The scheduler, workers, and clients pass messages between each other. Semantically these messages encode commands, status updates, and data, like the following:

  • Please compute the function sum on the data x and store in y
  • The computation y has been completed
  • Be advised that a new worker named alice is available for use
  • Here is the data for the keys 'x', and 'y'

In practice we represent these messages with dictionaries/mappings:

{'op': 'compute',
 'function': ...
 'args': ['x']}

{'op': 'task-complete',
 'key': 'y',
 'nbytes': 26}

{'op': 'register-worker',
 'address': '',
 'name': 'alice',
 'ncores': 4}

{'x': b'...',
 'y': b'...'}

When we communicate these messages between nodes we need to serialize these messages down to a string of bytes that can then be deserialized on the other end to their in-memory dictionary form. For simple cases several options exist like JSON, MsgPack, Protobuffers, and Thrift. The situation is made more complex by concerns like serializing Python functions and Python objects, optional compression, cross-language support, large messages, and efficiency.

This document describes the protocol used by dask.distributed today. Be advised that this protocol changes rapidly as we continue to optimize for performance.


We may split a single message into multiple message-part to suit different protocols. Generally small bits of data are encoded with MsgPack while large bytestrings and complex datatypes are handled by a custom format. Each message-part gets its own header, which is always encoded as msgpack. After serializing all message parts we have a sequence of bytestrings or frames which we send along the wire, prepended with length information.

The application doesn’t know any of this, it just sends us Python dictionaries with various datatypes and we produce a list of bytestrings that get written to a socket. This format is fast both for many frequent messages and for large messages.

MsgPack for Messages

Most messages are encoded with MsgPack, a self describing semi-structured serialization format that is very similar to JSON, but smaller, faster, not human-readable, and supporting of bytestrings and (soon) timestamps. We chose MsgPack as a base serialization format for the following reasons:

  • It does not require separate headers, and so is easy and flexible to use which is particularly important in an early stage project like dask.distributed
  • It is very fast, much faster than JSON, and there are nicely optimized implementations, particularly within the pandas.msgpack module. With few exceptions (described later) MsgPack does not come anywhere near being a bottleneck, even under heavy use.
  • Unlike JSON it supports bytestrings
  • It covers the standard set of types necessary to encode most information
  • It is widely implemented in a number of languages (see cross language section below)

However, MsgPack fails (correctly) in the following ways:

  • It does not provide any way for us to encode Python functions or user defined data types
  • It does not support bytestrings greater than 4GB and is generally inefficient for very large messages.

Because of these failings we supplement it with a language-specific protocol and a special case for large bytestrings.

CloudPickle for Functions and Some Data

Pickle and CloudPickle are Python libraries to serialize almost any Python object, including functions. We use these libraries to transform the users’ functions and data into bytes before we include them in the dictionary/map that we pass off to msgpack. In the introductory example you may have noticed that we skipped providing an example for the function argument:

{'op': 'compute',
 'function': ...
 'args': ['x']}

That is because this value ... will actually be the result of calling cloudpickle.dumps(myfunction). Those bytes will then be included in the dictionary that we send off to msgpack, which will only have to deal with bytes rather than obscure Python functions.

Note: we actually call some combination of pickle and cloudpickle, depending on the situation. This is for performance reasons.

Cross Language Specialization

The Client and Workers must agree on a language-specific serialization format. In the standard dask.distributed client and worker objects this ends up being the following:

bytes = cloudpickle.dumps(obj, protocol=pickle.HIGHEST_PROTOCOL)
obj = cloudpickle.loads(bytes)

This varies between Python 2 and 3 and so your client and workers must match their Python versions and software environments.

However, the Scheduler never uses the language-specific serialization and instead only deals with MsgPack. If the client sends a pickled function up to the scheduler the scheduler will not unpack function but will instead keep it as bytes. Eventually those bytes will be sent to a worker, which will then unpack the bytes into a proper Python function. Because the Scheduler never unpacks language-specific serialized bytes it may be in a different language.

The client and workers must share the same language and software environment, the scheduler may differ.

This has a few advantages:

  1. The Scheduler is protected from unpickling unsafe code
  2. The Scheduler can be run under pypy for improved performance. This is only useful for larger clusters.
  3. We could conceivably implement workers and clients for other languages (like R or Julia) and reuse the Python scheduler. The worker and client code is fairly simple and much easier to reimplement than the scheduler, which is complex.
  4. The scheduler might some day be rewritten in more heavily optimized C or Go


Fast compression libraries like LZ4 or Snappy may increase effective bandwidth by compressing data before sending and decompressing it after reception. This is especially valuable on lower-bandwidth networks.

If either of these libraries is available (we prefer LZ4 to Snappy) then for every message greater than 1kB we try to compress the message and, if the compression is at least a 10% improvement, we send the compressed bytes rather than the original payload. We record the compression used within the header as a string like 'lz4' or 'snappy'.

To avoid compressing large amounts of uncompressable data we first try to compress a sample. We take 10kB chunks from five locations in the dataset, arrange them together, and try compressing the result. If this doesn’t result in significant compression then we don’t try to compress the full result.

Serializing Data

For administrative messages like updating status msgpack is sufficient. However for large results or Python specific data, like NumPy arrays or Pandas Dataframes, or for larger results we need to use something else to convert Python objects to bytestrings. Exactly how we do this is described more in the Serialization documentation.

The application code marks Python specific results with the to_serialize function:

>>> import numpy as np
>>> x = np.ones(5)

>>> from distributed.protocol import to_serialize
>>> msg = {'status': 'OK', 'data': to_serialize(x)}
>>> msg
{'data': <Serialize: [ 1.  1.  1.  1.  1.]>, 'status': 'OK'}

We separate the message into two messages, one encoding all of the data to be serialized and, and one encoding everything else:

{'key': 'x', 'address': 'alice'}
{'data': <Serialize: [ 1.  1.  1.  1.  1.]>}

The first message we pass normally with msgpack. The second we pass in multiple parts, one part for each serialized piece of data (see serialization) and one header including types, compression, etc. used for each value:

{'keys': ['data'],
 'compression': ['lz4']}


At the end of the pipeline we have a sequence of bytestrings or frames. We need to tell the receiving end how many frames there are and how long each these frames are. We order the frames and lengths of frames as follows:

  1. The number of frames, stored as an 8 byte unsigned integer
  2. The length of each frame, each stored as an 8 byte unsigned integer
  3. Each of the frames

In the following sections we describe how we create these frames.

Technical Version

A message is broken up into the following components:

  1. 8 bytes encoding how many frames there are in the message (N) as a uint64
  2. 8 * N frames encoding the length of each frame as uint64 s
  3. Header for the administrative message
  4. The administrative message, msgpack encoded, possibly compressed
  5. Header for all payload messages
  6. Payload messages

Header for Administrative Message

The administrative message is arbitrary msgpack-encoded data. Usually a dictionary. It may optionally be compressed. If so the compression type will be in the header.

Payload frames and Header

These frames are optional.

Payload frames are used to send large or language-specific data. These values will be inserted into the administrative message after they are decoded. The header is msgpack encoded and contains encoding and compression information for the all subsequent payload messages.

A Payload may be spread across many frames. Each frame may be separately compressed.

Simple Example

This simple example shows a minimal message. There is only an empty header and a small msgpack message. There are no additional payload frames

Message: {'status': 'OK'}


  • Header: {}
  • Administrative Message: {'status': 'OK'}

Example with Custom Data

This example contains a single payload message composed of a single frame. It uses a special serialization for NumPy arrays.

Message: {'op': 'get-data', 'data': np.ones(5)}


  • Header: {}

  • Administrative Message: {'op': 'get-data'}

  • Payload header:

    {'headers': [{'type': 'numpy.ndarray',
                  'compression': 'lz4',
                  'count': 1,
                  'lengths': [40],
                  'dtype': '<f8',
                  'strides': (8,),
                  'shape': (5,)}],
                 'keys': [('data',)]}
  • Payload Frame: b'(\x00\x00\x00\x11\x00\x01\x00!\xf0?\x07\x00\x0f\x08\x00\x03P\x00\x00\x00\xf0?'