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5.14 Encode Binary Data

To store or transfer binary data in environments which only support text one has to encode the binary data by mapping the input bytes to bytes in the range allowed for storing or transferring. SVID systems (and nowadays XPG compliant systems) provide minimal support for this task.

Function: char * l64a (long int n)

Preliminary: | MT-Unsafe race:l64a | AS-Unsafe | AC-Safe | See POSIX Safety Concepts.

This function encodes a 32-bit input value using bytes from the basic character set. It returns a pointer to a 7 byte buffer which contains an encoded version of n. To encode a series of bytes the user must copy the returned string to a destination buffer. It returns the empty string if n is zero, which is somewhat bizarre but mandated by the standard.
Warning: Since a static buffer is used this function should not be used in multi-threaded programs. There is no thread-safe alternative to this function in the C library.
Compatibility Note: The XPG standard states that the return value of l64a is undefined if n is negative. In the GNU implementation, l64a treats its argument as unsigned, so it will return a sensible encoding for any nonzero n; however, portable programs should not rely on this.

To encode a large buffer l64a must be called in a loop, once for each 32-bit word of the buffer. For example, one could do something like this:

char *
encode (const void *buf, size_t len)
  /* We know in advance how long the buffer has to be. */
  unsigned char *in = (unsigned char *) buf;
  char *out = malloc (6 + ((len + 3) / 4) * 6 + 1);
  char *cp = out, *p;

  /* Encode the length. */
  /* Using ‘htonl’ is necessary so that the data can be
     decoded even on machines with different byte order.
     ‘l64a’ can return a string shorter than 6 bytes, so 
     we pad it with encoding of 0 ('.') at the end by 
     hand. */

  p = stpcpy (cp, l64a (htonl (len)));
  cp = mempcpy (p, "......", 6 - (p - cp));

  while (len > 3)
      unsigned long int n = *in++;
      n = (n << 8) | *in++;
      n = (n << 8) | *in++;
      n = (n << 8) | *in++;
      len -= 4;
      p = stpcpy (cp, l64a (htonl (n)));
      cp = mempcpy (p, "......", 6 - (p - cp));
  if (len > 0)
      unsigned long int n = *in++;
      if (--len > 0)
          n = (n << 8) | *in++;
          if (--len > 0)
            n = (n << 8) | *in;
      cp = stpcpy (cp, l64a (htonl (n)));
  *cp = '\0';
  return out;

It is strange that the library does not provide the complete functionality needed but so be it.

To decode data produced with l64a the following function should be used.

Function: long int a64l (const char *string)

Preliminary: | MT-Safe | AS-Safe | AC-Safe | See POSIX Safety Concepts.

The parameter string should contain a string which was produced by a call to l64a. The function processes at least 6 bytes of this string, and decodes the bytes it finds according to the table below. It stops decoding when it finds a byte not in the table, rather like atoi; if you have a buffer which has been broken into lines, you must be careful to skip over the end-of-line bytes.

The decoded number is returned as a long int value.

The l64a and a64l functions use a base 64 encoding, in which each byte of an encoded string represents six bits of an input word. These symbols are used for the base 64 digits:


This encoding scheme is not standard. There are some other encoding methods which are much more widely used (UU encoding, MIME encoding). Generally, it is better to use one of these encodings.

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