# So you want to use GoGo Protobuf

## Introduction

In the Go protobuf ecosystem there are two major implementations to choose from. There’s the official golang/protobuf, which uses reflection to marshal and unmarshal structs, and there’s gogo/protobuf, a third party implementation that leverages type-specific marshalling code for extra performance, and has many cool extensions you can use to customize the generated code. gogo/protobuf has been recommended as the best choice of Go serialization library in a large test of different implementations.

Unfortunately, the design of golang/protobuf and the gRPC ecosystem makes it hard to integrate third party implementations, and there are certain situations where using gogo/protobuf with gRPC can break unexpectedly, at runtime. In this post I will try to cover best practices for working with gogo/protobuf.

### Update

golang/protobuf is in the process of a big refactoring to, among other things, make interoperability with gogo/protobuf easier. See the design document and subscribe to the issue to stay up to date on the progress!

## TL;DR?

I made an example repo of using gogo/protobuf with various parts of the greater gRPC ecosystem, graciously hosted under the gogo namespace by Walter Schulze, complete with a gRPC-Gateway and OpenAPI UI:

https://github.com/gogo/grpc-example

If you find anything that isn’t listed on there, or in this post, please submit an issue against this repo, and I will attempt to implement a workaround or raise a relevant issue upstream.

Still here? Lets move on to the details.

The google/googleapis and golang/genproto repos provide a large number of protofiles and pre-generated Go files, all maintained by Google’s engineers. However, because they use protoc-gen-go to compile the Go files, they are not strictly compatible with gogo/protobuf, as they do not register with the correct backend.

Instead, if you find you need to reach for these pre-compiled files, use gogo/googleapis. This contains a growing number of Go files pre-generated with protoc-gen-gogo, and registering against the correct backend. If there are any files missing from this repo, make sure to raise an issue (or make a PR) and it’ll be added in no time.

Bonus: because the generated files are in the same folder as the proto files, including the files works with golang/dep, limitations on including non-go files notwithstanding.

## Protobuf Any types

The google.protobuf.Any type is used in a wide variety of the GoogleAPIs proto messages, but using it with gogo/protobuf requires extra care. The Any message types work by using the internal “registry” of the protobuf package used, so you need to make sure any messages you stick in an Any container have been generated with gogo/protobuf. Using the gogo/googleapis repo is a great start, but the general rule of thumb is to ensure all protofiles are generated with gogo/protobuf.

## gRPC

gRPC is designed to be payload agnostic, and will work out of the box with gogo/protobuf, as while it imports golang/protobuf, it only uses it to type assert incoming interfaces into interfaces that are equally supported by all gogo/protobuf types.

### Reflection

gRPC has this cool thing called server reflection, which allows a client to use a gRPC server without having to use the servers protofile, dynamically, at runtime. Some tools such as grpc-ecosystem/polyglot, ktr0731/evans, kazegusuri/grpcurl and fullstorydev/grpcurl (popular pun) have support for dynamic reflection based requests today.

Unfortunately, gogo/protobuf is currently not working perfectly with server reflection, because the grpc-go implementation is very tightly coupled with golang/protobuf. This presents a couple of different scenarios where using gogo/protobuf may or may not work:

1. If you use just the protoc-gen-gofast generator, which simply generates type specific marshalling and unmarshalling code, you’ll be fine. Of course, using protoc-gen-gofast still comes with downsides, such as having to regenerate the whole proto dependency tree.
2. If you use protoc-gen-gogo*, unfortunately, reflection will not work on your server. This is because gogo.pb.go does not register itself with golang/protobuf, and reflection recursively resolves all imports, and will complain of gogo.proto not being found.

This is of course quite disappointing, but I’ve discussed with Walter Schulze (the maintainer of gogo/protobuf) how best to solve this and raised an issue against grpc-go. If the maintainers of grpc-go do not want to make it easier to use with gogo/protobuf, there are other alternatives. I’ll update this post once I know more.

## gRPC-Gateway

The gRPC-Gateway is another popular project, and at first it might seem completely compatible gogo/protobuf. However, it suffers from a number of incompatibilities, most of which can be traced to its liberal use of golang/protobuf packages directly:

1. The gRPC-Gateway does not work with gogo/protobuf registered enums.
2. The default JSON marshaller used by the gRPC-Gateway is unable to marshal non-nullable non-scalar fields.
3. A bug in the generator means generated files with Well Known Types need post-generation corrections.

Fortunately, workarounds exist for these problems. Using the goproto_registration extension of gogo/protobuf will ensure enum resolution works. Using the gogo/gateway package with the gRPC-Gateway WithMarshaler option fixes the scalar field marshalling issue.

Both of these workarounds are implemented in the gRPC-example repo.

As for the incorrect import, a simple sed post-generation will sort that out (adjust as necessary):

\$ sed -i "s/empty.Empty/types.Empty/g" <file.pb.gw.go>

Note that the gRPC-Gateway makes use of google/api/annotations.proto, so make sure you include the correct file from gogo/googleapis as mentioned when compiling your proto files.

# Conclusion

Unfortunately, while gogo/protobuf delivers awesome customization options and faster marshalling, getting it working well with the larger gRPC ecosystem is complicated. gogo/protobuf has it as a stated goal to be merged back into golang/protobuf, and recent discussions have been positive, but it’s hard to say whether it’ll lead to anything. There is also an open issue discussing the possibility of type specific marshalling and unmarshalling code in golang/protobuf itself, which is what I think is the biggest reason most users turn to gogo/protobuf.

In a perfect future, we’d have some or all of the customizability and speed of gogo/protobuf with the official backing of golang/protobuf.

### Update

Joe Tsai, one of the developers working on golang/protobuf at Google, provided the following perspective on whether any parts of gogo/protobuf could be merged into upstream:

Go protobufs were originally written by Rob Pike back in 2009 (before the release of Go1) and was designed in a fashion similar to encoding/json where structs were marshaled based on the presence of the protobuf field tag. In fact, there was no proto.Message interface and Marshal and Unmarshal just operated on interface{}. Back then, protobufs (as a language) were simpler and the equivalent Go structs were more idiomatic. In fact the struct field tag syntax was simple enough back then that you could easily hand-craft a Go struct to act like a proto message. However, overtime more features have crept into protobufs (oneofs and maps added in 2014, proto3 unknown fields in 2018, and probably more in the future). These features have increasingly made Go’s representation less idiomatic. For example, oneofs have no natural representation in Go and has a fairly clunky API. The implementation of proto3 unknown field preservation also forces the existence of some other field to hold the unknown data. Simply put, the field tag syntax has grown more complex and is practically not hand-writable today, and generated messages are increasingly less idiomatic Go like.

The gogo/protobuf fork occured in 2013 and one of the stated goals is to provide “more canonical Go structures”, which is a significant reason why users prefer it over golang/protobuf. There are great number of options a user may specify in their proto file to customize the generated struct (https://github.com/gogo/protobuf/blob/master/extensions.md).

A few days ago I asked whether Go protobufs were used primarily in Go <-> Go communication, or Go <-> other language communication and it seemed that many users are in pure Go. I suspect that this fact is a source of contention between golang/protobuf, gogo/protobuf, and the users in the Go community. Each party have slightly different motivations:

• golang/protobuf lies within the larger spectrum of language specific proto implementations (e.g., C++, Java, C#, JavaScript, etc) and follows the guidance of the proto team. The proto team is heavily concerned with uniformity of behavior across all languages, and less so about making protos great in any one particular language.

• gogo/protobuf is very Go centric and provides many user-tweakable knobs to adjust the generated struct. Naturally, gogo/protobuf appeals heavily to the Go community.

That all being said, regarding merging gogo/protobuf into golang/protobuf:

• Any features that violate protobuf semantics cannot be merged (e.g., the ability to disable nullability).

• Furthermore, I’ve spoken to the proto team, and they were hesitant to adopt to language specific customizations. If Go were to add options to customize the generated code, then that sets precedence for other languages to do likewise. This becomes a slippery slope where a proto file could become an unreadable mess with language-specific options everywhere.

Personally, I’m a Go programmer and I understand the desire for idiomatic Go messages in a very Go centric world, but I also represent the interests of the proto team who prioritizes uniformity across all programming languages (a reasonable stance to hold). I don’t know if certain gogo/protobuf features will be merged, but I’m currently focusing my time and effort into https://github.com/golang/protobuf/issues/364, which should pave the way for golang/protobuf and gogo/protobuf to be able to interoperate. Further discussions on merging can come after that.

I made a repo for experimenting with various go proto generators that you can check out if you want to make your own tests.

If you enjoyed this blog post, have any questions or input, don’t hesitate to contact me on @johanbrandhorst or under jbrandhorst on the Gophers Slack. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Timon Wong
Tuesday, Mar 13, 2018

As a side note, gRPC-Gateway does not work well with github.com/gogo/protobuf/types.FieldMask either here

Johan Brandhorst