I have used and been very happy with gRPC as an inter-service communication mechanism on multiple projects, however it took a few attempts to land on a protobuf rendering strategy that works well for my typical use-case: numerous Go clients/services and TypeScript gRPC-Web clients being implemented by multiple developers. In this post I’ll explain what has worked well.

roads unsplash-logoEdouard TAMBA

tl;dr: Check out the example repo at https://github.com/caseylucas/protobuf.


There were a few requirements that evolved after having used gRPC in multiple projects:

  1. Simplify and standardize running protoc for numerous services. Sometimes it can feel like black magic getting protoc and it’s command line options working - especially if multiple directories and languages are used. We want to get this right once and in one place and if we need to make changes options, do it in one place.

  2. Evolve protobuf definitions so that server implementations and client consumption can advance independently. The ability to evolve service definitions and implementations in a wire-compatible way is an inherent feature of gRPC but most of the time the service and client do not evolve at the same time or necessarily in the same release. So, it’s important that the service implementation can depend on newer protobuf definitions while having the client depend on slightly older definitions.

  3. Reuse protobuf definitions of common/shared messages across different services. Most services have a self-contained set of protobuf files but occasionally it makes sense to share the definition of a common message. If you don’t reuse the definition at the protobuf level, you won’t be able to easily share the implementation in the rendered code.

  4. Be notified of service definition changes without being as concerned with client/service implementation changes. I consider protobuf service definitions to be the contracts between clients and services and prefer to keep a close eye on service changes that may affect numerous clients.

  5. Enforce a sane set of protobuf related conventions and styles. As projects evolve over time and multiple developers are creating and enhancing service definitions, it would be great if tooling could help enforce some basic best practices or at least enforce some consistency among service definitions.

  6. Package up rendered files so they can be easily used in both client and service implementations. The main languages we use are Golang and TypeScript and the “packaging” requirements for both these languages are pretty minimal, however we found that using the gRPC-Web renderings with TypeScript works best if we don’t directly include rendered files in a TypeScript client project. Instead, you can include them as a separate package.json dependency. Example issue: Failed to compile. ‘proto’ is not defined (also ‘COMPILED’)

Prior Art

Of course I’m not the first person with similar requirements and was glad to find this post from the team at Namely. Indeed, parts of my solution are based on the script referenced in the post. I recommend taking a look at their docker-protoc repo. At the time, when I first set things up a year or so ago, the docker-protoc functionality wasn’t the best fit but it probably warrants another look now.

The Strategy

  1. Use a single repository to hold all protobuf files related to a set/domain of services. One repository helps with requirement 1 by centralizing the protoc settings and options. It also helps with requirement 3 by keeping referenced protobuf files near each other and allowing them to easily evolve together. Finally, we can set up a repository wide notification and be notified of service definition related commits which helps with requirement 4.

  2. Use Uber’s prototool and run it via docker for consistent, repeatable renderings. Prototool is a great tool for rendering protobuf files. You can have it enforce conventions (lint) and it supports rendering multiple languages. Of course, using docker removes potential environment inconsistency issues. Overall, using prototool helps with requirements 1, 3 and 5.

  3. Commit all rendered files for a particular service into their own language-specific repository. When creating a separate repository for each language and service pair, it becomes easy to evolve dependent client and service implementations individually. The clients and services simply use yarn/npm or go get to include specific versions (usually latest/master) of rendered repositories. Using separate repositories for rendered code helps with requirements 2 and 6.

The Implementation

I’m a fan of make. It’s a tried and true tool for pretty straight-forward cases. So we ended up with a makefile that had targets like:

- generate: Runs prototool in order to validate / lint all *.proto files
- repos:    Create required protobuf-* github repos
- diff:     Show diff of *generated* code. does not commit changes - just shows diff
- commit:   Commits (and pushes) generated code (NOT *.proto files)
- clean:    Cleans up intermediate files
- help:     Print this help

You can see an example Makefile (which may need some customization) in this example repo.


Once set up, adding new services, editing existing ones and using the rendered code is pretty straightforward.

New Service

  1. Add new protobuf files for the new service - iteratively running make generate to work out the kinks in the service definition. You may need to modify prototool.yaml depending on the complexity of modifications. You can also run make diff if you really want to inspect the differences in rendered code.

  2. Add a new definition for the rendered code repository to the REPOS variable in rendered_repos.mk. See rendered_repos.mk for examples.

  3. Create new GitHub repositories (if they don’t exist).
     make repos

    This target wasn’t strictly necessary but it conveniently creates new repositories and initializes Go module support for rendered Go code.

  4. Commit the rendered code to the language-specific repositories. If rendered_repos.mk lists multiple languages then they will all be committed.
     make commit 
  5. Commit the modified protobuf files. The commit make target doesn’t also commit the current repository holding protobuf files. You’ll need to do that with git.
     git commit

Existing Service

Making modifications to an existing service definition:

  1. Iteratively edit protobuf files and run make generate.

  2. Once you’re happy with the modifications, run make commit to publish the rendered code.

  3. Don’t forget to commit the protobuf definitions via git commit.

Using the Rendered Code

Using the rendered code in other repositories holding the client and/or service implementations is typical for both Go:

go get -u github.com/caseylucas/protobuf-some_service-go

… and TypeScript:

yarn add https://github.com/caseylucas/protobuf-some_service-ts.git

Typically, the service implementation will evolve first. You can update the rendered service code and client code independently.


I hope this helps someone that might be new to gRPC or otherwise struggling with getting protoc up and running. Feedback is appreciated.