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gRPC Guide

drminnaar profile image Douglas Minnaar Updated on ・16 min read

tl;dr

In this guide, I aim to provide the salient points concerning gRPC and Protocol Buffers. If you know what gRPC and Protocol Buffers are, then this guide is not for you. This is a guide for the beginner or the mildly interested.

gRPC is a framework for building API's and is an alternative to JSON and XML based services. gRPC has the following attributes:

  • a free and open-source framework that was originally developed by Google but is now part of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF)
  • a cross-platform and language agnostic
  • built on HTTP/2 and supports unary and streaming communication

Protocol Buffers serialize structured data and are used by default by gRPC. Protocol Buffers have the following attributes:

  • are language agnostic
  • help structure information for serialization
  • facilitates code generation
  • results in small payloads and efficient serialization due to data being binary

Most of the concepts in this guide are language agnostic. However, for now, I only provide examples in C# using .NET Core 3.1. The examples have been tested on both Linux and Windows. All examples have been created using Visual Studio Code with the C# for Visual Studio Code extension. Find the examples here,


Introduction

In a nutshell, gRPC can be summed up as follows,

A high performance, open-source universal RPC framework

-- https://grpc.io

Before delving into gRPC, I'd like to take a step back and understand the problem that gRPC solves. For that I need to discuss the theory of communication fundamentals. Although this is a technical article, I won't be discussing communication theory as applied to computing systems. Instead, I will discuss an example of 2 people speaking.

Let’s imagine 2 people having a discussion in the same room. Both people speak the same language and the communication medium is essentially the same shared space in which the 2 people are speaking. For now we will keep it simple and make the assumption that the communication is unidirectional (communication happens in one way at a time).

  • The Sender sends a message (request) to the Receiver and waits for a response
  • The Receiver receives the message (request) and returns a response as another message

Because the 2 people are in the same room speaking the same language, the communication is very simple. There is no need for anything special to enable successful communication. For clarity, the following attributes can be observed for this type of communication.

  • Same language
  • Same space (non-distributed)
  • Same medium

The following diagram further illustrates how the communication occurs for this scenario.

grpc-comms-1

Now imagine that we have 2 people that are in separate rooms, in different countries, and speak different languages. The following attributes contrast the difference to the example used above:

  • Different language
  • Different space (distributed)
  • Different medium

For this example, for successful communication to occur, we will need a mechanism to enable distributed communication. The mechanism will need to define some form of protocol (agreed upon rules) and will also need to do some form of encoding and decoding of messages sent between the Sender and the Receiver. This can be seen as illustrated in the diagram below.

grpc-comms-2

Now imagine that we simply replace the 2 people with 2 computing systems. A Client and a Server. The Client may be a NodeJS Console Application written in Javascript. The Server could be running a C# .NET application. We have 2 separate systems that are running in different data centers and connected via a network. In other words we have a distributed computing system. In order for the Client and the Server to communicate, a mechanism with a protocol will need to be used. Protocol Buffers (Protobuf) and gRPC are just such a mechanism. The diagram below illustrates how our basic communication model can be translated into gRPC clients and server. The clients and server can be completely distributed and running in different data centres in different locations throughout the world.

grpc-stub-server

There have been other solutions that solved this problem too. We are still using some of these at the time of this writing. Http services for example (REST) is still hugely popular. gRPC is simply an alternative to enable communication between distributed services and systems. It's important to remember that although there are different approaches to solving a common problem, the way in which we use these different approaches can be quite different. For example, building and using a Http service is entirely different from building and using a gRPC service.

There is some really good online documentation that describes gRPC and Protocol Buffers.

Because the online documentation is so good, I won't be repeating some of the great work that already been done. Instead, I'm going to focus on the salient points of gRPC and Protocol Buffers. I will also be providing some examples that illustrate how to get started with gRPC. All examples will be provided using gRPC on .NET Core. For more specific documentation relating to building and consuming gRPC services on .NET Core, please see the following great online documentation:

Protocol Buffers

What?

Protocol Buffers are a mechanism for serializing structured data. They are used by gRPC as the default serialization mechanism.

For more information:

How?

Because Protocol Buffers are used for serializing structured data, you need to define the structure of the information that you want serialized. We do this by defining protocol buffer message types in a '.proto' file.

For example:

message User {
    string firstName = 1;
    string lastName = 2;
    string email = 3;

    enum AddressType {
        HOME = 0;
        POSTAL = 1;
        WORK = 2;
    }

    message Address {
        string line1 = 1;
        string line2 = 2;
        string region = 3;
        string city = 4;
        string suburb = 5;
        string code = 6;
        AddressType type = 7;        
    }

    repeated Address addresses = 4;
}
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Practice Time

1. Setup protoc compiler

The most basic way to compile the 'meetings.proto' file from above is to use the 'protoc' compiler. The protoc compiler is available for a number of different platforms. See the protobuf release page.

If, like me, you're a developer on Debian/Ubuntu and/or Windows, you will find the following online resources useful to install the protobuf compiler.

# For Windows using Chocolatey

  - Install Chocolatey (https://chocolatey.org/install)

  - Install protoc (https://chocolatey.org/packages/protoc) 

    choco install protoc

# For Debian Stretch using apt

  - Install protoc (https://packages.debian.org/stretch/protobuf-compiler)

    sudo apt install protobuf-compiler

# For Ubuntu Bionic using apt

  - Install protoc (https://launchpad.net/ubuntu/bionic/+package/protobuf-compiler)

    sudo apt install protobuf-compiler
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2. Create 'meetings.proto' file
syntax = "proto3";

package examples;

message User {
    string firstName = 1;
    string lastName = 2;
    string email = 3;

    enum AddressType {
        HOME = 0;
        POSTAL = 1;
        WORK = 2;
    }

    message Address {
        string line1 = 1;
        string line2 = 2;
        string region = 3;
        string city = 4;
        string suburb = 5;
        string code = 6;
        AddressType type = 7;        
    }

    repeated Address addresses = 4;
}

message Meeting {
    repeated User users = 1;
}
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3. Compile 'meetings.proto' file
# For Python
protoc -I . --python_out=. ./meetings.proto

# For Node/Javascript
protoc -I . --js_out=. ./meetings.proto

# For C#
protoc -I . --csharp_out=. ./meetings.proto
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The final step is to use the generated code with your programming language of choice. See more tutorials here:


gRPC

gRPC is a free open-source RPC (Remote Procedure Call) framework for building distributed services. According to Wikipedia, RPC can be summarized as follows:

In distributed computing, a remote procedure call (RPC) is when a computer program causes a procedure (subroutine) to execute in a different address space (commonly on another computer on a shared network), which is coded as if it were a normal (local) procedure call, without the programmer explicitly coding the details for the remote interaction. That is, the programmer writes essentially the same code whether the subroutine is local to the executing program, or remote. This is a form of client–server interaction (caller is client, executor is server), typically implemented via a request–response message-passing system.

-- Wikipedia

gRPC uses Protocol Buffers for communications. Furthermore, gRPC is summarized as follows:

  • Designed by Google
  • Opensourced in 2015 and now a Cloud Native Computing Foundation incubating project
  • Ample language support
    • C++
    • Java
    • Python
    • GO
    • C#
    • Node.js
    • Android Java
    • Dart
  • A client can execute a method on a server application (on a different machine) as if it was a local object
  • A gRPC service is defined by an interface composed of services (methods with parameters and return types) and messages (properties or data with specified types)
  • The interface is implemented by the server and runs as a service that accepts calls from remote clients
  • The client uses a stub (exact representation of the interface used by the server) to make remote calls to the server
  • Servers and clients are platform and language agnostic. This means that one can have a server implemented in Java, but the server can be used by clients that have been implemented in other languages/platforms like Python, Node, C# etc.
  • Uses Protocol Buffers by default. The protocol buffers can be used as both Interface Definition Language and the underlying message interchange format.

Why Should You Care About gRPC?

I'm going to share a very opinionated perspective (my opinion) on why you should learn about gRPC.

1. I think that gRPC is a natural fit for building API's. Because gRPC can help make connecting, executing and debugging distributed systems as easy as making local function calls, it doesn't feel like you're doing anything different to your usual code flow. And it's this ease of use and simplicity that I think makes it feel more natural and easy to use.

2. gRPC is renowned for it's efficiency (serialization), speed and low latency. Therefore I think it is well suited to building Microservices.

3. For discussion purposes, I list 3 types of API's that are typically developed:

  • Internal - This means that your API's are accessible from anywhere within a service boundary of your choosing. In other words, internal API's are meant for internal consumption on your private network only.
  • Partner - Partner API's are sort of internal and sort of public. But they are intended as integration points between your applications and services with your Partners applications and services. Typically these API's would be locked down using techniques like VPN and/or IP whitelisting.
  • Public - Anyone on the public internet can access the API

With the 3 types of API's in mind, I think that initially gRPC is ideal for internal API's. As more companies and developers get hooked on gRPC, I think that the mass adoption will begin to drive the development of gRPC services for Partner and Public API's too.

4. Having the skills to build gRPC services will serve you well into the future. I think that the popularity of gRPC will continue to grow. Below, I provide a google trend on gRPC for the past 5 years (gRPC was open-sourced in 2015). Note the steady upward trend.

View gRPC trend here

grpc-trend


Tools

Most developers that work with REST or HTTP services are familiar with the excellent [Postman] tool. Postman is the ideal client tool for interacting with HTTP services. Unfortunately, Postman does not offer support for gRPC .... yet. Luckily for all of us, there is one gRPC client tool worth mentioning. And that tool is bloomRPC.

bloomRPC

GUI Client for gRPC Services

Features

  • Native gRPC calls
  • Unary Calls and Server Side Streaming Support
  • Client side and Bi-directional Streaming
  • Automatic Input recognition
  • Multi tabs operations
  • Metadata support
  • Persistent Workspace
  • Request Cancellation

Please checkout the bloomRPC repository and while you're at it, please give them a star. It is well deserving :)

grpc-bloomgrpc

Other


Examples

Prerequisites

Tested On

Messaging Example

This example is a simple messaging application that demonstrates how to create a .NET Core gRPC Client and gRPC Server.

By the end of this example, you will have a gRPC Client Console application written in C# that is able to send and receive messages to and from a gRPC Server Console application written in C#. The following concepts will be demonstrated:

  • Create a gRPC Client (C# Console Application)
  • Create a gRPC Server (C# Console Application)
  • Send messages from gRPC Client to gRPC Server

1. Create Solution

mkdir grpc-messaging
cd grpc-messaging
dotnet new sln -n Messaging
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2. Create 'messaging.proto' file

# for linux
touch messaging.proto

# for powershell
New-Item -Name messaging.proto
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Define 'messaging.proto' file

syntax = "proto3";

package messaging;

option csharp_namespace = "Messaging";

message MessageRequest {
    string message = 1;
}

message MessageResponse {
    string message = 1;
}

service Messenger {
    rpc Message (MessageRequest) returns (MessageResponse);
}
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3. Create gRPC Server

3.1 Create the Server Console application
dotnet new console -n Messaging.ServerApp
dotnet sln Messaging.sln add Messaging.ServerApp
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3.2 Add packages required to create gRPC Server
cd Messaging.ServerApp
dotnet add package gRPC
dotnet add package gRPC.Tools
dotnet add package Google.Protobuf

dotnet list package

Project 'Messaging.ServerApp' has the following package references
   [netcoreapp3.1]:
   Top-level Package      Requested   Resolved
   > Google.Protobuf      3.11.3      3.11.3
   > gRPC                 2.27.0      2.27.0
   > gRPC.Tools           2.27.0      2.27.0
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3.3 Create a 'Services' folder
mkdir Services
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3.4 Edit Messaging.ServerApp.csproj file

We need to add the following 'ItemGroup' to Messaging.ServerApp.csproj to enable the appropriate code generation for our gRPC server.

<ItemGroup>
    <Protobuf Include="../*.proto" GrpcServices="Server" OutputDir="%(RelativePath)Services" CompileOutputs="false" />
</ItemGroup>
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- Include="../*.proto" - Include all '.proto' files for code generation
- GrpcServices="Server" - Only generate code relevant to server
- OutputDir="%(RelativePath)Services" - path for generated files
- CompileOutputs="false" - prevents compiling generated files into assembly
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The resulting Messaging.ServerApp.csproj file should look as follows:

<Project Sdk="Microsoft.NET.Sdk">

  <PropertyGroup>
    <OutputType>Exe</OutputType>
    <TargetFramework>netcoreapp3.1</TargetFramework>
  </PropertyGroup>

  <ItemGroup>
    <Protobuf Include="../*.proto" GrpcServices="Server" OutputDir="%(RelativePath)Services" CompileOutputs="false" />
  </ItemGroup>

  <ItemGroup>
    <PackageReference Include="Google.Protobuf" Version="3.11.3" />
    <PackageReference Include="gRPC" Version="2.27.0" />
    <PackageReference Include="gRPC.Tools" Version="2.27.0">
      <IncludeAssets>runtime; build; native; contentfiles; analyzers; buildtransitive</IncludeAssets>
      <PrivateAssets>all</PrivateAssets>
    </PackageReference>
  </ItemGroup>

</Project>
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3.5 Build Solution
# Build from the root of solution
cd ..
dotnet build
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After the build, you should see a solution structure as follows. Take note of the 2 generate files in the 'Services' folder.

  • Messaging.cs
  • MessagingGrpc.cs

grpc-server-solution

3.6 Create 'MessengerService'

Create a Service that implements the generated gRPC 'MessengerBase' code

using System.Threading.Tasks;
using Grpc.Core;

namespace Messaging.ServerApp
{
    public sealed class MessengerService : Messenger.MessengerBase
    {
        public override Task<MessageResponse> Message(MessageRequest request, ServerCallContext context)
        {
            return Task.FromResult(new MessageResponse
            {
                Message = $"This is your friendly gRPC Server. Received message: '{request.Message}'"
            });
        }
    }
}
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3.7 Update 'Program.cs' to run server
using System;
using System.IO;
using System.Threading.Tasks;
using Grpc.Core;

namespace Messaging.ServerApp
{
    internal sealed class Program
    {
        internal static async Task Main(string[] args)
        {
            const int Port = 50050;

            Server server = null;

            try
            {
                server = new Server
                {
                    Services = { Messenger.BindService(new MessengerService()) },
                    Ports = { new ServerPort("localhost", Port, ServerCredentials.Insecure ) }
                };

                server.Start();

                Console.WriteLine($"Messenger server listening on port {Port}");
                Console.WriteLine("Press any key to stop the server...");
                Console.ReadKey();
            }
            catch(IOException exception)
            {
                Console.WriteLine($"Server failed to start: {exception.Message}");
                throw;
            }
            finally
            {
                if (server != null)
                    await server.ShutdownAsync();
            }
        }
    }
}
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3.8 Run the gRPC Server
dotnet run -p Messaging.ServerApp

# You should see the following response
Messenger server listening on port 50050
Press any key to stop the server...
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4. Create gRPC Client

4.1 Create the Client Console application
# From the root of solution

dotnet new console -n Messaging.ClientApp
dotnet sln Messaging.sln add Messaging.ClientApp
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4.2 Add packages required to create gRPC Client
cd Messaging.ClientApp
dotnet add package gRPC
dotnet add package gRPC.Tools
dotnet add package Google.Protobuf

dotnet list package

Project 'Messaging.ClientApp' has the following package references
   [netcoreapp3.1]:
   Top-level Package      Requested   Resolved
   > Google.Protobuf      3.11.3      3.11.3
   > gRPC                 2.27.0      2.27.0
   > gRPC.Tools           2.27.0      2.27.0
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4.3 Create a 'Services' folder
mkdir Services
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4.4 Edit Messaging.ClientApp.csproj file

We need to add the following 'ItemGroup' to Messaging.ClientApp.csproj to enable the appropriate code generation for our gRPC Client.

<ItemGroup>
    <Protobuf Include="../*.proto" GrpcServices="Client" OutputDir="%(RelativePath)Services" CompileOutputs="false" />
</ItemGroup>
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- Include="../*.proto" - Include all '.proto' files for code generation
- GrpcServices="Client" - Only generate code relevant to Client
- OutputDir="%(RelativePath)Services" - path for generated files
- CompileOutputs="false" - prevents compiling generated files into assembly
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The resulting Messaging.ClientApp.csproj file should look as follows:

<Project Sdk="Microsoft.NET.Sdk">

  <PropertyGroup>
    <OutputType>Exe</OutputType>
    <TargetFramework>netcoreapp3.1</TargetFramework>
  </PropertyGroup>

  <ItemGroup>
    <Protobuf Include="../*.proto" GrpcServices="Client" OutputDir="%(RelativePath)Services" CompileOutputs="false" />
  </ItemGroup>

  <ItemGroup>
    <PackageReference Include="Google.Protobuf" Version="3.11.3" />
    <PackageReference Include="gRPC" Version="2.27.0" />
    <PackageReference Include="gRPC.Tools" Version="2.27.0">
      <IncludeAssets>runtime; build; native; contentfiles; analyzers; buildtransitive</IncludeAssets>
      <PrivateAssets>all</PrivateAssets>
    </PackageReference>
  </ItemGroup>

</Project>
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4.5 Build Solution
# Build from the root of solution
cd ..
dotnet build
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After the build, you should see a solution structure as follows. Take note of the 2 generate files in the 'Services' folder.

  • Messaging.cs
  • MessagingGrpc.cs

grpc-client-solution

4.6 Update 'Program.cs' to run Client
using Grpc.Core;
using Messaging;
using System;
using System.Threading.Tasks;

namespace Messaging.ClientApp
{
    internal sealed class Program
    {
        internal static async Task Main(string[] args)
        {
            Channel channel = new Channel("127.0.0.1:50050", ChannelCredentials.Insecure);

            var client = new Messenger.MessengerClient(channel);
            var reply = client.Message(new MessageRequest { Message = "These are not the droids you are looking for ..." });
            Console.WriteLine("Message: " + reply.Message);

            await channel.ShutdownAsync();

            Console.WriteLine("Press any key to exit...");
            Console.ReadKey();
        }
    }
}
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4.7 Run the gRPC Client
dotnet run -p Messaging.ClientApp

# You should see the following response
Message: This is your friendly gRPC Server. Received message: 'These are not the droids you are looking for ...'
Press any key to exit...
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Solution

The full solution can be found here.

Calculator Example

Now it's your turn. Create a gRPC Calculator service that provides the following arithmetic operations:

  • Add
  • Subtract
  • Multiply
  • Divide

Solution

The full solution can be found here.

Proto File
syntax = "proto3";
package calculators;
option csharp_namespace = "Calculators";

message OperationRequest {
    repeated double operands = 1;
}

message OperationResponse {
    double result = 1;
}

message DivisionRequest {
    double dividend = 1;
    double divisor = 2;
}

message DivisionResponse {
    double result = 1;
}

service Calculator {
    rpc Add (OperationRequest) returns (OperationResponse);
    rpc Subtract (OperationRequest) returns (OperationResponse);
    rpc Multiply (OperationRequest) returns (OperationResponse);
    rpc Divide (DivisionRequest) returns (DivisionResponse);
}
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gRPC Calculator Server
/// ########################
/// CalculatorService
/// ########################

using Grpc.Core;
using System.Linq;
using System.Threading.Tasks;

namespace Calculators.ServerApp
{
    public sealed class CalculatorService : Calculator.CalculatorBase
    {
        public override Task<OperationResponse> Add(OperationRequest request, ServerCallContext context)
        {
            return Task.FromResult(new OperationResponse
            {
                Result = request.Operands.Sum()
            });
        }

        public override Task<DivisionResponse> Divide(DivisionRequest request, ServerCallContext context)
        {
            return Task.FromResult(new DivisionResponse
            {
                Result = request.Dividend / request.Divisor
            });
        }

        public override Task<OperationResponse> Multiply(OperationRequest request, ServerCallContext context)
        {
            return Task.FromResult(new OperationResponse
            {
                Result = request.Operands.Aggregate((acc, operand) => acc *= operand)
            });
        }

        public override Task<OperationResponse> Subtract(OperationRequest request, ServerCallContext context)
        {
            return Task.FromResult(new OperationResponse
            {
                Result = request.Operands.Aggregate((acc, operand) => acc -= operand)
            });
        }
    }
}

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/// ########################
/// Program
/// ########################

using System;
using System.IO;
using System.Threading.Tasks;
using Grpc.Core;

namespace Calculators.ServerApp
{
    internal sealed class Program
    {
        internal static async Task Main(string[] args)
        {
            const int Port = 50050;

            Server server = null;

            try
            {
                server = new Server
                {
                    Services = { Calculator.BindService(new CalculatorService()) },
                    Ports = { new ServerPort("localhost", Port, ServerCredentials.Insecure) }
                };

                server.Start();

                Console.WriteLine($"Calculator server listening on port {Port}");
                Console.WriteLine("Press any key to stop the server...");
                Console.ReadKey();
            }
            catch (IOException exception)
            {
                Console.WriteLine($"Server failed to start: {exception.Message}");
                throw;
            }
            finally
            {
                if (server != null)
                    await server.ShutdownAsync();
            }
        }
    }
}

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gRPC Calculator Client
/// ########################
/// Program
/// ########################

using System;
using System.Threading.Tasks;
using Grpc.Core;

namespace Calculators.ClientApp
{
    internal sealed class Program
    {
        internal static async Task Main(string[] args)
        {
            Channel channel = new Channel("127.0.0.1:50050", ChannelCredentials.Insecure);

            var client = new Calculator.CalculatorClient(channel);
            var operands = new double[5] { 1D, 2D, 3D, 4D, 5D };

            var addRequest = new OperationRequest();
            addRequest.Operands.AddRange(operands);

            var subtractRequest = new OperationRequest();
            subtractRequest.Operands.AddRange(operands);

            var multiplicationRequest = new OperationRequest();
            multiplicationRequest.Operands.AddRange(operands);

            var divisionRequest = new DivisionRequest
            {
                Dividend = 45,
                Divisor = 5
            };

            var sum = await client.AddAsync(addRequest);
            var difference = await client.SubtractAsync(subtractRequest);
            var product = await client.MultiplyAsync(multiplicationRequest);
            var division = await client.DivideAsync(divisionRequest);

            Console.WriteLine($"Sum: {sum.Result}, Difference: {difference.Result}, Product: {product.Result}, Division: {division.Result}");

            await channel.ShutdownAsync();

            Console.WriteLine("Press any key to exit...");
            Console.ReadKey();
        }
    }
}
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Where To From Here?

I've only introduced the gRPC and Protocol Buffer fundamentals in this guide. I'd recommend doing some online digging for information relating to your platform/language of choice. For example, I only spoke about Unary communication in this guide. Be sure to do some research on other alternatives like:

  • Server streaming
  • Client streaming
  • Bi-directional streaming

I'm looking forward to feedback from the community to see if there is any way that I can help developers learn more about gRPC. I will then most likely explore a number of follow-up topics for future posts.

gRPC for the win 🏆

Discussion (5)

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shalvah profile image
Shalvah

Goddamn, this is the best resource on gRPC I've ever seen! Thank you. I've tried to understand it from different sources, but most just kept talking about it in some vague, theoretical manner. I haven't finished the article yet, but thanks for going hands-on with the compiler and stuff. Awesome article.

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alirezamgh profile image
alireza

Thank you Douglas
very nice introduction to gRPC
I do have a question since you mentioned that gRPC is a well suited approach in building Microservices.
How we can Share gRPC protobufs between microservices ?
If let say there is a change required in protobuf that consider as breaking change how to update other services while maintaining existing one ?

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revirth profile image
JT Lee

thanks for your article

but for me, it doesn't work

protoc -I=. --csharp_out=. ./meetings.proto

it worked for c# :)

protoc -I . --csharp_out=. ./meetings.proto
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drminnaar profile image
Douglas Minnaar Author

Thanks JT! I appreciate that you like the content. Also, thank you for detecting the path error in the protoc command. Worked on nix but not windows. I made the amendment for future readers :)

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bpkinez profile image
Branislav Petrović

Great introduction to gRPC with C#. Simple explanations with concise examples.

Thanks Douglas!