Bazel Blog

Protocol Buffers in Bazel

Bazel currently provides built-in rules for Java, JavaLite and C++.

proto_library is a language-agnostic rule that describes relations between .proto files.

java_proto_library, java_lite_proto_library and cc_proto_library are rules that "attach" to proto_library and generate language-specific bindings.

By making a java_library (resp. cc_library) depend on java_proto_library (resp. cc_proto_library) your code gains access to the generated code.

TL;DR - Usage example

TIP: contains a buildable example.

NOTE: Bazel 0.4.4 lacks some features the example uses - you'll need to build Bazel from head. The easiest is to install Bazel, download Bazel's source code, build it (bazel build //src:bazel) and copy it somewhere (e.g., cp bazel-bin/src/bazel ~/bazel)


Bazel's proto rules implicitly depend on the distribution (described below, in "Implicit Dependencies and Proto Toolchains"). The following satisfies these dependencies:

TIP: This is a shortened version of

# proto_library rules implicitly depend on @com_google_protobuf//:protoc,
# which is the proto-compiler.
# This statement defines the @com_google_protobuf repo.
    name = "com_google_protobuf",
    urls = [""],

# cc_proto_library rules implicitly depend on @com_google_protobuf_cc//:cc_toolchain,
# which is the C++ proto runtime (base classes and common utilities).
    name = "com_google_protobuf_cc",
    urls = [""],

# java_proto_library rules implicitly depend on @com_google_protobuf_java//:java_toolchain,
# which is the Java proto runtime (base classes and common utilities).
    name = "com_google_protobuf_java",
    urls = [""],

BUILD files

TIP: This is a shortened version of

    name = "person_java_proto",
    deps = [":person_proto"],

    name = "person_cc_proto",
    deps = [":person_proto"],
    name = "person_proto",
    srcs = ["person.proto"],
    deps = [":address_proto"],

    name = "address_proto",
    srcs = ["address.proto"],
    deps = [":zip_code_proto"],

    name = "zip_code_proto",
    srcs = ["zip_code.proto"],

This file yields the following dependency graph:

proto_library dependency graph

Notice how the proto_library provide structure for both Java and C++ code generators, and how there's only one java_proto_library even though there multiple .proto files.


... in comparison with a macro that's responsible for compiling all .proto files in a project.

  1. Caching + incrementality: changing a single .proto only causes the rebuilding of dependant .proto files. This includes not only regenerating code, but also recompiling it. For large proto graphs this could be significant.
  2. Depend on pieces of a proto graph from multiple places: in the example above, one can add a cc_proto_library that deps on zip_code_proto, and including it together with //src:person_cc_proto in the same project. Though they both transitively depend on zip_code_proto, there won't be a linking error.

Recommended Code Organization

  1. One proto_library rule per .proto file.
  2. A file named foo.proto will be in a rule named foo_proto, which is located in the same package.
  3. A X_proto_library that wraps a proto_library named foo_proto should be called foo_X_proto, and be located in the same package.


Q: I already have rules named java_proto_library and cc_proto_library. Will there be a problem?
A: No. Since Skylark extensions imported through load statements take precedence over native rules with the same name, the new rule should not affect existing usage of the java_proto_library macro.

Q: How do I use gRPC with these rules?
A: The Bazel rules do not generate RPC code since protobuf is independent of any RPC system. We will work with the gRPC team to create Skylark extensions to do so. (C++ Issue, Java Issue)

Q: Do you plan to release additional languages?
A: We can relatively easily create py_proto_library. Our end goal is to improve Skylark to the point where these rules can be written in Skylark, making them independent of Bazel.

Q: How does one use well-known types? (e.g., any.proto, descriptor.proto)
A: Once is resolved, the following should be added to a .proto file: import google/protobuf/any.proto and the following: @com_google_protobuf//:well_known_types_protos to one's proto_library rule.

Q: Any tips for writing my own such rules?
A: First, make sure you're able to register actions that compile your target language. (as far as I know, Bazel Python actions are not exposed to Skylark, for example).
Second, take extra care to generate unique symbol names and unique filenames. There's an implicit assumption that different proto rules with different options, generate different symbols. For example, if you write a new rule foo_java_proto_library, it must not generate symbols that java_proto_library might. The risk is that a binary will contain both, leading to a one-definition rule violation (e.g., linking errors). The downside is that the binary might bloat, as it must contain multiple generated code for the same proto. We're working on a Skylark version of java_lite_proto_library which should provide a good example.

Implementation Details

Implicit Dependencies and Proto Toolchains

The proto_library rule implicitly depends on @com_google_protobuf//:protoc, which is the protocol buffer compiler. It must be a binary rule (in protobuf, it's a cc_binary). The rule can be overridden using the --proto_compiler command-line flag.

X_proto_library rules implicitly depend on @com_google_protobuf_X//:X_toolchain, which is a proto_lang_toolchain rule. These rules can be overridden using the --proto_toolchain_for_X command-line flags.

A proto_lang_toolchain rule describes how to call the protocol compiler, and what is the library (if any) that the resulting generated code needs to compile against. See an example in the protobuf repository.

Bazel Aspects

The X_proto_library rules are implemented using Bazel Aspects to have the best of two worlds -

  1. Only need a single X_proto_library rule for an arbitrarily-large proto graph.
  2. Incrementality, caching and no linking errors.

Conceptually, an X_proto_library rule creates a shadow graph of the proto_library it depends on, and each shadow node calls protocol-compiler and then compiles the generated code. This way, if there are multiple paths from a rule to a proto_library through X_proto_library, they all share the same node.

Descriptor Sets

When compiled on the command-line, a proto_library creates a descriptor set for the messages it srcs. The file is a serialized FileDescriptorSet, which is described in

One use case for the descriptor set is generating code without having to parse .proto files. ( tracks this ability in the protobuf compiler)

The aforementioned file only contains information about the .proto files directly mentioned by a proto_library rule; the collection of transitive descriptor sets is available through the 'proto.transitivedescriptorsets' Skylark provider. See documentation in ProtoSourcesProvider.


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