Message serializers

§Message Serializers

Out of the box, Lagom uses Play JSON to serialize request and response messages. You can also define custom serializers to use for your types, using any wire protocol that you please, from JSON to protobufs to XML.

§How Lagom selects a message serializer

When you declare your service descriptor, the call, namedCall, pathCall, restCall and topic methods all take implicit MessageSerializer parameters to handle the messages that your service calls use. As is possible with all implicit parameters in Scala, you can let the Scala compiler resolve these implicitly for you, or you can pass them explicitly.

For example, this shows how to explicitly pass the default Lagom String serializer:

import com.lightbend.lagom.scaladsl.api.deser.MessageSerializer

trait HelloService extends Service {
  def sayHello: ServiceCall[String, String]

  override def descriptor = {
    import Service._


We saw in the service descriptors documentation how by declaring an implicit Play JSON Format on a case classes companion object, Lagom will use that for messages of that type. The reason this works is that Lagom provides an implicit MessageSerializer that wraps a Play JSON Format. This is the jsValueFormatMessageSerializer method on the MessageSerializer companion object.

The JSON message serializer format can also be explicitly used. Let’s say you had a message with an id property, and for one service call you wanted the format used to be the default format that the Play JSON macro gives you, but in another you wanted a different format, one where the id field was called identifier in the JSON. You might provide two different formats:

import play.api.libs.json._
import play.api.libs.functional.syntax._

case class MyMessage(id: String)

object MyMessage {

  implicit val format: Format[MyMessage] = Json.format
  val alternateFormat: Format[MyMessage] = {
    (__ \ "identifier").format[String]

You can see we’ve made one of these implicit, so it will be picked if we let implicit resolution do its job. Then, the non implicit one can be passed explicitly in the service call descriptor:

trait MyService extends Service {
  def getMessage: ServiceCall[NotUsed, MyMessage]
  def getMessageAlternate: ServiceCall[NotUsed, MyMessage]

  override def descriptor = {
    import Service._

        implicitly[MessageSerializer[NotUsed, ByteString]],
          implicitly[MessageSerializer[JsValue, ByteString]],

§Custom serializers

JSON might not be the only type of wire format that you want to use. Lagoms MessageSerializer trait can be used to implement custom serializers.

As we’ve already seen, there are two types of messages in Lagom, strict messages and streamed messages. For these two types of messages, Lagom provides two sub interfaces of MessageSerializer, StrictMessageSerializer and StreamedMessageSerializer, which differ primarily in the wire format that they serialize and deserialize to and from. Strict message serializers serialize and deserialize to and from ByteString, that is, they work strictly in memory, while streamed message serializers work with streams, that is, Source[ByteString, _].

Before we look into how to implement a serializer, there are a few basic concepts that need to be covered.

§Message protocols

Lagom has a concept of message protocols. Message protocols are expressed using the MessageProtocol type, and they have three properties, a content type, a character set, and a version. All of these properties are optional, and may or may not be used by a message serializer.

Message protocols translate roughly to HTTP Content-Type and Accept headers, with the version possibly being extracted from these if a mime type scheme that encodes the version is used, or possibly also been extracted from the URL, depending on how the service is configured.

§Content negotiation

Lagom message serializers are able to use content negotiation to decide on the right protocol to use to talk to each other. This could be used to specify different wire formats, such as JSON and XML, as well as different versions.

Lagom’s content negotiation mirrors the same capabilities as HTTP. For request messages, a client will select whatever protocol it wants to use, and so no negotiation is necessary there. The server then uses the message protocol sent by the client to decide how to deserialize the request.

For the response, the client sends a list of message protocols that it will accept, and the server should choose a protocol from that list to respond with. The client will then read the servers chosen protocol, and deserialize the response using that.

§Negotiated serializers

As a consequence of content negotiation, Lagom’s MessageSerializer doesn’t directly serialize and deserialize messages, rather it provides methods for negotiating message protocols, which return a NegotiatedSerializer or NegotiatedDeserializer. It is these negotiated classes that are actually responsible for doing the serializing and deserializing.

Let’s take a look at an example of content negotiation. Let’s say we wanted to implement a custom String MessageSerializer, that can serialize either to plain text, or to JSON, depending on what the client requests. This might be useful if you have some clients that send the text body as JSON, while others send it as plain text, perhaps one of the clients was a legacy client that did things one way, but now you want to do it the other with new clients.

Firstly, we’ll implement the NegotiatedSerializer for plain text Strings:

import akka.util.ByteString
import com.lightbend.lagom.scaladsl.api.deser.MessageSerializer.NegotiatedSerializer
import com.lightbend.lagom.scaladsl.api.transport.{DeserializationException, MessageProtocol, NotAcceptable, UnsupportedMediaType}

class PlainTextSerializer(val charset: String) extends NegotiatedSerializer[String, ByteString] {
  override val protocol = MessageProtocol(Some("text/plain"), Some(charset))

  def serialize(s: String) = ByteString.fromString(s, charset)

The protocol method returns the protocol that this serializer serializes to, and you can see that we are passing the charset that this serializer will use in the constructor. The serialize method is a straight forward conversion from String to ByteString.

Next we’ll implement the same thing but to serialize to JSON:

import play.api.libs.json.{Json, JsString}

class JsonTextSerializer extends
  NegotiatedSerializer[String, ByteString] {

  override val protocol = MessageProtocol(Some("application/json"))

  def serialize(s: String) =

Here we’re using Play JSON to convert the String to a JSON string.

Now let’s implement the plain text deserializer:

import com.lightbend.lagom.scaladsl.api.deser.MessageSerializer.NegotiatedDeserializer

class PlainTextDeserializer(val charset: String) extends
  NegotiatedDeserializer[String, ByteString] {

  def deserialize(bytes: ByteString) =

Again, we’re taking the charset as a constructor parameter and we have a straight forward conversion from ByteString to String.

Likewise, we have a JSON text deserializer:

import scala.util.control.NonFatal

class JsonTextDeserializer extends
  NegotiatedDeserializer[String, ByteString] {

  def deserialize(bytes: ByteString) = {
    try {
    } catch {
      case NonFatal(e) => throw DeserializationException(e)

Now that we’ve implemented our negotiated serializers and deserializers, it’s time to implement the MessageSerializer to do the actual protocol negotiation. Our class will extend StrictMessageSerializer:

import com.lightbend.lagom.scaladsl.api.deser.StrictMessageSerializer

class TextMessageSerializer extends
  StrictMessageSerializer[String] {

The next thing we need to do is define the protocols that we accept. This will be used by the client to set the Accept header:

override def acceptResponseProtocols = List(

You can see that this serializer supports both text and json protocols. One thing to note, we’re not setting the charset in the text protocol, this is because we don’t need to be specific about it, we can accept any charset that the server chooses.

Now let’s implement the serializerForRequest method. This is used by the client to determine which serializer to use for the request. Because at this stage, no communication has happened between the server and the client, no negotiation can be done, so the client just chooses a default serializer, in this case, a utf-8 plain text serializer:

def serializerForRequest = new PlainTextSerializer("utf-8")

Next we’ll implement the deserializer method. This is used both by the server to select the deserializer for the request, and the client to select deserializer for the response. The passed in MessageProtocol is the content type that was sent with the request or response, and we need to inspect it to see if it’s a content type that we can deserialize, and return the appropriate content type:

def deserializer(protocol: MessageProtocol) = {
  protocol.contentType match {
    case Some("text/plain") | None =>
      new PlainTextDeserializer(protocol.charset.getOrElse("utf-8"))
    case Some("application/json") =>
      new JsonTextDeserializer
    case _ =>
      throw UnsupportedMediaType(protocol, MessageProtocol(Some("text/plain")))

Note that if no content type was specified, we’re returning a default deserializer. We could also fail here by throwing an exception, but it’s a good idea not to do that, because some underlying transports don’t allow passing a content type with the message. For example, if this was used for a WebSocket request, web browsers don’t allow you to set the content type for a WebSocket request. By returning a default if no content type is set, we ensure maximum portability.

Next we’ll implement the serializerForResponse method. This takes the list of accepted protocols, as sent by the client, and selects one to use to serialize the response. If it can’t find one that it supports, it throws an exception. Note here that an empty value for any property means that the client is willing to accept anything, likewise if the client didn’t specify any accept protocols.

import scala.collection.immutable

def serializerForResponse(accepted: immutable.Seq[MessageProtocol]) = {
  accepted match {
    case Nil => new PlainTextSerializer("utf-8")
    case protocols =>
      protocols.collectFirst {
        case MessageProtocol(Some("text/plain" | "text/*" | "*/*" | "*"), charset, _) =>
          new PlainTextSerializer(charset.getOrElse("utf-8"))
        case MessageProtocol(Some("application/json"), _, _) =>
          new JsonTextSerializer
      }.getOrElse {
        throw NotAcceptable(accepted, MessageProtocol(Some("text/plain")))


§Protocol buffer serializers

Protocol buffers are a high performance language neutral alternative to JSON that are particularly a good choice for internal communication between services. Here’s an example of how you might write a MessageSerializer for an Order class generated by protoc:

import akka.util.ByteString
import com.lightbend.lagom.scaladsl.api.deser.MessageSerializer.{NegotiatedDeserializer, NegotiatedSerializer}
import com.lightbend.lagom.scaladsl.api.deser.StrictMessageSerializer
import com.lightbend.lagom.scaladsl.api.transport.MessageProtocol

import scala.collection.immutable

class ProtobufSerializer extends StrictMessageSerializer[Order] {

  final private val serializer = {
    new NegotiatedSerializer[Order, ByteString]() {
      override def protocol: MessageProtocol =

      def serialize(order: Order) = {
        val builder = ByteString.createBuilder

  final private val deserializer = {
    new NegotiatedDeserializer[Order, ByteString] {
      override def deserialize(bytes: ByteString) =

  override def serializerForRequest =
  override def deserializer(protocol: MessageProtocol) =
  override def serializerForResponse(
    acceptedMessageProtocols: immutable.Seq[MessageProtocol]
  ) = serializer

Note that this MessageSerializer doesn’t attempt to do any content negotiation. In many cases, content negotiation is overkill, if you don’t need it, you don’t have to implement it.

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