BEAM File Format

BEAM file format is binary chunked file format, which contains multiple named sections and has a header.

  • Read 4 bytes of a .beam file: 'FOR1' (marks IFF container).
  • Read U32/big length (so many more bytes must be available in the file)
  • Read 4 bytes 'BEAM' marking a BEAM file section of an IFF file.


Repeat until end of file:

  • Read 4 bytes chunk name (for example can be: Atom, Code, CatT, FunT, ExpT, LitT, StrT, ImpT, Line, Abst and possibly other chunks). Do a sanity check: Must contain ASCII letters.

  • Read U32/big chunk length. This is the data size.

  • Perform chunk-dependent reading (see subsections below)

  • To find next chunk, pad the length to the multiple of ALIGN=4

    file_pos += ALIGN * ((chunk_length + ALIGN - 1) / ALIGN);

“Atom” and “AtU8” - Atoms Table

Both tables have same format and same limitations (256 bytes max length) except that bytes in strings are treated either as latin1 or utf8.

  • Read U32/big atoms count.
  • For each atom: read byte length, followed by characters

Atoms[0] is a module name from -module(M). attribute.

“Code” - Compiled Bytecode

  • Read U32/big code version (must match emulator’s own version)
  • Read U32/big max opcode, U32/big label count, U32/big fun count
  • Read the code as a block. Format is discussed at BEAM Code Section Format.

“Abst” - Abstract Syntax Tree

Optional section which contains term_to_binary encoded AST tree.

A quick way to get Abst section (if it exists):

get_abst(Filename) ->
    Chunks = beam_lib:all_chunks(Filename),
    Abst = proplists:get_value("Abst", element(3, Chunks)),

“CatT” - Catch Table

Contains catch labels nicely lined up and marking try/catch blocks. This section description is INCOMPLETE and UNTESTED.

  • Read U32/big count
  • Read array of count U32/big offsets or labels (not sure).

“FunT” - Function/Lambda Table

Contains pointers to functions in the module.

  • Read U32/big count

Until the count do:

  • Read U32/big fun_atom_index (name by index from atom table), U32/big arity, U32/big offset (code position), U32/big index, U32/big nfree (frozen values for closures), U32/big ouniq. Sanity check: fun_Atom_index must be in atom table range.

“ExpT” - Exports Table

Encodes exported functions and arity in the -export([]). attribute.

  • Read U32/big count

Until the count do:

  • Read U32/big export name atom index. Sanity check: atom table range.
  • Read U32/big arity, U32/big label (offset in BEAM code section, should be translated into the loaded code offset).

“LitT” - Literals Table

Contains all the constants in file which are larger than 1 machine Word. It is compressed using zip Deflate.

  • Read U32/big uncompressed size (prepare output buffer of this size). Run zip inflate (uncompress) on the data.

Inside the uncompressed data:

  • Read U32/big value count

Until the value count do:

  • Skip U32/big
  • Read byte ext term format marker (must be 131)
  • Read tag byte, ... (follow the documentation)

Values are encoded using the external term format. A better reference is in the standard documentation

“ImpT” - Imports Table

Encodes imported functions in the -import([]). attribute.

  • Read U32/big count

Until the count do:

  • Read U32/big module atom index, U32/big function atom index, U32/big arity

“LocT” - Local Functions

Essentially same as the export table format ExpT for local functions.

  • Read U32/big count

Until the count do:

  • Read U32/big func atom index, U32/big arity, U32/big location (label)

“Line” - Line Numbers Table

Encodes line numbers mapping to give better error reporting and code navigation for the program user.

  • Read U32/big version (must match emulator’s own version 0).
  • Skip U32/big flags
  • Read U32/big line_instr_count, U32/big num_line_refs, U32/big num_filenames
  • Store invalid location const as Word[] linerefs first element which points at file #0, line 0.
  • Set fname_index = 0, this is index in file name table, empty now

Until the num_line_refs do:

  • Parse term at read position (see BEAM Term format)
  • If the term is a small integer, push a pair of (fname_index, value) to the linerefs array.
  • If the term is an atom, use its numeric value as new fname_index. Sanity check: value must be under num_filenames.

Until the num_filenames do (fill the file names table):

  • Read U16/big name size
  • Read string of bytes
  • Convert string to an atom and push into file names table

“StrT” - Strings Table

What I’ve been able to see from the compiler source, is that this is a huge binary with all concatenated strings from the Erlang parsed AST (syntax tree). Everything {string, X} goes here. There are no size markers or separators between strings, so this part is confusing and requires more code reading.

Consider compiler application in standard library, files: beam_asm, beam_dict (record #asm{} field strings), and beam_disasm.

“Attr” - Attributes

Contains two parts: a proplist of module attributes, encoded as External Term Format, and a compiler info (options and version) encoded similarly.

BEAM Compact Term Encoding

BEAM file uses a special encoding to store simple terms in BEAM file in a space-efficient way. It is different from memory term layout, used by BEAM VM.

The idea is to stick as many type and value data into the 1st byte as possible:

7 6 5 4 3 | 2 1 0
          | 0 0 0 — Literal
          | 0 0 1 — Integer
          | 0 1 0 — Atom
          | 0 1 1 — X Register
          | 1 0 0 — Y Register
          | 1 0 1 — Label
          | 1 1 0 — Character
0 0 0 1 0 | 1 1 1 — Extended — Float
0 0 1 0 0 | 1 1 1 — Extended — List
0 0 1 1 0 | 1 1 1 — Extended — Floating point register
0 1 0 0 0 | 1 1 1 — Extended — Allocation list
0 1 0 1 0 | 1 1 1 — Extended — Literal


In OTP 20 the Floats are encoded as literals, and every other extended code is shifted, i.e. List becomes 1 (0b10111), Float register becomes 2 (0b100111), alloc list becomes 3 (0b110111) and literal becomes 4 (0b1000111).

It uses first 3 bits of a first byte as a tag to specify the type of the following value. If the bits were all 1 (special value 7), then few more bits are used.

For values under 16 the value is placed entirely into bits 4-5-6-7 having bit 3 set to 0:

7 6 5 4 | 3 | 2 1 0
Value>> | 0 | Tag>>

For values under 16#800 (2048) bit 3 is set to 1, marks that 1 continuation byte will be used and 3 most significant bits of the value will extend into this byte’s bits 5-6-7:

7 6 5 | 4 3 | 2 1 0
Value | 0 1 | Tag>>

Larger and negative values are first converted to bytes. Then if the value takes 2..8 bytes, bits 3-4 will be set to 1, and bits 5-6-7 will contain the (Bytes-2) size for the value, which follows:

7  6  5 | 4 3 | 2 1 0
Bytes-2 | 1 1 | Tag>>

If the following value is greater than 8 bytes, then all bits 3-4-5-6-7 will be set to 1, followed by a nested encoded unsigned ?tag_u value of (Bytes-9):8, and then the data:

7 6 5 4 3 | 2 1 0
----------+------ Followed by nested encoded int (Size-9)
1 1 1 1 1 | Tag>>

See also

Refer to beam_asm:encode/2 in the compiler application for details about how this is encoded. Tag values are presented in this section, but also can be found in compiler/src/beam_opcodes.hrl.

Base and Extended Tag

Let’s parse the value of tag:

  • Read a byte and extract its least 3 bits. This is the base tag. It can be Literal=0, Integer=1, Atom=2, XRegister=3, YRegister=4, Label=5, Character=6, Extended=7.
  • If the base tag was Extended=7, then bits 4-5-6-7 PLUS 7 will become the extended tag. It can have values Float=8, List=9, FloatReg=10, AllocList=11, Literal=12.

A badly written and incomplete Github example of reading signed word routine used to read signed words later:

A badly written and incomplete Github example of parsing a small integer: (used to read SmallInt values later).

Reading the Value

This is the logic, as was decoded from source code of BEAM VM and Ling VM. It looks at the bits in slightly different order.

  • Look into the first byte read, bit 3:

    • Bit 3 is 1, so look into bit 4:

      • Bit is 1: Use remaining 3 bits of the byte as byte length
        (if under 7 - read N+2 bytes into signed words, if the value is 7 - then length is larger than that and we have to read length first – it follows as ?tag_u=0 (Literal) nested unsigned value)
      • Bit 4 is 0: use remaining 3 bits + 8 more bits of the following byte
    • Bit #3 = 0: Use remaining 4 bits

Now how to parse an encoded term:

  • Read a SmallInt, case tag of:
    • Tag=Integer: use the value (signed?)
    • Tag=Literal: use smallint value as index in LitT table.
    • Tag=Atom: use smallint value MINUS 1 as index in the atom table. 0 smallint means NIL [].
    • Tag=Label: use as label index, or 0 means invalid value.
    • Tag=XRegister, Tag=YRegister: use as register index.
    • Tag=Character (an Unicode symbol): use val as unsigned.
    • Tag=Extended List: contains pairs of terms. Read smallint Size. Create tuple of Size, which will contain Size/2 values. For Size/2 do: read and parse a term (case of value), read a small int (label index), place them into the tuple.

BEAM Code Section Format

Code section in BEAM file contains list of instructions and arguments. To read an encoded term see BEAM Term format.

  • Read a byte, this is opcode (R19 has 158 base opcodes). Opcode is converted into a label address (for threaded interpreter) or a pointer to handler function.
  • Query opcode table and get arity for this opcode.
  • Until arity: parse term and put it into the output one term or word at a time. VM loop will read the opcode later and expect that arity args will follow it.
  • If any of the parsed terms was a label value, remember its output position to later revisit it and overwrite with actual label address in memory (it is not known until code parsing is done).