It's no secret and no surprise that Protobuf in Python is slower than its Java and C++ counterparts, here's the official benchmarks. However if you look at those benchmarks there is what appears to be a secret, at least as far as the documentation goes, in the benchmarks it goes by the column header: "C++-generated-code".

The benchmarks list three variants for Python: "C++-generated-code", "C++-reflection", and "pure-Python". A little bit about these:

  • Pure Python is the Protobuf library implemented in Python alone, understandably not performant.
  • C++ reflection is the Protobuf library but makes use of a Python extension which links to the C++ Protobuf library (, this gives a significant boost to performance over the Python library, orders of magnitude faster than the pure Python variant (roughly 10x).
  • C++ generated code links to C++ libraries which have been generated from the proto, for serialisation this is faster yet again but not to quite the same extent (roughly 5x for serialisation and 2x for parsing).

So which of these variants do we get when we install protobuf via pip?

If your pip is hitting PyPi (default) you're going to be picking up one of the wheels packages, each of the wheels that are specific about their platform make use of the "C++-reflection" variant - you're likely to be picking up one of these. However of course not every platform is covered, for this the "pure-Python" variant is used as a fallback, so you need to be careful that you're not going to suddenly get undetected performance regressions which would happen today if you updated Python 3.7 to Python 3.8 on Windows for example. You can detect if you're using "C++-reflection" or "pure-Python" using:

python -c "from google.protobuf.internal import api_implementation; print(api_implementation._default_implementation_type)"

The above will print either cpp or python, note that it's using an internal api so there's no guarantee this won't break in future versions of the Protobuf library.

So what about the faster "C++-generated-code" variant?

Disclaimer: This variant is a bit more involved, unless you know need the additional performance I wouldn't recommend it.

To make use of generated C++ libraries from your protos from the Python library requires magic. The gist of it is that the C++ Protobuf library contains what's named a DescriptorPool, this is global and contains descriptions of all loaded Protobuf messages. The generated C++ code hooks into this by adding the description of the message to the pool. The Python library that links to the C++ library via a Python extension can make use of the global description pool from the C++ library. Note description this may not be 100% accurate and there's more involved, but this is the gist of how it's functioning.

So, what we need is to load the C++ libraries generated from your .proto files before importing your generated Python code. This will get the C++ code for the messages added into the global descriptor pool which the Python library is then able to use. Which leads to the question, how do we load the C++ libraries? A. A Python extension that links to the C++ Protobuf library and to the generated C++ library.

There's a gotcha with this. For this to work both your extension and the Protobuf library need to be making use of the same globals - they need to be linked to the same libprotobuf library. But the wheels packages on PyPi do not dynamically link, they appear to have been statically linked to libprotobuf:

We need to build the Protobuf Library ourselves. There's a few ways to do this, for example cloning the Protobuf git repository and building from source. Or another method, install libprotobuf and grab the source from PyPi an, example:

# Install C++ Protobuf Library and headers
sudo apt-get install libprotobuf-dev

# Download source from PyPi (alternatively clone the git repo for latest)
python -m pip download --no-deps --no-binary=protobuf protobuf
mkdir protobuf
tar xzf protobuf-*.tar.gz -C protobuf --strip-components 1

# Install Python Protobuf Library with --cpp_implementation but importantly not --compile_static_extension
cd protobuf
python install --user --cpp_implementation

Complete example + benchmarks coming soon

Note this was written at 2021-01-04, the situation may have changed since - all links are provided are the latest commits on the relevant files at the time of writing.