input), do: :list
  def parse(_input), do: :error

You can try with the different types and it works as expected.

iex(9)> Options.parse "a"                                
iex(10)> Options.parse 1  
iex(11)> Options.parse []
iex(12)> Options.parse :a

This is all pretty straight-forward and something that most Elixir users are familiar with. Let’s take a look at how to pattern match binaries in Elixir. First, let’s take a detour and talk about how Elixir represents strings.

Strings are Binaries

Every string is UTF-8 encoded, and in Elixir, binaries are denoted by << and >>. For instance, <<"a"> is a binary which also happens to be a string.

iex(2)> String.valid? <<"a">>

To get the size of a binary, use byte_size/1. Each integer is eight bits or one byte.

iex(3)> byte_size <<1>>

Since strings in Elixir are UTF-8, some character sizes are greater than one byte. For example, the Hebrew letter ח or the Japanese Kanji for dog 犬 (inu).

iex(4)> byte_size <<"ח">>
iex(5)> byte_size <<"犬">> 

The Hebrew character ח is 2 bytes whereas the Japanese Kanji character is 3 bytes.

By the way, since Elixir strings are UTF-8 both characters are valid strings.

iex(6)> String.valid? "ח"
iex(7)> String.valid? "犬"

Pattern Matching String Binaries

Now that we have a basic understanding of Elixir strings, let’s try pattern matching on a binary. We can pattern match simply an 8 byte binary by assigning it to some variable like the following.

iex(36)> <<a>> = <<15>>
iex(37)> a

An integer is 1 byte it matches. You can be explicit with the syntax <<var :: bit_size>>.

iex(42)> <<a :: 8 >> = <<15>>

Now we know that the Hebrew character is 16 bits and the Japanese character is 24 bits. If we try to pattern match a 16—or any non-8 bit—binary against an 8-bit binary, we’ll get a pattern match error.

iex(43)> <<a>> = <<"ח">>     
** (MatchError) no match of right hand side value: "ח"
    (stdlib) erl_eval.erl:453: :erl_eval.expr/5
    (iex) lib/iex/evaluator.ex:257: IEx.Evaluator.handle_eval/5
    (iex) lib/iex/evaluator.ex:237: IEx.Evaluator.do_eval/3
    (iex) lib/iex/evaluator.ex:215: IEx.Evaluator.eval/3
    (iex) lib/iex/evaluator.ex:103: IEx.Evaluator.loop/1
    (iex) lib/iex/evaluator.ex:27: IEx.Evaluator.init/4

If we correctly match by explicitly setting the expected number of bits, everything works as expected.

iex(95)> <<a :: 16 >> = <<"ח">> 

But, if you see what a is assigned to, it might be a surprise.

iex(98)> a

From the Special Forms docs, “When no type is specified, the default is integer”. Let’s try again with bitstring-size(n).

iex(95)> <<a :: bitstring-size(16) >> = <<"ח">> 
iex(96)> a
iex(92)> <<a :: bitstring-size(24) >> = <<"犬">>
iex(93)> a

Everything works as expected.

Pattern Matching Binaries

Let’s try matching on something a bit more involved. As noted above, you can specify the size you expect the binary to be. You can also assign variables to each chunk you want to capture.

iex(50)> << a :: size(8), b :: 8, c :: 16 >> = <<1,2,3,4>>
<<1, 2, 3, 4>>
iex(51)> a
iex(52)> b

Or, if you only care about the first eight bytes, you can do the following.

iex(58)>  << a :: 8, _rest :: binary >> = <<1,2,3,4>>
<<1, 2, 3, 4>>
iex(59)> a

This makes it fairly straight-forward to match no more complex binaries. Imagine you have a binary that’s composed of a header of 1 byte, a length of 4 bytes, and a message that’s 18 bytes.

iex(61)> msg_header = <<1>>
iex(62)> msg_length = <<2,3,4,5>>
<<2, 3, 4, 5>>
iex(63)> msg_body = <<"erase the evidence">>
"erase the evidence"
iex(65)> msg_header <> msg_length <> msg_body
<<1, 41, 101, 114, 97, 115, 101, 32, 116, 104, 101, 32, 101, 118, 105, 100, 101,
  110, 99, 101>>

Our binary is composed, so let’s pattern match on the elements.

iex(114)> << header :: 8, length :: 32, message :: bitstring-size(144) >> = msg_header <> msg_length <> msg_body           
<<1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 101, 114, 97, 115, 101, 32, 116, 104, 101, 32, 101, 118, 105,
  100, 101, 110, 99, 101>>
iex(115)> header
iex(116)> length
iex(117)> message
"erase the evidence"

That’s all there is to pattern matching with binaries in Elixir.

In lieu of comments, for any corrections or questions, please send an email to ben[at] I'll update the post and give credit for corrections and/or clarifications.