A brief history behind the creation of protocol buffers.

Understanding why protobuf was created and the decisions that changed it over time can help you to better use the features of the tool.

Why Did You Release Protocol Buffers?

There are several reasons that we released Protocol Buffers.

Protocol buffers are used by many projects inside Google. We had other projects we wanted to release as open source that use protocol buffers, so to do this, we needed to release protocol buffers first. In fact, bits of the technology had already found their way into the open; if you dig into the code for Google AppEngine, you might find some of it.

We wanted to provide public APIs that accept protocol buffers as well as XML, both because it is more efficient and because we convert that XML to protocol buffers on our end, anyway.

We thought that people outside Google might find protocol buffers useful. Getting protocol buffers into a form we were happy to release was a fun side project.

Why Is the First Release Version 2? What Happened to Version 1?

The initial version of protocol buffers (“Proto1”) was developed starting in early 2001 and evolved over the course of many years, sprouting new features whenever someone needed them and was willing to do the work to create them. Like anything created in such a way, it was a bit of a mess. We came to the conclusion that it would not be feasible to release the code as it was.

Version 2 (“Proto2”) was a complete rewrite, though it kept most of the design and used many of the implementation ideas from Proto1. Some features were added, some removed. Most importantly, though, the code was cleaned up and did not have any dependencies on Google libraries that were not yet open-sourced.

Why the Name “Protocol Buffers”?

The name originates from the early days of the format, before we had the protocol buffer compiler to generate classes for us. At the time, there was a class called ProtocolBuffer that actually acted as a buffer for an individual method. Users would add tag/value pairs to this buffer individually by calling methods like AddValue(tag, value). The raw bytes were stored in a buffer that could then be written out once the message had been constructed.

Since that time, the “buffers” part of the name has lost its meaning, but it is still the name we use. Today, people usually use the term “protocol message” to refer to a message in an abstract sense, “protocol buffer” to refer to a serialized copy of a message, and “protocol message object” to refer to an in-memory object representing the parsed message.

Does Google Have Any Patents on Protocol Buffers?

Google currently has no issued patents on protocol buffers, and we are happy to address any concerns around protocol buffers and patents that people may have.

How Do Protocol Buffers Differ from ASN.1, COM, CORBA, and Thrift?

We think all of these systems have strengths and weaknesses. Google relies on protocol buffers internally and they are a vital component of our success, but that doesn’t mean they are the ideal solution for every problem. You should evaluate each alternative in the context of your own project.

It is worth noting, though, that several of these technologies define both an interchange format and an RPC (remote procedure call) protocol. Protocol buffers are just an interchange format. They could easily be used for RPC—and, indeed, they do have limited support for defining RPC services—but they are not tied to any one RPC implementation or protocol.