We, as a biodiversity informatics community, use quite a few programming languages. Python, Java, R, Ruby are probably the most popular ones. After working for the last few years with a language Go I think it would be very beneficial to add it to the biodiversity informatics toolset.
When I started writing in Go, the language seemed to be a bit clunky, did not have much of cool shiny language constructs that other modern languages have. I felt there were no “cute” syntax gold nuggets that are common in languages like Ruby or Python. However, I think Go is amasing for solving many biodiversity informatics problems.
I tried about 10 different languages for the last 12 years working on Encyclopedia Of Life and Global Names projects, and for the last 5 years Go is the language of choice for the vast majority of projects I make.
Lets look at the key features of the language that influenced my choice.
Feature 1: Amazing code readability
Biodiversity informatics runs mostly in academia. In academia projects blossom and wither depending on availability of funds. Funds often appear and dissapear, students and postdocs come and go, and quite often people have to continue development of projects written by someone else.
Therefore, an ability to understand a code written by another person is crucial for longevity of academia projects. So many important and interesting developments become stale or died out only because their code was too hard to understand by newcomers.
I found that code written in Go is one of the easiest to understand. The simplicity of syntax was one of major design goals in Go, and most of the common programming tasks can be solved only in one way. Go designers decided on a brutally minimalistic approach, as a result Go has very little bloat and in vast majority of cases has no duplication of features between its syntactic constructs.
As a result a programming style of novice and experienced programmers does not differ that much. It is great for supporting projects written by others, and for learning from Go code itself how to solve common problems.
Feature 2: Go is easy to learn
Minimalistic approach to the language design makes it possible to learn Go with 5-20 times less effort than other languages. Specification of the language is tiny and just going through an ‘official’ Go tutorial is enough to become productive after a few hours.
Feature 3: Go is easy to maintain
Developers of the language released Go v1.0 in 2012 and plan to support backward
compatibility for many years to come. Starting with Go v1.11 there is also
support for versioning of community packages as dependencies. As a result
it is possible to write a program or library and use it without any changes
inspite of new versions of Go appearing regularly. If a library or a program
depends on Open Source packages, the specific version of each package can be
set in a
New versions of Go appear regularly, and to use recently added features a
developer can provide Go version in
Go team is very careful when they consider new features, and such features are implemented only after much thought and discussion. As a result even massive new functionalities do not create backward incompatibilities.
Feature 4: Go is fast
Go is much faster than such languages like Python, Ruby, Perl or R. In addition concurrency and parallel execution of the code is a core concept of Go. Writing concurrent code in Go is orders of magnitude easier than in C, and after some practice becomes a second nature of a developer.
The combination of the language speed and parallel execution of the code on multi-core CPUs allows to make Go programs up to 100 times faster than programs written in interpreted languages. Go is somewhat slower than C, but Go programs are often faster than analogous C programs, because of the ease of developing concurrency and parallelism in Go.
Feature 5: Speed of programming is great
Go is quite expressive, and, in my experience, the speed of developing in Go is comparable with speed of development in Python or Ruby.
Also, running tests in Go is very fast, even big programs can be tested without a long wait. It allows to run tests often, or run them on each save.
Feature 6: Very fast compilation
Go is a compiled language, and requires compilation of its code before execution. The speed of compiling the code is usually almost instantaneous, and the language developers spend a lot of effort to keep it this way. The speed of compiling is only slightly slower than executing Python or Ruby code.
Feature 7: Convenient executable files
As a rule, Go compiles a program into a self-sufficient single executable file. Most of Go programs have no external dependencies and, as a result, are very easy to distribute and install. Downloading one file and running it is all what is required. Go supports cross-compilation. It means that it can create executable files for any supported OS on one computer. For example, a computer running Linux can create executables for MS Windows, Mac OS, and Linux in one go.
The size of the executable files is really tiny. For example, the size of a name-finding project written in Ruby (GNRD) is about a gigabyte, while the analogous code in Go is only 50 megabytes.
Small size of executables and lack of external dependencies make Go fantastic for publishing projects as Docker images, or deplying such images on Kubernetes.
Feature 8: Go is great for remote APIs and web-applications
Writing an extemely fast web-server in Go is a trivial task. Developing web-applications is quite easy with provided template methods. Distributing web-applications is also easy, because all the static files are usually included into a single binary. Besides a traditional REST approach to APIs there is a very fast streaming gRPC approach.
Feature 9: Rich ecosystem of Open Source libraries
Inspite of being a relatively young language (v1.0.0 was released in 2012) Go has a very active community and a large number of libraries for many development needs. Specific libraries for biodiversity informatics are scarse so far, but they start to appear. For example Global Names provides libraries for finding, parsing and verifying of scientific names.
Feature 10: Go code can be used in many other languages via C-bindings
It is possible to compile Go into a C library, and use it via C-binding with many other languages (C, R, Ruby, Python, Java for example).
It is also possible to incorporate C libraries into Go, however most of functionality usually provided by C libraries is already implemented in pure Go and, most of the time, introducing such depencencies is not required. For example there are fantastic Go drivers for most popular databases.
Feature 11: There are very good tools for Go developers
A lot of tools exist for Go that simplify development. Go creators pioneered an idea of auto-formatting of a written code. There are fantastic plugins for Go development in VS code, Vim, Emacs etc. JetBrains releases a standalone Go development platform. Go plugins incorporate linting, formatting, debugging, refactoring tools. Most of these tools can also be used as a stand-alone command line applications. Go has powerful profiling and tracing tools as well.
I hope this post gave you an idea why Go is good for biodiversity informatics, and you can try to start solving problems that appear in your work using Go language. I would suggest to pick a small well-defined task, that requires fast execution, read the tour of Go tutotiral, install Go and its tools for your favorite editor and start hacking the code!