Tag Archives: go2.0

Context isn’t for cancellation

This is an experience report about the use of, and difficulties with, the context.Context facility in Go.

Many authors, including myself, have written about the use of, misuse of, and how they would changecontext.Context in a future iteration of Go. While opinions differs on many aspects of context.Context, one thing is clear–there is almost unanimous agreement that the Context.WithValue method on the context.Context interface is orthogonal to the type’s role as a mechanism to control the lifetime of request scoped resources.

Many proposals have emerged to address this apparent overloading of context.Context with a copy on write bag of values. Most approximate thread local storage so are unlikely to be accepted on ideological grounds.

This post explores the relationship between context.Context and lifecycle management and asks the question, are attempts to fix Context.WithValue solving the wrong problem?

Context is a request scoped paradigm

The documentation for the context package strongly recommends that context.Context is only for request scoped values:

Do not store Contexts inside a struct type; instead, pass a Context explicitly to each function that needs it. The Context should be the first parameter, typically named ctx:

func DoSomething(ctx context.Context, arg Arg) error {
        // ... use ctx ...
}

Specifically context.Context values should only live in function arguments, never stored in a field or global. This makes context.Context applicable only to the lifetime of resources in a request’s scope. Given Go’s lineage on the server, this is a compelling use case. However, there exist other use cases for cancellation where the lifetime of the resource extends beyond a single request. For example, a background goroutine as part of an agent or pipeline.

Context as a hook for cancellation

The stated goal of the context package is:

Package context defines the Context type, which carries deadlines, cancelation signals, and other request-scoped values across API boundaries and between processes.

Which sounds great, but belies its catch-all nature. context.Context is used in three independent, yet sometimes conflated, scenarios:

  • Cancellation via context.WithCancel.
  • Timeout via context.WithDeadline.
  • A bag of values via context.WithValue.

At any point, a context.Context value can represent any one, or all three of these independent concerns. However, context.Context‘s most important facility, broadcasting a cancellation signal, is incomplete as there is no way to wait for the signal to be acknowledged.

Looking to the past

As this is an experience report, it would be germane to highlight some actual experience. In 2012 Gustavo Niemeyer wrote a package for goroutine lifecycle management called tomb which is used by Juju for the management of the worker goroutines within the various agents in the Juju system.

tomb.Tombs are concerned only with lifecycle management. Importantly, this is a generic notion of a lifecycle, not tied exclusively to a request, or a goroutine. The scope of the resource’s lifetime is defined simply by holding a reference to the tomb value.

A tomb.Tomb value has three properties:

  1. The ability to signal the owner of the tomb to shut down.
  2. The ability to wait until that signal has been acknowledged.
  3. A way to capture a final error value.

However, tomb.Tombs have one drawback, they cannot be shared across multiple goroutines. Consider this prototypical network server where a tomb.Tomb cannot replace the use of sync.WaitGroup.

func serve(l net.Listener) error {
        var wg sync.WaitGroup
        var conn net.Conn
        var err error
        for {
                conn, err = l.Accept()
                if err != nil {
                        break
                }
                wg.Add(1)
                go func(c net.Conn) {
                        defer wg.Done()
                        handle(c)
                }(conn)
        }
        wg.Wait()
        return err
}

To be fair, context.Context cannot do this either as it provides no built in mechanism to acknowledge cancellation. What is needed is a form of sync.WaitGroup that allows cancellation, as well as waiting for its participants to call wg.Done.

Context should become, well, just context

The purpose of the context.Context type is in it’s name:

context /kɒntɛkst/ noun
The circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood.

I propose context.Context becomes just that; a request scoped association list of copy on write values.

Decoupling lifetime management from context.Context as a store of request scoped values will hopefully highlight that request context and lifecycle management are orthogonal concerns.

Best of all, we don’t need to wait til Go 2.0 to explore these ideas like Gustavo’s tomb package.

Typed nils in Go 2

This is an experience report about a gotcha in Go that catches every Go programmer at least once. The following program is extracted from a larger version that caused my co-workers to lose several hours today.

package main

import "fmt"

type T struct{}

func (t T) F() {}

type P interface {
        F()
}

func newT() *T { return new(T) }

type Thing struct {
        P
}

func factory(p P) *Thing { 
        return &Thing{P: p}
}

const ENABLE_FEATURE = false

func main() {
        t := newT()
        t2 := t
        if !ENABLE_FEATURE {
                t2 = nil
        }
        thing := factory(t2)
        fmt.Println(thing.P == nil)
}

This distilled version of the program in question, while non-sensical, contains all the attributes of the original. Take some time to study the program and ask yourself, does the program print true or false?

nil != nil

Not to spoil the surprise, but the program prints false. The reason is, while nil is assigned to t2, when t2 is passed to factory it is “boxed” into an variable of type P; an interface. Thus, thing.P does not equal nil because while the value of P was nil, its concrete type was *T.

Typed nil

You’ve probably realised the cause of this problem is the dreaded typed nil, a gotcha that has its own entry in the Go FAQ. The typed nil emerges as a result of the definition of a interface type; a structure which contains the concrete type of the value stored in the interface, and the value itself. This structure can’t be expressed in pure Go, but can be visualised with this example:

var n int = 200 
var i interface{} = n

The interface value i is assigned a copy of the value of n, so i‘s type slot holds n‘s type; int, and it’s data slot holds the value 200. We can write this more concisely as (int, 200).

In the original program we effectively have the following:

var t2 *T = nil
var p P = t2

Which results in p, using our nomenclature, holding the value (*T, nil). So then, why does the expression p == nil evaluate to false? The explanation I prefer is:

  • nil is a compile time constant which is converted to whatever type is required, just as constant literals like 200 are converted to the required integer type automatically.
  • Given the expression p == nil, both arguments must be of the same type, therefore nil is converted to the same type as p, which is an interface type. So we can rewrite the expression as (*T, nil) == (nil, nil).
  • As equality in Go almost always operates as a bitwise comparison it is clear that the memory bits which hold the interface value (*T, nil) are different to the bits that hold (nil, nil) thus the expression evaluates to false.

Put simply, an interface value is only equal to nil if both the type and the value stored inside the interface are both nil.

For a detailed explanation of the mechanics behind Go’s interface implementation, Russ Cox has a great post on his blog.

The future of typed nils in Go 2

Typed nils are an entirely logical result of the way dynamic types, aka interfaces, are implemented, but are almost never what the programmer wanted. To tie this back to Russ’s GopherCon keynote, I believe typed nils are an example where Go fails to scale for programming teams.

This explanation has consumed 700 words–and several hours over chat today–to explain, and in the end my co-workers were left with a bad taste in their mouths. The clarity of interfaces was soured by a suspicion that gotchas like this were lurking in their codebase. As an experienced Go programmer I’ve learnt to be wary of the possibility of a typed nil during code review, but it is unfortunate that they remain something that each Go programmer has to learn the hard way.

For Go 2.0 I’d like to start the discussion of what it would mean if comparing an interface value to nil considered the value portion of the interface such that the following evaluated to true:

var b *bytes.Buffer
var r io.Reader = b
fmt.Println(r == nil)

There are obviously some subtleties that this pithy demand fails to capture, but a desire to make this seemingly straight forward comparison less error prone would, at least in my mind, make Go 2 easier to scale to larger development teams.

Should Go 2.0 support generics?

A long time ago, someone–I normally attribute this to David Symonds, but I can’t be sure he was the first to say it–said that the reason for adding generics to Go would be the reason for calling it Go 2.0. That is to say, adding generics to the language would be half baked if they were not used throughout the standard library. I wrote about this in a series of blog posts where I explored what I felt would be the repercussions of integrating templated types into Go.

Do I think Go should have generics? Well, there are really two answers to that question.

As I argued in my Simplicity Debt posts, mainstream programmers in 2017 expect a set of features in their languages. Many of us work in polyglot environments. Even if we want to be writing in Go as much as possible, there’s usually some Javascript, some CSS, some Python, maybe some Java, Swift, C#, PHP or even C++ in the project. Maybe this will change in the future, but right now, if you’re a commercial programmer working for a crust, every day you’ll touch a bunch of languages, so their differences tend to rub against one another.

  • Mainstream programmers expect static typing, not for performance, but for readability and maintainability–just look at what Typescript and Dart are bringing to Javascript, and Python’s formative efforts with optional typing.
  • Mainstream programmers expect concurrency. They expect to be able to do more than one thing at a time–just look at node.js and the compromises programmers were prepared to make to move away from heavy-weight thread per connection models. Go is obviously well positioned here.
  • Mainstream programmers expect some form of templated types because they’re used it in the other languages they interact with alongside Go.

So my first answer is: Go should have some form of generics because it is a mainstream, imperative, block scoped language and it is expected these days.

My second answer is if the designers of the language choose not to add templated types or parameterised functions–and keep in mind that I am not one of the language designers, only an exuberant fan–because, as I wrote in my series of posts, the repercussions for the simplicity and readability of the language may prove too jarring. If that were to happen, my recommendation would be that Go should own that decision.

What do I mean by that? Well, the best explanation I can give is a counterexample. Let’s look at Haskell. Haskell is what most functional programmers consider to be the baseline for a real FP language, and thus it looks pretty much like nothing programmers schooled in imperative, side effect ridden, block structured, languages are used to. But Haskell programmers own that. They own their difference, they don’t see it as a reason to make their language work more like PHP, or C++, or Rust, or even Go, and they are happy to explain the Haskell way of doing things to anyone who asks. My point is that if Go is not going to have a story for templated types, then we need to own it, just like Haskell programmers own their decisions.

This isn’t simply a case of saying “nope, sorry, no generics for Go 2.0, maybe in another 5 years”, but a more fundamental statement that they are not something that will be implemented in Go because we believe there is a better way to solve the underlying problem. Note that I did not say a better way to implement a templated type or parameterised function, but a better way to solve the underlying business problem. There is a difference.

This isn’t without precedent, Go was one of the first C style languages to eschew type inheritance, a decision which lead to a radical simplification of the language and a focus on the mantras of communicating intent via interfaces, and encapsulation over inheritance. Before Go, it was assumed that a mainstream language would have classes and a type hierarchy, nowadays that is less true.

So, should Go 2.0 have generics? If the decision is to add them then I’m sure it can be done, after all the syntax is the least important part of the decision, and there is a wealth of prior art in other languages to guide us. However, if the decision is not to add templated types, then it should be made so explicitly. Then it is incumbent upon all Go programmers to explain the Go Way of solving problems.

Simplicity Debt

Fifteen years ago Python’s GIL wasn’t a big issue. Concurrency was something dismissed as probably unnecessary. What people really was needed was a faster interpreter, after all, who had more than one CPU? But, slowly, as the requirement for concurrency increased, the problems with the GIL increased.

By the time this decade rolled around, Node.js and Go had arrived on the scene, highlighting the need for concurrency as a first class concept. Various async contortions papered over the single threaded cracks of Python programs, but it was too late. Other languages had shown that concurrency must be a built-in facility, and Python had missed the boat.

When Go launched in 2009, it didn’t have a story for templated types. First we said they were important, but we didn’t know how to implement them. Then we argued that you probably didn’t need them, instead Go programmers should focus on interfaces, not types. Meanwhile Rust, Nim, Pony, Crystal, and Swift showed that basic templated types are a useful, and increasingly, expected feature of any language—just like concurrency.

There is no question that templated types and immutability are on their way to becoming mandatory in any modern programming language. But there is equally no question that adding these features to Go would make it more complex.

Just as efforts to improve Go’s dependency management situation have made it easier to build programs that consume larger dependency graphs, producing larger and more complex pieces of software, efforts to add templated types and immutability to the language would unlock the ability to write more complex, less readable software. Indeed, the addition of these features would have a knock on effect that would profoundly alter the way error handling, collections, and concurrency are implemented.

I have no doubt that adding templated types to Go will make it a more complicated language, just as I have no doubt that not adding them would be a mistake–lest Go find itself, like Python, on the wrong side of history. But, no matter how important and useful templated types and immutability would be, integrating them into a hypothetical Go 2 would decrease its readability and increase compilation times—two things which Go was designed to address. They would, in effect, impose a simplicity debt.

If you want generics, immutability, ownership semantics, option types, etc, those are already available in other languages. There is a reason Go programmers choose to program in Go, and I believe that reason stems from our core tenets of simplicity and readability. The question is, how can we pay down the cost in complexity of adding templated types or immutability to Go?

Go 2 isn’t here yet, but its arrival is a lot more certain than previously believed. As it stands now, generics or immutability can’t just be added to Go and still call it simple. As important as the discussions on how to add these features to Go 2 would be, equal weight must be given to the discussion of how to first offset their inherent complexity.

We have to build up a bankroll to spend on the complexity generics and immutability would add, otherwise Go 2 will start its life in simplicity debt.

Next: Simplicity Debt Redux

Introducing Go 2.0

Just so we’re clear, this post is a thought experiment, not any form of commitment to deliver Go 2.0 in any time frame. While I personally believe there will be a Go 2.0 in the future, I’m in no position to influence its creation; hence, this post is mere speculation.


Why introduce a new major version of Go?

Go 1.0 was released over 4 years ago, and since then the Go 1 compatibility contract has been a boon to anyone investing in Go as the language to build their product.  So, why introduce a new version of Go?

By the time that Go 1.8 is released at the start of 2017, the standard library will have accumulated cruft and hacks for five years, and if you consider that Go started life in 2007, it’s closer to ten. An opportunity to address this cruft and remove some of the packages which are now understood to be a bad idea would make the standard library more consistent and approachable to newcomers.

It is possible the language itself could become smaller. Rob Pike noted in 2014 that there are too many ways to declare a variable in Go, and this could be rationalised. Similarly the incongruence between make and new might be resolved. Then there is the problem of non latin characters not being considered upper case. So, lots of little cleanups to do.

Obviously some kind of solution for templated types would have to be part of any Go 2.0 discussion and, as David Symonds pointed out several years ago, they would have to be used to rewrite the standard library, both causing, and justifying, the compatibility break.

Backward compatibility

Backwards compatibility is not about syntax or features, backwards compatibility is about investment. Investment in the language; both at a technical and career level. Investment in libraries. Investment in backends that generate machine code. Investment in the mid part of the compiler that transforms and optimises code. Investment in build scripts and toolchains that embeds one piece of compiled code into another.

Brian Goetz, the Java language architect, describes the commitment to backward compatibility as the “central park effect“. This is something our cousins in the hardware world have long understood–never let the customer unbolt your product from the rack, ‘cos they might take the opportunity to use that space for your competition.

The lessons of Python 3000 are prescient; ignore backward compatibility at your peril. No matter how compelling the new version of your language, if you make it incompatible with the investment in the previous version, you are launching a new product which is in direct competition with itself. And just to make it clear, I’m not picking on Python specifically, there are plenty of other examples; D 2.0, Perl 6, and VB.net also come to mind.

All of these examples show the danger of creating a new version of a language that requires its users to rewrite all the source of their program, including all their dependencies (which may be non trivial), before it will compile and run.

A plausible implementation

So, how to create a new Go 2.0 language, with a new syntax and a new standard library, without making it incompatible every piece of Go code written to date? How could we avoid the all or nothing stand-off in which other languages place their users?

What if we could combine code written in Go 1.0 and a proposed Go 2.0 in one program using the package level as the boundary between language versions? Go 2.0 would be a new language, with a new standard library built upon a runtime shared between itself and Go 1.0, thereby allowing users to work outwards from their Go 2.0 main package to the limbs of their dependency graph, one package at a time.

A Go 2.0 package would be able to call down to Go 1.0, but not the other way around. Go 2.0 types would be able to interoperate with Go 1.0 types, but Go 1.0 types would be unaware of Go 2.0 constructed code. Perhaps calling from Go 2.0 to Go 1.0 looks conceptually like using cgo to call C code, except without the overhead as both languages would be compiled to the same intermediary form.

The key is both language versions would be compiled to a single intermediate representation, one that can represent the superset of both syntaxes. This has been done before; in the first few versions of Go, C code and Go code was compiled to an intermediate representation, Ken Thompson’s universal assembly language, then converted to machine code at link time. Now with Keith Randall’s SSA compiler, there is a single low level intermediate representation (similar to gcc’s GIMPLE and LLVM’s IR) that describes all the things that make Go programs Go1.

There is a strong precedent for this; the Sun Oracle JVM. For more than a decade the JVM has hosted byte-code that was not compiled from .java source file. Combined with a version of gofix that could automate some of the effort in migrating a package to Go 2.0 syntax, this could be a plausible way to introduce a new version of Go without abrogating the investment in code written for Go 1.0.


  1. This also raises the possibility of developing other language front-ends using the Go toolchain. If you look at what LLVM has done for projects like Pony, Crystal, and Rust, think of what a portable, cross platform, optimising compiler, with user space concurrency built in, and written in Go, not C++, would mean for language experimentation.