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RFC-0020 - Interface ordinal hashing

RFC-0020: Interface ordinal hashing
  • FIDL

We propose removing the programmer's ability to manually specify the ordinal for interface methods. Instead, the compiler generates the ordinal based on a hash of the fully-qualified method name, i.e. the library name, interface name and method name.

Date submitted (year-month-day)2018-10-26
Date reviewed (year-month-day)2018-11-29

"60% of the time, it's the answer to an interview question"


We propose removing the programmer's ability to manually specify the ordinal for interface methods [1]. Instead, the compiler generates the ordinal based on a hash of the fully-qualified method name, i.e. the library name, interface name & method name. Method renames will be ABI-compatible via a new Selector attribute (see below).

We specifically restrict this FTP to propose ordinal hashing for interfaces only; not enums, tables nor extensible unions. We believe the use-cases for those structures are different enough that they need further investigation and a different FTP.


Currently, a FIDL author would write:

library foo;

interface Science {
    1: Hypothesize();
    2: Investigate();
    3: Explode();
    4: Reproduce();

This FTP would enable the ordinal indexes to be dropped:

interface Science {
    Hypothesize();  // look, no ordinals!

Under-the-hood, the compiler effectively generates ordinals that look like this:

interface Science {
    // ordinal = SHA-256 of the fully-qualified method name,
    // i.e. "foo.Science/MethodName", truncated to 32 bits
    0xf0b6ede8: Hypothesize();
    0x1c50e6df: Investigate();
    0xff408f25: Explode();
    0x0c2a400e: Reproduce();


  • Manually specifying ordinals is largely mechanical. It's less work to write an interface if you don't need to think about them.
  • If a good hash is used, it's extremely unlikely that hashing will result in ordinals clashing, which is an improvement on humans manually writing ordinals (particularly if interface inheritance is used). See the [Ordinal Clashing section below](#Ordinal Clashing & Conflict Resolution] for more information.
  • Programmers must currently ensure that ordinals for different methods do not clash. This is easy for interfaces with few methods, but if an interface has many methods, this can become non-trivial. There are different coding styles and schools of thought for ordinal numbering, which leads to inconsistent coding style.
    • Most interfaces start at 1 and go upwards.
    • However, some authors prefer grouping different interface methods in ranges (e.g., 1-10, 100-110, etc).
    • Removing manually-numbered ordinals also removes this inconsistent style, and removes the need for the author to make the decision about which style to use.
  • Interface inheritance may lead to unanticipated clashing of ordinals. Two attempts have been made so far to solve this:
    • FTP-010 (rejected) proposed an OrdinalRange attribute so that interface inheritance could be more predictable; it was rejected.
    • FragileBase [2] is the current stop-gap solution, but doesn't solve the core problem of ensuring that ordinals don't clash.
    • If ordinals are hashed and the interface and library name are used to compute the hash, hashing ordinals will not result in clashing ordinals, which solves the interface inheritance problem (outside of extremely rare hash collisions).



The hashed ordinal is derived by a SHA-256 hash of:

library name (encoded as UTF-8; no trailing \0)
".", ASCII 0x2e
interface name (encoded as UTF-8; no trailing \0)
"/", ASCII 0x2f
method name (encoded as UTF-8; no trailing \0)

For example, the following FIDL declaration:

library foo;

interface Science {

will have the following byte patterns used to calculate the ordinal hash:


The . and / separators are used since fidlc already outputs fully-qualified method names in this format (c.f. fidlc's NameName() method).

Once the SHA-256 hash is computed:

  1. The upper 32 bits of the SHA-256 hash are extracted (e.g., echo -n foo.Science.Hypothesize | shasum -a 256 | head -c8)
  2. The upper bit is set to 0, resulting in an effective 31-bit hash value that's zero-padded to 32 bits. (31 bits are used since the FIDL wire format reserves the most significant bit in the 32-bit ordinal.)

In pseudo-code:

full_hash = sha256(library_name + "." + interface_name + "/" + method_name)
ordinal = full_hash[0] |
        full_hash[1] << 8 |
        full_hash[2] << 16 |
        full_hash[3] << 24;
ordinal &= 0x7fffffff;

The Selector Attribute & Method Renaming

We define a Selector attribute that will be used by the compiler to compute the hashed ordinal instead of using the method name. If a method name does not have the Selector attribute, the method name will be used as the Selector. (The interface and library names are still used in the hash computation.)

Selector can be used to rename a method without breaking ABI compatibility, which was one advantage of manually-specified ordinals. For example, if we wish to rename the Investigate method to Experiment in the Science interface, we can write:

interface Science {
    [Selector="Investigate"] Experiment();

We allow the Selector attribute on methods only. Renaming libraries is considered rare, and preserving ABI-compatibility in this situation is not a high priority. Similarly for renaming an interface. Additionally, the interaction of a renamed interface with a Discoverable attribute would be confusing: which name is the discoverable one?

Ordinal Clashing & Conflict Resolution

If a hashed ordinal results in a clash or conflict with another hashed ordinal in the same interface, the compiler will emit an error, and rely on a human to specify a Selector attribute to resolve the conflict [3].

For example, if the method name Hypothesize conflicts with the method name Investigate, we could add Selector to Hypothesize to avoid the conflict:

interface Science {
    [Selector="Hypothesize_"] Hypothesize();
    Investigate();  // should no longer conflict with Hypothesize_

We will update the FIDL API rubric to recommend appending "_" to the method name for the Selector to resolve clashes. fidlc will also suggest this fix.

Note that ordinals are only required to be unique per-interface, similarly to manually-specified ordinals. If we wish ordinals to be unique across all interfaces, that should be proposed in another FTP.

Back-of-the-envelope calculations show that, with 31 bits and 100 methods on an interface, the chance of collision is .0003%, so we expect hash collisions to be extremely rare.

Selector Bikeshed

There were other suggestions for Selector:

  • WireName (abarth)
  • OriginalName (ctiller)
  • Salt (abarth; slightly different since it suggested adding a compiler-specified salt instead of an alternate name)
  • OrdinalName

We chose Selector since we believe it more closely reflects the intent of the attribute than either WireName or OriginalName.

We chose to have the programmer specify the ordinal name, rather than the ordinal index, for several reasons:

  • requiring the index would be more tedious (e.g. copy-and-paste of the raw SHA-256 hash value in case of a conflict),
  • specifying the ordinal name enables ABI-compatible method renaming, and
  • specifying the name instead of the index arguably keeps the abstraction level the same in the programmer's head as they write the interface, rather than going one level of abstraction lower, requiring them to think about ordinals.

The Zero Ordinal

Zero is an invalid ordinal. If a method name hashes to zero, the compiler will treat it as a hash conflict and require the user to specify a Selector that does not hash to zero.

We considered having fidlc automatically re-hash the name by deterministically transforming it, but felt that:

  • any such algorithm would be non-obvious, and
  • the zero case is extremely rare,

and that therefore this approach didn't warrant complicating both the ergonomics and the compiler implementation.


This FTP also covers events, which are considered a subset of methods by the FIDL language docs [4].

Compiler & Bindings Changes

We believe that only fidlc needs to be modified to support ordinal hashing; code generation back-ends do not need to be modified. This is because fidlc computes the ordinals and emits them in the JSON IR to back-ends.

Bindings do not need to change.

Implementation strategy

We intend to implement this in distinct phases:

  1. Add code to fidlc to compute hashes.
  2. Add support for attributes to libraries.
  3. Broadcast intent-to-change to fuchsia eng so they are aware of potential issues. a. Propose that manual ordinals will be deprecated on a certain date, when we expect the next step is completed.
  4. In the same CL: a. Modify the FIDL grammar's interface-method rule to make ordinals optional; see below for more details. b. Ignore manually-specified ordinals, and use the hashed ordinal for the ordinal name passed to code-generation back-ends. c. Manually fix any existing hash collisions by adding the Selector attribute.
  5. Test the changes over two weeks to ensure there's no production problems. a. New FIDL interfaces written in this time should not use ordinals. b. Manual ordinals are regarded as deprecated, though fidlc will not emit warnings about this. c. Work with teams to ensure no manually-specified ordinals remain in interfaces. c. At the end of the two weeks, update the FIDL formatter to remove ordinals, and mass-apply it to the entire Fuchsia tree.
  6. Remove support for manually-specified ordinals.

The above is a soft transition; changing fidlc to use the hashed ordinals (step 4b) should not break the rollers, since rollers build from a single version of the entire tree.

In's implementation of this FTP, he chose to prefer a manually-specified ordinal over a hashed ordinal, which diverges from step 4b above. This keeps all existing interfaces that use manually-specified ordinals ABI-compatible, and only uses hashed ordinals when ordinals aren't specified.



  • Writing interfaces should be simpler.


  • Programmers will need to understand a new attribute, Selector, that serves two purposes: renaming and conflict resolution.
  • It may not be apparent that changing a method name breaks ABI compatibility, which wasn't the case with programmer-specified ordinals. User education (e.g. better documentation) can ameliorate this.
    • Note that other component systems, such as COM and Objective-C, typically also break ABI compatibility when interface methods are renamed. So, this behavior probably familiar to developers who have used similar systems.
  • The loss of manual control over ordinal numbers may result in less debuggability in unusual cases where e.g. multiple FIDL interfaces are being used on the same Zircon channel.

Note that the authors originated this FTP largely for ergonomics reasons.

Documentation and examples

We expect to make changes to the FIDL attributes, grammar, language and wire format docs. The API readability rubric doc should also be updated, as noted in the Selector section.

Backwards compatibility

  • Hashed ordinals are ABI-incompatible with manually specified ordinals, by design. We expect this to be a non-issue, since
    • the fidlc change is binary (either hashed xor manual ordinals will be used), and
    • fidlc is used to build the entire tree, so
    • all parts of the tree will consistently use the chosen ordinal scheme.
  • Hashed ordinals are API (source)-compatible. Existing source files will be kept compatible; manual ordinals will be deprecated (see Implementation Strategy).
  • Errors will occur if two different builds of fidlc (i.e. two different builds of the Platform Source Tree) are used, and FIDL interfaces are used to communicate across machines. The authors know of no current uses of this, so this should not be an issue.


We expect a negligible slowdown to fidlc, as it now has to hash all method names in an interface to compute them.

We expect an insignificant runtime performance impact. Compilers may have generated jump tables for manually-specified ordinals that were previously small and contiguous, which will become binary searches through a sparse ordinal space when hashed ordinals are used. The same mechanism may also impact binary size in an insignificant fashion. (Table-driven dispatch will likely ameliorate both the size and speed concerns.)


We do not expect runtime security issues, since ordinal hashing has no runtime changes except changing the ordinal values sent over-the-wire.

The use of a cryptographic hash (SHA-256) may lead some to believe the hash needs to be cryptographically strong; we do not believe there are security issues since:

  • the FIDL compiler will check for hash collisions at compile time and require human input to resolve them, and
  • we use SHA-256 not for cryptographic purposes, but because we'd like a hash that is extremely unlikely to result in collisions. CRC-32 (or even strlen()) would work too, but would probably result in more collisions, which would simply be inconvenient.

Truncation of the SHA-256 hash may also concern some, but again, we do not believe there are security issues since the FIDL compiler statically checks for hash collisions [5].

Testing has analyzed existing FIDL interfaces and determined that there are zero hash collisions.

We'll carefully consider how to test the case of an actual hash collision, since artificially generating hash collisions with a good hash is difficult (by design).

Otherwise, the typical battery of unit tests, CQ tests, compatibility tests and manual testing should suffice to ensure that ordinal hashing is robust.

Drawbacks, alternatives, and unknowns

This FTP intentionally only addresses ordinal hashing for interfaces. It does not propose changes to the manually-enumerated ordinals for enums, tables nor extensible unions.

Perfect hashing was suggested by, and was considered. The FTP authors are not very familiar with perfect hashing schemes, but believe that the addition of extra methods over time would change the hashes of existing methods and therefore break ABI compatibility, making perfect hashing unsuitable. Dynamic perfect hashing may be possible, but raises the same question of changing hashes, and is also less well-known and more complicated than standard hashing, which doesn't warrant further investigation.

Another approach to removing manual ordinals is to send the full method name across the wire, which is done in many (most?) other RPC systems (see [References] below). This has runtime performance implications that arguably conflict with FIDL's intended use-cases.

We considered being able to specify the hash used so it can be changed later, if SHA-256 ended up having problems that another hash would solve. This design is common in security applications, where a widely-used cryptographic hash will have vulnerabilities discovered later. However, specifying the hash would likely require changes to the wire format, and require all language bindings to implement code to select hash algorithms, significantly complicating both compiler and bindings code. We did not think that trade-off was worthwhile. We recognize that git also took this attitude toward SHA-1, and is now somewhat back-tracking on the decision, but think we think our use case is different enough to justify hard-coding the hash algorithm.


  • A space-efficient means of identifying a method could lead to an efficient first-class representation of a method, making methods first-class.
    • This could, e.g., enable methods to be used as arguments in FIDL calls, or have a FIDL method return another method as a result. There are arguably existing use cases for this already, where methods return an interface with a single method as a proxy for returning an actual method.
  • The proposed 31 bits of hashing could be expanded to, e.g., 64/128/53 bits; SHA-256 provides lots o'bits.
  • Rename ordinal to selector, which is an existing concept that serves the same purpose in other languages and component systems.
  • It may be worth distinguishing between method name and interface name, so we have the two distinct pieces of data. This enables referring to the interface name uniquely, and the method name uniquely. We probably need more than 32 bits for this.
  • As mentioned above, enums, tables, and extensible unions are out-of-scope. That said, we do think this FTP could apply to them. Initial thoughts:
    • We're unsure whether enums would want this feature. The simpler and standardized consecutive integer numbering seems sufficient.
    • This could probably be applied as-is to extensible unions.
    • Tables would need a different wire format to adopt ordinal hashing, since ordinals currently need to be contiguous due to the packed representation.
  • FIDL currently reserves the ordinal upper bit, and explicitly says in docs that a range of the upper bits is intended for use as control flow etc. The authors think that one of the reasons for this may also have to do with clashing ordinals. Do we want to revisit this?
    • Expanding the ordinal space to 64 bits (mentioned above) will largely solve this.
    • suggested on the Fuchsia IPC chat room to reserve only 0xFFFFxxxx.
  • We could include the method's argument types in the calculated hash, which would support method overloading if we'd like that in the future.
    • mentions that hashing full method signatures may limit opportunities for interface extension, and that overloading maps poorly onto many programming languages.
  • Since ordinal hashing should resolve ordinals clashing when interface inheritance is used, the [FragileBase] attribute could also be removed.
    • Code Search shows ~9 uses of FragileBase.
  • The authors were concerned that an interface that has evolved significantly over time may become hard to read if many methods have Selector attributes on them.
    • One approach to solving this is to adopt something similar to Objective-C categories or C# partial classes, where an already-existing declared interface can be "extended" to have attributes added to it in a separate declaration.

Prior art and references

Interestingly, we do not know of any other method dispatch or RPC system that uses a hash of the method name to identify which method to call.

Most RPC systems call methods by name (e.g. gRPC/Protobuf service, Thrift, D-Bus). For in-process method calls, Objective-C uses a guaranteed-unique char* pointer value, called a selector, to identify the method that should be called on a class. The Objective-C runtime can map selectors to stringified method names and vice versa. For out-of-process method calls, Objective-C distributed objects uses the method name for invocation. COM directly uses the C++ vtable for in-process calls, and therefore depends on ABI and compiler support to support method dispatch. suggested ordinal hashing for tables in's Phickle proposal. and met on Thu 2018/10/18 to whiteboard this.


Mojo/FIDL1 also didn't require the programmer to specify ordinals; instead, they were sequentially generated (similarly to FlatBuffers's implicit tag numbering for table fields).


Previously, you could create a FIDL interface that inherited from whichever other FIDL interface you liked. However, the interface and the superinterface share the same ordinal space, which means if you added a method to an interface you might break a subinterface in some other, far away library.

There are several proposals kicking around FIDL-land for resolving the inheritance / ordinal collision problem, but until we figured out how we want to solve this problem, we've switched the default for interfaces to forbid inheritance. An interface can still opt in to allowing subinterfaces using the [FragileBase] attribute.

If you run into this issue, the compiler should print out an error message with a brief explanation. I ( have added the [FragileBase] attribute everywhere we use FIDL interface inheritance in the Platform Source Tree (hopefully!).

Please let me know if you have any questions or run into any trouble.


We do not believe that there'll be sufficient ordinal clashes to warrant any extra implementation and cognitive complexity added by automatic conflict resolution. We can revisit this decision without breaking backward-compatibility if data shows that ordinal clashing becomes problematic.


If only results are declared, the method is referred to as an event. It then defines an unsolicited message from the server.

Footnote5 writes, "Yes it's ok to truncate SHA-2 and no, it doesn't matter where you truncate."