Handling Binary Data in Socket Programming


3 min read

Socket programming involves the transmission of data over a network using sockets. One type of data that can be transmitted over a network is binary data. Handling binary data in socket programming requires special attention, as different systems use different byte orders (endianness). Endianness is the order of bytes of digital data in computer memory.

There are two types of byte order: big-endian and little-endian. For example, the network byte order is big-endian, with the most significant byte first, so a 16-bit integer with the value 1 would be the two hex bytes 00 01. However, the most common processors (x86/AMD64, ARM, RISC-V) are little-endian, with the least significant byte first - that same 1 would be 01 00.

When transmitting binary data over a network using sockets, it is essential to ensure that both the sender and receiver use the same byte order. The transmitted data may be corrupted or unreadable if the byte order is inconsistent. To ensure that both the sender and receiver are using the same byte order, a common byte order convention must be established.

We can use the struct module in Python to simplify handling binary data. The struct module converts between Python values and C structs represented as Python bytes objects.

The module provides functions for packing and unpacking binary data in a specific format. The first character of the format string can be used to indicate the byte order according to the following table:

CharacterByte Order
!Network (= big-endian)

If the first character is not of these, @ is assumed.

After the byte order indicator, we need to put in format characters. Some of the popular format characters are:

FormatC TypePython Type
qlong longinteger

Here is an implementation example in Python that demonstrates how to pack and unpack binary data using the struct module:

import socket
import struct

HOST = "localhost"
PORT = 5000

def serve():
    # Create a TCP/IP socket
    sock = socket.socket(socket.AF_INET, socket.SOCK_STREAM)
    sock.bind((HOST, PORT))
    print("Server listening on {}:{}".format(HOST, PORT))

    # Wait for a connection
    conn, addr = sock.accept()
    print("Connected by ", addr)

    # Receive the data
    data = conn.recv(1024)
    print("Received: {!r}".format(data))

    # Unpack the binary data
    unpacked_data = struct.unpack("!Hf", data)
    print("Unpacked data: ", unpacked_data)


def client():
    sock = socket.socket(socket.AF_INET, socket.SOCK_STREAM)
    sock.connect((HOST, PORT))

    # Pack the binary data
    data = struct.pack("!Hf", 123, 3.14)

    # Send the data


In this example, the server listens for incoming connections on localhost on port 5000. When a client connects, the server receives binary data from the client using the recv method of the socket. The server then unpacks the binary data using the struct.unpack function.

The client packs binary data in network byte order using the struct.pack function and sends it to the server using the sendall method of the socket.


In conclusion, handling binary data in socket programming requires attention to byte order, as different systems use different byte orders. To ensure compatibility, it is recommended to use network byte order, which is defined as big-endian byte order. The struct module in Python provides functions for packing and unpacking binary data in a specific format, making it easy to handle binary data in socket programming.