The Protocol class represents a single task to be executed, whether that be as a standalone task or as a task which is part of some larger workflow. The task encoded by a protocol may be as simple as adding two numbers together or even as complex as performing entire free energy simulations:

from openff.evaluator.protocols.miscellaneous import AddValues

# Create the protocol and assign it some unique name.
add_numbers = AddValues(protocol_id="add_values")
# Set the numbers to add together
add_numbers.values = [1, 2, 3, 4]

# Execute the protocol

# Retrieve the output
result = add_numbers.result

Inputs and Outputs

Each protocol exposes a set of the required inputs as well as the produced outputs. These inputs may either be set as a constant directly, or if used as part of a workflow, can take their value from one of the outputs of another protocol.


A selection of the inputs and outputs of the OpenMMSimulation protocol.

A surprisingly rich spectrum of workflows can be constructed by chaining together many relatively simple protocols.

The inputs and outputs of a protocol are defined using the custom InputAttribute and OutputAttribute descriptors:

class AddValues(Protocol):

    # Define the inputs that the protocol requires
    values = InputAttribute(
        docstring="The values to add together.",
        type_hint=list, default_value=UNDEFINED

    # Define the outputs that the protocol will produce
    # once it is executed.
    result = OutputAttribute(
        docstring="The sum of the values.",
        type_hint=typing.Union[int, float, unit.Measurement, unit.Quantity],

    def _execute(self, directory, available_resources):

    def validate(self, attribute_type=None):

Here we have defined a values input to the protocol and a result output. Both descriptors require a docstring and a type_hint to be provided.

The type_hint will be used by the workflow engine to ensure that a protocol which takes its input as the output of another protocol is receiving values of the correct type. Currently the type_hint can be any type of python class, or a Union of multiple types should the protocol allow for that.

In addition, the input attribute must specify a default_value for the attribute. This can either be a constant value, or a value set by some function such as a lambda statement:

some_input = InputAttribute(
    docstring="Takes it's default value from a function.",
    default_value=lambda: return 1 + 1

In the above example we set the default value of values to UNDEFINED in order to specify that this input must be set by the user. The custom UNDEFINED class is used in place of None as None may be a valid input value for some attributes.

Task Execution

In addition to defining its inputs and outputs, a protocol must also implement an _execute() function which handles the main logic of the task:

def _execute(self, directory, available_resources):

    self.result = self.values[0]

    for value in self.values[1:]:
        self.result += value

The function is passed the directory in which it should run and create any working files, as well as a ComputeResources object which describes which compute resources are available to run on. This function must set all of the output attributes of the protocol before returning.

The private _execute() function which must be implemented should not be confused with the public execute() function. The public execute() function implements some common protocol logic (such as validating the inputs and creating the directory to run in if needed) before calling the private _execute() function.

Protocol Validation

The protocols inputs will automatically be validated before _execute() is called - this validation includes making sure that all of the non-optional inputs have been set, as well as ensuring they have been set to a value of the correct type. Protocols may implement additional validation logic by implementing a execute() function:

def validate(self, attribute_type=None):

    super(AddValues, self).validate(attribute_type)

    if len(self.values) < 1:
        raise ValueError("There were no values to add together")


Every protocol has a ProtocolSchema representation which uniquely describes the protocol, and from which the protocol can be exactly recreated. The schema stores not only the type of protocol which it represents, but also the values of each of the inputs. Protocol schemas are fully JSON serializable. The following is an example schema for the above add_numbers protocol:

  "@type": "openff.evaluator.workflow.schemas.ProtocolSchema",
  "id": "add_values",
  "inputs": {
    ".allow_merging": true,
    ".values": [1, 2, 3, 4]
  "type": "AddValues"

A protocols schema can be accessed via it’s schema attribute. A protocol can be directly created from its schema representation by calling the schema’s to_protocol() function.

Merging Protocols

When executing multiple workflows together (e.g. executing a workflow to estimate a substances density and potential energy) there is a large likelihood that some of tasks in those two workflows will be identical. Examples may include two workflows requiring protocols which build a set of coordinates, or assigning the same set of parameters to those coordinates.

Protocols have built-in support for comparing whether they are performing the same task / calculation as another protocol through the can_merge() and merge() functions:

  • The can_merge() function checks to see whether two protocols are performing an identical task and hence whether they should be merged or not.

  • The merge() function handles the actual merging of two protocols which can be merged.

The default can_merge() function takes advantage of the merge_behvaiour attribute of the different input descriptors. The merge_behvaiour attribute describes how each input should be considered when checking to see if two protocols can be merged:

max_molecules = InputAttribute(
    docstring="The maximum number of molecules to be added to the system.",

The most common behavior is to require that the inputs must be ExactlyEqual in order for two protocols two be considered to be identical. However, for some inputs such as the timestep of a simulation or the number of steps to simulate for, the exact values of the inputs don’t necessarily need to be equal but rather, we may just wish to take the larger / smaller of the two inputs:

timestep = InputAttribute(
    docstring="The timestep to evolve the system by at each step.",
    default_value=2.0 * unit.femtosecond,

total_number_of_iterations = InputAttribute(
    docstring="The number of times to propogate the system forward by.",

This can be accomplished using the InequalityMergeBehavior enum.

The default merge() function also relies upon the merge_behaviour attributes to determine which values of the inputs should be retained when merging two protocols.