Wandering Thoughts archives


An example of a situation where Go interfaces can't substitute for generics

I recently read Why Go Contracts Are A Bad Idea In The Light Of A Changing Go Community (via). I have some views on this, but today I want to divert from them to touch on one thing I saw in the article (and that I believe I've seen elsewhere).

In the article, the author cites the stringer contract example from the draft proposal:

func Stringify(type T stringer)(s []T) (ret []string) {
  for _, v := range s {
    ret = append(ret, v.String())
  return ret

contract stringer(x T) {
  var s string = x.String()

The author then says:

All that contracts are good for is ensuring properties of types. In this particular case it could (and should) be done simpler with the Stringer interface.

There are two ways to read this (and I don't know which one the author intended, so I am using their article as a springboard). The first way is that the contract is a roundabout way of saying that the type T must satisfy the Stringer interface, and we should be able to express this type restriction directly. I don't entirely argue with this, but I also don't think Go has any particularly compact and clear way of doing this now. Perhaps there should be a special syntax for it in a world with generics, although that depends on how many contracts will be basically specifying required method functions versus other requirements on types (such as comparability or addibility).

The other way of reading this is to say that our Stringify() example as a whole should be rewritten to use interfaces and not generics. Unfortunately this isn't possible; you can't write a function that behaves the same way using interfaces. This is because a non-generic function using interfaces must have the type signature:

func Stringify(s []Stringer) (ret []string)

The problem with this type signature is the famous and long standing Go issue that you cannot cast an array of some type to an array of some interface, even if the type satisfies the interface. The power of the generic version of Stringify is that it can work on your existing array of elements of some type; you do not have to manually create an array of those elements turned into interfaces.

The larger problem is that creating an interface value for every existing value is not free (even beyond the cost of a new array to hold them all). At a minimum it churns memory and makes extra work for the garbage collector. If you're starting with concrete values that are not pointers, you'll hit other efficiency issues as well when your Stringify calls the String() receiver method on your type.

The attraction of generics in this situation is not merely being able to implement generic algorithms in a way that is free of the sort of flailing around with interfaces that we see in the current sort package. It is also that the actual implementation should be efficient, ideally as efficient as a version written for the specific type you're using. By their nature, interfaces cannot deliver this level of efficiency; they always involve an extra layer of interface values and indirection.

(Even if you don't care about the efficiency, the need to transform your slice of T elements to a slice of Stringer interface values requires you to write some boring and thus annoying code.)

programming/GoInterfacesVsGenerics written at 21:36:27; Add Comment

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