Mark Pilgrim tells us why Protocol Buffers are so nice. Notice, though, that everything he writes focuses entirely on their form and structure as messages. If you focus only on that perspective, then sure, they’re better than what many could come up with if they were rolling their own. In fact, if Google had stopped there, I think Protocol Buffers could be a superb little package.
The Protocol Buffer library does not include an RPC implementation. However, it includes all of the tools you need to hook up a generated service class to any arbitrary RPC implementation of your choice. You need only provide implementations of
Why ruin a perfectly good messaging format by throwing this RPC junk into the package? What if I want to send these messages via some other means, such as message queuing, for example? Do I have to pay for this RPC code if I don’t need it? If my messages don’t include
service definitions, do I avoid all that RPC machinery?
In my previous post I talked about the message tunneling problem, where data that doesn’t fit the distributed type system are forced through the system by packing them into a type such as string or sequence of octets. Since Protocol Buffers require you to “hook up a generated service class to any arbitrary RPC implementation of your choice,” it’s likely that you’re going to run into this tunneling problem. For example, if you want to send this stuff over IIOP, you’re likely going to send the marshaled protobufs as Common Data Representation (CDR) sequences of octet. You’re thus unavoidably paying for marshaling twice: once at the protobuf level for the protobuf itself, and then again at the CDR level to marshal the sequence of octet containing the protobuf. Any worthwhile IIOP/CDR implementation will be very fast at marshaling sequences of octet, but still, overhead is overhead.
But there are other problems too. What about errors? If something goes wrong with the RPC call, how do I figure that out? The answer appears to be that you call the
RpcController to see if there was a failure, and if so, call it again to get a string indicating what the failure was. A string? This implies that I not only have to write code to convert exceptions or status codes from the underlying RPC implementation into strings, but also write code to convert them back again into some form of exception, assuming my RPC-calling code wants to throw exceptions to indicate problems to the code that calls it.
What about idempotency? If something goes wrong, how do I know how far the call got? Did it fail before it ever got out of my process, or off my host? Did it make it to the remote host? Did it make it into the remote process, but failed before it reached the service implementation? Or did it fail sometime after the service processed it, as the response made its way back to me? If the call I’m making is not idempotent, and I want to try it again if I hit a failure, then I absolutely need to know this sort of information. Unfortunately, Protocol Buffers supplies nothing whatsoever to help with this problem, instead apparently punting to the underlying RPC implementation.
Still more problems: the
RpcController offers methods for canceling remote calls. What if the underlying RPC package doesn’t support this? Over the years I’ve seen many that don’t. Note that this capability impacts the idempotency problem as well.
Another question: what about
service references? As far as I can see, the protobuf language doesn’t support such things. How can one service return a message that contains a reference to another service? I suspect the answer is, once again, data tunneling — you would encode your service reference using a form supported by the underlying RPC implementation, and then pass that back as a string or sequence of bytes. For example, if you were using CORBA underneath, you might represent the other service using a stringified object reference and return that as a string. Weak.
All in all, the Protocol Buffers
service abstraction is very leaky. It doesn’t give us exceptions or any ways of dealing with failure except a human-readable string. It doesn’t give us service references, so we have no way to let one service refer to another within a protobuf message. We are thus forced to work in our code simultaneously at both the Protocol Buffers level and also at the underlying RPC implementation level if we have any hope of dealing with these very-real-world issues.
My advice to Google, then, is to just drop all the
service and RPC stuff. Seriously. It causes way more problems than it’s worth, it sends people down a fundamentally flawed distributed computing path, and it takes away from what is otherwise a nice message format and structure. If Google can’t or won’t drop it, then they should either remove focus from this aspect by relegating this stuff to an appendix in the documentation, or if they choose to keep it all at the current level of focus, then they should clarify all the questions of the sort I’ve raised here, potentially modifying their APIs to address the issues.