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gRPC Channelz


Adds channel level debug information that can be remotely queried.


gRPC needs a way to expose internal details about connections. This information can be used to debug or diagnose a live program which may be exhibiting undesirable network behavior. In Stubby, this need is fulfilled by the sub-pages of the /rpcz page, which exposes aggregated RPC stats as well as listing all incoming and outgoing connections. gRPC would like to include and improve on this useful service.

Channelz Service

The Channelz Service, hereafter channelz, reports all known channels, subchannels, servers, and connections that process currently has. In a process, there are multiple clients and servers. To avoid confusion, a strict terminology will be used:

  1. A "channel" represents an abstraction that can start and complete RPCs. A channel may have channels and subchannels. A channel is a directed acyclic graph (DAG). Only leaf channels may have sockets. Interior channels may only have channels and subchannels.
  2. A "subchannel" represents an abstraction that is load balanced over by an owning channel. A subchannel may have channels and subchannels. A subchannel is a directed acyclic graph (DAG). Only leaf subchannels may have sockets. Interior subchannels may only have channels and subchannels.
  3. A "descendent channel" is either a channel or subchannel that is logically owned by a higher level channel. Typically these are subchannels, but may be channels themselves.
  4. A "server" represents the entry point for RPCs. A server may have one or more listening sockets, and has a collection of "services". Unlike clients, servers are not hierarchical. A server may only have sockets.
  5. An "endpoint" is either a channel or a server. The local and remote endpoints may exist within the same process.
  6. A "socket" is roughly equivalent to a file descriptor. A socket may be connected or unconnected (such as a listen socket).
  7. A "connection", sometimes called a transport, represents the link between two endpoints. It is included here for completeness.
  8. A "client" is a role rather than an abstraction. A client is the initiator of connections and RPCs, via its channels. A client has channels, which it uses to send RPCs. This term is used less commonly.

Channelz Data

The channelz service exposes internal implementation details in a public way. Since different implementations have different internal details, the channelz data is lightly abstracted. There are four top level entities exposed: Channels, Subchannels, Servers, and Sockets.

Each entity is uniquely identified by a positive integer, called the id. This id must be distinct and may not be reused over the lifetime of the process for any entity. This ensures that querying channelz will never result in referring to the wrong entity. While ids are not allocated sequentially, they are ordered. This enables pagination of the results when querying channelz. Since protobuf treats the number 0 as the default value, it is unused as an id.

Along with the id, a human readable name can optionally be associated with each the id. The id and the name together form a "reference". Thus, Channels, Subchannels, Servers and Sockets are identified by their respective references. These references are abbreviated ChannelRefs, SubchannelRefs, ServerRefs, and SocketRefs. Note that only the id is necessary to query channelz.

The data representation of each ref:

message ref structure

Channels and Subchannels

Channels and Subchannels, or descendent channels, are hierarchically organized into a DAG structure. The union of all channels and subchannels may not contain a cycle. A descendent channel may have any number of descendent channels. Each descendent channel may also have any number of sockets. However, a given descendent channel cannot have heterogeneous children. That is, a channel or subchannel may have descendent channels, or have sockets, but not both.

A subchannel represents a channel that is load-balanced over. When a channel has both subchannels and channels, the channels are not delegated to by the superchannel. An example would be a channel that is used by the ancestor channel, but does not handle RPCs given by the application.

Each channel has a ChannelRef reference which includes the channel id and an optional name. The name is included for human consumption. There are no restrictions on the name but it should be limited to a reasonable length.

Each subchannel has a SubchannelRef reference which includes the subchannel id and an optional name. The name is included for human consumption. There are no restrictions on the name but it should be limited to a reasonable length.

channel hierarchy 1

Channel Data

Channels and Subchannels include data about themselves, notably their initial parameters and their call stats. Currently the data includes:

  • Channel state ( See: )
  • Channel trace
  • Channel target, if applicable.
  • Number of calls started, succeeded, and failed. Note this is slightly different than the number of streams. See the Socket Data section.
  • Time of the last call started.

In general, each piece of data included is specific to the channel itself and NOT of its descendent channels. This is to say that an ancestor channel is not an aggregator for descendent channels. The target of a descendent channel may be different from that of its parent. The target of a descendent subchannel may not be present. The channel state may be different from the ancestor channel state. The number of calls started, succeeded, and failed should reflect if calls were specifically tied to the channel.

The number of calls started, succeeded, and failed on a channel gives insight into the activity of the channel. Subtracting the number of failed and succeeded calls from the number started indicates how many are in flight. The total number of started calls indicates how active the channel has been over time. The ratio between succeeded calls and failed calls gives a rough estimation of how healthy the channel has been. The last call started timestamp indicates how close the channel is towards entering the idle state.

Channel Trace

Channels and Subchannels also have a concept of a channel trace. This includes interesting events that have happened on the channel recently. Example events include entering different channel states, name resolution, load balancing changes, unreachability, etc. As mentioned earlier, this tracing info is specific to the channel, and not an aggregation of descendent channel traces.

The channel traces may include ids pointing to channels and subchannels outside of the current DAG. Since channel traces use the same ids as the channels themselves, this allows a user to query for more information about a channel given its trace.

Descendent channels

To keep the size of the Channel message down, only the ChannelRefs and SubchannelRefs will be included in the channel or subchannel. These refs can be used to walk the hierarchy. Subchannels are not included in the top level channels, and thus do not need to be paginated. A user may query for all the subchannels in parallel. As mentioned above, if there are any Sockets on the channel, there will be no descendent channels. This invariant exists to simplify the tree structure and more closely match the known implementations of gRPC.

The channel DAG represents a "has-a" rather than a "is-a" relationship. In the common case, there will be many subchannels. These subchannels will be used to balance RPCs for a given target.

Alternatively, a given channel's load balancer may itself make RPCs to gather data about which subchannels to prefer. Thus, the load balancing subchannels are owned by a parent, but do not share its target.

channel hierarchy 2


Like channels and subchannels, only SocketRefs are included on a channel. This is done for two main reasons. The size of the socket message may be large, and there may be many sockets for a given channel. Secondly, it can be CPU intensive to fill in the socket information, even though the information might not be desired. As mentioned in the section above, if there are any descendent channels, there will be no sockets. This invariant exists to simplify the DAG structure, and more closely match the known implementations of gRPC.


Servers are conceptually simpler than channels, and thus do not have the same hierarchical model. There is no need for load balancing or name resolution. Each "subchannel" is tied to a single socket, so the subchannel and socket are flattened into just the socket. Also, there are traditionally very few servers running in a given process, and thus don't need a more complex model to express their structure.

A server is an entry point for RPCs to be handled by a set of services. The group of services roughly defines a server, though services can be shared between servers. A server may be listening on any number of ports, though commonly there is only one. Each server has a ServerRef. Like a ChannelRef, it has a unique id and an optional name. The id is unique, even among the ids of channels, subchannels, and sockets. This makes it impossible to accidentally refer to the wrong entity type when querying channelz.

Note that even with no Servers present, channelz data is still collected. If in the future a server is started, it can expose the channelz service which includes prior channel information.

Server Data

Server data includes data about the server, similar to Channel Data. As of this writing server data is a subset of the channel data:

  • Number of calls started, succeeded, and failed. Note this is slightly different than the number of streams.
  • Time of the last call started

As before, the number of calls started, succeeded, and failed gives insight to how healthy and active the server is. The server does not start calls itself, so the counts represent how many calls the remote endpoint has started.

Server Channel Trace

Servers keep track of recent interesting events that have happened. This information is stored in the server channel trace. The trace includes events such as connecting clients, timeouts, protocol violations, etc. It also includes information about the shutdown of the server. This is important as the server may have many active calls when it is shutting down, which prevent it from terminating.

Sockets and Listen Sockets

Unlike channels, servers have two kinds of sockets. A regular socket is one that is connected to a remote endpoint. This is the most common type of socket. Servers also have a "listen" socket, which is used to accept and create new sockets.

There may be no listen sockets, but active regular sockets. This can occur during shutdown, when the server no longer wishes to accept connections but would like to gracefully complete the existing ones. If a socket could exist in both locations, it may. Implementations should prefer to segregate the two sockets.


Conceptually, sockets are the equivalent of a file descriptor. They have a local and remote address, as well as some concept of security detail. Sockets keep track of "streams" while Channels and Servers keep track of "calls." Sockets also expose access to underlying details of the operating system, such as socket options. They are the lowest level in the channelz hierarchy.

A SocketRef is associated with each socket, and contains a unique id and an optional name. The id is unique among even the channels and servers. The name includes information about the socket in a human readable form. This is important as it is used as a "bread crumb" when deciding which socket to query for, from the context of a channel or server.

Socket Data

The data exposed by a socket is much lower level than the channel or server data. This information is meant to aid in debugging slow or stalled connections. By default it includes the following:

  • Number of streams started, succeeded, or failed.
  • Number of gRPC messages sent and received.
  • Number of keepalive messages sent.
  • The last time an outbound stream was started and the last time an inbound stream was started.
  • The last time an outbound message was sent and the last time an inbound message was received.
  • The amount of flow control window granted to the remote endpoint, and the amount of flow control window granted by remote endpoint.
  • All known socket options set.

The stream counts differ slightly than that of the number of calls. Calls may be started before a socket (transport) is available, so the stream counter may smaller than the corresponding call counters. Conversely, if a stream fails and the call is retriable, a new stream may be started. This could make the stream counts higher than the call counts. Streams of a Channel's or Subchannel's sockets considered successful if they complete receiving an EoS frame. Streams of a Server's sockets are considered successful if they complete sending an EoS frame. All streams may issue or receive additional cleanup data (such as RST_STREAM frames) that do not count toward the success of the stream. All other terminations are considered failures. The number of successful streams may also be greater than the number of successful calls. For example, if the stream completes successfully, but the gRPC trailers are invalid.

The message counts represent how many gRPC messages are sent and received. Calls may send and receive any number of messages, including zero.

The number of keepalives sent represents how often the local endpoint wants to keep the socket alive. Generally this is an HTTP/2 PING frame. However, not all PING frames are keep alives. Specifically, pings that were sent as a reply (ACK bit set) or were used for reasons unrelated to keep alive should not count towards this. For example, if pings were used to measure network bandwidth, they would not be treated as keep alive. The intent is to measure how often the local endpoint is doing extra work to keep the connection alive.

Like Channel data, the last time a stream was started by the remote or local endpoint gives insight into the activity of the socket. The number of locally started streams is zero for server sockets, as servers do not start streams in the gRPC protocol.

In the event of long lived streams, the last time a message was sent or received is also useful to know. The last timestamps are included for messages in both directions.

Flow control is a very tricky subject and is often the source of hard to explain slowdown. The amount of window granted by each endpoint to each other is a constantly evolving number, which each endpoint sending chunks of window. For the particular flow control windows in the socket data, they are the windows as defined by the underlying transport. For example, HTTP/2 transports report the connection level flow control window. Implementations that don't support flow control may leave this blank, implying the limitation is either unknown or doesn't exist. Note that only the connection level flow control window is reported, rather than the stream level. TCP level flow and congestion control counters are exposed via socket options.

Socket Options

At this low level in the gRPC stack, implementation differences become more significant. Each OS or platform may have differing amounts of socket information available. To address these differences, each socket option name and value is expressed as a string.

If there is a more structured form (such as TCP info), it too can be included in the socket option message. At least one of the string forms or the structured form should be present. The additional data is exposed as a Proto3 Any field, to accommodate types added later. A few default messages are included for the common options, such as that for TCP Info, and socket timeouts.

When querying for socket option data, as much detail should be included as possible. Since there are many types of socket options (at least 50), the number of options included in the socket data may be large. If a querying a socket option returns an error, it should not be fatal. The channelz info is a debugging tool, so it should try to ignore the failed socket option and continue on.

This means that varying amounts of socket data may be returned by the channelz service. Implementations may avoid querying the options if it would be impractical, though they are encouraged to do so.


An important part of debugging a connection is finding "who" the socket is connected to. To answer this question each socket exposes a remote and a local address field. The address implies what kind of socket it is (e.g. TCP, UDP, UDS, etc.) as well as the identity used to establish the connection (e.g. IP Address, port number, filename, etc.).

Not every socket has a remote address; listening sockets may only include a local address. Not every socket has a local address; Unix domain sockets may only include a remote address.

By default, only TCP and UDS addresses are defined. Because there are many kinds of address families that cannot be anticipated, the address includes an extendable proto Any field for extension.


Cryptographically secure connections are expected for use with gRPC. The details of the crypto used on the connection are generally useful, and are thus exposed on the Socket message. As with Socket options and Addresses, there may be many kinds of security that exist outside of the commonly used TLS, so the structure is extensible. By default, only a TLS message is defined.

Querying Channelz

Channelz exposes four methods to access channelz data:

  • GetTopChannels returns the root channels for channel trees
  • GetServers returns the servers in the system
  • GetChannel returns info about a specific channel
  • GetSubchannel returns info about a specific subchannel
  • GetSocket returns info about a socket

Continuation Tokens

The first two methods, GetTopChannels and GetServers are based off the idea of a continuation token. A query for channels or servers includes a desired "start" id, and requests all entities with an id greater than the given id. The response includes entities, in ascending id order up to a limit (by default 100). When the client wants to request additional data, it sends another request with the last id from the previous response. This enables the user to get the next available page of entities. Thus, the id is the continuation token that the user sends to traverse the entities.

This mechanism provides a reasonable expectation of visiting each entity. As entities are created and destroyed, their ids will remain stable. Since ids are never reused existing entities can't accidentally get skipped. New entities may be added before the current cursor, but all entities that existed at the time scanning started can be reached. Additionally, since the ids are stable and the results sorted, other users can repeat the query and see the same page.

For example, the following sequence of events could occur: (C = client, S = server)

  1. C sends GetTopChannels(id=0)
  2. S sends RootChannels 1, 5, 9 but not 12, 13, 17, 18
  3. C sends GetTopChannels(id=9+1)
  4. S sends RootChannels 12, 13, 17 but not 18
  5. C sends GetTopChannels(id=17+1)
  6. S sends RootChannels 18, end=true

In this exchange, the client C requests some pages starting with the invalid id 0. The server sends back a page with 3 results. After the user looks at the first three items, the last item's id plus one is requested (9 + 1 = 10). While there is no channel with id 10, the server S sends back the first 3 items greater than 10. The client repeats the query with the new latest number, but gets back a response where the server indicated there were no more results. While a human user could retry the query, perhaps to see if new channels have been created, an automated user would know to stop here.

The channelz service may return any number of entities, though the results should be capped to a reasonable number. If the process is under heavy load, it may decide to return fewer entities. Since there is a flag in the response indicating that the user is at the end, channelz may even return an empty list. All ids are valid start points, including non positive ids.


This method returns all the root channels in the process. Users are expected to make this query first when investigating channels. As mentioned in the previous section, channelz will respond with a list of zero or more top level channels, as well as a boolean flag indicating if there may be more results. Users who wish to get the next results should use the largest channel id from the previous results in the subsequent query.


This method returns all servers in the process. The usage is identical to GetTop Channels, except that servers are returned. Users are expected to make this query first when investigating servers.


This method returns a single Server request by its id. If the server is not present, a NOT_FOUND status is returned.


This method returns a single Channel request by its id. If the channel is not present, a NOT_FOUND status is returned. Users are expected to make this query when traversing a single channel tree.


Like GetChannel, this returns a single Socket, or a NOT_FOUND if there is no socket with the requested id.

Alternatives Considered

There are a number of alternative possible ways to structure and expose channel data. Many were considered and discussed before reaching the current state. Some of the more notable alternatives are listed here.

Static or Dynamic Channel Trees

In the previous model (that of Stubby) channel structure was highly static. The hierarchy for channels was either 2 or 3 nodes deep, depending on if the channel used load balancing. This model is conceptually simpler to think about, as the tree depth is tightly bounded. This model had not been changed for many years, indicating that it was unlikely to change in the future.

While the previous model has served well, it is not sufficient for future use. As gRPC is an open source project with an open specification, there will be many implementations. These implementations may need to express arbitrary channel hierarchies in ways that cannot be anticipated. Additionally, gRPC itself is already not quite a perfect fit for this model, as channels to the loadbalancer are owned by the root channel. Since they are not technically subchannels of the root channel, they do not fit in the Channel > Subchannel > Socket structure.

Additionally, subchannels are practically identical to channels; the only difference is their location in the tree. Even though they would have had a specific message type, it didn't make sense to have two substantially equivalent messages.

Servers and Channels or just Channels

In the existing implementations of gRPC, servers are implemented using channels. There are not many behavioral differences between clients and servers for a given connection. They both speak the same protocol. Many of the fields overlap between the two types, and it could be conceptually simpler to unify them into one type. For fields that don't apply to one or the other, the field could be left unset. There is also a fair amount of flexibility in the current model with regards to channel structuring, why place an arbitrary division between channels and servers?

There are several reasons, experience has shown, to have a more separated model when it comes to overlapping entities.

When it comes to selectively setting or checking fields, it may not be clear from the documentation if the field should be accessible. Some fields may be sometimes set, but users may use them anyways. For example a server doesn't have a single "target" it is connected to, but with a unified structure it would not be clear if the missing target was a buggy channel or a server. Another example is the number of retries on a given channel. If there were zero, was it because it was a server, or because it was a channel that simply didn't retry?

Having more concrete message types makes the proto definition more self documenting. While comments could explain when which fields are set, having distinct types lessens this need. Fundamentally, the specification tells what should be produced rather than what is possible. This makes it easier to do the right thing, and harder to make mistakes. While the comments about how to use the overloaded field could also exist outside the proto (such as a gRFC), protos are the de facto source of truth.

Lastly, code that renders channelz data must be prepared to handle arbitrary tree structures. This implies that interpreting this data is already a burdensome task; unifying channels and servers does not make the task more difficult. While this is true, implementers too must decide which fields must be set. Since they cannot know how all readers might interpret the data, they cannot easily decide which fields can be safely set or unset. (Is it safe to stop setting an arbitrary field?)

Page-Offset or Continuation Token Pagination

Pagination of results makes it possible to load just some of the large amount of data. A simple way to do this is to include the page number and the size of the page to jump to the specific page of results. Users of the pages can think of them as actual book pages (i.e. the "nth" page). Implementers can easily retrieve the results since the offset can be calculated in constant time.

The problems with this approach are numerous, and readily visible in the previous system. Mainly, there is unstated but wrong assumption: the channel set doesn't change. Channels can be created and destroyed concurrently while the results are being paged through. This means that page 1 will have its results constantly changing on active systems. Trying to share the page with someone else risks them seeing a completely different result set. When retrieving page 2, the channels on the previous page may have been deleted. This causes the results to "slide" backwards, increasing the risk of missing some results.

A second problem is that it implies random access. To get a page of 100 results, starting at page 50, the channelz service must get channels 5000 to 5100. If channels are not stored in an array, this is significantly more difficult to do. Storing the results in a hashtable or binary tree would require much more bookkeeping.

A third problem is that it hugely limits the protocol in regards to filtering. Suppose in the future a parameter is added to the GetTopChannels request to only include active channels which were made from a particular network interface. The channelz service would have to construct a potentially expensive result set, and throw away all but the last results that the user requested.

A fourth problem is that there is no flexibility in page size. The protocol must either dictate a page size, or allow it to be configurable. This puts an unnecessary constraint on the server: it may be difficult to return a fixed number of results per page. For example, if a user requests a page size of a thousand, should the server return a thousand results? The server may not wish to do so much work.

A fifth problem is that having a page size at all raises ambiguity. For example, if the page size is 100, and the user is on page 50, but the user wants to change to using a smaller page size like 25, there isn't a good way to do so. The offset into the result set is now conflated with how many results are desired.

These problems are ameliorated by using a continuation token. A continuation token is traditionally an opaque identifier included in the response by a server. The user includes this token on subsequent requests to get the next results. Though, in the case of channelz, the identifier is not opaque.

The first problem is not solved by the token, but it is better. If a request is made at time t0, and subsequent requests are made at time tN, then the client can be certain to visit every channel that existed at time t0 and still exists at tN. This allows older channels to be reachable even as new ones are created. There is no possibility of missing a channel that did exist since the user remembers exactly where the last results were. A subsequent iteration through the pages will be certain to find newly created channels. Compare this to the page-offset approach, which could conceivably never find a particular channel.

The second problem is also solved. Since the ids are integers, the can be hashed or binary searched. This is not an unreasonable performance penalty, and leaves more flexibility in implementations.

The third problem is now easier too. If query parameters are added in the future, the server could keep a snapshot around for such results rather than recalculate the results each query. The token is where to resume from.

The fourth and fifth problem are solved now too. The number of results can be variable, allowing the server to return fewer results if convenient. The client can optionally include a desired page size, which the server can honor if acceptable.

ServerChannels or Sockets

Should servers have Subchannels? The semantics of servers are different than channels, but not by a lot. As mentioned in the "Servers And Channels or just Channels" alternative, servers can be considered a kind of channel (though, as the section explains, it was decided to keep them separate). One alternative that can address this similarity are ServerChannels. ServerChannels would act like a subchannels, but represent call level information specific to a server channel. In the current hierarchy, there is only room for servers to record stream level info as opposed to call level.

While not being able to store call level information is unfortunate, it isn't so bad. For example, each socket that a server has encompasses all information that a channel does. Each stream corresponds to a call.

Alternative IDs

There are many alternative ways of specifying ids. Each of the id schemes listed below has some shortcoming that makes it unsuitable for implementors or consumers.

Keep ids unique, but allow for reuse

This scheme does work, but raises the risk for ids from one part of the system to point to out of date info. For example, the ChannelTrace info will contain ids of other entities. If the ids could be reused, the trace info could refer to the wrong entity.

Keep ids unique, but silo them based on entity type

This scheme allows channel 1 to coexist with server 1. There are two problems with this scheme. First, ids serve an additional purpose. When looking through logs, it is convenient to search based on the id of the entity being logged. If ids could be in each entity silo, it would make debugging more difficult. The second problem is more subtle. Humans may type in the id into a system. By making ids globally unique, it becomes impossible to put a server id in a channel field.

Use opaque ids

This would be something like using surrogate key, perhaps a UUID, to identify the entity. This allows flexibility to change the implementation without affecting the interface. The problem with this is that it makes the implementor's life easier, but not the consumer's! It is useful to be able to cross reference ids from channelz to logs to even a live running system.

Use hierarchical ids

Instead of looking up channels and servers by their individual ids, one idea is to express the lineage in the id. For example, if channel 2 is a child of channel 1, its key could be "1-2". This would allow fast lookup, and allow validation that the node requested was actually the one returned. The pain point for this scheme is that it is more complicated to implement for not much benefit. There is a minor downside too: it means entities can't be reparented if the implementation ever wanted to. No known implementations do this, but it isn't forbidden. Specifying the full hierarchy in the key would give rise to errors about the channel not being found.


The canonical proto definition can be found at grpc/channelz/v1/channelz.proto.