protobuf is an open-source, multi-language library from Google for serialising/de-serialising data.

It is designed as an efficient, language agnostic way of sending data over messaging protocols such as TCP/UDP, or UART/SPI/I2C e.t.c.

Source code and downloads can be found at

.proto Files

Messages are described in .proto files. These are then converted into your language of choice by the protobuf compiler.

An advantage of this is that they are programming language agnostic, i.e. you can use these same .proto files to generate libraries for many different programming languages that all need to interface with these message types.

Valid Scalar (Primitive) Types

Messages defines in .proto files can be composed of variables which have scalar (primitive) types, as well as variables which are of another message type (e.g. nested types).

The valid scalar types are:

Type Description
int32 Uses variable length encoding, but inefficient at encoding negative numbers.
int64 Uses variable length encoding, but inefficient at encoding negative numbers.
sfixed32  Always 32 bytes.
sfixed64  Always 64 bytes.
float 32-bit floating-point number.
double 64-bit floating-point number.
string  A string can contain UTF-8 or 7-bit ASCII encoded text.
bytes  An arbitrary sequence of bytes.

Each one of these scalar types maps to a correspond type your language of choice. See for more details.

Reading From A Protobuf


For each field in your message, protobuf provides a function that will return a const reference to the value.


Writing To A Protobuf


Protobuf messages can be modified in many different ways.

For each primitive field in your message, protobuf will provide a set_<field_name>() function to set the value. e.g.

For each non-primitive field in your message (e.g. another message type), protobuf provides a set_allocated_<field_name>() function. So, assuming your message had a field Header header, where Header is another message type, you could write:

To modify the fields of header, you need to use the mutable_<field_name>() function call. e.g.

mutable_header() returns a pointer to the header field in myMsg, and then you can use the normal set_<field_name>() function to write to header.


protobuf is used with the Publish/Subscribe  messaging system in the Robotic Operating System (ROS).