RFC-0031: Typed Epitaphs

RFC-0031: Typed Epitaphs
  • FIDL

Ability and syntax to indicate the type of an epitaph.

Gerrit change
Date submitted (year-month-day)2019-02-05
Date reviewed (year-month-day)2021-04-07

Rejection rationale

This proposal was rejected due to its poor interaction with service discovery, and to a lesser extent, to the estimated implementation complexity.

Interaction with service discovery

A very common pattern on Fuchsia is to request a specific protocol by its name, through a fuchsia.io/Directory.Open call. We call this service discovery. During service discovery, a client interacts with a server implementing the fuchsia.io/Directory protocol. When a service discovery request is received by that server, it finds the appropriate service requested, and transfers its server end of the channel to the requested service. This means that the client is interacting with one server (backing the fuchsia.io/Directory), then another server (backing the requested service).

Unfortunately, service discovery imposes strong restrictions on epitaphs. In the case of a failure leading to an epitaph being sent, the client cannot tell which peer issued the epitaph -- was it the server backing fuchsia.io/Directory, or the requested service?

In practice, service discovery can include many more than just two servers as described above. As a result, epitaphs must be very generic, and cannot carry domain specific details. Essentially, epitaphs suffer from having to satisfy the least common denominator of all discoverable protocols.

As part of this proposal, and to remedy this restriction, it was discussed having all protocols which take part in service discovery to compose a fuchsia/IsDiscoverable protocol. This protocol would define a typed epitaph:

protocol IsDiscoverable {
    epitaph zx.status;

None of the children of fuchsia/IsDiscoverable could define a custom epitaph, thus properly capturing the restriction in the type system. Specifically, this part of the proposal:

There can be no more than one epitaph type declaration for a protocol (including any and all composed protocols, recursively). We specifically prevent two semantically equivalent epitaph type declarations with the same type.

However, it was deemed infeasible to make all discoverable protocols compose this new fuchsia/IsDiscoverable. For instance, no static enforcement could be provided since by design service discovery is dynamic.

Interaction with request pipelining

The request pipelining pattern can be thought of as a generalization of the service discovery pattern, and imposes similarly strong restrictions on epitaphs.

Implementation complexity

While FIDL features carry complexity (language rules, extension to the JSON IR, bindings code, generated code, ergonomics), typed epitaphs are quite high on the complexity spectrum, and their usefulness is quite low. That tradeoff didn't exactly made us jump for joy.

Where do we go from here?

This section represents the author's opinion (pascallouis@google.com).

When epitaphs were introduced, the stated goal was to 'provide an indication of why a client-to-server connection is being closed'.

Epitaphs have fallen short of this goal, and their usefulness is marginal. Protocols that have come to rely on epitaphs could have as well used custom events, which have none of the shortcomings described above, nor any of the payload restrictions imposed due to the low-level first principle behind FIDL.

One benefit of epitaphs is the 'clean termination' of a protocol, where the server is mostly assured that client peer will unbind from the channel and refrain from issuing subsequent requests.

It has been floated to introduce a terminal modifier applicable to events, to shift away from the use of epitaphs and onto custom events without losing this 'clean termination' property. With terminal events, library authors would be free to define the payload of the event as they so desire. To support this, we would extend the wire format to allocate one flag of the transactional header to indicate termination of the protocol. Upon receiving of messages marked as terminal, the client would terminate the connection in addition to the normal handling. Should the client be unaware of the event (very likely in complex request pipelining cases), the transactional header could be understood by the client, while the payload discarded.


We propose:

  1. New syntax to indicate the type of an epitaph on a protocol (we do not change the default type zx.status of an epitaph);
  2. A way to expose the type of an epitaph to bindings, so that this information can be leveraged appropriately during code generation;
  3. Supplement the compositional model to specify that the type of an epitaph is unique per protocol, and it is carried over by composition.

We expect epitaph typing to be used: either on 'leaf' protocols, i.e. protocols defined by themselves or composing others; or once in a 'composition tree', with the epitaph type placed on the 'top' or 'root' protocol.


tl;dr we like types. types are good. let's have more types.

Syntax, and Error Types

In RFC-0053: Epitaphs we introduced the concept of epitaphs "a mechanism to allow a server to send a message prior to closing a connection that provides an indication of why the connection is being closed". The epitaph contains an error status, which is currently fixed to being an int32. When reviewing epitaphs, we chose to fix the type to int32 to overlay with zx.status, with the idea to fold 'user errors' with 'protocol errors' down the road.

In RFC-0060: Error Handling we introduced syntax to specifically type errors, in particular noting that "error types must be int32, uint32, or an enum of one of those types." We want to allow epitaphs' errors to be typed, and are choosing a representation matching that of error handling.

In RFC-023: Compositional Model for Protocols we introduced new syntax to declare protocols, and to compose protocols. The syntax we are proposing here for epitaphs follows that style.

We consider all these prior decisions to be directionally aligned with propositions (1) and (2).

Compositional Model with Epitaphs

Proposition (3) has two aspects, uniqueness of an epitaph type per protocol, and behavior under composition.

The semantics of an epitaph are similar to that of a special event, and it follows that the response type would be unique per protocol.

Behavior under composition follows a similar line of thinking, affirming that epitaphs' types compose. We discuss an alternative definition below, and its downside.

By allowing epitaphs types to compose, we are introducing a potential breakage at a distance scenario. Consider a protocol ChildWithEpitaph composing a protocol FarawayParent, and defining it's epitaph type to be SomeSpecificErrorCode enum. Should the FarawayParent decide post-facto to specify an epitaph type, the composition would then be disallowed, and compilation of ChildWithEpitaph would fail.

Alternative: Epitaphs do not Compose

Another approach would be to consider that only defined messages (methods and events) can be composed into another protocol. In this alternative model, should a parent protocol define an epitaph type, this type would be independent from the possibly separate epitaph type of the child protocol. For instance, we would allow the following definitions:

protocol Parent {
    epitaph ParentErrorCode;

protocol Child {
    compose Parent;
    epitaph ChildErrorCode;

Since we do not provide any relationship between protocols (e.g. no subsumption, no evolvability rule), that alternative model has some merits. It gives much more freedom for situations where both epitaph typing and composition are used.

However, we have all intents and purposes to define relationships between protocols in the near future, and should therefore weigh this choice against this design goal. For instance, if and when we introduce a formal subsumption relationship ("is a"), should a protocol compose another, where both define an incompatible epitaph type, these protocols would immediately fail the submission test: a client expecting one type of epitaph would be ill-equipped to handle another epitaph type.

We therefore consider it a better choice to be restrictive today in how epitaph types may be used, so as to leave the door open to extensions tomorrow.



We extend the grammar to allow an epitaph stanza within protocol declaration:

protocol SomeProtocol {
    ExampleMethod(...) -> (...);

    epitaph SomeErrorCode;

The epitaph stanza is syntactically similar to the compose stanza, and also follows the syntax chosen for error specification.

Formally, the grammar is modified as follows:

protocol-declaration = ( attribute-list ) , "protocol" , IDENTIFIER ,
                        "{" , ( protocol-member , ";" )*  , "}" ;

protocol-member = ...
                | "epitaph" type-constructor ; [NOTE]

NOTE: The epitaph stanza allows the more liberal type-constructor in the
grammar, but the compiler limits this to int32, uint32, or enum thereof. There
may be only one epitaph stanza per protocol definition.

ABI and Source Compatibility

When we introduced epitaphs we fixed the type to be int32 with the expectation that we would constraint this to 32 bits. Fixing error codes to 32 bits was later affirmed when introducing the errors syntax.

Here, we are maintaining this choice, and as noted will constraint the epitaph type to int32, uint32, or an enum thereof.

As a result, changing an epitaph type (possibly by going from the default to a specified one), does not modify the ABI compatibility.

However, changing an epitaph type will be most likely a source level breaking change. Binding authors MAY break source compatibility. We do not foresee this being a problem as epitaphs are not widely used today.


We add to the definition/interface object a member epitaph of type definitions/type.

For instance, we may have:

      "name": "example/SomeProtocol",
      "epitaph": {
          "kind": "primitive",
          "subtype": "uint32"
      "methods": [
          "ordinal": 296942602,

The epitaph type is always present in an interface declaration, and set to the default zx.status if not specified otherwise.

Composing Epitaphs

When composing a protocol into another, the type of the epitaph carries over. For instance, with the protocols:

protocol Parent {
    epitaph SomeErrorCode;

protocol Child {
    compose Parent;

The resulting epitaph type of both Parent and Child is SomeErrorCode.

There can be no more than one epitaph type declaration for a protocol (including any and all composed protocols, recursively). We specifically prevent two semantically equivalent epitaph type declarations with the same type.

This example is invalid and should fail to compile:

protocol Parent1 {
    epitaph SomeErrorCode1;

protocol Parent2 {
    epitaph SomeErrorCode2;

protocol Child {
    compose Parent1;
    compose Parent2;

This example is also invalid, and should fail to compile:

protocol Parent {
    epitaph SomeErrorCode;

protocol Child {
    compose Parent;
    epitaph SomeErrorCode;

Implementation Strategy

(To be determined by the FIDL team post review. This change is not dissimilar from many prior changes.)



Documentation and Examples

At least:

  • Wire format specification should indicate that epitaphs are int32/uint32, which need to be interpreted with their appropriate type.
  • The guidance for developers should be clarified with statements such as "ZX_OK (or relevant success code)" to widen the advice to developer specified types.

Backwards Compatibility

FIDL source: Strictly backwards compatible since we're expanding the language grammar. No FIDL file could have a "epitaph type-constructor;" stanza in a protocol declaration prior to this change.

JSON IR: Backwards compatible for non-strict parsers which allow extra keys, since we're adding the "epitaph" key to all interface declarations.


No impact on performance.


No impact, or slightly positive given additional type safety.


Unit testing in fidlc, and binding generation tests.

Drawbacks, Alternatives, and Unknowns


Prior Art and References

(As noted in text.)