Quick Thoughts on Go

Posted on July 26, 2015

So over the summer I've been interning at RetailMeNot in Austin, TX, working on a (hopefully) soon-to-be open-sourced project written primarily in Go, Google’s pet language. In sum, I find Go to be a pragmatic language: one designed for getting things done quickly, but not a radical language that pushes the envelope of language design.

Quick things: Go is a statically typed language with a pared-down, C-like syntax. It depends on a runtime and is garbage collected, and though it syntactically has features reminiscent of object-oriented languages, it lacks inheritance, and polymorphism is done purely through interfaces. The standard hello world:

package main

import "fmt"

func main() {
	fmt.Println("Hello, world!")
}

Instead of objects, we have structs, and can define functions that take one as a special parameter.

type Vec2 struct {
	x int
	y int
}

func (v Vec2) Add(other Vec2) Vec2 {
	return Vec2{
		x: v.x + other.x,
		y: v.y + other.y,
	}
}

Instead of polymorphism and inheritance, we can define interfaces. Interfaces in Go are structurally typed: if a struct has all the necessary methods, it automatically satisfies the interface.

type Vector interface {
	Mag2() float
}

func (v Vec2) Mag2() float {
	return v.x*v.x + v.y*v.y
}
// Vec2 now implements Vector

Types are declared differently from C, with the type following the variable. The language does technically have semicolons, but the compiler inserts them for you. There aren't private/public declarations like in C++ and Java—instead, a name is exported if and only if it begins with a capital letter. There are no variant types/ADTs and no enumerations.

The community and tooling matter as much as the language design, and Go has a strict set of style guidelines enforced by a tool called gofmt. So you won’t be debating tabs or spaces (tabs) and you won’t wonder how to indent a block (gofmt does that for you). This makes learning the language simpler, as (along with golint and govet) gofmt helps enforce idioms and style.

What I Like

Easy Concurrency: Goroutines make it easy to run something in the background and communicate with that task. Channels make it easy to synchronize, communicate, and share data without having shared mutable state. The built-in race checker tells you when you’re doing something dangerous. How it works:

Goroutines don’t necessarily correspond to threads; as the name implies, they’re more akin to goroutines. In Go 1.4 and below, by default all goroutines share one thread.

Consistency: gofmt, golint, and govet mean that all code is consistent. The three tools warn about style guide violations and remind you to document your code (in accordance with the style guide).

Easy Deployment: The main Go compilers produce statically linked binaries. Cross-compilation is as easy as setting a few environment variables during the build.

Resource Management: defer makes error handling simple by registering a function to be executed when the current function returns. Open a file? Just defer file.Close(). No need for try-catch-finally.

What I Dislike

No ADTs: Pattern matching and ADTs, or even just enumerations, would be extremely useful, just to be able to express the concept of having one of a finite set of mutually exclusive values.

Error Handling: Error handling is done C-style: check the return value. Multiple return values make this a bit less crufty, but the sad fact is that 50% of your code2 is gonna look like this:

thingIWant, err := doSomething()
if err != nil {
	return err
}
defer thingIWant.Close()

This gets extremely tedious, and leads into…

Type System: The pattern above could easily be abstracted by something like an option or Either monad (OCaml, Haskell), or with a try! macro like in Rust. But it isn't. You're stuck writing all this repetitive code. Go is halfway there, but lacks the abstraction to make error handling less tedious.

Default values: In Go, if you initialize a variable without an initial value, they take on default zero values. This is true for any value, including structs. This can be convenient, but I think the convenience is outweighed by the fact that sometimes, you want to know when a value actually was omitted. You can use pointers and nil for this, but then you have to deal with nil. The default values are also somewhat inconsistent: an empty map (hashtable) value, for instance, is nil, which isn’t usable and will cause a runtime crash if you try to index it—which rather defeats the purpose (I believe) of having default values in the first place (so you don’t have to initialize everything).

Conclusion

Go makes writing servers and other code that needs to be concurrent easier, and the strict tooling and familiar syntax makes learning the language easy. The design seems oriented towards speed of development and ease of deployment. Overall, I’ve enjoyed working with Go, but it’s not a language that I’ll continue to work with, like Python or Rust. It does fit the niche of server and daemon applications quite well.


  1. You can make a buffered channel with make(chan T, n) so that up to n items can be placed on the channel without blocking.

  2. No kidding, I checked with go test -cover. Most of where I lack coverage consists of the error branches.

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