Hello, goa

Announcing goa v1.0.0

Today I’m very excited to announce the release of goa v1.0.0. goa provides a design first approach for building microservices in Go. It consists of three parts: a DSL for describing the API design, a code generation tool that generates an OpenAPI specification as well as boilerplate code for the service and the clients, and a set of library packages leveraged by both the generated and non generated code. This release represents the culmination of 2 years of work spanning 5 complete rewrites. During this time goa evolved from being a pet experiment to becoming a strategic tool used by many organizations and with a striving and growing community.

The reason for goa’s success is clear: anyone working in an environment where multiple teams develop services concurrently understands its value immediately. In such environments developers need to document the service APIs continuously and in great details so that other teams can build services on top. Often times the API design needs to go through a review process where the API developer is responsible for providing a detailed documentation of the current API and for implementing all the changes approved during the review. Designing an API is not a one time activity either - it’s an iterative process. This puts a lot of burden on developers as they need to keep the design documentation up-to-date and visible to all the stakeholders at all time.

goa provides that real time detailed documentation and more importantly the confidence that the implementation matches the documented design.

The Road To V1

goa started as an experiment to reproduce the benefits of the design first approach initially promoted by the Praxis ruby framework developed by the RightScale team. You can see the evolution of goa by looking at the “archive.vN” branches in the repo. And if you do you’ll note a few key differences between each version. That’s because there were a few important realizations that contributed to the current design.

Keep The Design And Implementation Code Separate

First and foremost was the realization that the code that enables the design of the API must be kept separate from the code that enables the implementation. The initial implementation of goa mixed the two resulting in complex dependency problems and overall confusion. Teasing these apart resulted in much cleaner code both for the goa packages but also for the user implementation of the service.

A Design DSL

The various goa iterations used different approaches for making it possible to describe the API design. The initial version used Go struct literals which resulted in designs that were impossible to read thereby defeating the purpose. Other iterations attempted to use struct tags but again the end result was very poor user experience. Yet another approach consisted of using the Go parser to parse the design code but that made it very hard to reason about execution versus definition of the design code.

In the end it became clear that the best approach is to let the designer describe the design simply by calling functions that goa implements to create design definition structs. This provides both an opportunity to create a concise and specialized “language” for describing the design and a natural way for designers to extend the built-in language by implementing their own functions. These functions can call the built-in functions or manipulate the design structs directly.

Code Generation

Last but not least was the realization that the best way to enforce the decoupling between design and implementation would be to generate the implementation code. This provides the needed ability to update the implementation dynamically depending on the design without having to use any of the design definitions directly. It also provides for a much more performant approach compared to the alternative consisting of implementing a generic engine that consumes design definitions to manipulate runtime data.

So there you have it: clear separation of design and implementation done through a DSL that creates design definition structs used by code generation algorithms - goa v1.0!

The Benefits Of Design As Single Source Of Truth

The reality is that not all current goa users fit into the description provided above - that is teams working concurrently on related services. Many have found goa useful to develop isolated services as well. That’s because with goa you get to describe your API once and reap the benefits multiple times. Not only do you get up-to-date generated documentation in the form of an Open API specification but you also get all the service boilerplate code including encoder and decoder configuration, mux setup, input validation, marshaling and unmarshaling etc. You get test helpers, a client Go package, a self-documenting client tool - even a JavaScript client module.

The ability to generate all these outputs wasn’t immediately obvious but in retrospect makes a lot of sense: the design DSL is the single source of truth from which many aspects of the service can be derived. The DSL provides a nice way for humans to describe the design while the structs that result from its execution provide a great source for programs.


So why release v1 now? As the first wave of goa services hit production at RightScale and many other places there is a need for establishing a stable base that the teams know they can rely on for maintaining these services. The current feature set feels complete enough and is nicely self contained. Also while goa services are already running in production, goa is still young and many of the ideas being discussed in the roadmap require breaking changes. Releasing v1 thus makes it possible to start working on these new features without having to worry about backwards compatibility.

How To Use V1

The simplest way to consume goa v1.0.0 is to use vendoring and to pin the version in the vendor definition file to the git tag v1.0.0. The github repo also contains release archives that you may download.

There is also a v1 branch which contains the current v1.0.0 tag and will contain all future v1.x.y release tags.

Note that vendoring goa is a bit more complicated than just vendoring a Go package as it is also important to vendor the goagen tool. The website describes a strategy for doing this using glide.

Going forward the goal is to follow Semantic Versioning and to release bug fixes as needed for v1 while working on vNext.

The Road To V2

Which brings us to the future of goa. There are a few key areas that keep coming up where extending goa could provide a lot of value. Note that these are just current ideas, the roadmap is fairly fluid as the input of the community drives its content.

Protocol Buffers And gRPC

Today the sweet spot for goa is REST APIs and while non REST APIs can also be designed the end result must be an HTTP service. Protocol Buffers offer a promising alternative to encodings such as JSON whose performance can become an issue at scale. It seems interesting to make it possible to use Protocol Buffers on top of HTTP2 as “just another encoding”.

The next step is to make it possible to replace HTTP entirely and substitute it with gRPC. This adds a completely new dimension to goa better suited for people looking at building microservices using RPC rather than something like REST. The trick is to enable that integration while also improving the REST support.

Extending The SSOT

Maybe the most interesting aspect of the DSL is the fact at the DSL engine is nicely decoupled from the actual syntax. goa makes it easy to generate custom outputs from the existing design definition structs. More interestingly maybe goa also makes it simple to implement custom DSLs. Combined together the ability to generate any output and to define any DSL enables some very interesting use cases such as the gorma plugin which can be used to describe database models and generate code that loads or renders data.

There are many other applications to the DSL, for example it would be nice to generate mock clients to enable testing services in isolation or simple UIs that can exercise the API or kubernetes cluster definition files that bind together multiple services. There are obviously some tradeoffs - new DSLs also need to be learned and corresponding designs maintain - but if applied well there are some very interesting and exciting opportunities for new goa plugins.

The goa Community - Thank You!

This provides for a great transition into what was the biggest surprise to me with goa: The Go community took notice last November and since then has made countless contributions - not only to the code base - but also in terms of ideas, feedback and in general driving the development of goa. I know how it sounds, you’ve read it before and yet it’s true: goa is a much better tool today thanks to the Go community. A big thank you to all of you that have made contributions - you know who you are.

If you would like to hear more about goa I go into more details in episode #7 of Go Time.

I am looking forward to seeing goa evolve as others join and start contributing as well, this is just the beginning!