IPLD Schema Kinds

Extending the IPLD Data Model

Data Model Kinds

IPLD Schemas define a set of "kinds" that are built upon the IPLD Data Model. The Data Model defines the basic set of data types (kinds) that are easily representable by common programming languages and are supportable by expressive serialization formats such as JSON and CBOR. The Data Model defines its list of kinds as:

Schema Kinds

IPLD Schemas, while built upon the data model, enables the definition of data structures that give us new discrete kinds, thus extending the Data Model Kinds into a new list of Schema Kinds:

Blocks encoded with the raw codec are considered valid Bytes kinds. You can refer to the codec specifications to see how other kinds are encoded in each codec.

We define "Recursive Kinds" as the kinds that are comprised of other kinds: List, Map, Union, Struct, and Enum. These kinds provide the primary mechanism through which IPLD Schemas can be used to describe non-trivial data structures.

Further, we define Copy as a "Meta Kind" because it is useful for simplifying schema authoring and/or increasing the descriptiveness of a schema for the purpose of documentation. It exists only within schema tooling and is not exposed to user-facing code or data.


As a Schema Kind, Lists have more restrictions in the data they can contain. In the data model, a List is defined simply as a list of arbitrary data model kinds with no strict restrictions that may require uniformity. At the schema layer, a List is defined as a list of one specific schema type. For example, type Foo [String] defines a list of Strings, and only matches a list of Strings. This restriction isn't as limiting as it may appear because Unions allow for significant flexibility, particularly in the case of kinded Unions.


Similar to List, a Map at the schema layer requires a strict definition of the value types. The data model dictates that IPLD only supports string keys, so any type used as keys in schema Maps must be represented as strings. The value types have the same restrictions as for List element types. For example, type Bar {String:Float} matches a map with Float values, and only Float values. But as in List, Unions allow for additional flexibility in the data model kinds that may appear as values.


Unions are represented as a Map in the data model for keyed, envelope and inline representations, and varying data model kinds for kinded unions, as described by the page on Representation Strategies.


Structs are represented as a Map in the data model by default but may be used to describe String and List encodings, as described by the page on Representation Strategies.


Enums are represented as either a String or Int in the data model, as described by the page on Representation Strategies.


Copy is a Meta Kind that indicates that a type should be implemented and encoded the same as another type but with an alternate name. This is a short-hand to avoid defining multiple types of the same shape and encoding but with different names.

Value Type Modifiers

Values and fields in recursive types can have modifiers. These modifiers are:

Nullable Values

The nullable modifier means that either the modified type may be present, or its place may be occupied by the null value.

The nullable modifier is valid on map values, list values, and struct fields.

The presence of a nullable modifier increases the cardinality of a field's valid members by one -- see the "Cardinality Examples" table below.

Optional Fields

The optional modifier means that either the modified type may be present, or it may be missing entirely in the data. This is distinct from null: for example, in a map, optionality regards if the key is missing, in contrast to the key being present but with a value of null.

The optional modifier is only valid on struct fields (and only for some representation strategies; structs represented as maps and structs represented as lists have slightly different optionality semantics (e.g. list-based representations may only allow optionals at the beginning and end of the list)).

The presence of an optional modifier increases the cardinality of a field's valid members by one -- see the "Cardinality Examples" table below.

The optional modifier may be stacked with the nullable modifier.

Fields with Implicit Values

An implicit modifier declares that when a field is found absent in data, it should instead be treated as some other value in the domain. At the same time, if an application sets the field to that value, it will be mapped to absence of that field when represented.

Implicit values may be considered similar to "defaults" -- and if you're looking for defaults, you should look at implicits -- but we've chosen a distinctive name for implicits because "defaults" are often a one-way conversion; whereas we've designed the implicit value system specifically to work bidirectionally -- both during serialization and deserialization -- without losing information.

It may be interesting to note that implicits are a concept that resides in the representation clause rather than the type definition clause. This is the case because implicits do not change the cardinality of the type (see the Understanding Cardinality table later in this document for more examples of what this means, and how it compares in semantics with the other modifiers). As a representational rather than type definition feature, the syntactic position for an implicit declaration is on the end of the line declaring a field, and in parenthesis (the same as where the 'rename' and other representation-level directives can be found).

The precise semantics of implicit values may vary per representation strategy; the discussion here is only for the general pattern, and you should also refer to the reference documentation for representation strategies for more details specific to the representations strategies you use.

Combining Nullable, Optional, and Implicit

The nullable and optional modifiers may be freely combined without issue, as may be the nullable and implicit modifiers.

It is not valid to combine the optional and implicit modifiers -- since both regard behavior around struct fields when the data is absent in the serial form, it only makes sense to use exclusively one or the other on a field.

There may be additional restrictions on whether optional and implicit modifiers may be used on a struct field based on what kind of representation strategy the struct has. For example, optional and implicit cannot be used in fields in the middle of a struct when the representation is as tuple, because this could make parsing ambiguous. The reference documentation for representation strategies should provide more detailed information on this.

Choosing between Optional and Implicit

Use implicit when the absence of a value should be treated as another value that fits unambiguously into your domain; use optional when there's no such in-domain value.

For example, if you have some integer field, and if 0 is distinctive from from the field being absent, use optional. If 0 (or some other value of your choice like -1) can be used as a sentinel value in your application logic, while not being serialized as such, then you may wish to consider using implicit.

One usage pattern to particularly note: imagine writing a schema for defining configuration that a user may provide, and it has some concept of "defaults". If your application also needs to be able to remember whether a value was the default or explicitly user-provided (e.g. to re-emit the config without altering this), you want to use optional! In this situation, implicit may cause the provided value to be lost at the application-layer if it was equal to the default, whereas optional will expose and correctly preserve the value's presense or absence.

Understanding Cardinality

For more information on cardinality and the basics of how we reason about it, check out the Type Theory Glossary from the Design Concepts documentation.

Cardinality Examples

These examples show how we count cardinality in IPLD Schemas in the presence of the nullable and optional keywords:

Schema Valid Matching Representations Cardinality Comments
type Foo struct {
bar Bool
{"bar": true}
{"bar": false}
2 The cardinality of `Bool` is 2; the struct has no other members, so that's it.
type Foo struct {
bar nullable Bool
{"bar": true}
{"bar": false}
{"bar": null}
3 2+1. The `nullable` modifier adds one to the cardinality, since a null value is now a valid match.
type Foo struct {
bar optional Bool
{"bar": true}
{"bar": false}
3 2+1. The `optional` modifier adds one to the cardinality, since a map missing the key is now a valid match.
type Foo struct {
bar optional nullable Bool
{"bar": true}
{"bar": false}
{"bar": null}
4 2+1+1. *Each* of the modifiers cumulatively adds one valid matching representation, and thus add one to the cardinality.
type Foo struct {
bar Bool (implicit false)
{"bar": true}
2 Implicit values mean that encoding should never include the value if it's the default/implicit value. That means the set of valid representations *changes*, but it doesn't *grow* because one representation becomes invalid at the same time as a new representation is added.

Note also that the `implicit` keyword is in parens -- a slightly different syntax than how `optional` and `nullable` are used. This is because it's a representational change; not a type change. Representational annotations are denoted in parens, like this.