What is protocol buffers?

Protocol Buffers is a method of serializing structured data. It is useful in developing programs to communicate with each other over a wire or for storing data. The method involves an interface description language that describes the structure of some data and a program that generates source code from that description for generating or parsing a stream of bytes that represents the structured data.

Google developed Protocol Buffers for use internally and has made protocol compilers for C++, Java and Python available to the public under a free software, open source license. Various other language implementations are also available, including C#, JavaScript, Go, Perl, PHP, Ruby, Scala and Julia.

The design goals for Protocol Buffers emphasized simplicity and performance. In particular, it was designed to be smaller and faster than XML.

Protocol Buffers is widely used at Google for storing and interchanging all kinds of structured information. The method serves as a basis for a custom remote procedure call (RPC) system that is used for nearly all inter-machine communication at Google.

A software developer defines data structures (called messages) and services in a proto definition file (.proto) and compiles it with protoc. This compilation generates code that can be invoked by a sender or recipient of these data structures.

The messages are serialized into a binary wire format which is compact, forward- and backward-compatible, but not self-describing (that is, there is no way to tell the names, meaning, or full datatypes of fields without an external specification).

Though the primary purpose of Protocol Buffers is to facilitate network communication.


  1. Install the C++ implementation of protocol buffers from here:
$ git clone https://github.com/google/protobuf
$ cd protobuf
$ ./autogen.sh
$ ./configure
$ make
$ make check
$ make install
  1. Install the Golang packages to work with protocol buffers. I recommend using the gogo protocol buffers fork that is performance optimized. Like most of the go package, we should install it by executing the following commands:
$ go get github.com/gogo/protobuf/proto
$ go get github.com/gogo/protobuf/protoc-gen-gogo
$ go get github.com/gogo/protobuf/gogoproto
$ go get github.com/gogo/protobuf/protoc-gen-gofast

Creating a protocol buffer data structure

Lets create a Company structure that has Name, Address and Employees fields. Also, we should create the corresponding objects as well.

syntax = 'proto2';

package example;

enum CompanyType {
  Private = 17;
  Public = 18;
  NonProfit = 19;

message Company {
  required string Name = 1;
  repeated Employee Employees = 2;
  required CompanyType Type = 3;
  optional group Address = 4 {
    required string Country = 5;
    required string City = 6;
    optional string Street = 7;

message Employee {
  required string Name = 1;
  optional string SSN = 2;

Lets keep the declaration in spec.proto file.

In order to use protocol buffers, you should define a protocol buffer file that declare the messages that are going to be serialized. The protocol buffers provide a syntax for doing that. You can specify whether a field should be optional or required as well. Enumeration types can be defined as well. If you have a message that is used only as property of another message, you can inline the define it by using group declaration.

The protocol buffers supports the common scalar types, strings, enums and slices. Slice fields can be defined as repeated fields.

You can read more about the supported types and syntax in the official documentation.

After we define our messages in spec.proto file, we should generate their Golang representation by executing the following command:

$ protoc --go_out=. spec.proto

The command will generate a spec.pb.go that implements all messages as Golang structs and types:

type CompanyType int32

const (
	CompanyType_Private   CompanyType = 17
	CompanyType_Public    CompanyType = 18
	CompanyType_NonProfit CompanyType = 19

type Company struct {
	Name             *string          `protobuf:"bytes,1,req,name=Name" json:"Name,omitempty"`
	Employees        []*Employee      `protobuf:"bytes,2,rep,name=Employees" json:"Employees,omitempty"`
	Type             *CompanyType     `protobuf:"varint,3,req,name=Type,enum=example.CompanyType" json:"Type,omitempty"`
	Address          *Company_Address `protobuf:"group,4,opt,name=Address" json:"address,omitempty"`
	XXX_unrecognized []byte           `json:"-"`

func (m *Company) Reset()                    { *m = Company{} }
func (m *Company) String() string            { return proto.CompactTextString(m) }
func (*Company) ProtoMessage()               {}
func (*Company) Descriptor() ([]byte, []int) { return fileDescriptor0, []int{0} }

func (m *Company) GetName() string {
	if m != nil && m.Name != nil {
		return *m.Name
	return ""

func (m *Company) GetEmployees() []*Employee {
	if m != nil {
		return m.Employees
	return nil

func (m *Company) GetType() CompanyType {
	if m != nil && m.Type != nil {
		return *m.Type
	return CompanyType_Private

func (m *Company) GetAddress() *Company_Address {
	if m != nil {
		return m.Address
	return nil

You can download the full implementation from here.

Serialization objects

The serialization and deserialization is processed by the proto package, which provides Marshal and Unmarshal functions:

comp := &example.Company{
  Name: proto.String("Example Corp"),
  Address: &example.Company_Address{
    City:    proto.String("London"),
    Country: proto.String("UK"),
  Type: example.CompanyType_Public.Enum(),
  Employees: []*example.Employee{
      Name: proto.String("John"),

data, err := proto.Marshal(comp)
if err != nil {
  log.Fatal("marshaling error: ", err)
serialized := &example.Company{}
err = proto.Unmarshal(data, serialized)
if err != nil {
  log.Fatal("unmarshaling error: ", err)


The advantage of using protocol buffers is that you can develop heterogeneous system in multiple languages and technologies which are communicating via known protocol. It has better performance than standar serialization like JSON.