Google protobuf at run-time deserialization example in C++

Lately I have been looking at Google’s format for interchanging data between multiple processes or Protocol Buffers. As you would expect for an inter-process data format Protocol Buffers are supported on different platforms and implementations are available for most popular programming languages. An interesting example of such a platform is the stm32l1 micro controller, which is supported by a third party protobuf implementation named nano pb.

One of the interesting feats of Google’s C++ protobuf implementation is that it supports deserializing arbitrary protobuf objects at run-time. As long as the proto definition is known at run time, the library is capable of parsing any message back into the individual fields from the proto definition. This is especially useful in situations where a program has to be able to handle proto definitions that are unknown at compile time. In this case the standard approach of using the proto compiler (protoc) to construct C++ class definitions, writing (de)serialization code and linking the resulting program with these definitions is obviously not possible.

This post addresses the lack of examples that demonstrate this ‘at run-time deserialization’ feature of Google’s C++ protobuf implementation. The example below was constructed by combining the protobuf unit tests with this example provided by . It has been tested with the v3.0.0-beta-3 from Google’s github repo. Use at your own discretion. The example should be self explanatory.

/* At run-time deserialization of a protobuf buffer to a C++ object example
 * Based on
 * @author: Floris Van den Abeele <>
 * Starting from a protobuf definition, main() does the following:
 * 1) Translate protobuf definition to FileDescriptorProto object using the
 * Parser from protoc. FileDescriptorProto seems to be nothing more than an
 * in-memory representation of the proto definition.
 * 2) Use a DescriptorPool to construct a FileDescriptor. FileDescriptor
 * seems to contain all necessary meta data to describe all the members of a
 * message that adheres to the proto definition. DescriptorPool can be used to
 * 'resolve' any other proto types that might be used by our proto definition.
 * 3) Print the parsed proto definition.
 * 4) Use DynamicMessageFactory and ParseFromArray to deserialize a binary
 * buffer to a Message that follows the proto definition
 * 5) Use Reflection to print the data fields present in the deserialized
 * object
 * Note that this example code does not look at error handling.
#include <iostream>

#include <google/protobuf/descriptor.h>
#include <google/protobuf/dynamic_message.h>
#include <google/protobuf/io/zero_copy_stream_impl.h>
#include <google/protobuf/io/tokenizer.h>

#include <google/protobuf/compiler/parser.h>

// Proto definition (can come from any IO source: disk, network, ...):
char text[] = "syntax = \"proto2\";\n"
  "message APIPort3 {"
  "required uint32 AppLedStateOn = 1;"
  "required uint32 PotiPercentage = 2;"
  "required uint32 VDD = 3;"
std::string message_type("APIPort3");

int main() {
  using namespace google::protobuf;
  using namespace google::protobuf::io;
  using namespace google::protobuf::compiler;

  ArrayInputStream raw_input(text, strlen(text));
  Tokenizer input(&raw_input, NULL);

  // Proto definition to a representation as used by the protobuf lib:
  /* FileDescriptorProto documentation:
   * A valid .proto file can be translated directly to a FileDescriptorProto
   * without any other information (e.g. without reading its imports).
   * */
  FileDescriptorProto file_desc_proto;
  Parser parser;
  if (!parser.Parse(&input, &file_desc_proto)) {
    std::cerr << "Failed to parse .proto definition:" << text;
    return -1;

  // Set the name in file_desc_proto as Parser::Parse does not do this:
  if (!file_desc_proto.has_name()) {

  // Construct our own FileDescriptor for the proto file:
  /* FileDescriptor documentation:
   * Describes a whole .proto file.  To get the FileDescriptor for a compiled-in
   * file, get the descriptor for something defined in that file and call
   * descriptor->file().  Use DescriptorPool to construct your own descriptors.
   * */
  google::protobuf::DescriptorPool pool;
  const google::protobuf::FileDescriptor* file_desc =
  if (file_desc == NULL) {
    std::cerr << "Cannot get file descriptor from file descriptor proto"
      << file_desc_proto.DebugString();
    return -1;

  // As a .proto definition can contain more than one message Type,
  // select the message type that we are interested in
  const google::protobuf::Descriptor* message_desc =
  if (message_desc == NULL) {
    std::cerr << "Cannot get message descriptor of message: " << message_type
      << ", DebugString(): " << file_desc->DebugString();
    return -2;

  // Print fields that are defined in the proto definition:
  // Note that proto defintion field numbers start from 1, but we assume that
  // the proto definition uses increasing field numbering without any gaps
  for (uint8_t i = 1; i <= message_desc->field_count(); i++) {
     const FieldDescriptor* field = message_desc->FindFieldByNumber(i);
     if (field)
       std::cout << field->name() << ": " << field->type_name() << " ("
         << field->label() << ")" << std::endl;
       std::cerr << "Error fieldDescriptor object is NULL, field_count() = "
         << message_desc->field_count() << std::endl;

  // Create an empty Message object that will hold the result of deserializing
  // a byte array for the proto definition:
  google::protobuf::DynamicMessageFactory factory;
  const google::protobuf::Message* prototype_msg =
    factory.GetPrototype(message_desc); // prototype_msg is immutable
  if (prototype_msg == NULL) {
    std::cerr << "Cannot create prototype message from message descriptor";
    return -3;

  google::protobuf::Message* mutable_msg = prototype_msg->New();
  if (mutable_msg == NULL) {
    std::cerr << "Failed in prototype_msg->New(); to create mutable message";
    return -4;

  // Deserialize a binary buffer that contains a message that is described by
  // the proto definition:
  uint8_t buffer[] = {0x08, 0x00, 0x10, 0x64, 0x18, 0xF5, 0x2D};
  if (!mutable_msg->ParseFromArray(buffer, 7)) {
    std::cerr << "Failed to parse value in buffer";

  //std::cout << mutable_msg->DebugString();

  // Use the reflection interface to examine the contents.
  const Reflection* reflection = mutable_msg->GetReflection();
  std::vector<const FieldDescriptor*> fields;
  reflection->ListFields(*mutable_msg, &fields);
  // Loop over the fields that are present in the deserialized object:
  for (auto field_it = fields.begin(); field_it != fields.end(); field_it++) {
    const FieldDescriptor* field = *field_it;
     if (field) {
       // For our APIPort3 proto definition all types are UInt32, so
       // we don't have to inspect field->type_name() here:
       uint32 value = reflection->GetUInt32(*mutable_msg, field);
       std::cout << field->name() << " -> " << value << std::endl;
     } else
       std::cerr << "Error fieldDescriptor object is NULL" << std::endl;

  return 0;

Note to self, compile with:

g++ -g -I~/GIT/protobuf/src -c -std=c++11
g++ protobuf-example.o -lprotoc -lprotobuf


  1. If proto file includes other proto file using import statement , I can not parse proto. How can I do this proto files?

    1. hi, have you find a way to deal with the ‘import’ issue?
      I am searching for the same problem, would you please give me some help?

      1. Idk if you guys have figured it out but if you haven’t. Make sure your ‘pool’ contains all required files before the file that depends on them is inserted.

  2. I realize this post is 3 years old, but after extensive searching it is still the best example of dynamic protobuf messages that I have found!

    Thank you!!!

  3. Hello.

    Extremely useful example, thanks.
    For me, using g++ (GCC) 4.8.5 20150623 (Red Hat 4.8.5-16) I received an error:
    terminate called after throwing an instance of ‘std::system_error’
    what(): Unknown error -1

    Unless I uncluded -lpthread in the link line, then all is good.

  4. Got everything working tysm for this code!

    Here was my compilation under macOS, building protobuf compiler under gcc-9 rather than clang default compiler:

    g++-9 -g -I/usr/local/include -c -std=c++14
    g++-9 -v protobuf-example.o -L/usr/local/lib -lprotoc -lprotobuf -lpthread -o protobuf-example

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