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RFC-0087: Updates to RFC-0050: FIDL Method Parameter Syntax

RFC-0087: Updates to RFC-0050: FIDL Method Parameter Syntax
  • FIDL

Modify the syntax for specifying request and response parameters by explicitly defining the top level type.

Gerrit change
Date submitted (year-month-day)2021-03-09
Date reviewed (year-month-day)2021-04-14


After RFC-0050, the parameters of a FIDL method request or response are specified inline in the form of (name1 Type1, name2 Type2), which implicitly defines a request/response type of a struct with the parameters as its members. This RFC proposes changing the syntax to specify the top level type explicitly, e.g. (struct { name1 Type1; name2 Type2; }). Users will also be allowed to specify request/response types of unions or tables in addition to structs. This RFC has no wire format impact.


In this RFC, "wrapping a type in a struct" refers to the process of taking an existing type and defining a new struct that consists of a single member of that type. For example, wrapping a type T in a struct refers to defining a new type type Wrapped = struct { my_t T; }. This technique can be used to work around certain constraints of the FIDL language. For example, a uint8 cannot be nullable but a struct can, so it is possible to effectively have a nullable uint8 by first wrapping it into a struct. It is also worth noting that T and Wrapped have the exact same wire format.


Changing the syntax to specify the top level type explicitly, e.g. (struct { name1 Type1; name2 Type2; }) provides two main benefits, by:

  • putting the ABI implications at the forefront of the syntax, following FIDL's design principles. As an example, writing (struct { name1 Type1; }) instead of (name1 Type1) makes explicit the fact that the top level request or response type is a struct, and that therefore adding or removing a new parameter is not ABI or API compatible.
  • making it possible for users to specify a different top level type without requiring an additional level of indirection of wrapping the type in a struct. Besides improving readability by having the definition inline, this allows the FIDL compiler to pick an appropriate name rather than putting this burden on the developer. One example scenario where this may be desirable is a method where the extensibility of the request parameters is a priority - in this case, the user can use a table instead of a struct.

The timing of the introduction of this RFC is linked to RFC-0050 in two ways:

  • The introduction of anonymous layouts in the RFC makes it possible to reuse this syntax for specifying the request/response type without needing to give it a separate name.
  • The syntax change proposed in this RFC can be grouped into the existing implementation and migration required for RFC-0050, obviating the need for a separate migration.




protocol Oven {
  StartBake(temp Temperature);
  // message with no payload
  -> OnReady();


protocol Oven {
  StartBake(struct { temp Temperature; });
  // message with no payload
  -> OnReady();

The full set of possible method variations would be:

MyMethod(struct { ... }) -> (struct { ... });   // Two-way
MyMethod(struct { ... }) -> ();                 // Two-way, but response is empty
MyMethod() -> (struct { ... });                 // Two-way, but request is empty
MyMethod() -> ();                               // Two-way, but both request and response are empty
MyMethod() -> (struct { ... }) error zx.status; // Two-way; response leverages error syntax
MyMethod() -> () error zx.status;               // Error: must specify a type for success case.
MyMethod(struct { ... });                       // One-way
MyMethod();                                     // One-way, but request is empty
-> MyMethod(struct { ... })                     // Event
-> MyMethod();                                  // Event, but response is empty

More formally, the grammar of

protocol-method = ( attribute-list ) , IDENTIFIER , parameter-list,
                  ( "->" , parameter-list , ( "error" type-constructor ) ) ;
protocol-event = ( attribute-list ) , "->" , IDENTIFIER , parameter-list ;
parameter-list = "(" , ( parameter ( "," , parameter )+ ) , ")" ;
parameter = ( attribute-list ) , type-constructor , IDENTIFIER ;


protocol-method = ( attribute-list ) , IDENTIFIER , method-params
                  ( "->" , method-params ( "error" type-constructor ) ) ;
protocol-event = ( attribute-list ) , "->" , IDENTIFIER , method-params;
method-params = "(" , type , ")"

A type is as defined in RFC-0050, i.e. it is either a reference to an existing type like MyType<args>:constraints, or an anonymous layout e.g. struct { name Type; }:constraints.

Though the grammar will allow arbitrary types to be used as requests and responses, the FIDL compiler will validate that the top level types are either structs, unions, or tables.

As specified in RFC-0050, the compiler reserves a name for any inlined top level request or response type which makes it possible to shift away from an inlined style when this is desired (for example to improve readability when the number of parameters increases). As an example, it is possible to change from:

protocol MyProtocol {
    Foo(struct {
      // input param
      input uint32;
    }) -> (struct {
      // output param
      output uint32;


type FooRequest = struct {
  // input param
  input uint32;

type FooResponse = struct {
  // output param
  output uint32;

protocol MyProtocol {
    Foo(FooRequest) -> (FooResponse);

with no API or ABI impact (assuming that FooRequest and FooResponse are the names that were reserved by the compiler).


The main impact in the bindings is that there may be cases where the API corresponding to a set of request/response parameters is either flattened or not depending on the top level type of the request or response. Currently there exists instances of both flattened and non-flattened generated APIs.

Here, a "flattened" API refers to any API in the bindings that uses request and response parameters directly, abstracting away the fact that they are wrapped in a struct. For example, the function signature for the client call corresponding to a FIDL method GetName(struct { id uint32; }) -> (struct { name string; }) in HLCPP is: void GetName(uint32_t id, GetNameCallback callback). The parameters specified in FIDL correspond directly to function parameters in C++.

A "non-flattened" API refers to the case where the top-level type itself is exposed to the user. In the previous example, this would be something like: void GetName(GetNameRequest req, GetNameCallback callback). GetNameRequest corresponds to the top level struct type, and would have a single uint32 id field.

In the current syntax where all top level request or response types are implicitly structs, flattening the parameters so that they correspond directly to the arguments of a function signature is OK because adding or removing a struct member is both ABI and API incompatible anyways (i.e. this inlined API in the generated bindings does not add additional restrictions to the guarantees provided by FIDL). However, this is not the case for e.g. tables and unions, which support adding and removing members. For this reason, there may be cases where flattening cannot happen if the compatibility guarantees of the language construct being used to represent the method (in this example, positional function arguments in C++), are more restrictive than those provided by the top level type (e.g. a table or a union). Going again with the example above, this would mean that GetName(table { 1: id uint32; }) -> (table { 1: name string;}) would need to generate a non-flattened signature of the form void GetName(GetNameRequest req, GetNameCallback callback) to maintain the compatibility guarantees provided by the top level type of a table.

For generated functions or methods, some programming languages like Dart could get around this by using named arguments on the sending side, but this would still be source incompatible on the receiving side due to having to correspondingly add a new parameter to the receiving method.

In summary, bindings code that uses a flattened API for structs may need to provide a different, non-flattened API if the top level type is a table or a union. In cases where bindings currently already generate a non-flattened API - for example, MyProtocol::MyRequest or MyProtocol::MyResponse in LLCPP, there will be no such distinction between the API for a top level struct request/response or a top level union or table request/response.


The JSON entry for maybe_request and maybe_response will be changed. The old schema of:

"maybe_request": {
    "description": "Optional list of interface method request parameters",
    "type": "array",
    "items": {
        "$ref": "#/definitions/interface-method-parameter"


"maybe_request_payload": {
    "description": "Optional type of the request",
    "$ref": "#/definitions/compound-identifier"

(and the same change for maybe_response)

The "maybe_request_payload" field already exists that matches this shape but is not yet specified in the JSON IR as part of the work for "Changing our representation of messages". In practice, the JSON IR change for this RFC will involve completing the migration from "maybe_request" to the "maybe_request_payload" (see Implementation).


There are two parts to the implementation of this RFC: the first is the purely cosmetic change of modifying all existing files to conform to the new syntax proposed here, and the second part is changing the FIDL compiler and bindings to allow tables and unions as top level types. The syntax change will be implemented as part of the broader RFC-0050 FIDL syntax conversion but support for union and table top-level types can be deferred so as to avoid being a blocker for the FIDL syntax improvements project. All FIDL files written in the "new" syntax will be expected to conform to the changes laid out in this RFC, and the formal FIDL grammar will be updated to reflect its design at the same time as the rest of RFC-0050.

There are some cases in the existing bindings where enabling top level types of tables and unions for requests and responses will not require significant changes besides handling the new JSON IR format. When this is not the case, i.e. the encoding and decoding code in a binding relies on the assumption that the top level type is a struct, there are two possible approaches:

  • The first approach is to wrap any tables and unions into a struct first before encoding and decoding. This can be unappealing since it requires generating an additional type and adds an extra step to encoding and decoding.
  • An alternative approach would be to modify the encoding/decoding code to support inputs that are not structs. Currently there is at least some code that assumes that the input is always a struct (for example, the correct traits in LLCPP are only generated for structs, and request and response encoding in Rust happens through tuples rather than structs), but the number of places where this assumption is currently unknown - this will need to be determined to understand the tradeoffs and ultimately decide between the two approaches. This latter approach may have benefits beyond method calls, for example it eliminates the need for wrapping types in a struct in a persistent data use case.


As part of, a migration was already in progress to move the "maybe_request" and "maybe_response" fields out of the JSON IR so that any special treatment of request and response types occur only in FIDL backends. This work was paused before being completed, but will be resumed in order to implement this RFC. Currently, the C++ backend is the only remaining fidlgen backend that uses "maybe_request" and "maybe_response" (though other libraries using the JSON IR, such as FIDL codec, will also need to be updated).

Security and Privacy

This RFC does not modify the FIDL wire format and thus has no impact on security and privacy.


This RFC will be tested using existing infrastructure: unit tests, golden tests, and integration tests (e.g. FIDL compatibility tests).


As this feature is enabled, documentation (including examples) should be added to describe the new functionality.

Drawbacks, Alternatives & Unknowns


The syntax suggested in this RFC makes the common path of using a struct as the top level type more verbose, since it needs to be specified explicitly. Alternatives could include introducing syntactic sugar for the common case (e.g. keeping the current syntax for structs, and using the new explicit syntax for tables and unions), but the readability of being explicit in all cases is considered more important than reducing the verbosity.

Another part of the syntax that may be considered unappealing is the redundancy in brackets: (struct { ... }), which was an issue that was also discussed in FTP-058. Here there is a preference for consistency: keeping the curly braces ensures that the syntax for a type inside of a request is the same as the syntax for a type anywhere else in a FIDL file. The approach taken in FTP-058 to avoid redundant braces by replacing them with spaces (e.g. MyMethod struct { ... } -> union { ... };) could be valid here as well. In FIDL text, this more functional style was consistent with the rest of the proposal and aligned with the syntax used in the Fuchsia shell, whereas here it is inconsistent with the rest of FIDL's more C-family/Go based syntax.

Finally, another alternative that was suggested was to instead change the syntax used to specify types to align with method parameter syntax: structs would be specified using a tuple/record like syntax: type MyStruct = (foo Foo, bar Bar);. This would then allow us to keep the same parameter syntax when the top level type is a struct by omitting the extra set of parentheses MyMethod(foo Foo, bar Bar);. As a full example, this suggestion would look like:

// Declare a struct with two fields foo, bar.
type SomeStruct = (foo Foo, bar Bar);

protocol MyProtocol {
  // Declare a method with two request parameters.
  // The two parameters are stored in a struct.
  MyStructMethod(foo Foo, bar Bar);

  // Declare a method with two optional parameters.
  // The two parameters are stored in a table.
  MyTableMethod table { 1: foo Foo, 2: bar Bar };


As mentioned in the design, in many cases bindings cannot flatten or inline the top level type's members in generated APIs for tables and unions in the same way they can for structs so as not to introduce additional compatibility constraints. The rules on when a method's top level type members get inlined or not may not be straightforward for users to memorize - this means that they will need to rely on documentation or generated code inspection to determine what the resulting API for each FIDL protocol method is. This introduces some complexity over the current situation, where bindings APIs consistently inline/flatten the top level type members.

In theory it is possible to provide a consistent API by never flattening request or response parameters, but this is considered infeasible in practice as it requires migrating all instances of user code that depend on this API (which is most of user code interacting with FIDL methods).

Prior Art & References

The syntax suggested in this RFC is closer to that used in gRPC, where method request and responses are specified using a single protobuf message.

A similar idea to this RFC was previously suggested by, allowing ordinal syntax (e.g. MyMethod(1: foo Foo; 2: bar Bar)) to imply that the top level type is a table instead of a struct. The main difference is that this RFC supports top level unions in addition to tables and structs, which makes the originally suggested semantics ambiguous given that unions also use ordinals.