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Design rationale

The problem with Protocol Buffers

Protocol Buffers is a language-neutral, platform-neutral and extensible message format developed by Google for serializing structured data. It uses schema files to describe the structure of messages, which are in turn used to generate language-specific bindings to automatically handle the decoding and encoding logic for the developer.

In most language-specific bindings, a Protocol Buffers message is entirely read and decoded to a native structure (like a struct in C or a class in C++) in a transparent manner. The problem is that this may involve a large number of allocations, especially for deeply nested and repeated messages. This is particularly wasteful if only a few fields are needed in order to process a message, e.g. to decode the header for efficient routing or to update single fields/values within large messages.

A different approach

protobluff follows a different approach: it omits the need to decode a Protocol Buffers message entirely in order to process it – all operations are directly carried out on the encoded message, so only specific parts/fields of the encoded message need to be decoded. The same is true for encoding – only the value that needs to be altered must be encoded, the rest of the message remains untouched.

The technical design goals behind protobluff are:

  • Errors are handled gracefully, at all times. protobluff anticipates errors like garbled data (regression via fuzzing tests) or out-of-memory conditions and returns an error to the caller. All invariants are checked with asserts, all runtime errors are checked during program execution. All structures contain a valid flag/state. When passing an invalid structure to a function, the program does not crash.

  • Stack-allocation is used wherever possible, so the programmer can decide on where to use dynamic and static allocation. Memory management is centralized, which significantly reduces programming errors.

  • The runtime should be extensible, i.e. it should be easy to write parsers and printers for other formats like JSON or XML or other functionality on top of the core library.

Furthermore, protobluff comes with two runtimes: a lite runtime which enables easy and efficient stream-processing of Protocol Buffers messages via a callback-based decoder and an encoder, and a full runtime which adds support for partial reads and writes of messages. New values can be read or written incrementally, memory management is centralized and handled by the underlying journal. If no alterations that change the size of the underlying journal are expected, the journal can be used in zero-copy mode, omitting all dynamic allocations.


In software development, everything is a trade-off. protobluff doesn't check the encoded messages for validity, i.e. whether all required fields are set. This should be done by the programmer using the validator explicitly, and is attributed to the fact that protobluff enables incremental reading and writing of messages, as discussed above. Moreover it is redundant when the programmer knows that a message is valid (e.g. when the messages comes from a database).

The lite runtime is efficient for decoding and encoding whole messages. The full runtime should be used when only a few fields of a message need to be read or written. At the time of writing, protobluff is not very efficient when decoding an encoding entire messages with the full runtime over and over. There are other libraries for that. However, as protobluff has a modular design, this functionality could be added if needed.