Speed and Stability: Why Go is a Great Fit for Lambda

A few days ago in a move foreshadowed by a hint at Amazons’ re:Invent conference late last year, AWS released support for Go on its Lambda platform.

Go users can now build programs with typed structs representing Lambda event sources and common responses in the aws-lambda-go SDK. These can then be compiled, bundled up into a “Lambda deployment package” (as simple as a ZIP file with a binary in it), and added to a new Lambda function by selecting “Go 1.x” as a runtime.

Prompt for creating a new function on Lambda.
Prompt for creating a new function on Lambda.

Go fans around the world are undoubtedly celebrating the addition, but Gopher or not, this is a big step forward for everyone. Go may have its share of problems, but it has a few properties that make it an absolutely ideal fit for a serverless environment like Lambda.

Lambda’s exact implementation details have always been a little mysterious, but we know a few things about them. User processes are started in sandboxed containers, and containers that have finished their execution may be kept around to service a future invocation of the same Lambda function (but might not be). Between function invocations containers are frozen, and no user code is allowed to execute.

Containers also flavored with one of the preconfigured runtimes allowed by Amazon (this list is current as of January 16th):

  • Node.js – v4.3.2 and 6.10.3
  • Java – Java 8
  • Python – Python 3.6 and 2.7
  • .NET Core – .NET Core 1.0.1 and .NET Core 2.0
  • Go – Go 1.x

That’s a pretty good variety of languages, but more interesting is what’s missing from the list. While .NET Core and Python are relatively up-to-date, Java 9 is absent, along with any recent major version of Node (7.x, 8.x, or 9.x). Notably, major features like async/await (which landed in Node ~7.6) are still not available on the Lambda platform even a year after release.

These holes tell us something else about Lambda: new runtimes are non-trivial to create, run, and/or maintain, so updated versions often lag far behind their public availability. Given that Lambda will be four years old this year, it doesn’t seem likely that Amazon will be able to to address this deficiency anytime soon.

Go 1.x's longevity is so impressive that it feels like a part of the landscape.
Go 1.x's longevity is so impressive that it feels like a part of the landscape.

That brings us back to Go. Lambda’s Go runtime specifies version “1.x”. At first glance that might not look all that different from other languages on the list, but there’s a considerable difference: Go 1 was first released almost six years ago in March 2012!

Since then, Go has followed up with nine more releases on the 1.x line (and with a tenth expected soon), each of which carried significant improvements and features. And while it’s rare to ever have a perfect release that doesn’t break anything, Go’s done as good of a job as is practically possible. Generally new releases are as pain and worry-free as changing one number in a .travis.yml.

This level and length of API stability for a programming language is all but unheard of, and it’s made even more impressive given that Go is one of the most actively developed projects in the world – a far shot from being stable only because it’s stagnant. The only way this remarkable feat has been made possible is that (presumably) having experienced the pain involved in the API changes that come along with most language upgrades, Go’s team has made stability a core philosophical value.

There’s an entire article dedicated to the policies around stability for the 1.x line. Here’s an excerpt where they explicitly call out that programs written for 1.x should stay working for all future versions of 1.x:

It is intended that programs written to the Go 1 specification will continue to compile and run correctly, unchanged, over the lifetime of that specification. At some indefinite point, a Go 2 specification may arise, but until that time, Go programs that work today should continue to work even as future “point” releases of Go 1 arise (Go 1.1, Go 1.2, etc.).

The APIs may grow, acquiring new packages and features, but not in a way that breaks existing Go 1 code.

This might sound like normal semantic versioning (semver), but semver only dictates what to do in the event of a breaking change. It doesn’t say anything about frequency of change, or committing to not making breaking changes. Go’s proven track record in this area puts it well ahead of just about any other project.

That brings us back to Lambda. If we look back at our list of runtimes, the supported versions across languages might not look all that different, but it’s a reasonably safe bet that the “Go 1.x” in that list is going to outlive every other option, probably by a wide margin.

The Lambda guide for Go suggests creating a function by building a statically-linked binary (the standard for Go), zipping it up, and uploading the whole package to AWS:

$ GOOS=linux go build -o main
$ zip main
$ aws lambda create-function ...

This is in sharp contrast to other support languages where you send either source-level code (Node, Python), or compiled bytecode (.NET Core, Java). Static binaries have some major advantages over both of these approaches.

Static linking removes the need for a dependency deployment system, which is often a heavy part of other language stacks. Anything that’s needed by a final program is linked in at compile time, and once a program needs to execute, it doesn’t need to think about project layout, include paths, or requirements files. Source-level dependency management has been a long criticized blindspot of Go, but with the addition of the vendor/ directory in Go 1.6 and rapid uptake on the new dep dependency management tool, the future is looking brighter than ever.

Static binaries also carry the promise of forward compatibility. Unlike even a bytecode interpreter, when a new version of Go is released, the Lambda runtime may not necessarily need an update given that existing containers will be able to run the new binary. Time will tell for sure, but unlike Node users who are still transpiling to get async/await on Lambda, Go users should be able to push updated programs on the release day of a new version of Go 1.

It’s rare to write software and not have it come back to haunt you in a few year’s time as it needs to be fixed and upgraded. In a craft generally akin to the shifting sands in a whirling windstorm, Go is a rare oasis of stability. More recently there has been some speculation as to what Go 2.0 might look like, there are still no concrete plans for any major breaking changes, and that’s a feature.

Along with the languages normal strengths – incredible runtime speed, an amazing concurrency story, a great batteries-included standard library, and the fastest edit-compile-debug loop in the business – Go’s stability and ease of deployment is going to make it a tremendous addition to the Lambda platform. I’d even go so far as to say that you might want to consider not writing another serverless function in anything else.

1 This comes with the caveat that net/rpc package that aws-lambda-go uses for the entrypoint remains stable across versions. This is reasonably likely though given that the package has been frozen for more than a year, and net/rpc’s serialization format, encoding/gob, states explicitly that efforts will be made to keep it forward compatible.

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