[Python-Dev] PEP 393: Flexible String Representation

"Martin v. Löwis" martin at v.loewis.de
Mon Jan 24 21:17:34 CET 2011

I have been thinking about Unicode representation for some time now.
This was triggered, on the one hand, by discussions with Glyph Lefkowitz
(who complained that his server app consumes too much memory), and Carl
Friedrich Bolz (who profiled Python applications to determine that
Unicode strings are among the top consumers of memory in Python).
On the other hand, this was triggered by the discussion on supporting
surrogates in the library better.

I'd like to propose PEP 393, which takes a different approach,
addressing both problems simultaneously: by getting a flexible
representation (one that can be either 1, 2, or 4 bytes), we can
support the full range of Unicode on all systems, but still use
only one byte per character for strings that are pure ASCII (which
will be the majority of strings for the majority of users).

You'll find the PEP at


For convenience, I include it below.


PEP: 393
Title: Flexible String Representation
Version: $Revision: 88168 $
Last-Modified: $Date: 2011-01-24 21:14:21 +0100 (Mo, 24. Jan 2011) $
Author: Martin v. Löwis <martin at v.loewis.de>
Status: Draft
Type: Standards Track
Content-Type: text/x-rst
Created: 24-Jan-2010
Python-Version: 3.3


The Unicode string type is changed to support multiple internal
representations, depending on the character with the largest Unicode
ordinal (1, 2, or 4 bytes). This will allow a space-efficient
representation in common cases, but give access to full UCS-4 on all
systems. For compatibility with existing APIs, several representations
may exist in parallel; over time, this compatibility should be phased


There are two classes of complaints about the current implementation
of the unicode type: on systems only supporting UTF-16, users complain
that non-BMP characters are not properly supported. On systems using
UCS-4 internally (and also sometimes on systems using UCS-2), there is
a complaint that Unicode strings take up too much memory - especially
compared to Python 2.x, where the same code would often use ASCII
strings (i.e. ASCII-encoded byte strings). With the proposed approach,
ASCII-only Unicode strings will again use only one byte per character;
while still allowing efficient indexing of strings containing non-BMP
characters (as strings containing them will use 4 bytes per

One problem with the approach is support for existing applications
(e.g. extension modules). For compatibility, redundant representations
may be computed. Applications are encouraged to phase out reliance on
a specific internal representation if possible. As interaction with
other libraries will often require some sort of internal
representation, the specification choses UTF-8 as the recommended way
of exposing strings to C code.

For many strings (e.g. ASCII), multiple representations may actually
share memory (e.g. the shortest form may be shared with the UTF-8 form
if all characters are ASCII). With such sharing, the overhead of
compatibility representations is reduced.


The Unicode object structure is changed to this definition::

  typedef struct {
    Py_ssize_t length;
    void *str;
    Py_hash_t hash;
    int state;
    Py_ssize_t utf8_length;
    void *utf8;
    Py_ssize_t wstr_length;
    void *wstr;
  } PyUnicodeObject;

These fields have the following interpretations:

- length: number of code points in the string (result of sq_length)
- str: shortest-form representation of the unicode string; the lower
  two bits of the pointer indicate the specific form:
  01 => 1 byte (Latin-1); 11 => 2 byte (UCS-2); 11 => 4 byte (UCS-4);
  00 => null pointer

  The string is null-terminated (in its respective representation).
- hash, state: same as in Python 3.2
- utf8_length, utf8: UTF-8 representation (null-terminated)
- wstr_length, wstr: representation in platform's wchar_t
  (null-terminated). If wchar_t is 16-bit, this form may use surrogate
  pairs (in which cast wstr_length differs form length).

All three representations are optional, although the str form is
considered the canonical representation which can be absent only
while the string is being created.

The Py_UNICODE type is still supported but deprecated. It is always
defined as a typedef for wchar_t, so the wstr representation can double
as Py_UNICODE representation.

The str and utf8 pointers point to the same memory if the string uses
only ASCII characters (using only Latin-1 is not sufficient). The str
and wstr pointers point to the same memory if the string happens to
fit exactly to the wchar_t type of the platform (i.e. uses some
BMP-not-Latin-1 characters if sizeof(wchar_t) is 2, and uses some
non-BMP characters if sizeof(wchar_t) is 4).

If the string is created directly with the canonical representation
(see below), this representation doesn't take a separate memory block,
but is allocated right after the PyUnicodeObject struct.

String Creation

The recommended way to create a Unicode object is to use the function

   PyObject* PyUnicode_New(Py_ssize_t size, Py_UCS4 maxchar);

Both parameters must denote the eventual size/range of the strings.
In particular, codecs using this API must compute both the number of
characters and the maximum character in advance. An string is
allocated according to the specified size and character range and is
null-terminated; the actual characters in it may be unitialized.

PyUnicode_FromString and PyUnicode_FromStringAndSize remain supported
for processing UTF-8 input; the input is decoded, and the UTF-8
representation is not yet set for the string.

PyUnicode_FromUnicode remains supported but is deprecated. If the
Py_UNICODE pointer is non-null, the str representation is set. If the
pointer is NULL, a properly-sized wstr representation is allocated,
which can be modified until PyUnicode_Finalize() is called (explicitly
or implicitly). Resizing a Unicode string remains possible until it
is finalized.

PyUnicode_Finalize() converts a string containing only a wstr
representation into the canonical representation. Unless wstr and str
can share the memory, the wstr representation is discarded after the

String Access

The canonical representation can be accessed using two macros
PyUnicode_Kind and PyUnicode_Data. PyUnicode_Kind gives one of the
value PyUnicode_1BYTE (1), PyUnicode_2BYTE (2), or PyUnicode_4BYTE
(3). PyUnicode_Data gives the void pointer to the data, masking out
the pointer kind. All these functions call PyUnicode_Finalize
in case the canonical representation hasn't been computed yet.

A new function PyUnicode_AsUTF8 is provided to access the UTF-8
representation. It is thus identical to the existing
_PyUnicode_AsString, which is removed. The function will compute the
utf8 representation when first called. Since this representation will
consume memory until the string object is released, applications
should use the existing PyUnicode_AsUTF8String where possible
(which generates a new string object every time). API that implicitly
converts a string to a char* (such as the ParseTuple functions) will
use this function to compute a conversion.

PyUnicode_AsUnicode is deprecated; it computes the wstr representation
on first use.

String Operations

Various convenience functions will be provided to deal with the
canonical representation, in particular with respect to concatenation
and slicing.

Stable ABI

None of the functions in this PEP become part of the stable ABI.


This document has been placed in the public domain.

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