Tag Archives: c++

How to include C code in your Go package

It looks like Go 1.4 will remove support for Go packages containing C code (as described below, don’t confuse this with CGO), so enjoy it while it lasts.

This is a short post designed to illustrate how Go package authors can write package level functions in C and call them from Go code without using cgo. The code for this article is available on GitHub, https://github.com/davecheney/ccode.

Some warnings

Before we start, there are a few warnings that need to be spelled out

  • Using C code is inherently unsafe, not just because it unholsters all the C footguns, but because you can address any symbol in the runtime. With great power comes great responsibility.
  • The Go 1 compatibility guarantee does not extend to C code.
  • C functions cannot be inlined.
  • Escape analysis cannot follow values passed into C functions.
  • Code coverage does not extend to C functions.
  • The C compilers (5c, 6c, 8c) are not as optimised as their companion Go compilers, you may find that the code generated is not as efficient as the same code in Go.
  • You are writing plan 9 style C code, which is a rough analogue of C89.

Returning a value

The first example is a simple function called True that always returns true.

void ·True(bool res) {
        res = true;

Even with this simple example there is a lot going on, let’s start with the function signature. The signature of True is void ·True(bool res). The void return code is required as all C to Go interworking is done via arguments passed on the stack. The Interpunkt, the middle dot, ·, is part of the package naming system in Go. By proceeding the name of the function with · we are declaring this function is part of the current package. It is possible to define C functions in other packages, or to provide a package name before the interpunkt, but it gets complicated when your package is heavily namespaced and so is beyond the scope of this article.

The next part of the function signature is the return argument specified in the C declaration style. Both calling and return arguments are supplied as parameters to any C function you want to call from Go. We’ll see in a moment how to write the corresponding forward declaration.

Moving on to the body of the function, assigning true to res is fairly straight forward, but the final line, FLUSH(&res) needs some explanation. Because res is not used inside the body of the function a sufficiently aggressive compiler may optimise the assignment away. FLUSH is used to ensure the final value of res is written back to the stack.

The forward declaration

To make the True function available to our Go code, we need to write a forward declaration. Without the forward declaration the function is invisible to the Go compiler. This is unrelated to the normal rules for making Go a symbol public or private via a capital letter.

A forward declaration for the True function looks like this

// True always returns true.
func True() bool

The forward declaration says that True takes no arguments and returns one boolean argument. As this is a normal Go function, you can attach a comment describing the function which will appear in godoc (comments on the function in C code will not appear in documentation).

That is all you need to do make True available to Go code in your package. It should be noted that while True is a public function, this was not required.

Passing arguments to C functions

Extending from the previous example, let’s define a function called Max which returns the maximum of two ints.

void ·Max(intptr a, intptr b, intptr res) {
        res = a > b ? a : b;

Max is similar to the previous function; the first two arguments are function arguments, the final is the return value. Using res for the name of the return argument is not required, but appears to be the convention used heavily throughout the standard library.

The type of a and b is intptr which is the C equivalent of Go’s platform dependant int type.

The forward declaration of Max is shown below. You can see the how function arguments and return values map between Go and C functions.

// Max returns the maximum of two integers.
func Max(a, b int) int

Passing addresses

In the previous two examples we have passed values to functions and returned copies of the result via the stack. In Go, all arguments are passed by value, and calling to C functions is no different. For this final example we’ll write a function that increments a value by passing a pointer to that value.

void ·Inc(intptr* addr) {

The Inc function takes the address of a intptr (a *int in Go terms), dereferences it, increments it by one, and stores the result at the address addr. The USED macro is similar in function to FLUSH and is used mainly to silence the compiler.

Looking at the forward declaration, we define the function to take a pointer to the int to be incremented.

// Inc increments the value of the integer add address p.
func Inc(p *int)

Putting it all together

To demonstate using these C defined functions in Go code I’ve written a few tests which exercise the code. The code for the tests are here, and the results of running the tests are shown below.

% go test -v github.com/davecheney/ccode
=== RUN TestTrue
--- PASS: TestTrue (0.00 seconds)
=== RUN TestMax
--- PASS: TestMax (0.00 seconds)
=== RUN TestInc
--- PASS: TestInc (0.00 seconds)
ok      github.com/davecheney/ccode     0.005s


In this short article I’ve shown how you can write a Go package that includes functions written in C. While a quite niche use case, it may come in handy for someone and also lays important groundwork for writing packages containing functions in raw assembler.

Andrei Alexandrescu on exceptions

Source: C++ and Beyond 2012: Andrei Alexandrescu – Systematic Error Handling in C++

Earlier today on the #go-nuts irc channel:

11:32 < nsf> http://channel9.msdn.com/Shows/Going+Deep/C-and-Beyond-2012-Andrei-Alexandrescu-Systematic-Error-Handling-in-C

11:32 < nsf> Andrei invents multiple return values and defer

I have a great deal of respect for Andrei. I think whenever he speaks, you should listen. In watching this video I was struck by his excellent categorisation of some of the less common arguments for errors over exceptions:

  • The exceptional path is slow (00:10:23). Facebook was using exceptions to signal parsing errors, which turned out to be too slow when dealing with loosely formatted input. Facebook found that using exceptions in this way increased the cost of parsing a file by 50x (00:10:42). No real surprise here, this is also a common pattern in the Java world and clearly the wrong way to do it. Exceptions are for the exceptional.
  • Exceptions require immediate and exclusive attention (00:11:28). To me, this is a killer argument for errors over exceptions. With exceptions, you can be in your normal control flow, or the exceptional control flow, not both. You have to deal with the exception at the point it occurs, even if that exception is truly exceptional. You cannot easily stash the first exception and do some cleanup if that may itself throw an exception.

Why Go gets exceptions right

How does Go get exceptions right? Why, by not having them in the first place.

First, a little history.

Before my time, there was C, and errors were your problem. This was generally okay, because if you owned an 70’s vintage mini computer, you probably had your share of problems. Because C was a single return language, things got a bit complicated when you wanted to know the result of a function that could sometimes go wrong. IO is a perfect example of this, or sockets, but there are also more pernicious cases like converting a string to its integer value. A few idioms grew to handle this problem. For example, if you had a function that would mess around with the contents of a struct, you could pass a pointer to it, and the return code would indicate if the fiddling was successful. There are other idioms, but I’m not a C programmer, and that isn’t the point of this article.

Next came C++, which looked at the error situation and tried to improve it. If you had a function which would do some work, it could return a value or it could throw an exception, which you were then responsible for catching and handling. Bam! Now C++ programmers can signal errors without having to conflate their single return value. Even better, exceptions can be handled anywhere in the call stack. If you don’t know how to handle that exception it’ll bubble up to someone who does. All the nastyness with errno and threads is solved. Achievement unlocked!


The downside of C++ exceptions is you can’t tell (without the source and the impetus to check) if any function you call may throw an exception. In addition to worrying about resource leaks and destructors, you have to worry about RAII and transactional semantics to ensure your methods are exception safe in case they are somewhere on the call stack when an exception is thrown. In solving one problem, C++ created another.

So the designers of Java sat down, stroked their beards and decided that the problem was not exceptions themselves, but the fact that they could be thrown without notice; hence Java has checked exceptions. You can’t throw an exception inside a method without annotating that method’s signature to indicate you may do so, and you can’t call a method that may throw an exception without wrapping it in code to handle the potential exception. Via the magic of compile time bondage and discipline the error problem is solved, right?

This is about the time I enter the story, the early millennium, circa Java 1.4. I agreed then, as I do now, that the Java way of checked exceptions was more civilised, safer, than the C++ way. I don’t think I was the only one. Because exceptions were now safe, developers started to explore their limits. There were coroutine systems built using exceptions, and at least one XML parsing library I know of used exceptions as a control flow technique. It’s commonplace for established Java webapps to disgorge screenfuls of exceptions, dutifully logged with their call stack, on startup. Java exceptions ceased to be exceptional at all, they became commonplace. They are used from everything from the benign to the catastrophic, differentiating between the severity of exceptions falls to the caller of the function.

If that wasn’t bad enough, not all Java exceptions are checked, subclasses of java.Error and java.RuntimeException are unchecked. You don’t need to declare them, just throw them. This probably started out as a good idea, null references and array subscript errors are now simple to implement in the runtime, but at the same time because every exception Java extends java.Exception any piece of code can catch it, even if it makes little sense to do so, leading to patterns like

catch (e Exception) { // ignore }

So, Java mostly solved the C++ unchecked exception problem, and introduced a whole slew of its own. However I argue Java didn’t solve the actual problem, the problem that C++ didn’t solve either. The problem of how to signal to caller of your function that something went wrong.

Enter Go

Go solves the exception problem by not having exceptions. Instead Go allows functions to return an error type in addition to a result via its support for multiple return values. By declaring a return value of the interface type error you indicate to the caller that this method could go wrong. If a function returns a value and an error, then you can’t assume anything about the value until you’ve inspected the error. The only place that may be acceptable to ignore the value of error is when you don’t care about the other values returned.

Go does have a facility called panic, and if you squint hard enough, you might imagine that panic is the same as throw, but you’d be wrong. When you throw and exception you’re making it the caller’s problem

throw new SomeoneElsesProblem();

For example in C++ you might throw an exception when you can’t convert from an enum to its string equivalent, or in Java when parsing a date from a string. In an internet connected world, where every input from a network must be considered hostile, is the failure to parse a string into a date really exceptional? Of course not.

When you panic in Go, you’re freaking out, it’s not someone elses problem, it’s game over man.


panics are always fatal to your program. In panicing you never assume that your caller can solve the problem. Hence panic is only used in exceptional circumstances, ones where it is not possible for your code, or anyone integrating your code to continue.

The decision to not include exceptions in Go is an example of its simplicity and orthogonality. Using multiple return values and a simple convention, Go solves the problem of letting programmers know when things have gone wrong and reserves panic for the truly exceptional.