Things from Python I'd miss in Go

June 9th, 2014

Let's assume Go has one killer feature – cheap concurrency – not present in any other language with similar serial performance (ruling out say Erlang). And let's agree that it gives Go its perfect niche – and we're only discussing uses of Go outside that niche from now on. So we won't come back to concurrency till the very end of the discussion. (Update – the "killer concurrency" assumption seems false... but anyway, we'll get to it later.)


Brian Kernighan once called Java "strongly-hyped". Certainly his ex-colleagues' Go language is one of the more strongly-hyped languages of today – and it happens to have a lot in common with Java in terms of what it does for you.

Rob Pike said he thought C++ programmers would switch to Go but it's Python programmers who end up switching. Perhaps some do; I, for one, am a Python programmer not planning to switch to Go – nor will I switch to Go from (the despicable) C++ or (the passable) C.

Why so?

What does Go have that C++ lacks? Mandatory garbage collection, memory safety, reflection, faster build times, modest runtime overhead. C++ programmers who wanted that switched to Java years ago. Those who still stick to C++, after all these years, either really can't live with the "overheads" (real time apps – those are waiting for Rust to mature), or think they can't (and nothing will convince them except a competitor eventually forcing their employer out of business).

What does Go have that Python lacks? Performance, static typing. But – again – if I needed that, I would have switched to Java from Python years before Go came along. Right?

Maybe not; maybe Java is more verbose than Go – especially before Java 8. Now, however, I'd certainly look at Java, though perhaps Go would still come out on top...

Except there are features I need that Go lacks (most of which Java lacks as well). Here's a list:

Dynamic code loading/eval

Many, many Python uses cases at work involve loading code from locations only known at run time – with imp.load_source, eval or similar. A couple of build systems we use do it, for instance –, that kind of thing. Also compilers where the front-end evals (user's) Python code, building up the definitions that the back-end (compiler's code) then compiles down to something – especially nice for prototyping.

I don't think Go has a complete, working eval. So all those use cases seem basically impossible – though in theory you could try to build the eval'ing and eval'd code on the fly... Maybe in some cases it'd work. Certainly it's not something Go is designed for.


No REPL in Go – a consequence of not having eval. There are a few programs compiling Go on the fly, like go-repl, but you can't quite build up arbitrary state that way – you're not creating objects that "live" inside the session. Not to mention the following little behavior of Go – a production-friendly but prototyping-hostile language if there ever was one:

> + fmt
! fmt> fmt.Println("Hello, world!")
Hello, world!
! fmt> println("This won't work since fmt doesn't get used.")
Compile error: /tmp/gorepl.go:2: imported and not used: fmt

At home, I use DreamPie because I'm on Windows, where a scanner and a Wacom tablet work effortlessly, but there's no tcsh running under xterm. Perhaps go-repl could replace DreamPie – after all, you can't exactly build up state in live objects in tcsh which I'm quite used to. But I kinda got used to having "live objects" in DreamPie as a side effect of using it instead of tcsh.

And certainly Python REPLs already did and always will get more love than Go's because Python is designed for this kind of thing and Go is not.


So Python is slow and Go is fast, and just as readable, right? Try doing linear algebra with large matrices.

Python has numpy which can be configured as a thin wrapper around libraries like Intel's MKL – utilizing all of your cores and SIMD units, basically unbeatable even if you drop down to assembly. And the syntax is nice enough due to operator overloading.

Go doesn't have operator overloading, making scientific computing people or game programmers cringe. Go is ugly when it comes to linear algebra. Will it at least be as fast as Python with MKL? I doubt it – who'll continuously invest efforts to make something hopelessly ugly somewhat faster at these things? Even if someone does – even if someone did – who cares?

Why not have operator overloading? For the same reasons Java doesn't: "needless complexity". At least in Go there's a "real" reason – no exceptions, without which how would you handle errors in overloaded operators? Which brings us to...

No exceptions

Meaning that every time I open a file I need to clutter my code with an error handling path. If I want higher-level error context I need to propagate the error upwards, with an if at every function call along the way.

Maybe it makes sense for production servers. For code deployed internally it just makes it that much longer – and often error context will be simply omitted.

More code, less done. Yuck.

Update: a commenter pointed out, rather empathically I might add, that you can panic() instead of throwing an exception, and recover() instead of catching it, and defer() does what finally does elsewhere. Another commenter replied that the flow will be different in Go in some cases, because defer() works at a function level so you effectively need a function where you could use a try/finally block elsewhere.

So the tendency to return error descriptions instead of "panicking" is a library design style more than strictly a necessity. This doesn't change my conclusions, because I'd be using libraries a lot and most would use that style. (And libraries panicking a lot might get gnarly to use because of defer/recover not working quite like try/finally; "strict necessities" are not that different from this sort of "style choice".)

GUI bindings

We use Python's Qt bindings in several places at work. Go's Qt bindings are "not recommended for any real use" yet/"are at an alpha stage".

This might change perhaps – I don't know how hard making such bindings is. Certainly concurrent servers have no GUI and Go's designers and much of its community don't care about this aspect of programming.

Not unlike the numpy situation, not? Partly it's simply a question of who's been around for more time, partly of what everyone's priorities are.

All those things, combined

We have at work this largish program full of plugins that visualizes various things atop video clips, and we're in the process of making it support some kinds of increasingly interactive programming/its own REPL. Without eval, operator overloading for numeric stuff, the right GUI bindings or exceptions it doesn't seem easy to do this kind of thing. To take a generally recognizable example – Python can work as a Matlab replacement for some, Go can't.

Or, we do distributed machine learning, with numpy. What would we do in Go? Also – would its concurrency support help distribute the work? Of course not – we use multiple processes which Go doesn't directly support, and we have no use for multiple threads/goroutines/whatever.


Just looking at "requirements" – ignoring issues of "taste/convenience" like list comprehensions, keyword arguments/function forwarding etc. – shows that Go is no replacement for Python (at least to the extent that I got its feature set right).

What is Go really good at? Concurrent servers.

Which mature language Go competes with most directly? Java: rather fast (modulo gc/bounds checking), rather static (modulo reflection/polymorphic calls), rather safe (modulo – funnily enough – shared state concurrency bugs). Similar philosophies as well, resulting in feature set similarities such as lack of operator overloading – and a similar kind of hype.

(Updated thanks to an HN commenter) Does Go have a clear edge over Java when it comes to concurrency? With Quasar/Pulsar, maybe not anymore, though I haven't looked deep enough into either. Certainly if you're thinking about using Go, Java seems to be a worthy option to consider as well.

Would I rather be programming in Go than C or C++? Yes, but I can't. Would I rather be programming in Go than Python? Typically no, and I won't.


Is there a large class of Python programmers who might switch to Go? Perhaps – people working on any kind of web server back-end code (blogs, wikis, shops, whatever). Here the question is what it takes to optimize a typical web site for performance.

If most of the load, in most sites, can be reduced drastically by say caching pages, maybe learning a relatively new language with a small community, less libraries and narrower applicability isn't worth it for most people. If on the other hand most code in most websites matters a lot for performance, then maybe you want Go (assuming other languages with similar runtime performance lack the cheap concurrency support).

I'm not that knowledgeable about server code so I might be off. But judging by the amount of stuff done in slow languages on the web over the years, and working just fine (Wikipedia looks like a good example of a very big but "static enough" site), maybe Go is a language for a small share of the server code out there. There are however Facebook/Twitter-like services which apparently proved "too dynamic" for slow languages.

Which kind of service is more typical might determine how much momentum Go ultimately gains. Outside servers – IMO if it gains any popularity, it will be a side-effect of its uses in servers. (And the result – such as doing linear algebra in Go – might be as ugly as using Node.js for server-side concurrency, "leveraging" JavaScript's popularity...)

And – why Python programmers would then be switching to Go but not C++ programmers? Because nobody is crazy enough to write web sites in C++ in the first place...