Some thoughts on Golang

28 Oct 2017

The Go programming language has been around for about a decade now, but in that time I’ve not had much call to create new networked services, so I’d never given it a go (I find I can’t learn new programming languages in abstract, I need a project otherwise the learning doesn’t stick). However I had cause to redo some old code at work that had grown a bit unwieldy in its current Python + web framework de jour, so this seemed like a chance to try something new.

I was drawn to Go by the promise of picking up some modern programming idioms, particularly around making concurrency manageable. I’m still amazed that technologies like Grand Central Dispatch (GCD) that save programmers from worrying about low level concurrency primitive (which as weak minded humans we invariable get wrong) are not more widely adopted – modern machines rely on concurrency to be effective. In the Bromium Mac team we leaned heavily on GCD to avoid common concurrency pitfalls, and even then we created a lot of support libraries to simplify it even further.

Modern web service programming is inherently a problem of concurrency – be it on the input end when you’re managing many requests at once to your service, and on the back end when you are trying to off load long running and periodic tasks away from the request service path. Unfortunately the dominant language for writing webservices, Python, is known to be terrible at handling concurrency, so you end up offloading concurrency to other programs (e.g., nginx on the front end, celery on the back end), which works, but means you can only deal with very coarse grain parallelism.

Go seems to have been designed to solve this problem. It’s a modern language, with some C like syntax but free of the baggage of memory management and casting (for the most part), and makes concurrency a first class citizen in its design. Nothing it does is earth shatteringly new – the go routine concurrency primative is very old, and the channel mechanism used to communicate between these routines is standard IPC fair – but what it seems to pull off is putting these things together in a way that is very easy to leverage. It also lacks the flexibility of the aforementioned GCD to my mind, but ultimately it is sufficiently expressive that I find it very productive to write highly concurrent code safely. It actually makes writing web services that have such demands fun again, as you end up with a single binary that does everything you need, removing the deployment tedium of the nginx/python/celery pipeline. You can just worry about your ideas, which is really all I want to do.

Another nice feature is the pseudo object orientation system I Go. Go has two mechanisms that lead you in the same direction as traditional OO programming – structs and interfaces. Structs just let you define structs as you might in C, but you can do composition that gives you a sort of inheritance if you need it, and interfaces just define a list of function interfaces you can use on a struct. But an interface isn’t tied to a struct as it might be in a traditional OO, they’re defined separately. This seems weird at first, but is really quite powerful, and makes writing tests very easy (and again, fun) as it means you can “mock” say the backend object simply by writing an object that obeys an interface, rather than worrying about actual inheritance. Again, it’s nothing new, it’s just pulled together in a way that is simple and easy to be productive with.

The final nicety I’ll mention is another feature is an idiom that in the mac team at Bromium we forced on ourselves – explicit error handling and explicit returns of errors next to the valid result. This again makes writing code to handle errors really natural: this is important, as programmers are inherently lazy people and it’s a common cause of bugs in that the programmer simply didn’t think about error handling. Go’s library design and error type make this easy.

For all this, Go has its flaws. Out of a necessity to allow you to have values that may have no value, Go has a pointer type. But it also makes accessing concrete values and pointers look identical in most cases, so it’s easy to confuse those, which can occasionally lead to unexpected bugs, particularly when looping over things where you take the loop pointer rather than the value it’s pointing to. The testing framework is deliberately minimal, and the lack of class based testing means you can’t really use setup and teardown methods, but this leads to a lot of boiler plate code in your tests – this is a shame, as otherwise Go makes writing tests really easy. And let’s not get started on the package system I Go, which is opaque enough to be a pain to use.

It’s also a little behind say Python in terms of full stack framework support. The Go community seems against ORMs and Django style stacks, but that does mean it’s hard to justify its use if you’re writing a website for humans to use with any complexity. There is at least a usable minimal DB ORM in the form of GORM that saves you from writing SQL all the time.

But for all its flaws, I really have taken to Go, and I’ve written a small but reasonable amount of production quality code in it now, and I still find it a joy to use as it’s so productive. For writing backend web services, it’s a joy. There’s not enough mature framework support yet that I’d use it instead of Django/Python for a full user interactive website, but for IoT backends or such it’s really neat (in both senses).

If any of this sounds interesting to you then I can recommend The Go Programming Language book. Not only is it easy to read, it gives you good practical examples that let you see the power of its primitives very quickly. If you think I’ve got it wrong with any of my criticisms of the language, then do let me know – I’m still a relative newbie to golang and very happy to be corrected so I can be even more productive with it!