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Go Plugin System over RPC

go-plugin is a Go (golang) plugin system over RPC. It is the plugin system that has been in use by HashiCorp tooling for over 4 years. While initially created for Packer, it is additionally in use by Terraform, Nomad, Vault, and Boundary.

While the plugin system is over RPC, it is currently only designed to work over a local [reliable] network. Plugins over a real network are not supported and will lead to unexpected behavior.

This plugin system has been used on millions of machines across many different projects and has proven to be battle hardened and ready for production use.


The HashiCorp plugin system supports a number of features:

Plugins are Go interface implementations. This makes writing and consuming plugins feel very natural. To a plugin author: you just implement an interface as if it were going to run in the same process. For a plugin user: you just use and call functions on an interface as if it were in the same process. This plugin system handles the communication in between.

Cross-language support. Plugins can be written (and consumed) by almost every major language. This library supports serving plugins via gRPC. gRPC-based plugins enable plugins to be written in any language.

Complex arguments and return values are supported. This library provides APIs for handling complex arguments and return values such as interfaces, io.Reader/Writer, etc. We do this by giving you a library (MuxBroker) for creating new connections between the client/server to serve additional interfaces or transfer raw data.

Bidirectional communication. Because the plugin system supports complex arguments, the host process can send it interface implementations and the plugin can call back into the host process.

Built-in Logging. Any plugins that use the log standard library will have log data automatically sent to the host process. The host process will mirror this output prefixed with the path to the plugin binary. This makes debugging with plugins simple. If the host system uses hclog then the log data will be structured. If the plugin also uses hclog, logs from the plugin will be sent to the host hclog and be structured.

Protocol Versioning. A very basic "protocol version" is supported that can be incremented to invalidate any previous plugins. This is useful when interface signatures are changing, protocol level changes are necessary, etc. When a protocol version is incompatible, a human friendly error message is shown to the end user.

Stdout/Stderr Syncing. While plugins are subprocesses, they can continue to use stdout/stderr as usual and the output will get mirrored back to the host process. The host process can control what io.Writer these streams go to to prevent this from happening.

TTY Preservation. Plugin subprocesses are connected to the identical stdin file descriptor as the host process, allowing software that requires a TTY to work. For example, a plugin can execute ssh and even though there are multiple subprocesses and RPC happening, it will look and act perfectly to the end user.

Host upgrade while a plugin is running. Plugins can be "reattached" so that the host process can be upgraded while the plugin is still running. This requires the host/plugin to know this is possible and daemonize properly. NewClient takes a ReattachConfig to determine if and how to reattach.

Cryptographically Secure Plugins. Plugins can be verified with an expected checksum and RPC communications can be configured to use TLS. The host process must be properly secured to protect this configuration.


The HashiCorp plugin system works by launching subprocesses and communicating over RPC (using standard net/rpc or gRPC). A single connection is made between any plugin and the host process. For net/rpc-based plugins, we use a connection multiplexing library to multiplex any other connections on top. For gRPC-based plugins, the HTTP2 protocol handles multiplexing.

This architecture has a number of benefits:

  • Plugins can't crash your host process: A panic in a plugin doesn't panic the plugin user.

  • Plugins are very easy to write: just write a Go application and go build. Or use any other language to write a gRPC server with a tiny amount of boilerplate to support go-plugin.

  • Plugins are very easy to install: just put the binary in a location where the host will find it (depends on the host but this library also provides helpers), and the plugin host handles the rest.

  • Plugins can be relatively secure: The plugin only has access to the interfaces and args given to it, not to the entire memory space of the process. Additionally, go-plugin can communicate with the plugin over TLS.


To use the plugin system, you must take the following steps. These are high-level steps that must be done. Examples are available in the examples/ directory.

  1. Choose the interface(s) you want to expose for plugins.

  2. For each interface, implement an implementation of that interface that communicates over a net/rpc connection or over a gRPC connection or both. You'll have to implement both a client and server implementation.

  3. Create a Plugin implementation that knows how to create the RPC client/server for a given plugin type.

  4. Plugin authors call plugin.Serve to serve a plugin from the main function.

  5. Plugin users use plugin.Client to launch a subprocess and request an interface implementation over RPC.

That's it! In practice, step 2 is the most tedious and time consuming step. Even so, it isn't very difficult and you can see examples in the examples/ directory as well as throughout our various open source projects.

For complete API documentation, see GoDoc.


Our plugin system is constantly evolving. As we use the plugin system for new projects or for new features in existing projects, we constantly find improvements we can make.

At this point in time, the roadmap for the plugin system is:

Semantic Versioning. Plugins will be able to implement a semantic version. This plugin system will give host processes a system for constraining versions. This is in addition to the protocol versioning already present which is more for larger underlying changes.

What About Shared Libraries?

When we started using plugins (late 2012, early 2013), plugins over RPC were the only option since Go didn't support dynamic library loading. Today, Go supports the plugin standard library with a number of limitations. Since 2012, our plugin system has stabilized from tens of millions of users using it, and has many benefits we've come to value greatly.

For example, we use this plugin system in Vault where dynamic library loading is not acceptable for security reasons. That is an extreme example, but we believe our library system has more upsides than downsides over dynamic library loading and since we've had it built and tested for years, we'll continue to use it.

Shared libraries have one major advantage over our system which is much higher performance. In real world scenarios across our various tools, we've never required any more performance out of our plugin system and it has seen very high throughput, so this isn't a concern for us at the moment.

Mozilla Public License, version 2.0 1. Definitions 1.1. “Contributor” means each individual or legal entity that creates, contributes to the creation of, or owns Covered Software. 1.2. “Contributor Version” means the combination of the Contributions of others (if any) used by a Contributor and that particular Contributor’s Contribution. 1.3. “Contribution” means Covered Software of a particular Contributor. 1.4. “Covered Software” means Source Code Form to which the initial Contributor has attached the notice in Exhibit A, the Executable Form of such Source Code Form, and Modifications of such Source Code Form, in each case including portions thereof. 1.5. “Incompatible With Secondary Licenses” means a. that the initial Contributor has attached the notice described in Exhibit B to the Covered Software; or b. that the Covered Software was made available under the terms of version 1.1 or earlier of the License, but not also under the terms of a Secondary License. 1.6. “Executable Form” means any form of the work other than Source Code Form. 1.7. “Larger Work” means a work that combines Covered Software with other material, in a separate file or files, that is not Covered Software. 1.8. “License” means this document. 1.9. “Licensable” means having the right to grant, to the maximum extent possible, whether at the time of the initial grant or subsequently, any and all of the rights conveyed by this License. 1.10. “Modifications” means any of the following: a. any file in Source Code Form that results from an addition to, deletion from, or modification of the contents of Covered Software; or b. any new file in Source Code Form that contains any Covered Software. 1.11. “Patent Claims” of a Contributor means any patent claim(s), including without limitation, method, process, and apparatus claims, in any patent Licensable by such Contributor that would be infringed, but for the grant of the License, by the making, using, selling, offering for sale, having made, import, or transfer of either its Contributions or its Contributor Version. 1.12. “Secondary License” means either the GNU General Public License, Version 2.0, the GNU Lesser General Public License, Version 2.1, the GNU Affero General Public License, Version 3.0, or any later versions of those licenses. 1.13. “Source Code Form” means the form of the work preferred for making modifications. 1.14. “You” (or “Your”) means an individual or a legal entity exercising rights under this License. For legal entities, “You” includes any entity that controls, is controlled by, or is under common control with You. For purposes of this definition, “control” means (a) the power, direct or indirect, to cause the direction or management of such entity, whether by contract or otherwise, or (b) ownership of more than fifty percent (50%) of the outstanding shares or beneficial ownership of such entity. 2. License Grants and Conditions 2.1. Grants Each Contributor hereby grants You a world-wide, royalty-free, non-exclusive license: a. under intellectual property rights (other than patent or trademark) Licensable by such Contributor to use, reproduce, make available, modify, display, perform, distribute, and otherwise exploit its Contributions, either on an unmodified basis, with Modifications, or as part of a Larger Work; and b. under Patent Claims of such Contributor to make, use, sell, offer for sale, have made, import, and otherwise transfer either its Contributions or its Contributor Version. 2.2. Effective Date The licenses granted in Section 2.1 with respect to any Contribution become effective for each Contribution on the date the Contributor first distributes such Contribution. 2.3. Limitations on Grant Scope The licenses granted in this Section 2 are the only rights granted under this License. No additional rights or licenses will be implied from the distribution or licensing of Covered Software under this License. Notwithstanding Section 2.1(b) above, no patent license is granted by a Contributor: a. for any code that a Contributor has removed from Covered Software; or b. for infringements caused by: (i) Your and any other third party’s modifications of Covered Software, or (ii) the combination of its Contributions with other software (except as part of its Contributor Version); or c. under Patent Claims infringed by Covered Software in the absence of its Contributions. This License does not grant any rights in the trademarks, service marks, or logos of any Contributor (except as may be necessary to comply with the notice requirements in Section 3.4). 2.4. Subsequent Licenses No Contributor makes additional grants as a result of Your choice to distribute the Covered Software under a subsequent version of this License (see Section 10.2) or under the terms of a Secondary License (if permitted under the terms of Section 3.3). 2.5. Representation Each Contributor represents that the Contributor believes its Contributions are its original creation(s) or it has sufficient rights to grant the rights to its Contributions conveyed by this License. 2.6. Fair Use This License is not intended to limit any rights You have under applicable copyright doctrines of fair use, fair dealing, or other equivalents. 2.7. Conditions Sections 3.1, 3.2, 3.3, and 3.4 are conditions of the licenses granted in Section 2.1. 3. Responsibilities 3.1. Distribution of Source Form All distribution of Covered Software in Source Code Form, including any Modifications that You create or to which You contribute, must be under the terms of this License. You must inform recipients that the Source Code Form of the Covered Software is governed by the terms of this License, and how they can obtain a copy of this License. You may not attempt to alter or restrict the recipients’ rights in the Source Code Form. 3.2. Distribution of Executable Form If You distribute Covered Software in Executable Form then: a. such Covered Software must also be made available in Source Code Form, as described in Section 3.1, and You must inform recipients of the Executable Form how they can obtain a copy of such Source Code Form by reasonable means in a timely manner, at a charge no more than the cost of distribution to the recipient; and b. You may distribute such Executable Form under the terms of this License, or sublicense it under different terms, provided that the license for the Executable Form does not attempt to limit or alter the recipients’ rights in the Source Code Form under this License. 3.3. Distribution of a Larger Work You may create and distribute a Larger Work under terms of Your choice, provided that You also comply with the requirements of this License for the Covered Software. If the Larger Work is a combination of Covered Software with a work governed by one or more Secondary Licenses, and the Covered Software is not Incompatible With Secondary Licenses, this License permits You to additionally distribute such Covered Software under the terms of such Secondary License(s), so that the recipient of the Larger Work may, at their option, further distribute the Covered Software under the terms of either this License or such Secondary License(s). 3.4. Notices You may not remove or alter the substance of any license notices (including copyright notices, patent notices, disclaimers of warranty, or limitations of liability) contained within the Source Code Form of the Covered Software, except that You may alter any license notices to the extent required to remedy known factual inaccuracies. 3.5. Application of Additional Terms You may choose to offer, and to charge a fee for, warranty, support, indemnity or liability obligations to one or more recipients of Covered Software. However, You may do so only on Your own behalf, and not on behalf of any Contributor. You must make it absolutely clear that any such warranty, support, indemnity, or liability obligation is offered by You alone, and You hereby agree to indemnify every Contributor for any liability incurred by such Contributor as a result of warranty, support, indemnity or liability terms You offer. You may include additional disclaimers of warranty and limitations of liability specific to any jurisdiction. 4. Inability to Comply Due to Statute or Regulation If it is impossible for You to comply with any of the terms of this License with respect to some or all of the Covered Software due to statute, judicial order, or regulation then You must: (a) comply with the terms of this License to the maximum extent possible; and (b) describe the limitations and the code they affect. Such description must be placed in a text file included with all distributions of the Covered Software under this License. Except to the extent prohibited by statute or regulation, such description must be sufficiently detailed for a recipient of ordinary skill to be able to understand it. 5. Termination 5.1. The rights granted under this License will terminate automatically if You fail to comply with any of its terms. However, if You become compliant, then the rights granted under this License from a particular Contributor are reinstated (a) provisionally, unless and until such Contributor explicitly and finally terminates Your grants, and (b) on an ongoing basis, if such Contributor fails to notify You of the non-compliance by some reasonable means prior to 60 days after You have come back into compliance. Moreover, Your grants from a particular Contributor are reinstated on an ongoing basis if such Contributor notifies You of the non-compliance by some reasonable means, this is the first time You have received notice of non-compliance with this License from such Contributor, and You become compliant prior to 30 days after Your receipt of the notice. 5.2. If You initiate litigation against any entity by asserting a patent infringement claim (excluding declaratory judgment actions, counter-claims, and cross-claims) alleging that a Contributor Version directly or indirectly infringes any patent, then the rights granted to You by any and all Contributors for the Covered Software under Section 2.1 of this License shall terminate. 5.3. In the event of termination under Sections 5.1 or 5.2 above, all end user license agreements (excluding distributors and resellers) which have been validly granted by You or Your distributors under this License prior to termination shall survive termination. 6. Disclaimer of Warranty Covered Software is provided under this License on an “as is” basis, without warranty of any kind, either expressed, implied, or statutory, including, without limitation, warranties that the Covered Software is free of defects, merchantable, fit for a particular purpose or non-infringing. The entire risk as to the quality and performance of the Covered Software is with You. Should any Covered Software prove defective in any respect, You (not any Contributor) assume the cost of any necessary servicing, repair, or correction. This disclaimer of warranty constitutes an essential part of this License. No use of any Covered Software is authorized under this License except under this disclaimer. 7. Limitation of Liability Under no circumstances and under no legal theory, whether tort (including negligence), contract, or otherwise, shall any Contributor, or anyone who distributes Covered Software as permitted above, be liable to You for any direct, indirect, special, incidental, or consequential damages of any character including, without limitation, damages for lost profits, loss of goodwill, work stoppage, computer failure or malfunction, or any and all other commercial damages or losses, even if such party shall have been informed of the possibility of such damages. This limitation of liability shall not apply to liability for death or personal injury resulting from such party’s negligence to the extent applicable law prohibits such limitation. Some jurisdictions do not allow the exclusion or limitation of incidental or consequential damages, so this exclusion and limitation may not apply to You. 8. Litigation Any litigation relating to this License may be brought only in the courts of a jurisdiction where the defendant maintains its principal place of business and such litigation shall be governed by laws of that jurisdiction, without reference to its conflict-of-law provisions. Nothing in this Section shall prevent a party’s ability to bring cross-claims or counter-claims. 9. Miscellaneous This License represents the complete agreement concerning the subject matter hereof. If any provision of this License is held to be unenforceable, such provision shall be reformed only to the extent necessary to make it enforceable. Any law or regulation which provides that the language of a contract shall be construed against the drafter shall not be used to construe this License against a Contributor. 10. Versions of the License 10.1. New Versions Mozilla Foundation is the license steward. Except as provided in Section 10.3, no one other than the license steward has the right to modify or publish new versions of this License. Each version will be given a distinguishing version number. 10.2. Effect of New Versions You may distribute the Covered Software under the terms of the version of the License under which You originally received the Covered Software, or under the terms of any subsequent version published by the license steward. 10.3. Modified Versions If you create software not governed by this License, and you want to create a new license for such software, you may create and use a modified version of this License if you rename the license and remove any references to the name of the license steward (except to note that such modified license differs from this License). 10.4. Distributing Source Code Form that is Incompatible With Secondary Licenses If You choose to distribute Source Code Form that is Incompatible With Secondary Licenses under the terms of this version of the License, the notice described in Exhibit B of this License must be attached. Exhibit A - Source Code Form License Notice This Source Code Form is subject to the terms of the Mozilla Public License, v. 2.0. If a copy of the MPL was not distributed with this file, You can obtain one at http://mozilla.org/MPL/2.0/. If it is not possible or desirable to put the notice in a particular file, then You may include the notice in a location (such as a LICENSE file in a relevant directory) where a recipient would be likely to look for such a notice. You may add additional accurate notices of copyright ownership. Exhibit B - “Incompatible With Secondary Licenses” Notice This Source Code Form is “Incompatible With Secondary Licenses”, as defined by the Mozilla Public License, v. 2.0.


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