Porting 6700 lines of C to Go

A few years ago, when I started pondering about the possibility of porting juju to the Go language, one of the first pieces of the puzzle that were put in place was goyaml: a Go package to parse and serialize a yaml document. This was just an experiment and, as a sane route to get started, a Go layer that does all the language-specific handling was written on top of the libyaml C scanner, parser, and serializer library.

This was a good initial plan, but for a number of reasons the end goal was always to have a pure Go implementation. Having a C layer in a Go program slows down builds significantly due to the time taken to build the C code, makes compiling in other platforms and cross-compiling harder, has certain runtime penalties, and also forces the application to drop the memory safety guarantees offered by Go.

For these reasons, over the last couple of weeks I took a few hours a day to port the C backend to Go. The total time, considering full time work days, would be equivalent to about a week worth of work.

The work started on the scanner and parser side of the library. This took most of the time, not only because it encompassed more than half of the code base, but also because the shared logic had to be ported too, and there was a need to understand which patterns were used in the old code and how they would be converted across in a reasonable way.

The whole scanner and parser plus header files, or around 5000 code lines of C, were ported over in a single shot without intermediate runs. To steer the process in a sane direction, gofmt was called often to reformat the converted code, and then the project was compiled every once in a while to make sure that the pieces were hanging together properly enough.

It’s worth highlighting how useful gofmt was in that process. The C code was converted in the most convenient way to type it, and then gofmt would quickly put it all together in a familiar form for analysis. Not rarely, it would also point out trivial syntactic issues. A double win.

After the scanner and parser were finally converted completely, the pre-existing Go unmarshaling logic was shifted to the new pure implementation, and the reading side of the test suite could run as-is. Naturally, though, it didn’t work out of the box.

To quickly pick up the errors in the new implementation, the C logic and the Go port were put side-by-side to run the same tests, and tracing was introduced in strategic points of the scanner and parser. With that, it was easy to spot where they diverged and pinpoint the human errors.

It took about two hours to get the full suite to run successfully, with a handful of bugs uncovered. Out of curiosity, the issues were:

  • An improperly dropped parenthesis affected the precedence of an expression
  • A slice was being iterated with copying semantics where a reference was necessary
  • A pointer arithmetic conversion missed the base where there was base+offset addressing
  • An inner scoped variable improperly shadowed the outer scope

The same process of porting and test-fixing was then repeated on the the serializing side of the project, in a much shorter time frame for the reasons cited.

The resulting code isn’t yet idiomatic Go. There are several signs in it that it was ported over from C: the name conventions, the use of custom solutions for buffering and reader/writer abstractions, the excessive copying of data due to the need of tracking data ownership so the simple deallocating destructors don’t double-free, etc. It’s also been deoptimized, due to changes such as the removal of macros and in many cases its inlining, and the direct expansion of large unions which causes some core objects to grow significantly.

At this point, though, it’s easy to gradually move the code base towards the common idiom in small increments and as time permits, and cleaning up those artifacts that were left behind.

This code will be made public over the next few days via a new goyaml release. Meanwhile, some quick facts about the process and outcome follows.

Lines of code

According to cloc, there was a total of 7070 lines of C code in .c and .h files. Of those, 6727 were ported, and 342 were 12 functions that were left unconverted as being unnecessary right now. Those 6727 lines of C became 5039 lines of Go code in a mostly one-to-one dumb translation.

That difference comes mainly from garbage collection, lack of forward declarations, standard helpers such as append, range-based for loops, first class slice type with length and capacity, internal OOM handling, and so on.

Future work code can easily increase the difference further by replacing some of the logic ported with more sensible options available in Go, such as standard abstractions for readers and writers, buffered writing support as availalbe in the standard library, etc.

Code clarity and safety

In the specific context of the work done, which is of a scanner, parser and serializer, the slice abstraction is responsible for noticeable clarity gains in the code, when compared to the equivalent logic based on pointer arithmetic. It also gives a much more comforting guarantee of correctness of the written code due to bound-checking.

Performance

While curious, this shouldn’t be taken as a performance comparison between the two languages, as it is comparing a fine tuned C implementation with something that is worse than a direct one-to-one port: not only it hasn’t seen any time at all on preventing waste, but the original logic was deoptimized due to changes such as the removal of inlining macros and the expansion of large unions. There are many obvious changes to be done for improving performance.

With that out of the way, in a simple decoding benchmark the C-backed decoder runs on about 37% of the time taken by the out-of-the-box deoptimized Go port.

Output size

The previous goyaml.a Go package file had 1463kb. The new one has 1016kb. This difference includes glue code generated for the integration.

Considering only the .c and .h files involved in the port, the C object code generated with the standard flags used by the go build tool (-g -O2) sums up to 789kb. The equivalent Go code with the standard settings compiles to 664kb. The 12 functions not ported are also part of that difference, so the difference is pretty much negligible.

Build time

Building the 8 .c files alone takes 3.6 seconds with the standard flags used by the go build tool (-g -O2). After the port, building the entire Go project with the standard settings takes 0.3 seconds.

Mechanical changes

Many of the mechanical changes were done using regular expressions. Excluding the trivial ones, about a dozen regular expressions were used to swap variable and type names, drop parenthesis, place brackets in the right locations, convert function declarations, and so on.

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