CS and the City Sean Lynch

Using Protocol Buffers with Google APIs

Disclaimer: This is hastily researched and poorly authored. I’d love to have any of the below assertions corrected by wiser folks!

Right up front, you almost certainly don’t want to use protocol buffers to access Google APIs. This is what every smart person told me when I asked them for help. As far as I can tell, very few people actually try this anyway, as evidence by the complete lack of any documentation on the topic.

I wanted to understand the mechanism a bit better so I went spelunking into the deep, undocumented recesses of Google’s APIs anyway, mostly because it’s Hackweek at Dropbox!

If you’ve never heard of Protocol Buffers (or protobufs for short) before, here’s the tagline: “a language-neutral, platform-neutral, extensible way of serializing structured data for use in communications protocols, data storage, and more.”

At a high-level, it’s a communication protocol not unlike XML and JSON. It also includes a structure definition language like structs in C/C++. In theory, you can use this definition to generate code for working with the data. Protocol Buffers were created by Google and open sourced in 2008. And as far as I can tell, no one else uses them.

Now because Google’s APIs all use shared infrastructure (which enables shared auth and a single SDK), it turns out that they all support protobufs. By default, they return JSON, but every now and then, the marketing will mention protobufs as well. In fact, the Gmail API folks did just that, causing me to follow them all the way down the rabbit hole.

All in all, it’s a rough ride but it can be done. And again, to be clear, you almost certainly don’t want to.

Talking to Google’s REST API endpoints

First up, I wanted to get a sense of how the Gmail API worked. I used my new favorite HTTP exploration tool, Paw, to start exploring endpoints. I’m going to skip right over the pains of setting up apps using the Google developer console, and skip OAuth as well (the guide on OAuth 2 from a webserver worked well).

It’s obvious that Google would rather we all just use their SDKs. The docs and tutorials are entirely set up around one of the individual languages. For the Gmail API, only the very first page of the API reference mentions anything about the REST endpoints. This is what I used to test that I could at least get responses in JSON.

GET https://www.googleapis.com/gmail/v1/users/me/threads

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Content-Type: application/json; charset=UTF-8

  "threads": [
      "id": "1473cacbd4d2f10d",
      "snippet": "",
      "historyId": "8487586"
  "nextPageToken": "09120543318741434532",
  "resultSizeEstimate": 226

Getting protobufs from the API

This isn’t documented anywhere at all. In fact, I only found this buried in the source of the Python SDK. In order to get protobufs from the API, you need to add this to your API calls:


Yep, that’s it. With that, the above call transformed into something less familiar.

GET https://www.googleapis.com/gmail/v1/users/me/threads?alt=proto

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Content-Disposition: attachment
Content-Type: application/x-protobuf



Doing something useful with protobufs

Here in lies the rub. In order to actually handle protobuf data, you’re supposed to have access to the .proto file that defines how the data is laid out. Gmail doesn’t publish the .proto definition for their API. In fact, I couldn’t find a single Google API that does publish a .proto file. The only Google .proto file I could find was for unofficially accessing the Google Play store. Remember when I said no one uses protobufs?

But I’d come too far to be turned away. At this point, with some advice from a fellow Dropboxer, I set to trying to write a .proto file by hand. Turns out there’s a few resource that make this possible, though not something I’d ever want to have to do regularly.

The Google API Discovery API

It’s probably not suprising, but Google has an API just for discovering the details about its other APIs called the Discovery API. I was hoping this would actually programmatically return .proto files but no such luck. Instead, it returns a JSON schema for every Google API. This is actually what Google uses to generate code for all of their SDKs.

For my list threads example, it gave a reasonably detailed response, that looked almost like what I needed, but not quite.

GET https://www.googleapis.com/discovery/v1/apis/gmail/v1/rest

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Content-Type: application/json; charset=UTF-8


  "ListThreadsResponse": {
   "id": "ListThreadsResponse",
   "type": "object",
   "externalTypeName": "caribou.api.proto.ListThreadsResponse",
   "properties": {
    "nextPageToken": {
     "type": "string",
     "description": "Page token to retrieve the next page of results in the list."
    "resultSizeEstimate": {
     "type": "integer",
     "description": "Estimated total number of results.",
     "format": "uint32"
    "threads": {
     "type": "array",
     "description": "List of threads.",
     "items": {
      "$ref": "Thread"


Sadly .proto files have a catch: the ordering of fields must be specified using numbered tags. This discovery service does not return the numbering, and it turns out, they’re not returned in the right order either. I needed to try another route.

Decoding protobufs

To decode protobufs on the command line, I installed protoc. The protocol buffers docs links to a Windows binary, but I used brew to install protoc on my Mac.

We discovered (thanks, Kannan!), that protoc has a handy flag --decode_raw which will allow protoc to unbundle a protobuf stream and identify each field by its tag number. I used curl to pipe in the request:

$ curl -X GET "https://www.googleapis.com/gmail/v1/users/me/threads?alt=proto" \
-H "Authorization: Bearer ..." | protoc --decode_raw

  % Total    % Received % Xferd  Average Speed   Time    Time     Time  Current
                                 Dload  Upload   Total   Spent    Left  Speed
100  2725    0  2725    0     0   5745      0 --:--:-- --:--:-- --:--:--  5736

1 {
  1: "1473d91500a2b818"
  2: ""
  3: 8488797
2: "11516987623344274775"
3: 225

Behold, I had my tag numbers.

Putting it together

With that, I could build the simple .proto file needed to parse the response to this request.

message ListThreadsResponse {
  repeated Thread threads = 1;
  optional string nextPageToken = 2;
  optional int64 resultSizeEstimate = 3;

message Thread {
  optional string id = 1;
  optional string snippet = 2;
  optional int64 historyId = 3;

With that, the fields are now labeled properly.

$ curl -X GET "https://www.googleapis.com/gmail/v1/users/me/threads?alt=proto" \
-H "Authorization: Bearer ..." | protoc --decode=ListThreadsResponse gmail.proto 

  % Total    % Received % Xferd  Average Speed   Time    Time     Time  Current
                                 Dload  Upload   Total   Spent    Left  Speed
100  2725    0  2725    0     0   5745      0 --:--:-- --:--:-- --:--:--  5736

threads {
  id: "1473d91500a2b818"
  snippet: ""
  historyId: 8488797
nextPageToken: "11516987623344274775"
resultSizeEstimate: 225

We experimented with writing a hacky script to contact the Discovery API, using the schema and properties it returned layout the framework for a .proto file, but there’s still a manual step to fill in the index values.

That’s a wrap

All in all, it took longer than expected but was certainly educational. The next logical step would be to use Protocol Buffer’s built-in mechanism to generate client SDK code. Instead, I took my own advice from the beginning. JSON works just fine.