Go: Introduction to Protobuf: Messages

In it’s most basic ways, protocol buffers or protobufs are an approach to serialize structured data with minimal overhead. They require that the data structures be known and compatible between the client and server, unlike JSON where the structure itself is part of the encoding.

Protobufs and Go

The most basic protobuf message definition would look something like this:

message ListThreadRequest {
	// session info
	string sessionID = 1;

	// pagination
	uint32 pageNumber = 2;
	uint32 pageSize = 3;

The above message structure specifies the field names, types, and it’s order in the encoded binary structure. Managing the structure has a few requirements that mean different things, if the structures are used as protobufs, or as JSON encoded data.

For example, this is the protoc generated code for this message:

type ListThreadRequest struct {
	// session info
	SessionID string `protobuf:"bytes,1,opt,name=sessionID,proto3" json:"sessionID,omitempty"`
	// pagination
	PageNumber           uint32   `protobuf:"varint,2,opt,name=pageNumber,proto3" json:"pageNumber,omitempty"`
	PageSize             uint32   `protobuf:"varint,3,opt,name=pageSize,proto3" json:"pageSize,omitempty"`
	XXX_NoUnkeyedLiteral struct{} `json:"-"`
	XXX_unrecognized     []byte   `json:"-"`
	XXX_sizecache        int32    `json:"-"`

In the development process, managing the protobuf messages in a forward compatible way, there are some rules to follow:

  • Adding new fields is not a breaking change,
  • Removing fields is not a breaking change,
  • Don’t re-use a field number (breaks existing protobuf clients),
  • Don’t re-number fields (breaks existing protobuf clients),
  • Renaming fields is not a breaking change for protobuf,
  • Renaming fields is a breaking change for JSON,
  • Changing field types is a breaking change for protobuf, mostly JSON as well,
  • Numeric type changes e.g. uint16 to uint32 are generally safe for JSON,
  • JSON and uint64 isn’t fine if you need to use your APIs from javascript

So, basically, if you’re relying on changing the protobuf message definitions during your development process, you’ll need to keep the client(s) up to date with the server. This is especially important later, if you use the protobuf API with mobile clients (Android and iPhone apps), since making breaking changes to the API is going to hurt you there. Adding new fields or deleting old fields is the safest way to make changes to the API, as the protobufs definitions stay compatible.

Generating Protobuf Go code

In this series of articles, I’m going to build out a real world microservice, that tracks and aggregates view data for a number of services. It doesn’t need authentication and is in it’s definition a true microservice, as it will only need a single API endpoint.

We will create our stats microservice, by creating a rpc/stats/stats.proto file to begin with.

syntax = "proto3";

package stats;

option go_package = "github.com/titpetric/microservice/rpc/stats";

message PushRequest {
	string property = 1;
	uint32 section = 2;
	uint32 id = 3;

message PushResponse {}

Here a proto3 version is declared. The important parts are the go_package option: with this an import path is defined for our service, which is useful if another service wants to import and use the message definitions here. Reusability is a protobuf built-in feature.

Since we don’t want to do things half-way, we’re going to approach our microservice with a CI-first approach. Using Drone CI is a great option for using a CI from the beginning, as it’s drone/drone-cli doesn’t need a CI service set up, and you can just run the CI steps locally by running drone exec.

In order to set up out microservice build framework, we need:

  1. Drone CI drone-cli installed
  2. A docker environment with protoc and protoc-gen-go installed,
  3. A Makefile to help us out for the long run
  4. A .drone.yml config files with the build steps for generating go code,

Installing Drone CI

Installing drone-cli is very simple. You can run the following if you’re on an amd64 linux host, otherwise just visit the drone/drone-cli releases page and pull the version relevant for you and unpack it into /usr/local/bin or your common executable path.

cd /usr/local/bin
wget https://github.com/drone/drone-cli/releases/download/v1.2.0/drone_linux_amd64.tar.gz
tar -zxvf drone*.tar.gz && rm drone*.tar.gz

Creating a build environment

Drone CI works by running CI steps you declare in .drone.yml in your provided Docker environment. For our build environment, I’ve created docker/build/, and inside a Dockerfile and a Makefile to assist with building and publishing the build image required for our case:

FROM golang:1.13

# install protobuf
ENV PB_VER 3.10.1
ENV PB_URL https://github.com/google/protobuf/releases/download/v${PB_VER}/protoc-${PB_VER}-linux-x86_64.zip

RUN apt-get -qq update && apt-get -qqy install curl git make unzip gettext rsync

RUN mkdir -p /tmp/protoc && \
    curl -L ${PB_URL} > /tmp/protoc/protoc.zip && \
    cd /tmp/protoc && \
    unzip protoc.zip && \
    cp /tmp/protoc/bin/protoc /usr/local/bin && \
    cp -R /tmp/protoc/include/* /usr/local/include && \
    chmod go+rx /usr/local/bin/protoc && \
    cd /tmp && \
    rm -r /tmp/protoc

# Get the source from GitHub
RUN go get -u google.golang.org/grpc

# Install protoc-gen-go
RUN go get -u github.com/golang/protobuf/protoc-gen-go

And the Makefile, implementing make && make push to quickly build and push our image to the docker registry. The image is published under titpetric/microservice-build, but I suggest you manage your own image here.

.PHONY: all docker push test

IMAGE := titpetric/microservice-build

all: docker

	docker build --rm -t $(IMAGE) .

	docker push $(IMAGE)

	docker run -it --rm $(IMAGE) sh

Creating a Makefile helper

It’s very easy to run drone exec, but our requirements will grow over time and the Drone CI steps will become more complex and harder to manage. Using a Makefile enables us to add more complex targets which we will run from Drone with time. Currently we can start with a minimal Makefile which just wraps a call to drone exec:

.PHONY: all

	drone exec

This very simple Makefile means that we’ll be able to build our project with Drone CI at any time just by running make. We will extend it over time to support new requirements, but for now we’ll just make sure it’s available to us.

Creating a Drone CI config

With this, we can define our initial .drone.yml file that will build our Protobuf struct definitions, as well as perform some maintenance on our codebase:

  base: /microservice

kind: pipeline
name: build

- name: test
  image: titpetric/microservice-build
  pull: always
    - protoc --proto_path=$GOPATH/src:. -Irpc/stats --go_out=paths=source_relative:. rpc/stats/stats.proto
    - go mod tidy > /dev/null 2>&1
    - go mod download > /dev/null 2>&1
    - go fmt ./... > /dev/null 2>&1

The housekeeping done is for our go.mod/go.sum files, as well as running go fmt on our codebase.

The first step defined under the commands: is our protoc command that will generate the Go definitions for our declared messages. In the folder where our stats.proto file lives, a stats.pb.go file will be created, with structures for each declared message {}.

Wrapping up

So, what we managed to achieve here:

  • we created our CI build image with our protoc code generation environment,
  • we are using Drone CI as our local build service, enabling us to migrate to a hosted CI in the future,
  • we created a protobuf definition for our microservice message structures,
  • we generated the appropriate Go code for encoding/decoding the protobuf messages

From here on out, we will move towards implementing a RPC service.

This article is part of a Advent of Go Microservices book. I’ll be publishing one article each day leading up to christmas. Please consider buying the ebook to support my writing, and reach out to me with feedback which can make the articles more useful for you.

All the articles from the series are listed on the advent2019 tag.

While I have you here...

It would be great if you buy one of my books:

I promise you'll learn a lot more if you buy one. Buying a copy supports me writing more about similar topics. Say thank you and buy my books.

Feel free to send me an email if you want to book my time for consultancy/freelance services. I'm great at APIs, Go, Docker, VueJS and scaling services, among many other things.