December 24, 2018

An Introduction to Go

(What follows is an excerpt from my master’s thesis, almost all of section 2.1, quickly introducing Go to people familiar with CS)

Go is an imperative programming language for concurrent programming created at and mainly developed by Google, initially mostly by Robert Griesemer, Rob Pike, and Ken Thompson. Design of the language started in 2007, and an initial version was released in 2009; with the first stable version, 1.0 released in 2012 1.

Go has a C-like syntax (without a preprocessor), garbage collection, and, like its predecessors devloped at Bell Labs – Newsqueak (Rob Pike), Alef (Phil Winterbottom), and Inferno (Pike, Ritchie, et al.) – provides built-in support for concurrency using so-called goroutines and channels, a form of co-routines, based on the idea of Hoare’s ‘Communicating Sequential Processes’ 2.

Go programs are organised in packages. A package is essentially a directory containing Go files. All files in a package share the same namespace, and there are two visibilities for symbols in a package: Symbols starting with an upper case character are visible to other packages, others are private to the package:

func PublicFunction() {
    fmt.Println("Hello world")

func privateFunction() {
    fmt.Println("Hello package")


Go has a fairly simple type system: There is no subtyping (but there are conversions), no generics, no polymorphic functions, and there are only a few basic categories of types:

  1. base types: int, int64, int8, uint, float32, float64, etc.
  2. struct
  3. interface - a set of methods
  4. map[K, V] - a map from a key type to a value type
  5. [number]Type - an array of some element type
  6. []Type - a slice (pointer to array with length and capability) of some type
  7. chan Type - a thread-safe queue
  8. pointer *T to some other type
  9. functions
  10. named type - aliases for other types that may have associated methods:

    type T struct { foo int }
    type T *T
    type T OtherNamedType

    Named types are mostly distinct from their underlying types, so you cannot assign them to each other, but some operators like + do work on objects of named types with an underlying numerical type (so you could add two T in the example above).

Maps, slices, and channels are reference-like types - they essentially are structs containing pointers. Other types are passed by value (copied), including arrays (which have a fixed length and are copied).


Conversions are the similar to casts in C and other languages. They are written like this:



Go has “untyped” literals and constants.

    1    // untyped integer literal
    const foo = 1 // untyped integer constant
    const foo int = 1 // int constant

Untyped values are classified into the following categories: UntypedBool, UntypedInt, UntypedRune, UntypedFloat, UntypedComplex, UntypedString, and UntypedNil (Go calls them basic kinds, other basic kinds are available for the concrete types like uint8). An untyped value can be assigned to a named type derived from a base type; for example:

type someType int

const untyped = 2             // UntypedInt
const bar someType = untyped  // OK: untyped can be assigned to someType
const typed int = 2           // int
const bar2 someType = typed   // error: int cannot be assigned to someType

Interfaces and ‘objects’

As mentioned before, interfaces are a set of methods. Go is not an object-oriented language per se, but it has some support for associating methods with named types: When declaring a function, a receiver can be provided - a receiver is an additional function argument that is passed before the function and involved in the function lookup, like this:

type SomeType struct { ... }

func (s *SomeType) MyMethod() {

func main() {
    var s SomeType

An object implements an interface if it implements all methods; for example, the following interface MyMethoder is implemented by *SomeType (note the pointer), and values of *SomeType can thus be used as values of MyMethoder. The most basic interface is interface{}, that is an interface with an empty method set - any object satisfies that interface.

type MyMethoder interface {

There are some restrictions on valid receiver types; for example, while a named type could be a pointer (for example, type MyIntPointer *int), such a type is not a valid receiver type.

Control flow

Go provides three primary statements for control flow: if, switch, and for. The statements are fairly similar to their equivalent in other C-like languages, with some exceptions:

  • There are no parentheses around conditions, so it is if a == b {}, not if (a == b) {}. The braces are mandatory.
  • All of them can have initialisers, like this

    if result, err := someFunction(); err == nil { // use result }

  • The switch statement can use arbitrary expressions in cases

  • The switch statement can switch over nothing (equals switching over true)

  • Cases do not fall through by default (no break needed), use fallthrough at the end of a block to fall through.

  • The for loop can loop over ranges: for key, val := range map { do something }


The keyword go spawns a new goroutine, a concurrently executed function. It can be used with any function call, even a function literal:

func main() {
    go func() {

    go some_function(some_argument)


Goroutines are often combined with channels to provide an extended form of Communicating Sequential Processes 2. A channel is a concurrent-safe queue, and can be buffered or unbuffered:

var unbuffered = make(chan int)  // sending blocks until value has been read
var buffered = make(chan int, 5) // may have up to 5 unread values queued

The <- operator is used to communicate with a single channel.

valueReadFromChannel := <- channel
otherChannel <- valueToSend

The select statement allows communication with multiple channels:

select {
    case incoming := <- inboundChannel:
        // A new message for me
    case outgoingChannel <- outgoing:
        // Could send a message, yay!

The defer statement

Go provides a defer statement that allows a function call to be scheduled for execution when the function exits. It can be used for resource clean-up, for example:

func myFunc(someFile io.ReadCloser) {
    defer someFile.close()
    /* Do stuff with file */

It is of course possible to use function literals as the function to call, and any variables can be used as usual when writing the call.

Error handling

Go does not provide exceptions or structured error handling. Instead, it handles errors by returning them in a second or later return value:

func Read(p []byte) (n int, err error)

// Built-in type:
type error interface {
        Error() string

Errors have to be checked in the code, or can be assigned to _:

n0, _ := Read(Buffer)   // ignore error
n, err := Read(buffer)
if err != nil {
    return err

There are two functions to quickly unwind and recover the call stack, though: panic() and recover(). When panic() is called, the call stack is unwound, and any deferred functions are run as usual. When a deferred function invokes recover(), the unwinding stops, and the value given to panic() is returned. If we are unwinding normally and not due to a panic, recover() simply returns nil. In the example below, a function is deferred and any error value that is given to panic() will be recovered and stored in an error return value. Libraries sometimes use that approach to make highly recursive code like parsers more readable, while still maintaining the usual error return value for public functions.

func Function() (err error) {
    defer func() {
        s := recover()
        switch s := s.(type) {  // type switch
            case error:
                err = s         // s has type error now

Arrays and slices

As mentioned before, an array is a value type and a slice is a pointer into an array, created either by slicing an existing array or by using make() to create a slice, which will create an anonymous array to hold the elements.

slice1 := make([]int, 2, 5) // 5 elements allocated, 2 initialized to 0
slice2 := array[:]          // sliced entire array
slice3 := array[1:]         // slice of array without first element

There are some more possible combinations for the slicing operator than mentioned above, but this should give a good first impression.

A slice can be used as a dynamically growing array, using the append() function.

slice = append(slice, value1, value2)
slice = append(slice, arrayOrSlice...)

Slices are also used internally to represent variable parameters in variable length functions.


Maps are simple key-value stores and support indexing and assigning. They are not thread-safe.

someValue := someMap[someKey]
someValue, ok := someMap[someKey]   // ok is false if key not in someMap
someMap[someKey] = someValue

  1. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) - The Go Programming Language [return]
  2. HOARE, Charles Antony Richard. Communicating sequential processes. Communications of the ACM, 1978, 21. Jg., Nr. 8, S. 666-677. [return]

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