Golang

Abuse of Sum Types In OO Languages

Sum types are useful, but they are also an attractive nuisance in object oriented languages. There's a certain type of programmer who gets a taste of functional programming and has a good time, but misinterprets that good time to mean that sum types are always better, because they are FP, and FP is Better.

But sum types are not generally better, they are specifically better. Using sum types, or even forcing sum types into languages that don't really have them like C, is a valid solution for certain problems, but in most cases they are not the best choice.

To understand when sum types are best, you must understand something called...

Interfaces and Nil in Go, or, Don't Lie to Computers

It is commonly held up as a wart in Go that interfaces have "two different nils"; one is when the interface value is nil:

var something interface{}
fmt.Println(something == nil) // prints true

and one is when the interface contains a nil:

var i *int // initializes to nil
var something interface{} = i
fmt.Println(something == nil) // prints false

This is not a wart in Go. It is a result of a programmer misconception combining with a software engineering bug which results in an attribution error.

Why Go Getting Generics Will Not Change Idiomatic Go

After years of overly-acrimonious online discussion, Go is continuing down the chute towards getting generics. I'm already seeing the inevitable "functional" libraries (plural) coming out. I'm going to explain why none of these libraries are going to materially impact what the community considers good style.

They may see some use. I may even use some of them myself on small scales. Some iconoclasts will program with them extensively, and their code will work, in the sense that it will do what it was designed to do regardless of how the code reads. But they are not going to change what generally-good style is considered to be.

Edit: May 2021 - Update for the latest generics syntax.

Avoiding Reflection (And Such) In Go

So, as previous posts show, I like Go well enough. But as a computer-language polyglot, "Go programmer" is not part of my identity, and I try for a balanced view. It is very human to go overboard in both praise and criticism, both easy to find online.

I open with this because this post will take a, ahh, let's say nuanced position on Go, in that it is going to agree a bit with both sides. Go's type system is weak and there are cases where you can only accomplish something via interface{}, reflection, copy/paste, or code generation... but in a rush to talk about what Go doesn't have, what it does have is too often neglected. When using a tool to solve problems what matters is whether there exists a good solution with that tool, not whether a direct port of a good solution from some other tool works. There certainly are real problems that lack good solutions in Go, but that set of problems is smaller than is sometimes supposed.

Some languages provide many power tools, and it is easy to use a bit of one and a bit of another without ever using any individual tool very deeply. Go provides you only a few tools, so you should use each fully.

If your Go code is a horrible copy/paste disaster, you must figure out whether it is because you are not using tools fully, or if you are missing tools. If you are missing tools, use another tool set. I do not consider that any sort of "concession", because I'm not too interested in whether you use Go; I'm interested in showing people how to fully use tools. All of these techniques will work in other languages as well, with varying degrees of convenience.

It's 2015. Why do we still write insecure software?

I've read a lot of programming blogs, and if you're reading this, you probably have too. So let me tell you up-front this is not your usual security rant that boils down to "just try harder!" Let's talk about smart, experienced programmers who are trying to write secure code, even if they are not security "experts" per se. This is an important set of people, because there is more security-related software in the world to write than can be written by security experts.

In a perfect world, setting that as the target audience would conclude this essay. As your browser's scrollbar shows in the full view, this essay continues on for quite a while. Alas, decades of experience and a trained reasonably high intelligence are not sufficient to write secure software in the current coding environment.

That's also the highest amount of qualifications that can be feasibly brought to bear at any reasonable scale, so in practice that's equivalent to saying it's impossible to write secure software in the current coding environment.

Let's talk about why it's so hard. My thesis is simple:

We write insecure software because our coding environment makes it easier to write insecure software than secure software.

But exploring what it fully means can lead some surprising places. Please join me on a journey as I try to show you why that is not trivially true, but in fact, profoundly true. We do not occasionally pick up insecure tools, like a broken encryption routine or misusing a web framework; we are fish swimming in an ocean of insecurity, oblivious to how steeped in it we are.

Go: More UNIX than UNIX

Go comes in part from Rob Pike and Ken Thompson, both influential in early UNIX. Both Rob Pike and Ken Thompson also were influential in working on Plan 9, a followup to UNIX.

UNIX's ideal is that "everything is a file". In Go terminology, this is a declaration that everything should be accessible via a uniform interface, which the OS specially privileges. One of Plan 9's core reasons for existing is that UNIX didn't take this anywhere near as far as it could be taken, and it goes much further in making everything accessible as a file in a directory structure.

I'm skeptical of both of these approaches. Everything isn't a "file".

There's numerous "files" that require ioctls to correctly manipulate, which are arbitrary extensions outside of the file interface. On the flip side, there are all kinds of "files" that can't be seeked, such as sockets, or files that can't be closed, like UDP streams. Pretty much every element of the file interface is one that doesn't apply to some "file", somewhere.

The Procrustean approach to software engineering tends to have the same results as Procrustes himself did, gravely or even fatally wounding the code in question.

Suture - Supervisor Trees for Go

Supervisor trees are one of the core ingredients in Erlang's reliability and let it crash philosophy. A well-structured Erlang program is broken into multiple independent pieces that communicate via messages, and when a piece crashes, the supervisor of that piece automatically restarts it.

This may not sound very impressive if you've never used it. But I have witnessed systems that I have written experience dozens of crashes per minute, but function correctly for 99% of the users. Even as I have been writing suture, I have on occasion been astonished to flip my screen over to the console of Go program I've written with suture, and been surprised to discover that it's actually been merrily crashing away during my manual testing, but soldiering on so well I didn't even know.

(This is, of course, immediately followed by improving my logging so I do know when it happens in the future. Being crash-resistant is good, but one should not "spend" this valuable resource frivolously!)

I've been porting a system out of Erlang into Go for various other reasons, and I've missed having supervisor trees around. I decided to create them in Go. But this is one of those cases where we do not need a transliteration of the Erlang code into Go. For one thing, that's simply impossible as the two are mutually incompatible in some fundamental ways. We want an idiomatic translation of the functionality, which retains as much as possible of the original while perhaps introducing whatever new local capabilities into it make sense.

To correctly do that, step one is to deeply examine not only the what of Erlang supervision trees, but the why, and then figure out how to translate.

The Environment Object Pattern in Go

One of the things I've been really enjoying about Go is how easy testing is. The pervasive use of interfaces and composition-instead-of-inheritance synergize nicely for testing. But as I've expressed this online on reddit and Hacker News a couple of times, I've found that this does not seem to be a universally-shared opinion. Some have even commented on how hard it is to test in Go.

Since we are all obviously using the same language, the difference must lie in coding behavior. I've internalized a lot of testing methodology over the years, and I find some of the things work even better in Go that most other imperative languages. Let me share one of my core tricks today, which I will call the Environment Object pattern, and why Go makes it incrementally easier to use than other similar (imperative) environments.

I've pushed two repos to GitHub with Go code: gomempool (godoc): A []byte pool manager for Go. It's less generic than the Pool implementation that is working its way into Go tip, but also therefore understands more about []bytes, and is much simpler than the I-don't-even-know-what magic is in that implementation. It also tracks stats, which I've hooked up to my monitoring so I can see the usefulness of the pool in my real running code.