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API Journal: Article

Unix Co-Creator Writes New Open Source Programming Language for Google

If it catches on, it would be the first major systems language to emerge in a decade

Open Source Journal on Ulitzer

Ken Thompson (pictured) and Rob Pike, a couple of the revered old soldiers who wrote Unix, Plan 9 and Inferno at Bell Labs – and programming languages like B, without which C probably wouldn’t exist, and Limbo – have come up with an experimental new programming language called Go that Google, their current refuge, open sourced Tuesday under a BSD-style license.

If it catches on, it would be the first major systems language to emerge in a decade.

One of the small Go team compares it to Java, calling it “performant but garbage collected” and “vastly more enjoyable to code in.”

Go’s primary attribute appears to be that it’s fast. It reportedly compiles to machine code very quickly thanks to a couple of Plan 9-beholden compilers.

Google says “Go combines the development speed of working in a dynamic language like Python” – Google does dote on Python – “with the performance and safety of a compiled language like C or C++. Typical builds feel instantaneous; even large binaries compile in just a few seconds. And the compiled code runs close to the speed of C.”

Go has been in the works for the last two years, but has only been a full-time project at Google since the middle of last year.

It was born, the Go team says, “out of frustration with existing languages and environments for systems programming. Programming had become too difficult and the choice of languages was partly to blame,” a statement that sounds very much like Ken Thompson.

“One had to choose either efficient compilation, efficient execution, or ease of programming; all three were not available in the same mainstream language. Programmers who could were choosing ease over safety and efficiency by moving to dynamically typed languages such as Python and JavaScript rather than C++ or, to a lesser extent, Java.”

“Go,” says one of the team’s FAQs, “is an attempt to combine the ease of programming of an interpreted, dynamically typed language with the efficiency and safety of a statically typed, compiled language. It also aims to be modern, with support for networked and multi-core computing. Finally, it is intended to be fast: it should take at most a few seconds to build a large executable on a single computer. To meet these goals required addressing a number of linguistic issues: an expressive but lightweight type system; concurrency and garbage collection; rigid dependency specification; and so on. These cannot be addressed well by libraries or tools; a new language was called for.”

Go descends from C in syntax and borrows declarations and packages from the Pascal/Modula/Oberon family and concurrency from Limbo, but it’s still a completely new language, its creators say, meant to escape the “bookkeeping, repetition and clerical work” of current languages as well as their “clutter and complexity” while still being “sophisticated.”

It’s object-oriented but without the type hierarchies.

Although it’s meant to make writing the servers and other software Google uses internally a lot easier, Go isn’t mature enough for large-scale production use yet. Its development team is experimenting with it as a candidate server environment and the server behind is a Go program.

Since Thompson’s involved, one would assume that the project’s called Go after the oriental board game that’s sort of like chess. He worked on Belle, the first chess program to get a master’s rating.

See here and here.

More Stories By Maureen O'Gara

Maureen O'Gara the most read technology reporter for the past 20 years, is the Cloud Computing and Virtualization News Desk editor of SYS-CON Media. She is the publisher of famous "Billygrams" and the editor-in-chief of "Client/Server News" for more than a decade. One of the most respected technology reporters in the business, Maureen can be reached by email at maureen(at) or paperboy(at), and by phone at 516 759-7025. Twitter: @MaureenOGara

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