Babel RPC

An RPC framework using JSON over HTTP

Using Babel

Babel is an IDL parser and RPC framework using JSON over HTTP. IDL files describe models and web services. The babel tool allows you to generate client and server code in multiple languages from the IDL file.

Best Practrices

Please look over the best practices guide once you are familiar with Babel. Also check out the design patterns.

Supported Languages

Overview of Using Babel

Babel Overview

Babel Syntax

Babel’s syntax should be familar to most programmers using C-like or JavaScript-like languages.

The Babel IDL File

A Babel file consists of a header and defintions. The header includes import and namespace statements. The rest of the file consists of const, enum, struct, and service declarations.

In general, the format is C-like. In most objects, a comma or semicolon is accepted as a separator, but isn’t required.

In general, the parse tree of the IDL maintains the order of the items in the original IDL file.


Ordinary comments are ignored by the parser.

// This is a comment
/* so is this */

Documenation Comments

Documentation comments may appear before a const, enum, struct, or service definition. They may also be used before field and method definitions, and at the top of the babel file.

/// This is a documentation comment
/** So is this */

Documentation comments are written to the output files in a format appropriate for the language. File-level documentation comments (at the top of the babel file) are written to each generated output file. This is a good place to put overview or copyright information.

Make sure documentation comments are awesome for best results! They are placed into the generated code and any UIs we build for documentation purposes.

Data Types

Babel supports various primitive data types. Try to avoid types with a language-specific behavior unless you really know what you are doing.

IDL typeExamples (JSON)DescriptionRange
boolfalse, trueBooleanfalse, true
byte0, 1, ...Unsigned 8-bit integerWarning: Language-specific behavior!
0 to 255
Java: 0 to 127
int8-1, 0, 1, ...Signed 8-bit integer-128 to 127
int16-1, 0, 1, ...Signed 16-bit integer-32,768 to 32,767
int32-1, 0, 1, ...Signed 32-bit integer-2,147,483,648 to 2,147,483,647
int64"-1", "0", "1", ...Signed 64-bit integer-9,223,372,036,854,775,808 to 9,223,372,036,854,775,807
float323.14Floating point with 32-bit precision-3.402823e38 to 3.402823e38
float643.14159Floating point with 64-bit precision-1.79769313486232e308 to 1.79769313486232e308
string"\thello, world"String, assumed to be UTF-8 or Unicode capable0 to any number of characters
Date-time type. (Date constants are not supported.)Specific range outside of 1980s and up varies by language
decimal"3.2415"128-bit decimal data type (Decimal constants are not supported.) Warning: Language-specific behavior!
ASP: -922,337,203,685,477.5808 to 922,337,203,685,477.5807</br/> .Net: ±1.0×10e-28 to ±7.9×10e28
Other: Represented as a string
char"\r", "A"Single character, assumed to be UTF-8 or Unicode capableSingle character
binary"YXNhZGFzZAo="Binary data stored in byte arrays (based64 encoded string)0 bytes to any number of bytes

Primitive types are generally nullable (i.e. optional). Initializers may be used to ensure that a field has a default value.

Finaly, the binary type is used to represent binary data stored in byte arrays. It serializes more efficiently than a list of bytes.

(Also see Language-Specific Issues and About JSON.)


Maps and lists may be defined.

A list can contain primitive types or complex types defined by a struct. Lists may contain null values.

A map’s key can only contain primitive types, but the value can contain any type. Null keys are not supported. Values set to null are not guaranteed to be preserved across the wire.

IDL typeExamplesDescription
A list of values
A map or dictionary

Initializers (Defaults)

In the data model generated for any given language, maps and lists are automatically initialized to an empty, non-null container. Manually nulling out a container may cause Babel’s Protocol (serialization) layer to generate an exception.

Initializing primitive types has the simple effect of a constructor initializing the value. Because Babel’s types are all nullable, this helps ensure that callers do the right thing. However, the server code should still check for null in its validation step.

That being said, when a field is nulled out but has a default value, the server will still see the default value. This is because the JSON (and other protocols) tend to minimize the data sent via the transport. If a field is null, it is not sent over the wire.

When the server parses the JSON, the model is initialized. Since the JSON doesn’t contain a definition for the null field, it is never assigned and the default value is used. Think of initializers as a way to set a default value.

NOTE - the following IDL primitive types do not support initializer values: datetime, decimal, and binary.


Attributes can be placed on struct, field, service, and method definitions.

[MessageId("OperatedBy", MessageCategory = "View"),
 ValidateStringLength(MaxLength = 32), ValidateRequired]

Multiple attribute blocks can be used over a single item:



Attributes may be used with a scope. When a scope is defined, the attributes can be passed-through by the code generator if the scope is enabled on the babel command line.

@myScope [MyAttribute]

Attributes without scopes are reserved for use by Babel.

Note: Babel does not automatically add import statements for pass-through attributes. Thus, you will usually need to specify their full namespace:

@validate [Validator.ValidateRequired]


Use the import statement to load another IDL file into this one. Imports must occur at the top of the IDL file and are relative to the current file. Use a forward slash as a directory separation (this way it works across platforms).

import "tower/includeMe.babel"

Symbols must be unique across all files. While output namespaces are supported, it is assumed that all of the symbols will be unique across those namespaces.

Default namespace

A default namespace is used to avoid specifying it for all languages. The default namespace is required and is written like a URL. Examples:


This maps to different languages as shown in the following example.


Language-specific namespace

The namespace statement is used to define the namespace for a given language (see supported languages above).

namespace csharp "Company.Tower"

Babel doesn’t validate these. In fact, babel assumes that all of the symbols that are defined are unique across all included files.


Enumerated types may be defined with their associated values.

/// Enumeration of supported languages
enum Languages {

Enumerated types must specify their integer values and cannot reference other enums or constants.

Enumerations can be used as initializers for enum fields and parameters.


Constants can be defined for chars, integers, doubles, booleans, and strings. Constants must be unique within their declaration block.

/// Miscellaneous Constants
const Misc {
	COUNT = 50;
	PI = 3.14159;
	Email = "";
	EmailValid = false;

Constants can be used to initialize fields and parameters, provided that the data type matches. All decimal constant values become datatype of double, so you can only use these constants to initialize fields of type double.


A structure defines the fields that will be transmitted in web services calls. Fields may have primitive data types or be other structures.

Structures and fields within them both support docmentation comments and attributes.

/// Documentation comment for Bar
struct Bar {
	datetime C
	/// D is for David
	/// Or so you would think
	list<Bar> D;
	[ValidateRequired, ValidateRegularExpression(Pattern = "[A-Za-z0-9]{2,2}")]
	string XXX = "foo"
	/** YYY is funny */
	[ValidateStringLength(MaxLength = 32),
	string YYY
	Info E
	Foo State = Foo.OFF
	Foo2 Name
	list<string> F
	map<int32,string> X
	map<int32,Info> Y
	map<string,list<Info>> Z
	int32 SomeInt

Structures may be defined as abstract. See below for more information.

Composing Data Structures

Structures can be composed by extending other structures, so that they have all of the base fields. This is done with the extends keyword.

abstract struct Bar {
	// fields

struct Foo extends Bar {
	// fields

Object composition is different from a traditional object-oriented language in several ways. Babel is designed to create data transfer objects for passing data around web services. It’s not an object-oriented format per se - instead it is focused on easily composing your data. That being said, it does generate a class hierarchy in most languages that support it.

Key differences you will note:

  • Unlike OO languages, polymorphism is not supported. Thus, list<Bar> will never have a Foo object in it. This is a very important distinction.
  • Overriding fields is not supported. All fields across the entire inheritance chain must be uniquely named.
  • The is no concept of virtual members or anything similar.
  • No multiple inheritance.
  • The abstract keyword prevents any field from using the struct as its type. Additionally, code generators may use the keyword to generate abstract classes.
Why no polymorphism?

Polymorphism might be supported in the future, but we felt that it adds unnessessary complexity and might even lead to bad DTO designs.

  • JSON serializers are far more complex (and slower) when supporting polymorphism.
  • Polymorphism is not supported by all target languages.
  • Major, industry-proven tools like Thrift and Protocol buffers don’t support it.

We want to see how use of Babel evolves. While we recognize some very well-known cases like travel segments, the vast majority of use cases may not need it.

Design Alternatives

Since this polymorphic case won’t work:

struct Trip {
	list<Segment> Segments;

A common alternative is:

struct Trip {
	list<AirSegment> AirSegments;
	list<HotelSegment> HotelSegments;
	list<CarSegment> CarSegments;
	// etc.

This alternative is, interestingly enough, how the TripIt API works. It’s a good model when you don’t know who is using your service and what tools they are using.

Please keep in mind that the client libraries generated by Babel can be used with polymorphism or “duck typing” in your code - just not in the DTO objects themselves. For instance, you could create a list of Segment objects and sort them in your code. They just can’t go over the wire that way.

Other alternatives involve using a single Segment type:

struct AirProperties {}
struct HotelProperties {}
struct CarProperties {}

struct Segment {
	// Common Properties
	AirProperties Air;
	HotelProperties Hotel;
	CarProperties Car;

struct Trip {
	list<Segment> Segments;


Defining a service involves listing the methods that are available on the service. The service definition and the methods both support documentation comments and attributes.

/** Service description */
service TokenGenerator {

	/// Get a token
	Foo GetToken();

	/// Post a token
	Foo PostToken(Foo token);

	/// Validate a token
	Foo ValidateToken(
		/// token specified
		int64 tokenId,
		/// Application
		string application

For services and methods, there are specific attributes that are used to generate the output. Methods may be declared with a void return type if they don’t return data.

Using Babel

The Babel Binary


The only required files are the babel binary and the template folder. Babel has minimal dependencies - just a few shared libraries that should already be on the operating system.

The location of the templates folder is based on the location of the babel binary. /usr/bin and /bin locations are replaced with /etc - so effectively, the templates folder is located in the etc folder that corresponds to the bin folder. If the binary is not in a bin folder, then the templates folder is expected to be in the same folder as the binary. Some examples are shown below.

babel binary locationDefault template folder location

Command-Line Parameters

-templatesbabeltemplates (as shown above)Use to override the location of the templates folder
-helpfalseShow command help
-jsonfalsePrint the JSON representation of the IDL parse tree
-langcsharpGenerate code in the given language
-outputgen-langOutput folder for generated files
-incfalseGenerate included files too
-nsOptionally matches files only if namespace starts with this
-scopesComma-separated list of scopes to enable
-optionsComma-separated list of key=value pairs for generator
-versionDisplay the version number



Babel contains a parse tree idl.go, and a yacc file parseidl.y that implements the parser. The lexical scanner is Go’s own text scanner which tokenizes input for C-style languages.

Output is generated using Go’s template package.

Syntax Files

Babel supports a few syntax highlighters.