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Go language review

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Go is a relatively new language: designed in 2007, it was just released last month in version 1.0 under a BSD license. Go was invented at Google by Robert Griesemer, Rob Pike and Ken Thompson. Thompson is mostly known for his work on the B and C languages at Bell Labs when Unix was born and this is quite obvious in many of the language design decisions.

In a nutshell: Go is a compiled language meant for systems programming. It is part of the C family and is meant to be a 21st-century C with everything you would expect from a recent programming language. Think of it as what C++ should have been if it had not been taken over by an army of mad lobbyists, or if Java had been designed with efficiency in mind.

Go was written for Unix: Linux, BSD, OSX. A courageous team of volunteers apparently ported it to Windows.

Compared to its C ancestor, Go comes with a large number of features that draw from 40 years of experience with C. Every sore point in C has been addressed and an elegant solution proposed. Let me review the main points:

Fast compiler

Go’s compiler is fast. Small projects compile in terms of milliseconds, not seconds, which in effect gives the feel of an interpreted language. Launching a full compilation for a small-sized project and running the resulting (native) executable takes less time than to start a Python interpreter. Various benchmarks show that generated code is close to C in terms of speed.

Impressive standard library

The standard Go library comes with a large number of utilities for everything you may need at a system level: string processing, web services, crypto primitives, image processing, etc. Far from a CPAN but you already have quite a lot to get started. If all you are looking for is a solid base to start webapp programming, you have all you need.

Enhancements compared to C

  • Go has no pre-processor. Yay!
  • Functions can return multiple values, which enables returning an error status out of band. This simplifies enormously error handling in low-level libraries.
  • Type/variable is inverted: name the variable first then give its type. This feels weird at first but it avoids a number of common mistakes like:
    int* p1, p2 ;

    where p1 is a pointer to int but p2 is just an int.

  • Switch statements do not fall through: after a case you exit the switch. This is probably one of the most common errors encountered in C.
  • Mandatory braces after if, for. Yet another common C error.
  • Native lists and maps
  • Native (immutable) strings and arrays with bound-checking. Forget buffer overflows!
  • Pointers but no pointer arithmetic, i.e. get the full power of pointers without the dirty tricks.
  • Garbage collection. This does not prevent you from doing memory management but at least you get some help at the language level.

Enhancements compared to Java and C++

  • Go has exceptions but reserves them to… exceptional cases. No more flow-control through try/catch! Returning an error status from every function that needs to signal an error to its caller is much easier to handle and does not break programs in random places.
  • Go allows you to define methods on struct types but does not have the notion of classes or inheritance. This still allows the benefits of storing related data and methods into single objects without having to suffer from inheritance pitfalls.
  • Polymorphism: Go has interfaces but does not force the programmer to declare who implements what, this is automatically handled by the compiler (as it should). This promotes duck-typing while preserving strong typing.
  • Package names look like URLs instead of Java’s infamous reverse notation. You can import remote code with something you can understand at first glance:
    import ""

    instead of

    import com.example.project.user.module
  • No operator or function overloading. I have seen projects fail because developers abused these in C++. What you read is what you run!
  • Anonymous functions and closures: quite handy for callbacks and lots of other functional tricks

Concurrency handled through channels

This is a point I did not have enough time to study. Go programs are inherently multi-threaded but they handle concurrency by defining blocking interfaces (channels) between threads, which alleviates the need for mutexes. More on that topic as soon as I have time to play with it.

And more…

Go also includes a documentation tool, a code-formatting tool, integration with the most common Version Control tools (SVN, git, Mercurial), a couple of compiler candidates, it can be debugged using gdb and does not need Makefiles to build packages from source. All things you would expect from a modern programming language.

So what is Go good for?

Everything! It is easy to see a million opportunities for a language that has all the features of a high-level scripting language and the benefits of a strongly-typed compiled language.

The only missing point for now is a crucial lack of cookbook. The standard library comes with minimal documentation that could really use a more comprehensive tour. Or maybe it is just that searching Google for ‘Go’ is obviously bound to return a ton of irrelevant results?

Written by nicolas314

Monday 30 April 2012 at 6:07 pm

Posted in go, programming

Tagged with , , ,

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