Go: Introduction to Protobuf: Services

The next step (or possibly the first step) about implementing a microservice, is defining it’s API endpoints. What people usually do is write http handlers and resort to a routing framework like go-chi/chi. But, protocol buffers can define your service, as RPC calls definitions are built into the protobuf schema.

Protobuf service definitions

Protobuf files may define a service object, which has definitions for one or many rpc calls. Let’s extend our proto definitions for stats.proto, by including a service with a defined RPC.

service StatsService {
	rpc Push(PushRequest) returns (PushResponse);

A RPC method is defined with the rpc keyword. The service definition here declares a RPC named Push, which takes a message PushRequest as it’s input, and returns the message PushResponse as it’s output. All RPC definitions should follow the same naming pattern as a best practice. This way you can extend PushRequest and PushResponse, without introducing breaking changes to the RPC definition as well.

Updating the .proto file definitions in our project by default doesn’t change anything. We need to generate a RPC scaffold using a RPC framework. For Go RPCs, we can consider gRPC from the beginning, or we can look towards a more simple Twitch RPC aka. Twirp.

Common reasons for choosing Twirp over gRPC are as follows:

  • Twirp comes with HTTP 1.1 support (vendors need to catch up to HTTP/2 still),
  • Twirp supports JSON transport out of the gate,
  • gRPC re-implements HTTP/2 outside of net/http,

And reasons for gRPC over Twirp are:

  • gRPC supports streaming (Twirp has an open proposal for streaming APIs)
  • gRPC makes wire compatibility promises (this is built in to protobufs)
  • More functionality on the networking level (retries, rpc discovery,…)

JSON would be the preferable format to demonstrate payloads, especially in terms of inspecting/sharing the payloads in documentation and similar. While gRPC is written by Google, there are many tools that you’d have to add in to make it a bit more developer friendly - grpc-gateway to add HTTP/1.1, and grpcurl to issue json-protobuf bridged requests.

gRPC is a much more rich RPC framework, supporting a wider array of use cases. If you feel that you need RPC streaming or API discovery, or your use cases lay beyond a simple request/response model, gRPC might be your only option.

Our microservice

Let’s first start with Twitch RPC, so we can have a real comparison with gRPC in the next chapter.

About 10 years back I wrote a relatively simple microservice that is basically just tracking news item views. That solution is proving to be unmaintainable 10 years later at best, but still pretty good so it manages 0-1ms/request. It’s also a bit smarter than that, since it tracks a number of assets that aren’t news in the same way. So, effectively the service is tracking views in a multi-tennant way, for a predefined set of applications.

Let’s refresh what our current service definition is:

service StatsService {
	rpc Push(PushRequest) returns (PushResponse);

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

message PushResponse {}

Our StatsService defines a RPC called Push, which takes a message with three parameters:

  • property: the key name for a tracked property, e.g. “news”
  • section: a related section ID for this property (numeric)
  • id: the ID which defines the content being viewed (numeric)

The goal of the service is to log the data in PushRequest, and aggregate it over several time periods. The aggregation itself is needed to provide data sets like “Most read news over the last 6 months”.

Twitch RPC scaffolding

The main client and server code generators for Twitch RPC are listed in the README for twitchtv/twirp. The code generator we will use is available from github.com/twitchtv/twirp/protoc-gen-twirp. We will add this to our dockerfile:

--- a/docker/build/Dockerfile
+++ b/docker/build/Dockerfile
@@ -21,3 +21,6 @@ RUN go get -u google.golang.org/grpc

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

And now we can extend our code generator in the .drone.yml file, by generating the twirp RPC output as well:

--- a/.drone.yml
+++ b/.drone.yml
@@ -10,6 +10,7 @@ steps:
   pull: always
     - protoc --proto_path=$GOPATH/src:. -Irpc/stats --go_out=paths=source_relative:. rpc/stats/stats.proto
+    - protoc --proto_path=$GOPATH/src:. -Irpc/stats --twirp_out=paths=source_relative:. rpc/stats/stats.proto

We run the protoc command twice, but the --twirp_out option could actually be added to the existing command. We will keep this seperate just to help with readability, so we know which command is responsible to generate what. When it comes to the code generator plugins for protoc, there’s a long list of plugins that can generate anything from JavaScript clients to Swagger documentation. As we will add these, we don’t want the specific for generating one type of output to bleed into other generator rules.

The above command will generate a stats.twirp.go file in the same folder as stats.proto file. The important part for our implementation is the following interface:

type StatsService interface {
        Push(context.Context, *PushRequest) (*PushResponse, error)

In order to implement our Twitch RPC service, we need an implementation for this interface. For that, we will look at our own code generation that will help us with this. Particularly, we want to scaffold both the server and the client code that could get updated if our service definitions change.

Up next: we’ll generate a gRPC server with the same proto definition, and look at the implementation changes this brings for us. We will try to attempt to answer which RPC framework will serve us better at the long run, with more concrete examples of the differences between the two.

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.