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What Are Protocol Buffers?

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  • Written By: Jean Marie Asta
  • Edited By: Jessica Seminara
  • Last Modified Date: 10 November 2016
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    2003-2016
    Conjecture Corporation
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Protocol buffers are mechanisms that allow for the serialization of data. Essentially, they aid in the conversion of information into a different form that is storable within a computer. In technical terms, protocol buffers can be defined as a type of interface description language that encodes data that is transferred between different types of software that are then capable of decoding that data. They were originally created by Google as a quicker and simpler alternative to XML.

Using protocol buffers takes time and practice for individuals not accustomed to working with computer programs. The first step in using them is defining a particular piece of information in a .proto file with numbers and shorthand words to designate more complex actions and objects. A compiler is then used to create various classes of access particular to the original data being encoded, which can be in one of three languages: C++, Python, or Java. These classes are utilized in writing a program for the data. Information entered into the program can then be saved as a .proto file once again and transferred between different types of software.

Instructions for the employment of protocol buffers are of necessity broad. Before starting, users must download the protocol buffer, and this will typically come with a comprehensive tutorial for beginners. While some may cost money, most are free to anyone with a computer and Internet access.

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Three programming languages are used in protocol buffers. C++, the oldest and for a long time the most popular, was written by Bjarne Stroustrup in 1979 as a means of facilitating communication between different but related software programs. James Gosling developed the Java language in 1995. This programming language was built off of C++ and intended to be more user-friendly. Under the leadership of Guido van Rossum, the Python language appeared in 1991 featuring a greater flexibility than C++ or Java — it permits a number of approaches to programming, unlike the other two.

Prior to protocol buffers, Extensible Markup Language (XML) was the most popular means of data serialization. While this is still in use, the newer alternative has gained a wide following for several reasons. What it really comes down to is simplicity and convenience. Compared to XML, protocol buffers are faster, take up less space on a computer, and are easier to work with once users become acquainted with their basic features. Ultimately, they are one more thing that makes the execution of tasks on a computer a little easier and more efficient.

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