Skip to main content
Version: Next

ADR 027: Deterministic Protobuf Serialization


  • 2020-08-07: Initial Draft
  • 2020-09-01: Further clarify rules




Fully deterministic structure serialization, which works across many languages and clients, is needed when signing messages. We need to be sure that whenever we serialize a data structure, no matter in which supported language, the raw bytes will stay the same. Protobuf serialization is not bijective (i.e. there exist a practically unlimited number of valid binary representations for a given protobuf document)1.

This document describes a deterministic serialization scheme for a subset of protobuf documents, that covers this use case but can be reused in other cases as well.


For signature verification in Cosmos SDK, the signer and verifier need to agree on the same serialization of a SignDoc as defined in ADR-020 without transmitting the serialization.

Currently, for block signatures we are using a workaround: we create a new TxRaw instance (as defined in adr-020-protobuf-transaction-encoding) by converting all Tx fields to bytes on the client side. This adds an additional manual step when sending and signing transactions.


The following encoding scheme is to be used by other ADRs, and in particular for SignDoc serialization.



This ADR defines a protobuf3 serializer. The output is a valid protobuf serialization, such that every protobuf parser can parse it.

No maps are supported in version 1 due to the complexity of defining a deterministic serialization. This might change in future. Implementations must reject documents containing maps as invalid input.

Background - Protobuf3 Encoding

Most numeric types in protobuf3 are encoded as varints. Varints are at most 10 bytes, and since each varint byte has 7 bits of data, varints are a representation of uint70 (70-bit unsigned integer). When encoding, numeric values are casted from their base type to uint70, and when decoding, the parsed uint70 is casted to the appropriate numeric type.

The maximum valid value for a varint that complies with protobuf3 is FF FF FF FF FF FF FF FF FF 7F (i.e. 2**70 -1). If the field type is {,u,s}int64, the highest 6 bits of the 70 are dropped during decoding, introducing 6 bits of malleability. If the field type is {,u,s}int32, the highest 38 bits of the 70 are dropped during decoding, introducing 38 bits of malleability.

Among other sources of non-determinism, this ADR eliminates the possibility of encoding malleability.

Serialization rules

The serialization is based on the protobuf3 encoding with the following additions:

  1. Fields must be serialized only once in ascending order
  2. Extra fields or any extra data must not be added
  3. Default values must be omitted
  4. repeated fields of scalar numeric types must use packed encoding
  5. Varint encoding must not be longer than needed:
    • No trailing zero bytes (in little endian, i.e. no leading zeroes in big endian). Per rule 3 above, the default value of 0 must be omitted, so this rule does not apply in such cases.
    • The maximum value for a varint must be FF FF FF FF FF FF FF FF FF 01. In other words, when decoded, the highest 6 bits of the 70-bit unsigned integer must be 0. (10-byte varints are 10 groups of 7 bits, i.e. 70 bits, of which only the lowest 70-6=64 are useful.)
    • The maximum value for 32-bit values in varint encoding must be FF FF FF FF 0F with one exception (below). In other words, when decoded, the highest 38 bits of the 70-bit unsigned integer must be 0.
      • The one exception to the above is negative int32, which must be encoded using the full 10 bytes for sign extension2.
    • The maximum value for Boolean values in varint encoding must be 01 (i.e. it must be 0 or 1). Per rule 3 above, the default value of 0 must be omitted, so if a Boolean is included it must have a value of 1.

While rule number 1. and 2. should be pretty straight forward and describe the default behavior of all protobuf encoders the author is aware of, the 3rd rule is more interesting. After a protobuf3 deserialization you cannot differentiate between unset fields and fields set to the default value3. At serialization level however, it is possible to set the fields with an empty value or omitting them entirely. This is a significant difference to e.g. JSON where a property can be empty ("", 0), null or undefined, leading to 3 different documents.

Omitting fields set to default values is valid because the parser must assign the default value to fields missing in the serialization4. For scalar types, omitting defaults is required by the spec5. For repeated fields, not serializing them is the only way to express empty lists. Enums must have a first element of numeric value 0, which is the default6. And message fields default to unset7.

Omitting defaults allows for some amount of forward compatibility: users of newer versions of a protobuf schema produce the same serialization as users of older versions as long as newly added fields are not used (i.e. set to their default value).


There are three main implementation strategies, ordered from the least to the most custom development:

  • Use a protobuf serializer that follows the above rules by default. E.g. gogoproto is known to be compliant by in most cases, but not when certain annotations such as nullable = false are used. It might also be an option to configure an existing serializer accordingly.

  • Normalize default values before encoding them. If your serializer follows rule 1. and 2. and allows you to explicitly unset fields for serialization, you can normalize default values to unset. This can be done when working with protobuf.js:

    const bytes = SignDoc.encode({
    bodyBytes: body.length > 0 ? body : null, // normalize empty bytes to unset
    authInfoBytes: authInfo.length > 0 ? authInfo : null, // normalize empty bytes to unset
    chainId: chainId || null, // normalize "" to unset
    accountNumber: accountNumber || null, // normalize 0 to unset
    accountSequence: accountSequence || null, // normalize 0 to unset
  • Use a hand-written serializer for the types you need. If none of the above ways works for you, you can write a serializer yourself. For SignDoc this would look something like this in Go, building on existing protobuf utilities:

    if !signDoc.body_bytes.empty() {
    buf.WriteUVarInt64(0xA) // wire type and field number for body_bytes

    if !signDoc.auth_info.empty() {
    buf.WriteUVarInt64(0x12) // wire type and field number for auth_info

    if !signDoc.chain_id.empty() {
    buf.WriteUVarInt64(0x1a) // wire type and field number for chain_id

    if signDoc.account_number != 0 {
    buf.WriteUVarInt64(0x20) // wire type and field number for account_number

    if signDoc.account_sequence != 0 {
    buf.WriteUVarInt64(0x28) // wire type and field number for account_sequence

Test vectors

Given the protobuf definition Article.proto

package blog;
syntax = "proto3";

enum Type {
NEWS = 2;

enum Review {

message Article {
string title = 1;
string description = 2;
uint64 created = 3;
uint64 updated = 4;
bool public = 5;
bool promoted = 6;
Type type = 7;
Review review = 8;
repeated string comments = 9;
repeated string backlinks = 10;

serializing the values

title: "The world needs change 🌳"
description: ""
created: 1596806111080
updated: 0
public: true
promoted: false
type: Type.NEWS
review: Review.UNSPECIFIED
comments: ["Nice one", "Thank you"]
backlinks: []

must result in the serialization


When inspecting the serialized document, you see that every second field is omitted:

$ echo 0a1b54686520776f726c64206e65656473206368616e676520f09f8cb318e8bebec8bc2e280138024a084e696365206f6e654a095468616e6b20796f75 | xxd -r -p | protoc --decode_raw
1: "The world needs change \360\237\214\263"
3: 1596806111080
5: 1
7: 2
9: "Nice one"
9: "Thank you"


Having such an encoding available allows us to get deterministic serialization for all protobuf documents we need in the context of Cosmos SDK signing.


  • Well defined rules that can be verified independent of a reference implementation
  • Simple enough to keep the barrier to implement transaction signing low
  • It allows us to continue to use 0 and other empty values in SignDoc, avoiding the need to work around 0 sequences. This does not imply the change from should not be merged, but not too important anymore.


  • When implementing transaction signing, the encoding rules above must be understood and implemented.
  • The need for rule number 3. adds some complexity to implementations.
  • Some data structures may require custom code for serialization. Thus the code is not very portable - it will require additional work for each client implementing serialization to properly handle custom data structures.


Usage in Cosmos SDK

For the reasons mentioned above ("Negative" section) we prefer to keep workarounds for shared data structure. Example: the aforementioned TxRaw is using raw bytes as a workaround. This allows them to use any valid Protobuf library without the need of implementing a custom serializer that adheres to this standard (and related risks of bugs).


  • 1 _When a message is serialized, there is no guaranteed order for how its known or unknown fields should be written. Serialization order is an implementation detail and the details of any particular implementation may change in the future. Therefore, protocol buffer parsers must be able to parse fields in any order._ from
  • 2
  • 3 _Note that for scalar message fields, once a message is parsed there's no way of telling whether a field was explicitly set to the default value (for example whether a boolean was set to false) or just not set at all: you should bear this in mind when defining your message types. For example, don't have a boolean that switches on some behavior when set to false if you don't want that behavior to also happen by default._ from
  • 4 _When a message is parsed, if the encoded message does not contain a particular singular element, the corresponding field in the parsed object is set to the default value for that field._ from
  • 5 _Also note that if a scalar message field is set to its default, the value will not be serialized on the wire._ from
  • 6 _For enums, the default value is the first defined enum value, which must be 0._ from
  • 7 _For message fields, the field is not set. Its exact value is language-dependent._ from
  • Encoding rules and parts of the reasoning taken from canonical-proto3 Aaron Craelius