We Already Have Go 2

A 56 minute read.

I've been using Go since Go 1.4. Since I started using Go then (2014-2015 ish), I’ve seen the language evolve significantly. The Go I write today is roughly the same Go as the Go I wrote back when I was still learning the language, but the toolchain has changed in ways that make it so much nicer in practice. Here are the biggest things that changed how I use Go on a regular basis:

This is a good thing. Go has had a lot of people use it. My career would not exist in its current form without Go. My time in the Go community has been catalytic to my career goals and it’s made me into the professional I am today. Without having met the people I did in the Go slack, I would probably not have gotten as lucky as I have as consistently as I have.

Releasing a "Go 2" has become a philosophical and political challenge due to the forces that be. "Go 2" has kind of gotten the feeling of "this is never going to happen, is it?" with how the political forces within and without the Go team are functioning. They seem to have been incrementally releasing new features and using version gating in go.mod to make it easier on people instead of a big release with breaking changes all over the standard library.

This is pretty great and I am well in favour of this approach, but with all of the changes that have built up there really should be a Go 2 by this point. If only to make no significant changes and tag what we have today as Go 2.

Cadey is coffee
<Cadey> Take everything I say here with a grain of salt the size of east Texas. I am not an expert in programming language design and I do not pretend to be one on TV. I am also not a member of the Go team nor do I pretend to be one or see myself becoming one in the future.

If you are on the Go team and think that something I said here is demonstrably wrong, please contact me so I can correct it. I have tried to contain my personal feelings or observations about things to these conversation snippets.

This is a look back at the huge progress that has been made since Go 1 released and what I'd consider to be the headline features of Go 2. This is a whirlwind tour of the huge progress in improvement to the Go compiler, toolchain, and standard library, including what I'd consider to be the headline features of Go 2. I highly encourage you read this fairly large post in chunks because it will feel like a lot if you read it all at once.

The Compiler Rewrite in Go

When the Go compiler was first written, it was written in C because the core Go team has a background in Plan 9 and C was its lingua franca. However as a result of either it being written in C or the design around all the tools it was shelling out to, it wasn’t easy to cross compile Go programs. If you were building windows programs on a Mac you needed to do a separate install of Go from source with other targets enabled. This worked, but it wasn’t the default and eventually the Go compiler rewrite in Go changed this so that Go could cross compile natively with no extra effort required.

Cadey is enby
<Cadey> This has been such an amazingly productive part of the Go toolchain that I was shocked that Go didn’t have this out of the gate at version 1. Most people that use Go today don’t know that there was a point where Go didn’t have the easy to use cross-compiling superpower it currently has, and I think that is a more sure marker of success than anything else.

Mara is happy
<Mara> The cross compliation powers are why Tailscale uses Go so extensively throughout its core product. Every Tailscale client is built on the same Go source tree and everything is in lockstep with eachother, provided people actually update their apps. This kind of thing would be at the least impossible or at the most very difficult in other languages like Rust or C++.

This one feature is probably at the heart of more CI flows, debian package releases and other workflows than we can know. It's really hard to understate how simple this kind of thing makes distributing software for other architectures, especially given that macOS has just switched over to aarch64 CPUs.

Having the compiler be self-hosting does end up causing a minor amount of grief for people wanting to bootstrap a Go compiler from absolute source code on a new Linux distribtion (and slightly more after the minimum Go compiler version to compile Go will be raised to Go 1.17 with the release of Go 1.19 in about 6 months from the time of this post being written). This isn't too big of a practical issue given how fast the compiler builds, but it is a nonzero amount of work. The bootstrapping can be made simpler with gccgo, a GCC frontend that is mostly compatible with the semantics and user experience of the Go compiler that Google makes.

Another key thing porting the compiler to Go unlocks is the ability to compile Go packages in parallel. Back when the compiler was written in C, the main point of parallelism was the fact that each Go package was compiled in parallel. This lead to people splitting up bigger packages into smaller sub-packages in order to speedhack the compiler. Having the compiler be written in Go means that the compiler can take advantage of Go features like its dead-simple concurrency primitives to spread the load out across all the cores on the machine.

Mara is hacker
<Mara> The Go compiler is fast sure, but over a certain point having each package be compiled in a single-threaded manner adds up and can make build times slow. This was a lot worse when things like the AWS, GCP and Kubernetes client libraries had everything in one big package. Building those packages could take minutes, which is very long in Go time.

Go Modules

In Go's dependency model, you have a folder that contains all your Go code called the GOPATH. The GOPATH has a few top level folders that have a well-known meaning in the Go ecosystem:

GOPATH has one major advantage: it is ruthlessly easy to understand the correlation between the packages you import in your code to their locations on disk.

If you need to see what within.website/ln is doing, you go to GOPATH/src/within.website/ln. The files you are looking for are somewhere in there. You don’t have to really understand how the package manager works (mostly because there isn’t one). If you want to hack something up you just go to the folder and add the changes you want to see.

You can delete all of the intermediate compiler state easily in one fell swoop. Just delete the pkg folder and poof, it’s all gone. This was great when you needed to free up a bunch of disk space really quickly because over months the small amount of incremental compiler state can really add up.

The Go compiler would fetch any missing packages from the internet at build time so things Just Worked™️. This makes it utterly trivial to check out a project and then build/run it. That combined with go get to automatically just figure things out and install them made installing programs written in Go so easy that it’s almost magic. This combined with Go's preference for making static binaries as much as possible meant that even if the user didn't have Go installed you could easily make a package to hand off to your users.

The GOPATH was conceptually simple to reason about. Go code goes in the GOPATH. The best place for it was in the GOPATH. There's no reason to put it anywhere else. Everything was organized into its place and it was lovely.

This wasn’t perfect though. There were notable flaws in this setup that were easy to run into in practice:

Cadey is coffee
<Cadey> Yeah, yeah, this default was added later but still people complained about having to put the GOPATH somewhere at first. Having to choose a place to put all the Go code they would use seemed like a big choice that people really wanted solid guidance and defaults on. After a while they changed this to default to ~/go (with an easy to use command to influence the defaults without having to set an environment variable). I don't personally understand the arguments people have for wanting to keep their home directory "clean", but their preferences are valid regardless.

Overall I think GOPATH was a net good thing for Go. It had its downsides, but as far as these things go it was a very opinionated place to start from. This is something typical to Go (much to people's arguments), but the main thing that it focused on was making Go conceptually simple. There's not a lot going on there. You have code in the folder and then that's where the Go compiler looks for other code. It's a very lightweight approach to things that a lot of other languages could learn a lot from. It's great for monorepos because it basically treats all your Go code as one big monorepo. So many other languages don’t really translate well to working in a monorepo context like Go does.

Vendoring

That making sure everyone had the same versions of everything problem ended up becoming a big problem in practice. I'm assuming that the original intent of the GOPATH was to be similar to how Google's internal monorepo worked, where everyone clones and deals with the entire GOPATH in source control. You'd then have to do GOPATH juggling between monorepos, but the intent was to have everything in one big monorepo anyways, so this wasn't thought of as much of a big deal in practice. It turns out that people in fact did not want to treat Go code this way, in practice this conflicted with the dependency model that Go encouraged people to use with how people consume libraries from GitHub or other such repository hosting sites.

The main disconnect between importing from a GOPATH monorepo and a Go library off of GitHub is that when you import from a monorepo with a GOPATH in it, you need to be sure to import the repository path and not the path used inside the repository. This sounds weird but this means you'd import github.com/Xe/x/src/github.com/Xe/x/markov instead of github.com/Xe/x/markov. This means that things need to be extracted out of monorepos and reformatted into "flat" repos so that you can only grab the one package you need. This became tedious in practice.

In Go 1.5 (the one where they rewrote the compiler in Go) they added support for vendoring code into your repo. The idea here was to make it easy to get closer to the model that the Go authors envisioned for how people should use Go. Go code should all be in one big happy repo and everything should have its place in your GOPATH. This combined with other tools people made allowed you to vendor all of your dependencies into a vendor folder and then you could do whatever you wanted from there.

One of the big advantages of the vendor folder was that you could clone your git repo, create a new process namespace and then run tests without a network stack. Everything would work offline and you wouldn't have to worry about external state leaking in. Not to mention removing the angle of someone deleting their GitHub repos causing a huge problem for your builds.

Mara is happy
<Mara> Save tests that require internet access or a database engine!

This worked for a very long time. People were able to vendor their code into their repos and everything was better for people using Go. However the most critical oversight with the vendor folder approach was that the Go team didn't create an official tool to manage that vendor folder. They wanted to let tools like godep and glide handle that. This is kind of a reasonable take, Go comes from a very Google culture where this kind of problem doesn't happen, so as a result they probably won't be able to come up with something that meets the needs of the outside world very easily.

Cadey is enby
<Cadey> I can't speak for how godep or glide works, I never really used them enough to have a solid opinion. I do remember using vendor in my own projects though. That had no real dependency resolution algorithm to speak of because it assumed that you had everything working locally when you vendored the code.

dep

After a while the Go team worked with people in the community to come up with an "official experiment" in tracking dependencies called dep. dep was a tool that used some more fancy computer science maths to help developers declare dependencies for projects in a way like you do in other ecosystems. When dep was done thinking, it emitted a bunch of files in vendor and a lockfile in your repository. This worked really well and when I was working at Heroku this was basically our butter and bread for how to deal with Go code.

Cadey is enby
<Cadey> It probably helped that my manager was on the team that wrote dep.

One of the biggest advantages of dep over other tools was the way that it solved versioning. It worked by having each package declare constraints in the ranges of versions that everything requires. This allowed it to do some fancy dependency resolution math similar to how the solvers in npm or cargo work.

This worked fantastically in the 99% case. There were some fairly easy to accidentally get yourself in cases where you could make the solver loop infinitely though, as well as ending up in a state where you have mutually incompatible transient dependencies without any real way around it.

Mara is hacker
<Mara> npm and cargo work around this by letting you use multiple versions of a single dependency in a project.

However these cases were really really rare, only appearing in much, much larger repositories. I don't think I practically ran into this, but I'm sure someone reading this right now found themselves in dep hell and probably has a hell of a war story around it.

vgo and Modules

This lead the Go team to come up with a middle path between the unrestricted madness of GOPATH and something more maximal like dep. They eventually called this Go modules and the core reasons for it are outlined in this series of technical posts.

Mara is hacker
<Mara> These posts are a very good read and I'd highly suggest reading them if you've never seem then before. It outlines the problem space and the justification for the choices that Go modules ended up using. I don't agree with all of what is said there, but overall it's well worth reading at least once if you want to get an idea of the inspirations that lead to Go modules.

Apparently the development of Go modules came out as a complete surprise, even to the core developer team of dep. I'm fairly sure this lead my manager to take up woodworking as his main non work side hobby, I can only wonder about the kind of resentment this created for other parts of the dep team. They were under the impression that dep was going to be the future of the ecosystem (likely under the subcommand go dep) and then had the rug pulled out from under their feet.

Cadey is coffee
<Cadey> The dep team was as close as we've gotten for having people in the actual industry using Go in production outside of Google having a real voice in how Go is used in the real world. I fear that we will never have this kind of thing happen again.

It's also worth noting that the fallout of this lead to the core dep team leaving the Go community.

Mara is hmm
<Mara> Well, Google has to be using Go modules in their monorepo, right? If that's the official build system for Go it makes sense that they'd be dogfooding it hard enough that they'd need to use the tool in the same way that everyone else did.

Numa is delet
<Numa> lol nope. They use an overcomplicated bazel/blaze abomination that has developed in parallel to their NIH'd source control server. Google doesn't have to deal with the downsides of Go modules unless it's in a project like Kubernetes. It's easy to imagine that they just don't have the same problems that everyone else does due to how weird Google prod is. Google only has problems that Google has, and statistically your company is NOT Google.

Go modules does solve one very critical problem for the Go ecosystem though: it allows you to have the equivalent of the GOPATH but with multiple versions of dependencies in it. It allows you to have within.website/[email protected] and within.website/[email protected] as dependencies for two different projects without having to vendor source code or do advanced GOPATH manipulation between projects. It also adds cryptographic checksumming for each Go module that you download from the internet, so that you can be sure the code wasn't tampered with in-flight. They also created a cryptographic checksum comparison server so that you could ask a third party to validate what it thinks the checksum is so you can be sure that the code isn't tampered with on the maintainer's side. This also allows you to avoid having to shell out to git every time you fetch a module that someone else has fetched before. Companies could run their own Go module proxy and then use that to provide offline access to Go code fetched from the internet.

Mara is hmm
<Mara> Wait, couldn't this allow Google to see the source code of all of your Go dependencies? How would this intersect with private repositories that shouldn't ever be on anything but work machines?

Cadey is coffee
<Cadey> Yeah, this was one of the big privacy disadvantages out of the gate with Go modules. I think that in practice the disadvantages are limited, but still the fact that it defaults to phoning home to Google every time you run a Go build without all the dependencies present locally is kind of questionable. They did make up for this with the checksum verification database a little, but it's still kinda sus.

I'm not aware of any companies I've worked at running their own internal Go module caching servers, but I ran my own for a very long time.

The earliest version of Go modules basically was a glorified vendor folder manager named vgo. This worked out amazingly well and probably made prototyping this a hell of a lot easier. This worked well enough that we used this in production for many services at Heroku. We had no real issues with it and most of the friction was with the fact that most of the existing ecosystem had already been using dep or glide.

Mara is hacker
<Mara> There was a bit of interoperability glue that allowed vgo to parse the dependency definitions in dep, godep and glide. This still exists today and helps go mod init tell what dependencies to import into the Go module to aid migration.

If they had shipped this in prod, it probably would have been a huge success. It would also let people continue to use dep, glide and godep, but just doing that would also leave the ecosystem kinda fragmented. You’d need to have code for all 4 version management systems to parse their configuration files and implement algorithms that would be compatible with the semantics of all of them. It would work and the Go team is definitely smart enough to do it, but in practice it would be a huge mess.

This also solved the case-insensitive filesystem problem with bang-casing. This allows them to encode the capital letters in a path in a way that works on macOS and Windows without having to worry about horrifying hacks that are only really in place for Photoshop to keep working.

The Subtle Problem of v2

However one of the bigger downsides that came with Go modules is what I've been calling the "v2 landmine" that Semantic Import Versioning gives you. One of the very earliest bits of Go advice was to make the import paths for version 1 of a project and version 2 of a project different so that people can mix the two to allow more graceful upgrading across a larger project. Semantic Import Versioning enforces this at the toolchain level, which means that it can be the gate between compiling your code or not.

Cadey is coffee
<Cadey> Many people have been telling me that I’m kind of off base for thinking that this is a landmine for people, but I am using the term “landmine” to talk about this because I feel like it reflects the rough edges of unexpectedly encountering this in the wild. It kinda feels like you stepped on a landmine.

Numa is delet
<Numa> It's also worth noting that the protobuf team didn't use major version 2 when making an API breaking change. They defended this by saying that they are changing the import path away from GitHub, but it feels like they wanted to avoid the v2 problem.

The core of this is that when you create major version 2 of a Go project, you need to adjust all your import paths everywhere in that project to import the v2 of that package or you will silently import the v1 version of that package. This can end up making large projects create circular dependencies on themselves, which is quite confusing in practice. When consumers are aware of this, then they can use that to more gradually upgrade larger codebases to the next major version of a Go module, which will allow for smaller refactors.

This also applies to consumers. Given that this kind of thing is something that you only do in Go it can come out of left field. The go router github.com/go-chi/chi tried doing modules in the past and found that it lead to confusing users. Conveniently they only really found this out after the Go modules design was considered final and Semantic Import Versioning has always been a part of Go modules and the Go team is now refusing to budge on this.

Cadey is coffee
<Cadey> My suggestion to people is to never release a version 1.x.x of a Go project to avoid the "v2 landmine". The Go team claims that the right bit of tooling can help ease the pain, but this tooling never really made it out into the public. I bet it works great inside Google's internal monorepo though!

When you were upgrading a Go project that already hit major version 2 or higher to Go modules, adopting Go modules forced maintainers to make another major version bump because it would break all of the import paths for every package in the module. This caused some maintainers to meet Go modules with resistance to avoid confusing their consumers. The workarounds for people that still used GOPATH using upstream code with Semantic Import Versioning in it were also kind of annoying at first until the Go team added "minimal module awareness" to GOPATH mode. Then it was fine.

Mara is hmm
<Mara> It feels like you are overly focusing on the v2 problem. It can't really be that bad, can it? grpc-gateway updated to v2 without any major issues. What's a real-world example of this?

Numa is delet
<Numa> The situation with github.com/gofrs/uuid was heckin' bad. Arguably it's a teething issue as the ecosystem was still moving to the new modules situation, but it was especially bad for projects that were already at major version 2 or higher because adding Go modules support meant that they needed to update the major version just for Go modules. This was a tough sell and rightly so.

This was claimed to be made a non-issue by the right application of tooling on the side, but this tooling was either never developed or not released to us mere mortals outside of Google. Even with automated tooling this can still lead to massive diffs that are a huge pain to review, even if the only thing that is changed is the version number in every import of every package in that module. This was even worse for things that have C dependencies, as if you didn't update it everywhere in your dependency chain you could have two versions of the same C functions try to be linked in and this really just does not work.

Overall though, Go modules has been a net positive for the community and for people wanting to create reliable software in Go. It’s just such a big semantics break in how the toolchain works that I almost think it would have been easier for the to accept if that was Go 2. Especially since the semantic of how the toolchain worked changed so much.

Mara is hmm
<Mara> Wait, doesn’t the Go compiler have a backwards compatibility promise that any code built with Go 1.x works on go 1.(x+1)?

Cadey is coffee
<Cadey> Yes, but that only applies to code you write, not semantics of the toolchain itself. On one hand this makes a lot of sense and on the other it feels like a cop-out. The changes in how go get now refers to adding dependencies to a project and go install now installs a binary to the system have made an entire half decade of tool installation documentation obsolete. It’s understandable why they want to make that change, but the way that it broke people’s muscle memory is quite frustrating for users that aren’t keeping on top of every single change in semantics of toolchains (this bites me constantly when I need to quick and dirty grab something outside of a Nix package). I understand why this isn’t a breaking change as far as the compatibility promise but this feels like a cop-out in my subjective opinion.

Contexts

One of Go’s major features is its co-operative threading system that it calls goroutines. Goroutines are kinda like coroutines that are scheduled by the scheduler. However there is no easy way to "kill" a goroutine. You have to add something to the invocation of the goroutine that lets you signal it to stop and then opt-in the goroutine to stop.

Without contexts you would need to do all of this legwork manually. Every project from the time before contexts still shows signs of this. The best practice was to make a "stop" channel like this:


stop := make(chan struct{})

And then you'd send a cancellation signal like this:


stop <- struct{}{}

Mara is hacker
<Mara> The type struct{} is an anonymous structure value that takes 0 bytes in ram. It was suggested to use this as your stopping signal to avoid unneeded memory allocations. A bool needs one whole machine word, which can be up to 64 bits of ram. In practice the compiler can smoosh multiple bools in a struct together into one place in ram, but when sending these values over a channel like this you can't really cheat that way.

This did work and was the heart of many event loops, but the main problem with it is that the signal was only sent once. Many other people also followed up the stop signal by closing the channel:


close(stop)

However with naïve stopping logic the closed channel would successfully fire a zero value of the event. So code like this would still work the way you wanted:


select {
  case <- stop:
  haltAndCatchFire()
}

Package context

However if your stop channel was a chan bool and you relied on the bool value being true, this would fail because the value would be false. This was a bit too brittle for comfortable widespread production use and we ended up with the context package in the standard library. A Go context lets you more easily and uniformly handle timeouts and giving up when there is no more work to be done.

Mara is hacker
<Mara> This started as something that existed inside the Google monorepo that escaped out into the world. They also claim to have an internal tool that makes context.TODO() useful (probably by showing you the callsites above that function?), but they never released that tool as open source so it’s difficult to know where to use it without that added context.

One of the most basic examples of using contexts comes when you are trying to stop something from continuing. If you have something that constantly writes data to clients such as a pub-sub queue, you probably want to stop writing data to them when the client disconnects. If you have a large number of HTTP requests to do and only so many workers can make outstanding requests at once, you want to be able to set a timeout so that after a certain amount of time it gives up.

Here's an example of using a context in an event processing loop (of course while pretending that fetching the current time is anything else that isn't a contrived example to show this concept off):


t := time.NewTicker(30 * time.Second)
ctx, cancel := context.WithCancel(context.Background())
defer cancel()

for {
  select {
  case <- ctx.Done():
    log.Printf("not doing anything more: %v", ctx.Err())
    return
  case data := <- t.C:
    log.Printf("got data: %s", data)
  }
}

This will have the Go runtime select between two channels, one of them will emit the current time every 30 seconds and the other will fire when the cancel function is called.

Mara is happy
<Mara> Don't worry, you can call the cancel() function multiple times without any issues. Any additional calls will not do anything special.

If you want to set a timeout on this (so that the function only tries to run for 5 minutes), you'd want to change the second line of that example to this:


ctx, cancel := context.WithTimeout(context.Background(), 5 * time.Minute)
defer cancel()

Mara is happy
<Mara> You should always defer cancel() unless you can prove that it is called elsewhere. If you don't do this you can leak goroutines that will dutifully try to do their job potentially forever without any ability to stop them.

The context will be automatically cancelled after 5 minutes. You can cancel it sooner by calling the cancel() function should you need to. Anything else in the stack that is context-aware will automatically cancel as well as the cancellation signal percolates down the stack and across goroutines.

You can attach this to an HTTP request by using http.NewRequestWithContext:


req, err := http.NewRequestWithContext(ctx, http.MethodGet, "https://xeiaso.net/.within/health", nil)

And then when you execute the request (such as with http.DefaultClient.Do(req)) the context will automatically be cancelled if it takes too long to fetch the response.

You can also wire this up to the Control-c signal using a bit of code like this. Context cancellation propagates upwards, so you can use this to ensure that things get stopped properly.

Mara is hacker
<Mara> Be sure to avoid creating a "god context" across your entire app. This is a known anti-pattern and this pattern should only be used for small command line tools that have an expected run time in the minutes at worst, not hours like production bearing services.

This is a huge benefit to the language because of how disjointed the process of doing this before contexts was. Because this wasn’t in the core of the language, every single implementation was different and required learning what the library did. Not to mention adapting between libraries could be brittle at best and confusing at worst.

I understand why they put data into the context type, but in practice I really wish they didn’t do that. This feature has been abused a lot in my experience. At Heroku a few of our production load bearing services used contexts as a dependency injection framework. This did work, but it turned a lot of things that would normally be compile time errors into runtime errors.

Cadey is coffee
<Cadey> I say this as someone who maintains a library that uses contexts to store contextually relevant log fields as a way to make logs easier to correlate between.

Arguably you could make the case that people are misusing the tool and of course this is what will happen when you do that but I don't know if this is really the right thing to tell people.

I wish contexts were in the core of the language from the beginning. I know that it is difficult to do this in practice (especially on all the targets that Go supports), but having cancellable syscalls would be so cool. It would also be really neat if contexts could be goroutine-level globals so you didn’t have to "pollute" the callsites of every function with them.

Cadey is coffee
<Cadey> At the time contexts were introduced, one of the major arguments I remember hearing against them was that contexts "polluted" their function definitions and callsites. I can't disagree with this sentiment, at some level it really does look like contexts propagate "virally" throughout a codebase.

I think that the net improvements to reliability and understandability of how things get stopped do make up for this though. Instead of a bunch of separate ways to cancel work in each individual library you have the best practice in the standard library. Having contexts around makes it a lot harder to "leak" goroutines on accident.

Generics

One of the biggest ticket items that Go has added is "generic types", or being able to accept types as parameters for other types. This is really a huge ticket item and I feel that in order to understand why this is a huge change I need to cover the context behind what you had before generics were added to the language.

One of the major standout features of Go is interface types. They are like Rust Traits, Java Interfaces, or Haskell Typeclasses; but the main difference is that interface types are implicit rather than explicit. When you want to meet the signature of an interface, all you need to do is implement the contract that the interface spells out. So if you have an interface like this:


type Quacker interface {
  Quack()
}

You can make a type like Duck a Quacker by defining the Duck type and a Quack method like this:


type Duck struct{}

func (Duck) Quack() { fmt.Println("Quack!") }

But this is not limited to just Ducks, you could easily make a Sheep a Quacker fairly easily:


type Sheep struct{}

func (Sheep) Quack() { fmt.Println("*confused sheep noises*") }

This allows you to deal with expected behaviors of types rather than having to have versions of functions for every concrete implementation of them. If you want to read from a file, network socket, tar archive, zip archive, the decrypted form of an encrypted stream, a TLS socket, or a HTTP/2 stream they're all io.Reader instances. With the example above we can make a function that takes a Quacker and then does something with it:


func main() {
  duck := Duck{}
  sheep := Sheep{}
  
  doSomething(duck)
  doSomething(sheep)
}

func doSomething(q Quacker) {
  q.Quack()
}

Mara is hacker
<Mara> If you want to play with this example, check it out on the Go playground here. Try to make a slice of Quackers and pass it to doSomething!

You can also embed interfaces into other interfaces, which will let you create composite interfaces that assert multiple behaviours at once. For example, consider io.ReadWriteCloser. Any value that matches an io.Reader, io.Writer and an io.Closer will be able to be treated as an io.ReadWriteCloser. This allows you to assert a lot of behaviour about types even though the actual underlying types are opaque to you.

This means it’s easy to split up a net.Conn into its reader half and its writer half without really thinking about it:


conn, _ := net.Dial("tcp", "127.0.0.1:42069")

var reader io.Reader = conn
var writer io.Writer = conn

And then you can pass the writer side off to one function and the reader side off to another.

There’s also a bunch of room for "type-level middleware" like io.LimitReader. This allows you to set constraints or details around an interface type while still meeting the contract for that interface, such as an io.Reader that doesn’t let you read too much, an io.Writer that automatically encrypts everything you feed It with TLS, or even something like sending data over a Unix socket instead of a TCP one. If it fits the shape of the interface, it Just Works.

However, this falls apart when you want to deal with a collection of only one type that meets an interface at once. When you create a slice of Quackers and pass it to a function, you can put both Ducks and Sheep into that slice:


quackers := []Quacker{
  Duck{},
  Sheep{},
}

doSomething(quackers)

If you want to assert that every Quacker is the same type, you have to do some fairly brittle things that step around Go's type safety like this:


func doSomething(qs []Quacker) error {
  // Store the name of the type of first Quacker.
  // We have to use the name `typ` because `type` is
  // a reserved keyword.
  typ := fmt.Sprintf("%T", qs[0])
  
  for i, q := range qs {
    if qType := fmt.Sprintf("%T", q); qType != typ {
      return fmt.Errorf("slice value %d was type %s, wanted: %s", qType, typ)
    }

    q.Quack()
  }
  
  return nil
}

This would explode at runtime. This same kind of weakness is basically the main reason why the Go standard library package container is mostly unused. Everything in the container package deals with interface{}/any values, which is Go for "literally anything". This means that without careful wrapper code you need to either make interfaces around everything in your lists (and then pay the cost of boxing everything in an interface, which adds up a lot in practice in more ways than you'd think) or have to type-assert anything going into or coming out of the list, combined with having to pay super close attention to anything touching that code during reviews.

Cadey is enby
<Cadey> Don't get me wrong, interface types are an amazing standout feature of Go. They are one of the main reasons that Go code is so easy to reason about and work with. You don't have to worry about the entire tree of stuff that a value is made out of, you can just assert that values have behaviors and then you're off to the races. I end up missing the brutal simplicity of Go interfaces in other languages like Rust.

Introducing Go Generics

In Go 1.18, support for adding types as parameters to other types was added. This allows you to define constraints on what types are accepted by a function, so that you can reuse the same logic for multiple different kinds of underlying types.

That doSomething function from above could be rewritten like this with generics:


func doSomething[T Quacker](qs []T) {
  for i, q := range qs {
    q.Quack()
  }
}

However this doesn't currently let you avoid mixing types of Quackers at compile time like I assumed while I was writing the first version of this article. This does however let you write code like this:


doSomething([]Duck{{}, {}, {}})
doSomething([]Sheep{{}, {}, {}})

And then this will reject anything that is not a Quacker at compile time:


doSomething([]string{"hi there this won't work"})


./prog.go:20:13: string does not implement Quacker (missing Quack method)

Unions

This also lets you create untagged union types, or types that can be a range of other types. These are typically useful when writing parsers or other similar things.

Numa is delet
<Numa> It's frankly kind of fascinating that something made by Google would even let you think about the word "union" when using it.

Here's an example of a union type of several different kinds of values that you could realistically see in a parser for a language like LOLCODE:


// Value can hold any LOLCODE value as defined by the LOLCODE 1.2 spec[1].
//
// [1]: https://github.com/justinmeza/lolcode-spec/blob/master/v1.2/lolcode-spec-v1.2.md#types
type Value interface {
  int64    // NUMBR
  float64  // NUMBAR
  string   // YARN
  bool     // TROOF
  struct{} // NOOB
}

This is similar to making something like an enum in Rust, except that there isn't any tag for what the data could be. You still have to do a type-assertion over every value it could be, but you can do it with only the subset of values listed in the interface vs any possible type ever made. This makes it easier to constrain what values can be so you can focus more on your parsing code and less on defensively programming around variable types.

This adds up to a huge improvement to the language, making things that were previously very tedious and difficult very easy. You can make your own generic collections (such as a B-Tree) and take advantages of packages like golang.org/x/exp/slices to avoid the repetition of having to define utility functions for every single type you use in a program.

Cadey is enby
<Cadey> I'm barely scratching the surface with generics here, please see the type parameters proposal document for a lot more information on how generics work. This is a well-written thing and I highly suggest reading this at least once before you try to use generics in your Go code. I've been watching this all develop from afar and I'm very happy with what we have so far (the only things I'd want would be a bit more ability to be precise about what you are allowing with slices and maps as function arguments).


In conclusion, I believe that we already have Go 2. It’s just called Go 1.18 for some reason. It’s got so many improvements and fundamental changes that I believe that this is already Go 2 in spirit. There are so many other things that I'm not covering here (mostly because this post is so long already) like fuzzing, RISC-V support, binary/octal/hexadecimal/imaginary number literals, WebAssembly support, so many garbage collector improvements and more. This has added up to make Go a fantastic choice for developing server-side applications.

I, as some random person on the internet that is not associated with the Go team, think that if there was sufficient political will that they could probably label what we have as Go 2, but I don’t think that is going to happen any time soon. Until then, we still have a very great set of building blocks that allow you to make easy to maintain production quality services, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.


Mara is happy
<Mara> If you had subscribed to the Patreon you could have read this a week ago!


This article was posted on M05 25 2022. Facts and circumstances may have changed since publication. Please contact me before jumping to conclusions if something seems wrong or unclear.

Tags: golang generics context modules

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The art for Mara was drawn by Selicre.

The art for Cadey was drawn by ArtZora Studios.