Serializing Data Like a PHP Session

PHP has several built-in ways of serializing/unserializing data. The most cross-platform is json_encode; pretty much every programming stack can JSON decode data that has been encoded by any other stack. There's also PHP's native serialize function, which is not as cross-platform, but has the added benefit of being able to store and restore PHP objects to their original class.

There's a third, and much lesser known PHP serialization format: the format that PHP uses to store session data. If you have ever popped open a PHP session file, or stored session data in a database, you may have noticed that this serialization looks very similar to the serialize function's output, but it is not the same.

Recently, I needed to serialize data so that it looked like PHP session data (don't ask why; I highly suggest not doing this if it can be avoided.) It turns out, PHP has a function that encodes data in this format: session_encode. Great! I'll just pass my array of data to it and...

Oh wait. session_encode doesn't accept any arguments. You can't pass data to it. It just takes whatever is in the $_SESSION superglobal and serializes it. There is no built-in function in all of PHP that will serialize arbitrary data for you the same way that it would be serialized into a session.

There are a few userland implementations of PHP's built-in session serialization, mainly built around string splitting and regexes. All of them handle scalar values; some handle single-level arrays. None of them handle nested arrays and objects, and some have trouble if your data contains certain characters that are used in the encoding.

So I came up with my own functions for reading/writing arbitrary session data without overwriting the existing session. (Edit: I later noticed that a few people suggest a similar method in the comments on the PHP manual pages for session_encode and session_decode.):

Using these functions requires there to be an active session (session_start must have already been called.) Edit: Thanks to Rasmus Schultz for also pointing out that session_encode might be disabled on some systems due to security concerns.

PHP already has a built-in way to serialize and unserialize session data. The problem is that it only serializes from and unserializes into the PHP $_SESSION global. We probably don't want to overwrite the current $_SESSION. We hold a copy of whatever data is already in $_SESSION, then use it to perform our data serialization, then restore it afterwards. And because we're using PHP's built-in session serialization, we get nested array and object serialization for free, and we didn't have to write our own parser.