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gRPC Basic concepts

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Basic components in gRPC

As with most interservice communications, gRPC supports the concept of clients and servers. There are no restrictions on the number of client/servers and how they are interconnected but the difference happens in the way they communicate with each other. Generally on a REST based implementation, the server (let’s say an API) would expose its API endpoints and the clients usually make a HTTP request to those endpoints. But in gRPC, the API would instead

  • define all the contracts in a protobuf file (example.proto)
  • generate gRPC code when the project is built (or an equivalent approach for dynamic languages)

Similarly, the client would define its own messages in a protobuf files. The client side protobuf files usually deal with preparing to send a message that the server understands, receiving a response and serialising/deserialising them etc which are all abstracted away, thanks to the protobuf layer. Finally, all the client needs to do is to call the relevent method on server to get a response.

As of this writing, there are a few experimental alternatives for protobuf in C#, such as using JSON Web APIs / HTTP REST endpoint style instead. More details can be found here

Basic components of gRPC


A sample proto file

Checkout a sample proto file that defines a contract for GreeterApi that has one method titled SayHello. This method takes in a HelloRequest as parameter and responds with HelloReply, both of which are again defined as messages in the file. When we build this code, it generates a gRPC code in the same language in which it is being built by default (or we can specify the language to build this to in options).

syntax = "proto3";

service GreeterApi {
  rpc SayHello (HelloRequest) returns (HelloReply);

message HelloRequest {
  string name = 1;

message HelloReply {
  string message = 1;


RPC Lifecycle

We saw how protobuf generates code for us, which is in turn used to communicate with client/server. But how does the client or server initiate the connection with each other? Normally for REST API requests in C#, we can create a HttpClient and use that to send/receive requests such as client.SendAsync(). In gRPC it is slightly more complex than that:

  1. Create a channel
    1. This opens up the connection to the API / server
  2. Create a client
    1. This is the client that will call the RPC methods generated by gRPC
    2. This client can be reused and may need to be initialised only once during the lifecycle of the application
  3. Client sends a Request (with optional metadata), and server can send a metadata response
    1. This happens even before the actual request is processed by the server
    2. Useful in situations such as Authentication
  4. Once the server has processed the request, it sends back a response



Message Types

There are 4 types of messages that can be communicated with gRPC protocol:

  1. Unary (single request from client, single response from server)
    1. protobuf syntax: rpc MethodName(RequestType) returns (ResponseType)
  2. Server Streaming RPC (single request from client, multiple responses from server)
    1. protobuf syntax: rpc MethodName(RequestType) returns (stream ResponseType)
    2. Used in situations like video streaming where a client makes a single request, and server responds with buffered stream of video
  3. Client Streaming RPC (multiple requests from client, single request from server)
    1. protobuf syntax: rpc MethodName(stream RequestType) returns (ResponseType)
    2. Used in situations such as client needing to send a multi-part upload to server
  4. Bi-directional Streaming (multiple requests from client and server, asynchronously)
    1. protobuf syntax: rpc MethodName(stream RequestType) returns (stream ResponseType)
    2. More complex, suited for custom scenarios that require multiple asnchronous requests/response as a stream


Authentication options

Authentication here deals with how the client grpc authenticates and connects with the server, so do not confuse with general user authentication. gRPC again supports 5 types of authentication:

  • Insecure authentication
    • Really this should only be used in dev environments for testing purposes
    • This is the recommended level of authentication for gRPC
    • Makes use of HTTP/2 connection by default when available
    • Certificate is validated against the nominated trusted CA
  • ALTS (Application Layer Transport Security)
    • Specific for Google cloud platform (GCP)
  • Google token-based
    • This requires SSL/TLS to work, so an added layer of security when using Google token based authentication
  • Custom
    • gRPC also allows custom implementation of authentication, such as OAUTH2.0.
    • There are several packages that support custom implementations which can be found in gRPC’s website.
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