# ADR 019: Protocol Buffer State Encoding

# Changelog

  • 2020 Feb 15: Initial Draft
  • 2020 Feb 24: Updates to handle messages with interface fields
  • 2020 Apr 27: Convert usages of oneof for interfaces to Any
  • 2020 May 15: Describe cosmos_proto extensions and amino compatibility
  • 2020 Dec 4: Move and rename MarshalAny and UnmarshalAny into the codec.Codec interface.
  • 2021 Feb 24: Remove mentions of HybridCodec, which has been abandoned in #6843 (opens new window).

# Status


# Context

Currently, the Cosmos SDK utilizes go-amino (opens new window) for binary and JSON object encoding over the wire bringing parity between logical objects and persistence objects.

From the Amino docs:

Amino is an object encoding specification. It is a subset of Proto3 with an extension for interface support. See the Proto3 spec (opens new window) for more information on Proto3, which Amino is largely compatible with (but not with Proto2).

The goal of the Amino encoding protocol is to bring parity into logic objects and persistence objects.

Amino also aims to have the following goals (not a complete list):

  • Binary bytes must be decode-able with a schema.
  • Schema must be upgradeable.
  • The encoder and decoder logic must be reasonably simple.

However, we believe that Amino does not fulfill these goals completely and does not fully meet the needs of a truly flexible cross-language and multi-client compatible encoding protocol in the Cosmos SDK. Namely, Amino has proven to be a big pain-point in regards to supporting object serialization across clients written in various languages while providing virtually little in the way of true backwards compatibility and upgradeability. Furthermore, through profiling and various benchmarks, Amino has been shown to be an extremely large performance bottleneck in the Cosmos SDK 1. This is largely reflected in the performance of simulations and application transaction throughput.

Thus, we need to adopt an encoding protocol that meets the following criteria for state serialization:

  • Language agnostic
  • Platform agnostic
  • Rich client support and thriving ecosystem
  • High performance
  • Minimal encoded message size
  • Codegen-based over reflection-based
  • Supports backward and forward compatibility

Note, migrating away from Amino should be viewed as a two-pronged approach, state and client encoding. This ADR focuses on state serialization in the Cosmos SDK state machine. A corresponding ADR will be made to address client-side encoding.

# Decision

We will adopt Protocol Buffers (opens new window) for serializing persisted structured data in the Cosmos SDK while providing a clean mechanism and developer UX for applications wishing to continue to use Amino. We will provide this mechanism by updating modules to accept a codec interface, Marshaler, instead of a concrete Amino codec. Furthermore, the Cosmos SDK will provide two concrete implementations of the Marshaler interface: AminoCodec and ProtoCodec.

  • AminoCodec: Uses Amino for both binary and JSON encoding.
  • ProtoCodec: Uses Protobuf for both binary and JSON encoding.

Modules will use whichever codec that is instantiated in the app. By default, the SDK's simapp instantiates a ProtoCodec as the concrete implementation of Marshaler, inside the MakeTestEncodingConfig function. This can be easily overwritten by app developers if they so desire.

The ultimate goal will be to replace Amino JSON encoding with Protobuf encoding and thus have modules accept and/or extend ProtoCodec. Until then, Amino JSON is still provided for legacy use-cases. A handful of places in the SDK still have Amino JSON hardcoded, such as the Legacy API REST endpoints and the x/params store. They are planned to be converted to Protobuf in a gradual manner.

# Module Codecs

Modules that do not require the ability to work with and serialize interfaces, the path to Protobuf migration is pretty straightforward. These modules are to simply migrate any existing types that are encoded and persisted via their concrete Amino codec to Protobuf and have their keeper accept a Marshaler that will be a ProtoCodec. This migration is simple as things will just work as-is.

Note, any business logic that needs to encode primitive types like bool or int64 should use gogoprotobuf (opens new window) Value types.


Copy ts, err := gogotypes.TimestampProto(completionTime) if err != nil { // ... } bz := cdc.MustMarshal(ts)

However, modules can vary greatly in purpose and design and so we must support the ability for modules to be able to encode and work with interfaces (e.g. Account or Content). For these modules, they must define their own codec interface that extends Marshaler. These specific interfaces are unique to the module and will contain method contracts that know how to serialize the needed interfaces.


Copy // x/auth/types/codec.go type Codec interface { codec.Codec MarshalAccount(acc exported.Account) ([]byte, error) UnmarshalAccount(bz []byte) (exported.Account, error) MarshalAccountJSON(acc exported.Account) ([]byte, error) UnmarshalAccountJSON(bz []byte) (exported.Account, error) }

# Usage of Any to encode interfaces

In general, module-level .proto files should define messages which encode interfaces using google.protobuf.Any (opens new window). After extension discussion (opens new window), this was chosen as the preferred alternative to application-level oneofs as in our original protobuf design. The arguments in favor of Any can be summarized as follows:

  • Any provides a simpler, more consistent client UX for dealing with interfaces than app-level oneofs that will need to be coordinated more carefully across applications. Creating a generic transaction signing library using oneofs may be cumbersome and critical logic may need to be reimplemented for each chain
  • Any provides more resistance against human error than oneof
  • Any is generally simpler to implement for both modules and apps

The main counter-argument to using Any centers around its additional space and possibly performance overhead. The space overhead could be dealt with using compression at the persistence layer in the future and the performance impact is likely to be small. Thus, not using Any is seem as a pre-mature optimization, with user experience as the higher order concern.

Note, that given the SDK's decision to adopt the Codec interfaces described above, apps can still choose to use oneof to encode state and transactions but it is not the recommended approach. If apps do choose to use oneofs instead of Any they will likely lose compatibility with client apps that support multiple chains. Thus developers should think carefully about whether they care more about what is possibly a pre-mature optimization or end-user and client developer UX.

# Safe usage of Any

By default, the gogo protobuf implementation of Any (opens new window) uses global type registration (opens new window) to decode values packed in Any into concrete go types. This introduces a vulnerability where any malicious module in the dependency tree could registry a type with the global protobuf registry and cause it to be loaded and unmarshaled by a transaction that referenced it in the type_url field.

To prevent this, we introduce a type registration mechanism for decoding Any values into concrete types through the InterfaceRegistry interface which bears some similarity to type registration with Amino:

Copy type InterfaceRegistry interface { // RegisterInterface associates protoName as the public name for the // interface passed in as iface // Ex: // registry.RegisterInterface("cosmos_sdk.Msg", (*sdk.Msg)(nil)) RegisterInterface(protoName string, iface interface{}) // RegisterImplementations registers impls as a concrete implementations of // the interface iface // Ex: // registry.RegisterImplementations((*sdk.Msg)(nil), &MsgSend{}, &MsgMultiSend{}) RegisterImplementations(iface interface{}, impls ...proto.Message) }

In addition to serving as a whitelist, InterfaceRegistry can also serve to communicate the list of concrete types that satisfy an interface to clients.

In .proto files:

  • fields which accept interfaces should be annotated with cosmos_proto.accepts_interface using the same full-qualified name passed as protoName to InterfaceRegistry.RegisterInterface
  • interface implementations should be annotated with cosmos_proto.implements_interface using the same full-qualified name passed as protoName to InterfaceRegistry.RegisterInterface

In the future, protoName, cosmos_proto.accepts_interface, cosmos_proto.implements_interface may be used via code generation, reflection &/or static linting.

The same struct that implements InterfaceRegistry will also implement an interface InterfaceUnpacker to be used for unpacking Anys:

Copy type InterfaceUnpacker interface { // UnpackAny unpacks the value in any to the interface pointer passed in as // iface. Note that the type in any must have been registered with // RegisterImplementations as a concrete type for that interface // Ex: // var msg sdk.Msg // err := ctx.UnpackAny(any, &msg) // ... UnpackAny(any *Any, iface interface{}) error }

Note that InterfaceRegistry usage does not deviate from standard protobuf usage of Any, it just introduces a security and introspection layer for golang usage.

InterfaceRegistry will be a member of ProtoCodec described above. In order for modules to register interface types, app modules can optionally implement the following interface:

Copy type InterfaceModule interface { RegisterInterfaceTypes(InterfaceRegistry) }

The module manager will include a method to call RegisterInterfaceTypes on every module that implements it in order to populate the InterfaceRegistry.

# Using Any to encode state

The SDK will provide support methods MarshalInterface and UnmarshalInterface to hide a complexity of wrapping interface types into Any and allow easy serialization.

Copy import "github.com/cosmos/cosmos-sdk/codec" // note: eviexported.Evidence is an interface type func MarshalEvidence(cdc codec.BinaryCodec, e eviexported.Evidence) ([]byte, error) { return cdc.MarshalInterface(e) } func UnmarshalEvidence(cdc codec.BinaryCodec, bz []byte) (eviexported.Evidence, error) { var evi eviexported.Evidence err := cdc.UnmarshalInterface(&evi, bz) return err, nil }

# Using Any in sdk.Msgs

A similar concept is to be applied for messages that contain interfaces fields. For example, we can define MsgSubmitEvidence as follows where Evidence is an interface:

Copy // x/evidence/types/types.proto message MsgSubmitEvidence { bytes submitter = 1 [ (gogoproto.casttype) = "github.com/cosmos/cosmos-sdk/types.AccAddress" ]; google.protobuf.Any evidence = 2; }

Note that in order to unpack the evidence from Any we do need a reference to InterfaceRegistry. In order to reference evidence in methods like ValidateBasic which shouldn't have to know about the InterfaceRegistry, we introduce an UnpackInterfaces phase to deserialization which unpacks interfaces before they're needed.

# Unpacking Interfaces

To implement the UnpackInterfaces phase of deserialization which unpacks interfaces wrapped in Any before they're needed, we create an interface that sdk.Msgs and other types can implement:

Copy type UnpackInterfacesMessage interface { UnpackInterfaces(InterfaceUnpacker) error }

We also introduce a private cachedValue interface{} field onto the Any struct itself with a public getter GetCachedValue() interface{}.

The UnpackInterfaces method is to be invoked during message deserialization right after Unmarshal and any interface values packed in Anys will be decoded and stored in cachedValue for reference later.

Then unpacked interface values can safely be used in any code afterwards without knowledge of the InterfaceRegistry and messages can introduce a simple getter to cast the cached value to the correct interface type.

This has the added benefit that unmarshaling of Any values only happens once during initial deserialization rather than every time the value is read. Also, when Any values are first packed (for instance in a call to NewMsgSubmitEvidence), the original interface value is cached so that unmarshaling isn't needed to read it again.

MsgSubmitEvidence could implement UnpackInterfaces, plus a convenience getter GetEvidence as follows:

Copy func (msg MsgSubmitEvidence) UnpackInterfaces(ctx sdk.InterfaceRegistry) error { var evi eviexported.Evidence return ctx.UnpackAny(msg.Evidence, *evi) } func (msg MsgSubmitEvidence) GetEvidence() eviexported.Evidence { return msg.Evidence.GetCachedValue().(eviexported.Evidence) }

# Amino Compatibility

Our custom implementation of Any can be used transparently with Amino if used with the proper codec instance. What this means is that interfaces packed within Anys will be amino marshaled like regular Amino interfaces (assuming they have been registered properly with Amino).

In order for this functionality to work:

  • all legacy code must use *codec.LegacyAmino instead of *amino.Codec which is now a wrapper which properly handles Any
  • all new code should use Marshaler which is compatible with both amino and protobuf
  • Also, before v0.39, codec.LegacyAmino will be renamed to codec.LegacyAmino.

# Why Wasn't X Chosen Instead

For a more complete comparison to alternative protocols, see here (opens new window).

# Cap'n Proto

While Cap’n Proto (opens new window) does seem like an advantageous alternative to Protobuf due to it's native support for interfaces/generics and built in canonicalization, it does lack the rich client ecosystem compared to Protobuf and is a bit less mature.

# FlatBuffers

FlatBuffers (opens new window) is also a potentially viable alternative, with the primary difference being that FlatBuffers does not need a parsing/unpacking step to a secondary representation before you can access data, often coupled with per-object memory allocation.

However, it would require great efforts into research and full understanding the scope of the migration and path forward -- which isn't immediately clear. In addition, FlatBuffers aren't designed for untrusted inputs.

# Future Improvements & Roadmap

In the future we may consider a compression layer right above the persistence layer which doesn't change tx or merkle tree hashes, but reduces the storage overhead of Any. In addition, we may adopt protobuf naming conventions which make type URLs a bit more concise while remaining descriptive.

Additional code generation support around the usage of Any is something that could also be explored in the future to make the UX for go developers more seamless.

# Consequences

# Positive

  • Significant performance gains.
  • Supports backward and forward type compatibility.
  • Better support for cross-language clients.

# Negative

  • Learning curve required to understand and implement Protobuf messages.
  • Slightly larger message size due to use of Any, although this could be offset by a compression layer in the future

# Neutral

# References

  1. https://github.com/cosmos/cosmos-sdk/issues/4977
  2. https://github.com/cosmos/cosmos-sdk/issues/5444