Breaking Out of Deeply Nested JSON Objects

Published August 30, 2017 · 5 Minute Read · ∞ Permalink

A reader of the JSON Survival Kit wrote me with a question (lightly edited):

I’ve got a JSON string that works fine in JavaScript:

  "Site1": {
    "PC1": {
      "ip": "x.x.x.x",
      "version": "3"
    "PC2": {
      "ip": "x.x.x.x",
      "version": "3"
  "Site2": {
    "PC1": {
      "ip": "x.x.x.x",
      "version": "3"
    "PC2": {
      "ip": "x.x.x.x",
      "version": "3"

I really can’t figure out how to parse this–will your book help with nested JSON where the keys are different 2 or 3 levels deep?

If not, then I’ll just give up on Elm–as this is the first project that I’m trying to do, and something as basic as this, I’m finding impossible.

The biggest mindset shift you need to succeed with JSON Decoding is to think of your decoders like bricks. (I’ve written about this before, and it’s chapter 1 of The JSON Survival Kit.) You can combine bricks to build whatever you like; the same is true of decoders!

Fixing the Problems We Have Now

Ok, are you thinking in bricks? Good!

Now first, let’s look at the structure of the JSON to get our blueprint. This object has three levels:

  1. A mapping of the names of sites or datacenters to…
  2. A mapping of the names of computers to…
  3. Metadata about those computers.

The innermost object (metadata) is the easiest here, so we’ll start with that. It’s an object with two fields which don’t change. Let’s call it machine and define a record to go with it:

import Json.Decode exposing (map2, string)

type alias Machine =
    { ip : String
    , version : String

machine : Decoder Machine
machine =
    map2 Machine
        (field "ip" string)
        (field "version" string)

After that, we have a mapping of machine names to their metadata. This is another easy place to get stuck! When you get started in Elm, you tend to think of records as JavaScript objects. Despite the similarities, you can’t do this with Elm’s records. They’re flexible, but don’t combine key-value and structural semantics the way JavaScript objects do.

Elm does, however, have a first-class representation of key-value data structure: Dict. Even better, Json.Decode.dict provides an easy way for us to map the keys of a JSON object into a Dict. We only need to give it a decoder for the value:

import Dict exposing (Dict)
import Json.Decode exposing (dict)

machines : Decoder (Dict String Machine)
machines =
    dict machine

We’ll do the same thing for the sites:

sites : Decoder (Dict String (Dict String Machine))
sites =
    dict machines

That’s it! We can also make this a little smaller by defining sites as dict (dict machine) and removing machines.

Moving Beyond This JSON Object

To get this to work for your own problem, you first need to change your mindset to think in small combined JSON blocks instead of a huge blob. Seriously, this is the most important thing to do! You can follow any other advice mechanically and not understand the result without getting this first.

Before I did anything else, I formatted the JSON to get a feel for the structure. I like to use jq for this, but the tool itself doesn’t matter as much as the formatting. You want to be able to look at the structure of your JSON object, not the keys themselves. This is because Json.Decode works with the structure of your data, not necessarily the values. You’ll need to think in terms of that structure to write a good decoder.

After you get that structure start with the innermost object. If the innermost object changes a lot, start with the one that changes the least. Write the decoder for something smaller and compose it instead of starting with an enormous blob. Then put that little bit into the next largest object, and the next, and so on until you’re done.

Sometimes the object that changes the least is the outermost object! If that’s the case, it may make sense to decode the inner values with Json.Decode.value. It will encode Value, which you can’t use directly. But, it’s a useful placeholder to verify that you’re doing the right thing as you break down your structure.

(Update: here is another post about breaking down JSON objects from the bottom up in this way!)

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