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March 9, 2022
3 min read

Remote plugin execution with the Buf Schema Registry

A while back, we announced that we had released the Buf Schema Registry (BSR), a centralized platform for managing Protobuf assets, into beta. In the announcement post, we briefly outlined a BSR feature called hosted plugins, which enables you to generate code using Protobuf plugins remotely, on the BSR, rather than on your local machine.

In this post, we'll dive a bit deeper into remote plugin execution and talk about why we built it, how it works, and how it can streamline your Protobuf workflows.

Protobuf plugins

First, let's go over some of the basics of Protobuf plugins. A plugin is a program that a Protobuf compiler, like the buf CLI or protoc, executes to convert Protobuf sources (.proto files) into code stubs in your desired language, like Go, Java, C++, or Python. In order to use plugins, a compiler needs to support Protobuf's plugin protocol, whereby:

  • The compiler creates a CodeGeneratorRequest representing the .proto files passed into the compiler, such as foo/bar.proto, and sends that request to the plugin on stdin.
  • The Protobuf plugin accepts that request and writes a CodeGeneratorResponse to stdout.
  • The compiler transforms that response into code files and writes them to disk.

Using plugins

Protobuf's original protoc compiler provides some built-in plugins but you need to install any other plugins you need as executables in your environment. So if you needed to generate C++, Java, Python, Go, and Rust code from a Protobuf source, for example, three of those plugins are built into the compiler—C++, Java, and Python—but you'd need to install Go and Rust plugins on your own (protoc-gen-go and protoc-gen-rust are widely used options).

With the Go and Rust plugins installed, you could generate code stubs using a command like this:

protoc \
  -I proto \
  --cpp_out=gen/proto/cpp \
  --java_out=gen/proto/java \
  --python_out=gen/proto/python \
  --go_out=gen/proto/go \
  --rust_out=gen/proto/rust \
  proto/api.proto

The buf CLI streamlines this by replacing protoc in your workflows. So instead of that complex command invocation, you could use this buf.gen.yaml configuration file...

version: v1
plugins:
  - name: cpp
    out: gen/proto/cpp
  - name: java
    out: gen/proto/java
  - name: python
    out: gen/proto/python
  - name: go
    out: gen/proto/go
  - name: rust
    out: gen/proto/rust

...and generate your code stubs with a single command:

buf generate <input>

Here, <input> can be any valid Buf input, such as a directory, tarball, or Buf module. This is vastly more flexible than protoc, which only supports .proto files as sources.

Problems with local plugin execution

As you can see, the buf CLI is a major improvement over protoc, which you no longer need to install or manage. But there is one remaining problem here: to run this example, you'd still need to install plugins locally and ensure that you're using the right plugin versions.

One half-solution is to either manage those executables yourself or rely on custom tooling, which frequently leads to those classic "works on my machine" reproducibility problems where you need to hunt down subtle differences in plugin versions used in different environments.

The difficulty of managing this complex web of compiler and plugin versions—just to make code stub generation work—has been a major barrier to Protobuf adoption. At Buf, we decided to fix this once and for all by removing the need for local plugins entirely.

Remote plugin execution

With remote plugin execution, you can publish Protobuf plugins to the BSR and then execute those plugins on a trusted server—the BSR itself—rather than on your local machine.

Authoring a plugin involves two steps: building the plugin as a Docker image and pushing the image to plugins.buf.build. Once your plugin has been pushed, you need to make one change to your buf.gen.yaml configuration file to use it:

version: v1
plugins:
  - remote: buf.build/my-buf-org/plugins/my-proto-plugin:v1.2.3
    out: gen/proto/my-language

Note the usage of the remote key rather than name. With this configuration, the buf generate command now makes a remote procedure call (RPC) to the BSR to execute the remote plugin on your behalf. Here's an example generation command:

buf generate buf.build/acme/petapis

Here, the buf CLI would generate code for the buf.build/acme/petapis module using the local buf.gen.yaml configuration. But instead of calling a local protoc-gen-my-proto-plugin executable, all code generation would happen on the BSR, and the resulting files would be written to the gen/proto/my-language directory.

This diagram illustrates that process:

Remote plugin execution with the BSR
The remote plugin execution process

Why it matters

The Buf team has developed processes to automatically sync and publish all of protoc's built-in plugins to the BSR under the buf.build/protocolbuffers organization. This means that you can remove any and all plugin executables from your environment—local, CI/CD, whatever—and rely solely on remote plugins.

These protoc built-in plugins are hosted on the BSR:

We also host many popular gRPC plugins, including:

Beyond that, some community members have made their own plugins publicly available on the BSR. We expect the number of community plugins to steadily expand over time.

Wrapping up

You can replace protoc with the buf CLI regardless of how you're using plugins. But using local plugins with buf does have the drawback that you still need to install and manage those plugins yourself. Remote plugin execution goes one step further and enables you to eliminate not just protoc but even local plugin executables from your Protobuf workflows, making it easier than ever to introduce Protobuf into your environments.

Later in this series, we'll highlight some other BSR features, such as generated documentation for Protobuf and remote code generation.

Talk to our team about making your Protocol Buffers workflow easier.