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Google hopes to remake programming with Go

A Unix co-creator is among those behind a language Google hopes will speed computers and programming. Today, Go becomes open-source software.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
6 min read

Google software luminaries such as Unix co-creator Ken Thompson believe that they can help boost both computing power and programmers' abilities with an experimental programming language project called Go.

And on Tuesday, they're taking the veil of secrecy off Go, releasing what they've built so far and inviting others to join the newly open-source project.

The computing industry is in constant tension between making a fresh start and evolving the current technology. The limits of today's hardware designs and programming technology led the Go team to take the former approach.

Gordon, the Go gopher mascot.
Gordon, the Go gopher mascot, drawn by Rob Pike's wife and illustrator Renee French. Google

"We found some of those problems to be frustrating and decided that the only way to address them was linguistically," said Rob Pike, a principal software engineer working on Go. "We're systems software people ourselves. We wanted a language to make our lives better."

So far, Google's Go project consists of the programming language, compilers to convert what programmers write into software that computers can run, and a runtime package that endows Go programs with a number of built-in features. It's most similar to C and C++, but, Pike said, it employs modern features and has enough versatility that it could even be used within Web browsers.

Go's assets
There's a huge step between creating a new programming language and building into a major force in the industry. Sun Microsystems, which succeeded with Java, has had less success with a would-be Fortran successor called Fortress.

But Go has some assets most languages don't.

First, the project is at Google, which has a powerful incentive to make something useful in order to get more out of its hundreds of thousands of servers and its countless in-house programmers. An experiment at Google could have more commercial relevance than many other company's actual products, and Go is already graduated from a 20 percent time project to one with formal support.

"We don't intend it to be experimental forever," Pike said. "We really want to build stuff for real with this."

Second, there's the Go team's pedigree. Among them:

Thompson, the winner of the 1983 Turing Award and 1998 National Medal of Technology, who, along with Dennis Ritchie, was an original creator of Unix. Thompson also came up with the B programming language that led to the widely used C from Ritchie.

Pike, a principal software engineer who was a member of Bell Labs' Unix team and a later operating-system project called Plan 9. He's worked with Thompson for years and with him created the widely used UTF-8 character-encoding scheme.

Robert Griesemer, who helped write Java's HotSpot compiler and V8, the Chrome browser's JavaScript engine; Russ Cox, a Plan 9 developer; and Ian Taylor, who has worked on improving the widely used open-source GCC compiler.

The name Go itself stems from the challenging board game, a reference to Google itself and, of course, the idea of going somewhere, Pike said.

What's Go for?
Google has high hopes for Go.

It's designed to address some issues in getting software to take advantage of multicore processors that can perform multiple tasks in parallel. It has an approach to ease some of the pains of object-oriented programming. It has modern language features such as "garbage collection," which helps programmers deal with mundane but important memory management issues. And it's designed to be fast--nearly as fast as programs written in C or C++--and enable fast creation of programs in the first place.

"It seems it's getting much harder to build software than it used to be," even though computers are vastly faster than in the past, Pike said. "The process of software development doesn't feel any better than it did a generation ago. We deliberately tried to make a language that focused in part on rapid development, that compiles really efficiently, and that expresses dependencies efficiently and precisely so the compilation process can be controlled well. I find it much more productive to work in."

When it comes to the speed programs at which programs run, "Our target was to get as close as we could to C or C++," Pike said. They're reasonably close--programs run about 20 percent to 30 percent slower right now, he said.

The Go Web site itself is built with Go, but Google has broader ambitions. The software is designed to build server software--Google's Gmail is one example of what it's suited for. Google thinks that it could be good for other cases, including running software in a Web browser, a task JavaScript handles today.

"It's at least an order of magnitude better than JavaScript," Pike said. Note that Google built its own browser, Chrome, in part to speed JavaScript and Web performance, and that Google already is incorporating its technology such as Native Client and Gears.

Another nice Web-related feature in Go: tasks can be shared by servers and client devices such as PCs or mobile phones that use those services. That makes a service more easily adapted to different amounts of processing power for those clients, Pike said.

Making the most of multicore
Go also is designed to tackle one of today's big challenges, multicore processors. Programs often work sequentially, moving through a task one step at a time, but multicore processors are better at handling many tasks in parallel.

Go is no magic bullet for the problem, but Pike is optimistic that it will help. "We think we have support sufficient to take a crack at it," he said.

Specifically, Go uses a technology dating back to the 1960s called CSP, or communicating sequential processes, that handles interactions among a set of cooperating programs, Pike said. The technology made an appearance in programming languages such as Occom and Erlang, but it generally hasn't been applied in systems programming.

"We don't believe we've solved the multicore-programming problem," Pike said. "But we think we've built an environment in which a certain class of problems can take advantage of the multicore architecture."

The design also can apply, to some extent, to spreading tasks among multiple servers connected over a network, he added.

Lending a hand
The Go team is looking for help. One big area is in improving the runtime library from which Go programs can draw.

Such libraries speed up programming by providing many tools and functions so programmers don't have to create those ingredients on their own, and Go's library includes many elements crucial to Go's design. Go's libraries supply resources for handling concurrency, garbage collection, and other "low-level gunk you don't want to expose to programmers," Pike said.

The Go team also is looking for compiler help. Thompson has written some compiler support for 32-bit and 64-bit x86 processors, and for ARM processors, and Taylor has written a Go front end for the GCC compiler.

ARM processors are dominant in the mobile-phone market that Google is trying to spur into greater activity with the Android operating system, and Go software will be able to run on mobile phones, he said. "We're looking at interesting applications on things like Android phones. We're not sure where that's going to lead, but it's too intriguing to let it go," Pike said.

Google has released many products as open-source software over the years, in part to give something back to the pool from which it's drawn and in part because it stands to gain from the collective-development philosophy. Go fits with those motives.

"We did this to help Google first, but we decided (that) we need to open-source it," Pike said. "It's interesting, but it needs help from the community."

For all Google's ambitions for Go, the company doesn't expect it to erase today's technology.

"I don't think we'll replace anything," Pike said. "We're just putting another player into the arena."