Written by Pete Corey on Nov 6, 2017.

Recently I ran into an interesting problem while working on a project with a Memphis-based client. This interesting problem led to several hours of sleuthing through HTTP headers, combing over hex dumps, and pouring through the source of several packages.

At the end of a long day, I came to the conclusion that character encodings are important, if often overlooked things, and that assumptions do indeed make asses out of you and me.

So buckle up, and I’ll tell you a story about Rum Boogie Café! Or is it Rum Boogie Caf�? Or… RUM BOOGIE CAFÉ,"D?

Invalid JSON

The project in question involves streaming massive JSON documents into a Node.js application from a proxy service which in turn pulls the original JSON documents from an external, third-party service.

Once streamed in, the Node.js application parses the incoming JSON with the JSONStream package, and Does Things™ with the resulting data.

This process was working beautifully for several relatively small JSON documents, but when it came time to parse larger, wilder JSON documents served by the third-party service, bugs started to crawl out of the woodwork.

The first sign of trouble was this exception:


Error: Invalid JSON (Unexpected "D" at position 2762 in state STOP)
    at Parser.proto.charError (/project/node_modules/jsonparse/jsonparse.js:90:16)
    at Parser.proto.write (/project/node_modules/jsonparse/jsonparse.js:154:23)
    at Stream.<anonymous> (/project/node_modules/JSONStream/index.js:23:12)
    ...

Well, that seems like an obvious problem. The JSON must be corrupt.

But after taking a look at the raw JSON served from the external service, we can see that the section of the document in question is perfectly well formed:


...,"DESC":"RUM BOOGIE CAFÉ","DEF":"",...

So what gives?

Invalid UTF-8?

Before spending too much time with this issue, I wanted to get more data. Was this a problem with this report specifically, or all larger reports?

I tried to process another similarly large JSON document served by the external service.

This similarly large document resulted in a similar exception:


Error: Invalid JSON (Invalid UTF-8 character at position 3832 in state STRING1)
    at Parser.proto.write (/project/node_modules/jsonparse/jsonparse.js:171:31)
    at Stream.<anonymous> (/project/node_modules/JSONStream/index.js:23:12)
    ...

This time around, the jsonparse package (a dependency of the JSONStream package we’re using) is complaining about an invalid UTF-8 character.

Interesting!


At this point, I have a hunch. Is the data being returned by our proxy service utf-8 encoded?

To find out, I fired up Postman and made a request to the proxy server to pull down the first of the large JSON documents. Interestingly, the HTTP response wasn’t specifying a character encoding, but it was returning a Content-Type of application/json which implies a default encoding of utf-8.

Let’s put this implication to the test.

We can use xxd to dump the raw hex of the JSON document being returned by the proxy service (after saving it to disk):


0074f60: 2042 4f4f 4749 4520 4341 46c9 222c 2244   BOOGIE CAF.","D

Our JSON parser is failing at the D at the end of this line. To verify that this is actually utf-8 encoded text, we’ll copy the relevant hex values for the line into a buffer in a new Node.js program:


let buffer = Buffer.from([
    0x43, // 'C'
    0x41, // 'A'
    0x46, // 'F'
    0xc9, // 'É'
    0x22, // '"'
    0x2c, // ','
    0x22, // '"'
    0x44, // 'D'
]);

Next, we can print the buffer, decoding it as utf-8:


console.log(buffer.toString('utf-8'));

This gives us:


CAF�

The wrong character…

Digging deeper, I realized that the proxy service was mangling the response headers of the external service it was proxying for. Thankfully, this was an easy fix.

Soon the Content-Type header of the newly-fixed proxy service revealed that the JSON documents were encoded with ISO-8859-1 (which Node.js refers to as latin1).


console.log(buffer.toString('latin1'));

Decoding our buffer with latin1 gives us…


CAFÉ

The right character! Victory!

Well, not really; our application is still broken. At least we know that we’re dealing with latin1 encoded text, not utf-8.

Going Spelunking

So now we know that the stream we’re passing into JSONStream, and ultimately jsonparse is latin1 encoded, not utf-8 encoded.

Why is this a problem?

Taking a look at the jsonparse source, we can see quite a few places where the code is making the assumption that any data streamed in will be utf-8 encoded.

Let’s trace through this code and find out what happens when it processes our latin1-encoded É character (remember, É has a hex value of 0xc9 and a decimal value of 201).

Let’s assume we’re in the process of working through a streamed in buffer. Our É character is within a JSON string, so we’d be in the STRING1 state when we encounter it. Let’s also assume we have no bytes_remaining for now.

The value of É is greater than 128 (201), so we’d fall into the “parse multi byte” block. Because É (201) is greater than 194 and less than 223, bytes_in_sequence would be set to 2. A few lines later, this 2 in bytes_in_sequence prompts jsonparse to swallow the next two bytes (",) from the buffer and include them as part of the current string.

Unfortunately, one of the characters that’s mistakenly swallowed is the JSON string’s terminating quote. The parser happily continues on until it finds another quote, the opening quote for the "DEF" string, and uses that as the closing quote for the current string.

At this point, the parser expects a valid starting character like a comma or a closing bracket. Instead, it finds our ill-fated D and throws a familiar exception:


Error: Invalid JSON (Unexpected "D" at position 2762 in state STOP)

Interestingly, the value of the wrongly-encoded character affects the behavior of this bug.

For example, if we were to pass in a non-breaking space with a latin1 character code of 160, an Invalid UTF-8 exception would be thrown.

Similarly, a character like ð with a latin1 character code of 240 would result in four characters being swallowed by the parser.

Fixing the Issue

Now that we know what the problem is, fixing it is simple. We’re streaming ISO-8859-1, or latin1 encoded data from our proxy service, but our streaming JSON parser expects the data to be utf-8 encoded.

We’ll need to re-encode our data into utf-8 before passing it into our parser.

This sounds daunting, but thankfully libraries like iconv-lite make it a very simple process. Especially when you’re using streams.

Assuming that our original setup looks something like this:


getDocumentStream(...)
    .pipe(JSONStream.parse('*'));

We can easily pipe our document stream through a conversion stream before handing it off to our parser:


getDocumentStream(...)
    .pipe(iconv.decodeStream('ISO-8859-1'))
    .pipe(JSONStream.parse('*'));

And with that, all is right in the world. Everything works as expected, and we can get back to bigger and better things.

Final Thoughts

So in hindsight, was this a bug?

Probably not.

Neither the JSONStream documentation nor the jsonparse documentation make it explicit that your stream needs to be utf-8 encoded, but this seems like a reasonable assumption on their end.

Instead, I think this was a complicated set of misunderstandings and faulty assumptions that led to some bizarre, but technically correct behavior.

The moral of the story is that if you’re dealing with strings, you need to know how they’re encoded. Most developers keep string encodings out of sight and out of mind, but when things go wrong they can lead to time consuming and confusing bugs.

Next time you’re in Memphis, be sure to stop by RUM BOOGIE CAFÉ,"D!