This tool was created to enable the porting of a pair of large LaTeX documents to a more modern and maintainable Asciidoc-based Antora site. The only thing I couldn’t do without was the wonderful bytefield LaTeX package for drawing byte field diagrams, and bytefield-svg was my way to bring it forward to this new world. It worked wonderfully.

Along the way, I switched from LaTeX-style commands to using Clojure to build my own domain-specific language for expressing byte field diagrams. Having the full power of a modern Lisp made the diagram source a lot more compact and faster to write, and it is easy to define your own helper functions to eliminate repetitive writing.

Clojure’s rich set of native data types (including keywords, vectors, maps, and sets), and compact way of representing them in source, are a big part of why this worked so well.

But this means that to get really productive with bytefield-svg, you are going to need to learn at least a little Clojure.

Here is an introduction to the syntax, a cheat sheet and some help deciphering what will initially look like strange characters that are hard to search for on the web.

The sci interpreter that runs your bytefield-svg source offers a large subset of the language, with the omission of host interop features and a few functions which would be dangerous in a shared hosting environment.

The Drawing Model

The basic purpose of bytefield-svg is to support the drawing of byte-field diagrams to aid in the understanding of network protocols, memory layouts, and similar binary structures. It sets up a drawing environment to facilitate that, as well as the automatic generation of column and row headers to help readers keep track of byte addresses.

Reasonable defaults are provideded, but everything is very configurable. Before diving into those details, it will help to look at some concrete examples. The main function you’ll use for drawing byte boxes is draw-box. By default it creates a box that represents one byte. So if we create a diagram with only (draw-box 0) as its content, here is what we get:


Notice that the value is represented as two hexadecimal digits, to reinforce that it is a single byte. But why is it positioned where it is? We can get a hint of that if we draw the column headers before calling it. So, a slightly more full-featured diagram specification would be:

(draw-box 0)

That’s more clear: The diagram is configured to show sixteen byte boxes per row, which is why our box was drawn where it is. The diagram is centered, as well (although there is room on the left for row address headers, which will appear when the diagram grows beyond one row).

But why were the column headers not drawn until we explicitly asked for them? That is to give us a chance to change things like the number of boxes per row and the left margin before we start drawing. Those values are set up as defaults, but can be changed by calling def (a standard Clojure function[1]) with the symbol of the setting we want to define or redefine, and the value we want to give it, like so:

(def left-margin 1)
(def boxes-per-row 4)
(draw-box 0)

That gives us a nicely centered diagram with four byte boxes per row.

If you have to draw a lot of values in a sequence, you can use normal Clojure sequence handling forms like doseq:

(doseq [val (range 30)]
  (draw-box val))

And we get thirty boxes containing the numbers from 0 to 29 expressed in hexadecimal.

For situations where you have a series of bytes that you want to convey are part of a related structure, you can use the draw-related-boxes function. It takes a sequence as its first argument, and does the looping for you, in addition to using dashed borders inside the related group:

(draw-related-boxes (range 30))

Of course, sometimes we have values that take more than one byte, and sometimes we want to draw labels describing their contents, rather than just showing values. If you pass a string rather than a number, it is drawn as a label. And draw-box takes a second argument after the box content, which is a map of attributes, identified by keyword, that modify the box. The :span attribute controls how many bytes wide the box should be, with a default value of 1. Putting that together, and using a new draw-gap function which is designed to communicate variable-length structures, we can draw something like this:

(draw-box "Address" {:span 4})
(draw-box "Size" {:span 2})
(draw-box 0 {:span 2})
(draw-gap "Payload")

We had to call draw-bottom at the end, because sometimes we want control over the border at the bottom of a gap, which will become more clear in the discussion of box borders.

Note that the third box we drew, which we labeled with a number, was drawn using four hex digits, because we told it to span two byte boxes, and that’s how many hexadecimal digits fit in two bytes.

With that introduction, we’re ready to start exploring all the values that can be configured, and the full details of the functions that you can use for drawing.

1. Techincally, def is actually a special form rather than a function, but that is further afield than this introduction needs to go.