Friday 3 February 2017

Thoughts on Two Years in Golang

In my last post, I talked/ ranted a little bit about not being swept up in new trends or languages without proper analysis of their pros/cons and suitability for use in certain scenarios. Hence after having learnt Golang from scratch two years ago and having been programming in it day in day out its about time that I collected my thoughts on it.

Now a lot can be said about the cost of learning a new language, that time spent learning the basics, making the right of passage mistakes and getting up to speed with the tooling. However, I think that Golang recognises these costs and does what it can to mitigate these for a new developer, not to say that there isn't still a cost. But, I know that for many companies, mine included, the ease at which a Golang programmer can be converted is a signifcant consideration in the choice of the language.

C and Python had a love child and they called it Golang

Strict, opinionated and boring

I think of Golang as a strict, opinionated and boring language. Now, I know that the word 'boring' has many negative connotations. But when I invoke it here I mean that it lacks many of the features that tittilate academics and occupy the minds of advanced programmers. I discussed the exclusion of exceptions in a previous article. Other non-existent features include some I miss: Generics, operator overloading, primitive sets, assertions. And some I don't: nested functions, inheritance.

I have often heard people say Golang ignores the last X years of language development. Of course there are some useful features missing but in order to keep the language small and simple you have to be strict, and evaluate the costs and benefits of adding a new feature. Terseness can be considered as a feature in and of itself. In other languages the plethora of features can be bewildering and take an age to master, with the extra folds hiding more pitfalls and stumbling blocks.

Inheritance is a big ticket item but I have found that Interface gets you most of the benefits of duck typing without dragging in the massive amount of complexity and metadata fiddling inheritance brings.

Golang has some really nice features. Goroutines are great, these are lightweight concurrency primitives, basically multiplexing upon threads. There are also channels for communicating between goroutines. It is really great that Go can do concurrency so well out of the box and I find it much more clear than Python's generators.

Importantly Golang is very quick to compile and run, out-performing C Python easily and many other Python implementations. This is an oft cited reason for switching from Python to Golang. Most of my work with Golang has been on embedded devices and this was the reason Python was never in the running. There were concerns about its GC (Garbage Collection) latency but great work has been done to bring this to sub-millisecond levels in go 1.8

It has nice concise syntax, something akin to a cross between Python and C, which is nice as I am fond of Python syntax, Java syntax makes me queasy.


Probably the best feature is the tooling available and the strength of the ecosystem in general, it is fairly comprehensive and has a strong standard library which is something I really miss in Python. It tries hard to get things right the first time and mostly succeeds.

govet and golint are great static analysis tools and gofmt and goimports can format your source code on save in compliance with the style guide, saving time and bikeshedding. Golang really benefits from the strictness here, introduced at such an early stage that everyone is forced to get on board. I am so used to auto code formatting that I also set up auto pep8 formatting in Python and didn't look back.

The source tree layout and the build process are also standardised and there are great tools for running, building, testing and generating coverage stats in a standardised way with very little effort. You get deployable static binaries with little hassle which I always found a struggle with Python. This layout and process is strictly dictated which I know will rub some people the wrong way but in my opinion it saves a lot of turmoil for a little sacrifice in freedom.

It is very easy to pull dependencies `go get`, and you're there. However the lack of versioning and no way of telling how popular a library is are problematic. There are some third party solutions to the former problem, personally I use godep and there was some attempt to fix versioning with vendoring, but I don't feel as this is a complete solution and poses its own questions. However I am always a bit horrified by the multitude of tools when I have to pull dependencies in Python  {pip, easyinstall, setuptools}, I don't think go does too bad in comparison.


Now for some gripes.

Non-pointer receiver methods, this is often a common pitfall for new go programmers. In using a method with a non-pointer receiver, the receiver itself is copied by value meaning that changes to that receiver after the function call are not persisted. See this code example.

Lack of a generic max function, this is quite embarrassing for the language as it is something that newcomers will run into fairly early. Due to the lack of generics there is no max function for all numeric types and seemingly as a result of this no max function for any numeric type, err, yea, I know.

Sensible slicing syntax, now the syntax we have is quite nice for some use cases and is appreciated but I still have to resort to slice tricks.

Being strict and opinionated has downsides, on some issues the exclusion of certain features and lack of support for certain use cases makes it seem as though some problems are being wilfully ignored, namely, generics and dependency versioning.


I find Golang a great place on the ladder of abstraction, garbage collected and static typed. I can develop faster in Python but I am more confident of my Golang code's correctness as Python hides complexity, tries to be smart and lacks the safety of the compiler. However Golang does lack some of the libaries and stacks for widespread adoption on the server though this is improving everyday. And its memory requirements may be too demanding for some extremely resource constrained embedded environments, however it has performed admirably for our embedded use case thus far. After two years I like Golang as a language, there's much much more that I have to say about it. But it suffices to say that its a language that I am now very comfortable with and productive in and I feel more confident writing maintainable and efficient code in than Python.

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