I am looking for optimal for maintenance/easy of programming and elegant patterns to parse delimited network streams, e.g. protocols like SMTP. Some of the concerns I've always had are:

  • how to react when a recv(2) call returns 0 - the need to track state to determine if no data has arrived or no more data will arrive
  • what if in one packet, we have multiple delimited fields arriving (e.g. HTTP request/response headers)

I've usually ended up building a buffer and parsing buffer until delimiter, handling that then separately, but it's always inelegant. Is there a Knuth-ian or GOF solution that is elegant?

By optimal/elegant I mean maintenance/programmability rather than hard-core use.

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    What are you optimising for and how do you define "elegant"? – MetaFight Nov 15 '17 at 13:10

Asking for "optimal" is, in a word, nonsensical. As @MetaFight asked, what are you optimizing and what is elegant?


  • Readability
  • Speed
  • Robustness
  • Lines of code

and a number of other things.

Design Patterns

  • Finite State Machine - implement as a set of hierarchical state machines
  • Lexer/Parser - this is a specific type of hierarchical state machines which is often supported by code generation libraries, such as yacc/lex, bison, etc.
  • State Monad - Another implementation of state machine patterns.


An open-ended question with lots of personal taste thrown in. Personally, I would start with an implementation in Scala, using a State Monad approach, with Either values that allow capturing error information to help reporting and recovery. Your mileage may vary (YMMV).

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