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REST vs. gRPC - A Deep Dive into Modern API Choices

· 14 min read


REST vs. gRPC: A Deep Dive into Modern API Choices

In the bustling alleyways of modern software development, API design stands as a particularly spirited crossroad. Developers worldwide wrangle with a range of questions: How should APIs be structured? Which protocol offers better performance? How can one ensure that an API is both user-friendly and robust? And, amidst these ponderings, two contenders emerge dominant – REST and gRPC.

Background on Modern API Design Challenges

The crux of the modern API design challenge lies not in the lack of options, but rather, in the abundance of them. As software ecosystems have evolved, so have the complexities of inter-service communications. Today, APIs are no longer just bridges between systems; they are the highways upon which digital transformation travels.

Designing an API is like crafting a new language. It requires clarity of intent, efficiency of expression, and flexibility to adapt. Yet, with these demands come countless decisions on the structure, format, response codes, error handling, and more. Every choice could either streamline the development process or set it up for technical debt.

Brief Overview of REST and gRPC

REST (Representational State Transfer): An architectural style that has become synonymous with web APIs in the past decade. REST uses standard HTTP methods, is stateless, and relies on the basic CRUD (Create, Read, Update, Delete) operations mapped to these methods. It's simple, intuitive, and leverages the ubiquitous HTTP protocol. A classic REST call might look something like:

GET /users/123

The appeal? REST is accessible, making use of familiar HTTP methods, status codes, and URL structures. Its stateless nature ensures that each request from any client contains all the information needed to process the request.

gRPC (Google Remote Procedure Calls): Born from Google's vast microservices experience, gRPC is a framework that uses the Protocol Buffers (Protobuf) data format. It champions a procedure-oriented approach, allowing direct calls between services, almost as if you're invoking a local procedure. Unlike REST, gRPC isn't bound to HTTP; it rides on HTTP/2, permitting multiple concurrent calls on a single connection. Here's a simple gRPC service definition:

service UserService {
rpc GetUser (UserId) returns (User);

message UserId {
int32 id = 1;

message User {
int32 id = 1;
string name = 2;

gRPC's allure is its efficiency, strongly-typed nature, and bi-directional streaming capabilities. It's designed for performance, offering features like deadlines, cancellations, and flow control baked right in.

While both REST and gRPC have their merits, the debate often boils down to specific use-cases, preferences, and the architectural needs of a project. As we venture deeper, we'll disentangle the nuances, dispel myths, and empower you to make an informed decision for your next API project. Buckle up, developers; we're in for an enlightening journey.

REST: The Dominant Paradigm

For a long while, if you were building an API, REST was the go-to choice. It emerged as an eloquent response to the perceived complexities and rigidity of older protocols like SOAP. But like every dominant paradigm, while REST addressed many issues, it also birthed new challenges and critiques.

Basic Principles of REST

REST is not a protocol but an architectural style, a set of constraints guiding API design. Some of the core principles include:

  • Statelessness: Each request from a client to a server must contain all information needed to understand and process the request. No context is stored on the server between requests.
  • Client-Server Architecture: REST assumes a clear separation between the client and server, promoting scalability.
  • Cacheability: Responses from the server can be cached by the client to improve performance.
  • Uniform Interface: RESTful systems should have a consistent and uniform interface, making interactions predictable.

These principles combined give REST its character - scalable, stateless, and simple.

Mapping of RPC-like Concepts onto HTTP

Historically, developers leaned heavily on RPC-like models where actions and operations took the front seat. As the industry moved towards REST, this posed an interesting challenge: How do you represent action-oriented operations in a resource-oriented paradigm?

Chambon's Critique and the Industry Reaction

Pascal Chambon, in his candid exposition, delved into the frustrations arising from trying to map RPC-like concepts onto HTTP. While the piece had its merits, it also contained misinformation, leading to a spirited industry reaction. Most of the retorts highlighted the benefits of REST and clarified misunderstandings. Yet, an essential takeaway was the inherent complexity in custom-mapping RPC-like notions onto HTTP, a sentiment echoed by many developers.

The Advocacy for REST as a Solution to API Design Complexities

REST emerged as a response to the cluttered, soapbox (pun intended) world of SOAP. Its adoption was less about its novelty and more about its elegant simplicity.

Benefits of Using REST

  • Intuitive Design: REST's emphasis on resources makes it intuitive. Think of resources as nouns (like 'users', 'orders') and HTTP methods as verbs (like GET, POST).
  • Flexibility: REST doesn't enforce a strict message format. Whether it's XML, JSON, or even HTML, REST can handle it.
  • Scalability: Its stateless nature ensures scalability, as there's no need for the server to retain session information.
  • Broad Adoption: Given its tenure, there's a wealth of tools, libraries, and community knowledge around building and consuming RESTful services.

Challenges and Criticisms of REST

  • Overfetching/Underfetching: Without mechanisms like GraphQL, you might retrieve more data than necessary or not enough, leading to multiple round trips.
  • Statelessness Overhead: For some applications, the continual need to provide context can add overhead.
  • Versioning: Evolving RESTful APIs can be challenging. Do you introduce a new endpoint, add a version in the URL, or use headers?
  • Performance: While REST over HTTP/1.1 handles most scenarios, for applications requiring real-time interactions and lower latencies, it might not be the best choice.

As we pivot towards gRPC in the following sections, bear in mind that the debate isn't about 'good' or 'bad' but rather 'fit' or 'misfit' based on context. After all, in software design, context is king.

gRPC: The Emerging Contender

While REST has been the dominant player in the API realm, there has been a consistent hum of alternatives bubbling beneath the surface. gRPC, developed by Google, has rapidly ascended the ladder, offering solutions to some challenges posed by REST, while integrating the power of RPC.

Background and Origin of gRPC

Google needed a high-performance, open-source, and universal RPC framework to power their vast microservices ecosystem. This birthed gRPC, initially part of the Cloud Endpoints project. Standing for "Google Remote Procedure Call," gRPC has roots in Google's Protocol Buffers, a mechanism for serializing structured data, much like XML or JSON.

Benefits of gRPC

gRPC has multiple features that have made developers sit up and take notice.

Interface Description Language (IDL) and its Significance

With gRPC, the API contract is clearly defined using Protocol Buffers. This is the Interface Description Language (IDL) for gRPC, ensuring a strong contract between client and server. With IDL, you can describe both the service methods and their message types, resulting in precise communication specifications.

service Greeter {
rpc SayHello (HelloRequest) returns (HelloReply);

message HelloRequest {
string name = 1;

message HelloReply {
string message = 1;

Simplification with HTTP/2

gRPC is built atop HTTP/2. With HTTP/2, gRPC can enjoy features like:

  • Multiplexing: Multiple requests for multiple services over a single connection simultaneously.
  • Flow Control: Managing data flow between client and server using advanced mechanisms to prevent resource exhaustion.
  • Stream Prioritization: More urgent requests can be processed quicker than others.

Strength in Generating Intuitive Client-Side Libraries

Once you've defined your service in a .proto file, gRPC tools can auto-generate client libraries in multiple languages. This significantly reduces the manual labor in client setup, and ensures type safety and the right method signatures from the get-go.

Performance Advantages and Protocol Considerations

By using Protocol Buffers as its IDL, gRPC can serialize and deserialize messages incredibly fast. Additionally, with native support for bi-directional streaming, real-time applications become a breeze.

Combining Entity-Oriented Model with RPC

REST's essence lies in its resource or entity-centric worldview. How does gRPC, with its procedure-centric mindset, marry the two?

The Essence of an Entity-Oriented Approach

At its core, an entity-oriented approach sees the world as a collection of entities with relations between them. In the context of APIs, it translates to an intuitive model where resources (like 'users' or 'orders') are central.

Application with gRPC

gRPC doesn't enforce a resource or entity-centric approach. However, with thoughtful design, it's entirely possible to meld the two. For instance, a gRPC method could be designed around entities and their actions:

service Users {
rpc CreateUser (UserDetails) returns (UserResponse);
rpc UpdateUser (UserUpdateRequest) returns (UserResponse);

Here, while the RPC nature is evident, the entity-centric nature of the operations is also clear.

As we delve deeper, remember that while REST and gRPC have their strengths, the choice largely hinges on the problem you're solving. Sometimes, the solution might even lie in an amalgamation of the two. But for now, let's focus on understanding gRPC's unique offerings in the realm of API design.

The Downsides of gRPC

While gRPC has heralded many groundbreaking benefits, it's essential not to get lost in the sea of accolades without addressing its challenges. Much like everything else in technology, gRPC isn't a silver bullet. Let's evaluate some of the issues developers might face while adopting this framework.

Serialization and Debugging Complexities

gRPC uses Protocol Buffers (protobufs) for its serialization, which are binary formats. This choice has its trade-offs. While protobufs are efficient, they cannot be serialized without the original "contracts" or the .proto files. In contrast, JSON provides an open and flexible schema, allowing runtime modifications without the need for the original schema.

The binary nature of protobufs also introduces complexities when debugging gRPC messages. Debugging tools that developers are accustomed to, which can easily inspect JSON payloads, often stumble with the binary data in protobufs. This can make the process of identifying issues in message exchanges more challenging.

Requirements for Specialized Software

gRPC leans on HTTP/2 and Protocol Buffers, which aren't as ubiquitous as HTTP/1.1 and JSON. This necessitates specialized software for load balancers, proxies, and even client libraries that understand and can process these specific technologies. While popular tools have increasingly adopted these standards, it's still an extra layer of complexity and requirements.

Limitations with General-Purpose Technologies

Many general-purpose tools and platforms have deep integrations and optimizations for REST and JSON-based communications. These tools, whether they are monitoring solutions, API gateways, or caching mechanisms, might not support gRPC out of the box.

Google Cloud Endpoints as a Potential Solution

To address some of these concerns, Google offers Cloud Endpoints, which provides an NGINX-based proxy to translate HTTP/JSON requests into gRPC. This makes integration easier with existing infrastructure but requires an additional layer and understanding of this translation mechanism.

Envoy Proxy: Bridging the Gap for gRPC

Envoy is a high-performance, extensible proxy designed for modern cloud-native architectures. Among its diverse range of capabilities is native support for gRPC and HTTP/2. This positions Envoy as an ideal solution to bridge the divide between traditional systems and gRPC services. With its dynamic configuration, resilience features, and rich observability capabilities, Envoy can act as an adept gateway, load balancer, or sidecar proxy in gRPC setups, ensuring smoother integrations and offering valuable insights into traffic behaviors.

Challenges with General-Purpose API Clients and Proxying

Popular API clients like Postman have been designed primarily with RESTful APIs in mind. This creates friction when trying to use such tools for gRPC-based services. Also, proxying gRPC traffic can be more complex because of its reliance on HTTP/2.

Retrofitting Challenges and Data Consistency Concerns

Adopting gRPC in existing ecosystems can be an uphill battle. The shift from JSON to Protocol Buffers might necessitate rethinking data structures. Moreover, gRPC's streaming capabilities can introduce challenges with ensuring data consistency across services, especially when those streams are multiplexed over a single connection.

Update Mechanisms in gRPC vs. REST's PATCH Method

REST, with its HTTP verbs, provides a clear mechanism like PATCH for partial updates. In gRPC, such delineation isn't as explicit, and developers might need to design custom methods or use specific patterns to handle partial updates.

Caching Considerations with gRPC and HTTP/2

An essential advantage of HTTP/1 is its mature caching mechanisms. Systems relying on these caches can greatly benefit from enhanced performance and reduced server loads. With the rise of gRPC and its inherent use of HTTP/2, this caching mechanism isn't inherently supported. While HTTP/2 provides many advancements, it lacks the built-in caching semantics available in HTTP/1. Developers moving to gRPC must consider alternate caching strategies or potentially adapt to living without the traditional caching mechanisms they are accustomed to.

In conclusion, while gRPC offers a modern, performance-driven approach to remote communication, it does come with certain trade-offs. Developers must evaluate its advantages in the context of its challenges, especially given their specific ecosystem, infrastructure, and use-case requirements. This careful consideration is vital for the successful adoption and integration of any technology.


The REST vs. gRPC debate isn't just about choosing one over the other. It's about understanding the intricacies of each approach and discerning which aligns best with your project needs. In the rapidly evolving landscape of API design, it's not about picking sides but making informed choices.

Considerations for Choosing Between REST and gRPC

When deliberating between REST and gRPC, consider the following:

  • Project Requirements: If you need real-time, bi-directional communication, gRPC with its streaming capabilities might be a better fit. On the other hand, if your project involves creating public-facing APIs for a broad range of clients, the universality and simplicity of REST could be advantageous.
  • Infrastructure and Ecosystem: If your existing toolchain and infrastructure are optimized for HTTP/1.1 and JSON, transitioning to gRPC might pose challenges. On the flip side, if you're building from scratch and performance is paramount, gRPC's efficiencies could be appealing.
  • Development & Maintenance: While gRPC's IDL offers strong type safety and streamlined client-library generation, it does demand a learning curve. REST, being more established, might offer smoother sailing, especially when considering third-party integrations.
  • Evolution and Scalability: If your API's needs might evolve to necessitate real-time features or if scalability under heavy loads is a concern, gRPC, with its lightweight messages and multiplexing capabilities, might be the forward-thinking choice.

The Future of API Design and the Potential Evolution of REST and gRPC

As technology advances, it's crucial to understand that neither REST nor gRPC is static. Both are bound to evolve.

  • REST's Evolution: With the advent of tools like GraphQL, we're already seeing RESTful principles being merged with more flexible querying capabilities. This kind of evolution suggests that REST might shift to accommodate more complex requirements without losing its simplicity.
  • gRPC's Growth: The growth trajectory of gRPC suggests greater tooling and community support in the coming years. As more platforms offer first-class support for HTTP/2 and Protocol Buffers, some of gRPC's current downsides might be mitigated.

In the end, the decision between REST and gRPC isn't binary. It's a spectrum where the right choice depends on a myriad of factors. As developers, our goal isn't just to choose the trendiest solution but to select the one that provides real value to our projects and end-users. Whatever your choice, approach it with an open mind and the knowledge that the landscape is always shifting under our feet. And that, fellow developers, is what keeps our journey exhilarating.


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