Marshaling and Unmarshaling

Marshaling packs an internal data structure in a program into a well-defined external format so the data structure can be given or transmitted to another system. Unmarshal does the reverse upon receiving.

Protocol Buffers

Protocol Buffers (“protobufs”) is a specification of a data serialization format, an interface design language (IDL), and a code library. The first of these is the most important, with the other two a bit more ancillary. By interchange format here we mean a particular byte layout that is carefully speced out in terms of how each data type should be formatted. For example, if I want to send an integer value from one system to another system, what exactly should I send? What if the receiver has 32 bit integers and the sender 64 bit ones? What if the sender and receiver have different Endianness? Even this trivial example is fraught with peril.

Protocol Buffers format has been widely used for 15 years, and for more than 20 years by google. It is battle-tested. There are numerous other, typicaly newer, challengers to the data serialization throne, but none have managed to disloge protobufs because it is well known, well tested, and reasonably good on nearly all dimensions of goodness for a data serialization format. Other challengers include formats like Thrift, Avro, MessagePack, BSon, Hessian and (god help us) XML. Many, but not all of these, like protobufs, have an accompanying IDL to allow users to specify their data structures of interest.

Protocol Buffers IDL

Here is a lightly edited example of a pretty trivial “service” definition. This example defines a service called greeting with a single method called FetchGreeting which naturally takes an input of a FetchGreetingRequest and returns a FetchGreetingResponse.

// Greeting is a microservice with a very simple job, return a greeting in
// language selected from the Tongue enum.
service Greeting {
	// FetchGreeting returns a greeting in the language given by the
	// Request, field "tongue".
	rpc FetchGreeting(FetchGreetingRequest) returns (FetchGreetingResponse);

Content like the above would be contained in the file greeting.proto or similar. Although it looks like a programming language, and it is clearly quite similar to one, this is a “specification”,“spec”, or “schema” in that it only defines the data to be transmitted and the functions for the data to be transmitted to, as well as the reverse process for return values.

Let’s take a look at the specification of the messages which are the data objects in a protobuf schema. In our example, we have two of them, the matching FetchGreetingRequest and FetchGreetingResponse.

// FetchGreet is called to retreive a common greeting, like
// Bonjuor in french.
message FetchGreetingRequest {
	Tongue tongue = 1;

// FetchGreetingResponse is returned to a caller who sent a request
// to the FetchGreeting endpoint.
message FetchGreetingResponse {
string greeting = 1;

So this example is largely what you would expect with the caller requesting the greeting in a particular language, the “tongue”, and the callee returning back a response that contains the text like bonjour or guten tag.

It is worth noticing that the definiton of FetchGreetingRequest is not finished at this point because it references a different “type” called Tongue. Let’s show the last two types.


// which language do you want?
enum Tongue{
	Unspecified = 0;
	English = 1;
	French = 2;
	German = 3;


// The first four values of any error enum are to be as shown below.
enum GreetErr{
	option (protosupport.v1.parigot_error) = true;
	NoError = 0; // required
	// Dispatch error occurs when we are trying to call a service
	// implemented elsewhere.  This error indicates that the process
	// of the call itself had problems, not the execution of the
	// service's method.
	DispatchError = 1; // required
	// UnmarshalFailed is used to indicate that in unmarshaling
	// a request or result, the protobuf layer returned an error.
	UnmarshalFailed = 2; // required
	// MarshalFailed is used to indicate that in unmarshaling
	// a request or result, the protobuf layer returned an error.
	MarshalFailed = 3; // required

	// FetchGreeting returns this when the parameter presented to
	// it is not a language in its list.
	UnknownLang = 4;

An enum in a protobuf specification is a collection of small integer values with names to make them easier to remember and understand when seeing them. Our first enum here is a “normal” enum and the second one, GreetErr is a special one for parigot. You will note the extra “option” that is used to inform parigot about this special type. A parigot error value is returned from every call to a remote service. It is expected that developers will specify all the possible error values in their error types.

It is worth considering that FetchGreetingRequests references another type as part of its definition–Tongue in this case. What if Tongue referenced one or two more types it its definition? This is where the protobuf IDL works in concert with the data serialization format. Any combination of things that can be specified in the protobuf IDL will be marshaled to a well-known sequence of bytes and when unmarshaled by another program will produce the correct data structure.