PHP RFC: New custom object serialization mechanism


PHP currently provides two mechanisms for custom serialization of objects: The __sleep()/__wakeup() magic methods, as well as the Serializable interface. Unfortunately, both approaches have issues that will be discussed in the following. This RFC proposes to add a new custom serialization mechanism that avoids these problems.

Problems with existing custom object serialization mechanism


Classes implementing the Serializable interface are encoded using the C format, which is basically C:ClassNameLen:"ClassName":PayloadLen:{Payload}, where the Payload is an arbitrary string. This is the string returned by Serializable::serialize() and almost always produced by a nested call to serialize():

public function serialize() {
    return serialize([$this->prop1, $this->prop2]);

In order to represent object identity (the same object being used multiple times in a serialized value graph) and PHP references, the serialization format uses backreferences to previous values in the serialized string. For example in [$obj, $obj] the first element will be serialized as usual, while the second element will be a backreference of the form r:1.

In order to preserve object identity (and references) between values that are part of Serializable objects, the nested serialize() calls inside Serializable::serialize() share serialization state with the outer serialize() call.

Unfortunately, this means that strings produced by nested serialize() calls are only valid if they are also unserialized in the same context. One notable and common case where this is not the case is when one attempts to compose serialization through the use of parent::serialize():

class A implements Serializable {
    private $prop;
    public function serialize() {
        return serialize($this->prop);
    public function unserialize($payload) {
        $this->prop = unserialize($payload);
class B extends A {
    private $prop;
    public function serialize() {
        return serialize([$this->prop, parent::serialize()])
    public function unserialize($payload) {
        [$prop, $parent] = unserialize($payload);
        $this->prop = $prop;

Code of this form does not work reliably, because the nested serialize() and unserialize() calls are performed in different orders:

During serialization first the serialize() call in A::serialize() is performed, and then the one in B::serialize(). Conversely, during unserialization first the unserialize() call in B::unserialize() is performed, and then the one in A::unserialize(). Because of this discrepancy in call order, backreferences created during serialization will no longer be correct during unserialization.

For this reason, code using parent::serialize() is generally broken, even though issues might not manifest immediately (for example because no backreferences happen to be used).

The second main issue that Serializable suffers from is that calls to Serializable::unserialize() have to be performed immediately when such an object is encountered during unserialization, otherwise unserialization would not occur in the correct context.

Executing arbitrary code in the middle of unserialization is dangerous and has led to numerous unserialize() vulnerabilities in the past. For this reason __wakeup() calls are now delayed until the end of unserialization. First, the whole value graph is constructed, and only afterwards all queued __wakeup() methods are called.

This leaves us in a situation where Serializable::unserialize() is called immediately, while __wakeup() is delayed. As such, the former method sees objects before they have been fully unserialized. For example, this makes using DateTime objects within Serializable::unserialize() unsafe, as they will not be fully initialized yet.

The third issue with Serializable is more technical in nature. Because Serializable::serialize() can return data in an arbitrary format, there is no general way to analyze serialized strings. PHP's serialization mechanism could be made much more robust (and likely faster), by first performing a pass that detects all used backreferences. However, Serializable prevents this, as the payloads it produces are completely opaque (even though often they will follow the normal serialization format).

__sleep() and __wakeup()

The older __sleep()/__wakeup() mechanism is not fundamentally broken in the way that Serializable is, it mostly suffers from usability issues due to the narrow usage it enforces.

In particular, __sleep() can only be used to exclude properties from serialization, but is cumbersome to use if the serialized representation should be significantly different from the in-memory form (this would require adding additional dummy properties used only for serialization). Additionally __sleep() does not compose, as the return value of parent::__sleep() is generally not directly usable due to visibility restrictions.

Similarly, __wakeup() is also bound tightly to the idea that serialization state should be encoded in properties. If the serialized representation differs significantly from the in-memory representation, this also necessitates the use of dummy properties. Unlike __sleep(), the __wakeup() method does compose, in that it is generally both safe and meaningful to call parent::__wakeup().


The proposed serialization mechanism tries to combine the generality of Serializable with the implementation approach of __sleep()/__wakeup().

Two new magic methods are added:

// Returns array containing all the necessary state of the object.
public function __serialize(): array;
// Restores the object state from the given data array.
public function __unserialize(array $data): void;

The usage is very similar to the Serializable interface. From a practical perspective the main difference is that instead of calling serialize() inside Serializable::serialize(), you directly return the data that should be serialized as an array.

The following example illustrates how __serialize()/__unserialize() are used, and how they compose under inheritance:

class A {
    private $prop_a;
    public function __serialize(): array {
        return ["prop_a" => $this->prop_a];
    public function __unserialize(array $data) {
        $this->prop_a = $data["prop_a"];
class B extends A {
    private $prop_b;
    public function __serialize(): array {
        return [
            "prop_b" => $this->prop_b,
            "parent_data" => parent::__serialize(),
    public function __unserialize(array $data) {
        $this->prop_b = $data["prop_b"];

This resolves the issues with Serializable by leaving the actual serialization and unserialization to the implementation of the serializer. This means that we don't have to share the serialization state anymore, and thus avoid issues related to backreference ordering. It also allows us to delay __unserialize() calls to the end of unserialization.

Encoding and interoperability

The __serialize() and __unserialize() methods reuse the O serialization format used by ordinary object serialization, as well as __sleep()/__wakeup(). This means that the data array returned by __serialize() will be stored as-if it represented object properties.

In principle, this makes existing strings serialized in O format fully interoperable with the new serialization mechanism, the data is just provided in a different way (for __wakeup() in properties, for __unserialize() as an explicit array). If a class has both __sleep() and __serialize(), then the latter will be preferred. If a class has both __wakeup() and __unserialize() then the latter will be preferred.

If a class both implements Serializable and __serialize()/__unserialize(), then serialization will prefer the new mechanism, while unserialization can make use of either, depending on whether the C (Serializable) or O (__unserialize) format is used. As such, old serialized strings encoded in C format can still be decoded, while new strings will be produced in O format.

Magic methods vs interface

This RFC proposes the addition of new magic methods, but using an interface instead would also be possible, though it will require some naming gymnastics to avoid RealSerializable.

This proposal uses magic methods for two reasons. First, they interoperate well. __serialize() and __unserialize() can be added to a class without compatibility concerns: They will be used on PHP 7.4 or newer and ignored on PHP 7.3 or older. Using an interface instead requires either raising the version requirement to PHP 7.4, or dealing with the definition of a stub interface in a compatible manner.

Second, they are semantically more correct. In PHP all objects are serializable by default. The Serializable interface is a misnomer in that sense, because an object that does not implement Serializable can be (and usually is) still serializable. On the contrary, Serializable might be implemented specifically for the purpose of forbidding serialization, by throwing an exception. The magic methods __serialize() and __unserialize() are just hooks to customize the serialization functionality, they do not determine whether an object can be serialized, and code should generally have no reason to check for their presence or absence.

Creating objects in __unserialize()

Some people have expressed a desire to make __unserialize() a static method which creates and returns the unserialized object (rather than first constructing the object and then calling __unserialize() to initialize it).

This would allow an even greater degree of control over the serialization mechanism, for example it would allow to return an already existing object from __unserialize().

However, allowing this would once again require immediately calling __unserialize() functions (interleaved with unserialization) to make the object available for backreferences, which would reintroduce some of the problems that Serializable suffers from. As such, this will not be supported.

Backward Incompatible Changes

This proposal has no BC breaks. However, it should be noted that it is written with a subsequent deprecation and removal of the severely broken Serializable interface in mind. (There is no particular pressing need to phase out __sleep() and __wakeup().)


Voting started 2019-03-01 and ends 2019-03-15.

Include proposed serialization mechanism in PHP 7.4?
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ashnazg (ashnazg)  
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Final result: 20 7
This poll has been closed.
rfc/custom_object_serialization.txt · Last modified: 2019/03/22 09:43 by nikic