As I continue my career in code, I’ve come to find the most important part of my practice is also the least visible: how I learn. There are beautiful moments when I know exactly how to do something and just need to implement it so I’ll pour myself a cup of coffee, put Firestarter on repeat, and watch my beautiful code unfurl down the screen as fast as I can type it. These moments, though, are not typical.

Most of the time, I am discovering a new problem I do not yet know how to solve, within a domain or technology I have not yet experienced, and to solve the problem i have to first understand it. Here my coding life is a bit quieter and boring to watch: I’ll pour myself a cup of tea, put Firestarter(lo-fi ambient remix) on repeat, and start poring through reference docs and tutorials and writing “TODO: FIGURE OUT WHAT {X} MEANS” in my expanding network of notes.

This work is crucial for code, but often unseen, happening silently in the space between git commits. And so, to celebrate this work and make it more visible, we’ll be posting periodic learning updates on this blog. These are written as honest checkpoints taken mid-understanding, so while they are hopefully illuminating, they should not be read as any sort of authoratative guide.

Sweet as, let’s set a checkpoint! Right now, I’m learning all about gRPC and protocol buffers and am quite excited about everything I’ve found.

#gRPC: what’s it mean?

gRPC stands for (google)Remote Procedure Call. It is an evolution of Remote Procedure Calls, which is one of the primary models of api design (the other being REST). So RPC involves specifying how clients and servers should communicate with one another, but using a completely different paradigm than REST. One of the most immediate distinctions, for me, is with REST you have paths on the server that you make requests to, whereas with RPC it’s more like methods of a server interface that you can call. This is the “remote procedure” aspect of the design, where on the client’s side, the communication feels like running functions directly on the server.

The way gRPC operates, sort of the material of the design, is with protocol buffers. And so to learn gRPC you want to have a good understanding of protocol buffers (or protobuf) first.

#Protocol Buffers: What do they mean?

Protocol Buffers are another creation of Google, and are a way to define and serialize data. They tackle the same problem as XML or JSON, but in a much different way.

Protocol buffers work by defining a fully typed contract for your API in a .proto file, which is then used to generate source code and compile your data into streamable bytes. So the data being passed along is binary instead of text-based, but the specification of this data is extremely readable, and can easily generate introspective tools and documentation.

Proto buffers also feel distinct in that they were designed with modern technology and modern paradigms. So they work with HTTP/2 and work extremely well for micro-services architectures utilizing streams of data. This HTTP/2 requirement also means, though, that they cannot be consumed direclty by a web browser.

#Well-Known Advantages of gRPC and protobuf

Many of the advantages of gRPC are articulated well on the grpc.io homepage and other blogs and resources. I do not want to reiterate the same points, and will have links to resources I find useful at the bottom of this post. In short, gRPC:

  • saves network bandwidth
  • provides faster and more efficient communication
  • can be used by any language
  • offers client-streaming, server-streaming, and bidirectional streaming services
  • allows for easy evolution and iteration of your api, while keeping backward compatability.
  • has an api contract that is easy to write and understand.

#My favourite things so far about gRPC

Since I am just starting to explore gRPC, I cannot speak well to the system-wide advantages of it and how I find it works in production. There are immediate ergonomic and conceptual advantages to it though that I find quite exciting.

#Writing and Reading API’s

For one, the type definitions makes writing your api, and understanding others, quite simple. You can read a `.proto` file as if it were documentation (and still generate documentation from it). For example, a service that takes a subject and returns a poem would look like this:

syntax = 'proto3';

message Subject {
 string name = 1;
 string mood = 2;
 repeated string keywords = 3;

message Poem {
  string title = 1;
  string body = 2;
  int32 edition = 3;

message PoemGeneratorRequest {
  Subject subject = 1;

message PoemGeneratorResponse {
  Poem poem = 1;

service PoemService {
  rpc PoemGenerator(PoemGeneratorRequest) returns (PoemGeneratorResponse) {};

I found that, with no knowledge of the syntax of protocol buffers, I could understand specs like this immediately. Much of the proto’s syntax is understanble through context clues. You define some messages that are made up of fields with specific types, and then define a services for passing these messages. With protobuf, you work from foundational types that then get increasingly complex while maintaining consistent syntax. This is possible in a REST API too through discipline and convention, but here that discipline is baked into the structure itself.

Also, evolving an API is relatively simple. If I wanted to introduce a new field in my poem subjects, it would look like so:

message Subject {
 string name = 1;
 string mood = 2;
 repeated string keywords = 3;
 string season = 4;

Each field has a default value, which is used if no other value is provided. So services set up for the older api would not pass along the season field, and it’d be interpreted as an empty string. Similarly, if we send messages from the new api to an old service, it will simply drop any field it doesn’t understand. Deprecating fields requires a bit more work, but is equally straightforward. So while you will need to ensure your clients account for default values, gRPC makes it simple to evolve your api without breaking changes.

#Code generation and tool integration

One awesome part of protobuf and gRPC is its code generation. After you’ve defined your API, you can use the program protoc to generate code into several languages. This means much of the logic for my server and client is taken care of for me, and I could focus on the business logic.

protoc outputs to several different languages, but the one I’ve been working with is Go. Go also originated in Google, and you can feel the shared principles and purpose through how well integrated these three services are. The biggest productivity boost for me was the LSP integration. I would define a new service, generate the go code, switch over to my server code and as I started to type the service’s name, my editor would immediately start showing me the methods available to this service and their signatures. It is like having a quiet, eager assistant handing you all your tools as you need them. It also meant that I was immediately working on my code at this strategic higher-level. I was concerned with the structure and flow of data as so much of the implementation code was generated for me.

#Reflection and Introspection

Lastly, a quality of gRPC that makes it real exciting to learn is in the ease of its introspection. The typed nature of protobuf allows for easy, consistent integration with a range of tools beyond your own services. I saw that immediately with the LSP integration and emacs, but was truly chuffed when I discovered the Evans CLI . If you have reflection enabled on your server, which is straightforward to do, then you can immediately start communicating with it using Evans. Evans reminded me a bit of the postgres client `psql`, which is one of my favourite tools. With both, use a simple set of commands to investigate and richly describe the service you’re building in a repl environment. It turns the development of your services into this dynamic, tangible experience that rewards curiosity.

I know I have a lot to learn about gRPC, but I am immediately pleased, and grateful, that the framework has so many features that makes the learning experience rewarding and fun.


I’ve found the following online resources useful for getting into the why’s and how’s of gRPC and protobuf: