Disclaimer: This article is NOT for beginners unfamiliar with gRPC. If you’re looking to use gRPC like a sane individual, look elsewhere. Maybe start with the official gRPC documentation.

In the realm of distributed systems and microservices, gRPC has become the go-to communication protocol, boasting speed and efficiency over other web technologies like JSON-based HTTP APIs. If you’ve ever wondered what’s happening under the hood of gRPC, you’re in luck. Today, we’re embarking on an exciting journey into the intricate world of gRPC, delving deep into the byte-level details that make it tick. While I do this, I hope to convince you that gRPC is a much simpler protocol than you probably think.

Today I’m focusing on the basics of how the gRPC protocol works from a protocol level. But first, let me tell you what this article is not going to cover: protobufs. That is a separate topic that is covered extremely well in the official documentation. I may cover this topic later on in this series but for now, protobufs are being treated as a black box.

The first thing to know is that gRPC is built on top of HTTP. Let’s outline how protobuf service definitions map to HTTP/2 semantics with gRPC… First, let’s take this hello world example.

package helloworld;

// The greeting service definition.
service Greeter {
  // Sends a greeting
  rpc SayHello (HelloRequest) returns (HelloReply) {}

Take these simple observations:

  • The package is named helloworld
  • The service is named Greeter
  • The method is named SayHello

The corresponding HTTP request starts like this:

POST /helloworld.Greeter/SayHello HTTP/2
Content-Type: application/grpc+proto

That covers how to start a request. But what does the body look like? Take a look at this table. Sorry, yes: This is binary data. How do you expect gRPC to get its performance improvements if it didn’t use a binary encoding??:

Byte OffsetContentDecodedDescription
1:400000000 00000000 00000000 000001117Message-Length (Unsigned 32-bit integer; Big Endian ordering)
5:1200001010 00000101 01010111 01101111 01110010 01101100 011001001:“World”Message content

There are 5 bytes in total as a prefix to each encoded protobuf message. The first byte is for a flag saying if the message is compressed or not. Even though headers might say that compression is supported, servers can make their own decisions on whether or not to compress each message. Some messages are just too small to make compression worth it.

The last 4 bytes of the prefix are an unsigned 32-bit integer (using big-endian byte ordering) which tells the client/server how many bytes the next message will take.

gRPC always returns an HTTP 200 status code. That’s weird, right? gRPC does this because, for streaming RPCs, it’s impossible to know if a request succeeded ahead of time. Therefore, gRPC always returns a 200 as the status code and waits until the very end of the request to report the gRPC status using a lesser-known feature of HTTP called an HTTP trailer. Trailers are exactly like headers but come at the end of a request instead of the beginning.

Did you know? gRPC doesn’t actually require HTTP/2 support. Most HTTP/1.1 servers and proxies lack support for HTTP Trailers even though trailers were in the HTTP spec since 1.1. You can read more about the full story in this blog post.

Okay, let’s code something

For the second half of this article, we’re going to build a very un-featureful gRPC client in Go. It won’t support many features that are expected out of gRPC but it will be able to make RPC calls.

Making a service in protobuf

First, here’s the full protobuf file that I’m going to use for this example. It’s as close to the simplest Hello World in protobufs as you can get.

syntax = "proto3";

package greet.v1;

message GreetRequest {
  string name = 1;

message GreetResponse {
  string greeting = 1;

service GreetService {
  rpc Greet(GreetRequest) returns (GreetResponse) {}

I used a buf.gen.yaml file along with the buf generate command to build this protobuf into Go types.

Making a simple gRPC server

We’re not writing the gRPC server from scratch in this example, just a client (but the principles are the same if you want to do this as an exercise on your own). Additionally, we need a real gRPC server to test our client against so I will use the server handler that ConnectRPC provides for us. Here’s what that looks like:

package main

import (


	greetv1 "github.com/sudorandom/kmcd.dev/grpc-from-scratch/gen"

type GreetServer struct{}

func (s *GreetServer) Greet(ctx context.Context, req *connect.Request[greetv1.GreetRequest]) (*connect.Response[greetv1.GreetResponse], error) {
	return connect.NewResponse(&greetv1.GreetResponse{
		Greeting: fmt.Sprintf("Hello, %s!", req.Msg.Name),
	}), nil

func main() {
	greeter := &GreetServer{}
	mux := http.NewServeMux()
	path, handler := greetv1connect.NewGreetServiceHandler(greeter)
	mux.Handle(path, handler)
		h2c.NewHandler(mux, &http2.Server{}),

Encoding the Request

Now that the setup is out of the way, let’s build a client that can send a gRPC request and receive a response from the HTTP server. Note that this will only work for a unary RPC call (a call that does not support streaming). First, let’s start with encoding/decoding messages using the format I mentioned above.

Here’s the code to write a request to a gRPC server.

func writeMessage(w io.Writer, msg []byte) {
	prefix := make([]byte, 5)
	binary.BigEndian.PutUint32(prefix[1:], uint32(len(msg)))

Decoding the Response

The response is returned using the exact same format as our request. With go, this is what it might look like (without any error handling at all)

func readMessage(body io.Reader) []byte {
	// read the prefix/envelope
	prefixes := [5]byte{}
	io.ReadFull(body, prefixes[:])

	// Using the message size from the prefix, read that many bytes. That's our protobuf message.
	buffer := &bytes.Buffer{}
	msgSize := int64(binary.BigEndian.Uint32(prefixes[1:5]))
	io.CopyN(buffer, body, msgSize)
	return buffer.Bytes()

This code reads the prefixes (the compression flag and the message size) and then the message size is used when reading the message from the server. That’s… essentially it.

The rest

We have the foundation of the gRPC protocol completed. Now, the missing part is code that creates the actual HTTP request, encoding/decoding the actual protobuf types (which is a simple call to proto.Marshal and proto.Unmarshal) and doing some error handling that I didn’t do above. To me, none of that is particularly interesting but you can explore the entire working prototype here on your own time.

Here’s what the output looks like:

send-> name:"World"
recv<- greeting:"Hello, World!"

What about gRPC streams?

Streaming requests simply repeat this envelope encoding. gRPC, for better or worse, made the unary (simple request and response) use case a bit harder for the benefit of making the more complex use cases (streams) simple. Plus, you only have to write one encoder/decoder. For a server streaming RPC, you would simply repeat the readMessage() function call until you get an EOF or some other error. This showcases gRPC’s simplicity in handling streaming.

Note that you will have to periodically call Flush() on the handler’s http.ResponseWriter argument to get the bytes flushed to the TCP socket. This normally happens for you automatically after the http.Handler is complete… but with streaming calls we have to do this ourselves! Here’s an example of how to do it:

if f, ok := w.(http.Flusher); ok {

By the way, ConnectRPC has chosen to “undo” this approach by offering unary RPC without the 5-byte custom envelope. This makes using tools like cURL possible and even pleasant, especially when using the JSON encoding. But it is also friendly with gRPC clients by offering gRPC and gRPC-Web alongside the Connect protocol.

Okay, what was the point?

Hopefully, I was able to shed a little bit of light on how gRPC really works. Binary protocols often have hard-to-understand documentation about each byte in a packet. However, gRPC only has 5 bytes of this weirdness so it’s a perfect protocol to whet your appetite on network protocols.

If you want to look at more details about the gRPC specification, I would refer you to the official gRPC specification on GitHub. See the full prototype from this post here.