Saturday, December 12, 2009

Basic cgo

Go has provided within its distribution a couple of examples to describe how one uses cgo, the command line utility that one uses to interact with C libraries.  Beyond that there is practically no official documentation, perhaps due to the Go team's desire to encourage the development of native Go libraries.  However, not everyone is particularly keen on reinventing the wheel, making cgo rather important.

In this article I will try to describe how one would go about linking to a C library.  My example will basically be the cgo equivalent of an ncurses "Hello, world" program.  It provides several basics about cgo usage: interacting with C libraries, calling and passing parameters to C functions, and the Makefile.

First off, the very basics:

package gocurses 

#include <ncurses.h>
import "C"

"C" is not actually a real package.  It is merely a signal to cgo that the lines commented immediately prior to the import statement are to be compiled as C code and that their contents are to be accessible to the succeeding Go code.  Here we are including the ncurses header.  The functions, types, and variables exposed in that header are accessed as if they existed in the "C" package.  Thus, to create the ncurses window, we call:

C.initscr ();

Here's the entire program, which I will subsequently explain:

package gocurses


#include <ncurses.h>
#include <stdlib.h>

int Printw (const char* str) { return printw (str); }
import "C"

import (

func Hello (s string) {
    C.initscr ();

    p := C.CString (fmt.Sprintf ("Hello, %s", s));
    C.Printw (p); (unsafe.Pointer (p));

    C.refresh ();
    C.getch ();
    C.endwin ()

Starting from the beginning, the macro is required due to ncurses handling of the bool type.  Do not worry too much about it for the purpose of this example.

Further down we see a wrapper around the ncurses 'printw' function.  This is necessary because cgo cannot deal with C's '...' parameter.  Fortunately we do not even need it, as it exists in this case merely for string formatting.

Note that I separate the import for "C" from the rest of the imports.  This is necessary, as putting it with the rest will (at the time of writing this article) prevent cgo from detecting where our C code is.

Further along we create our 'Hello' function and call 'initscr' to create a new ncurses window, as described earlier.  Now we deal with passing strings to C.  'C.CString' converts our Go string, 's', into a C-style string.  C strings are the only type whose conversion function is prefixed by 'C'.  All other types retain their own names.  Thus: for C ints, ''; for C floats, 'C.float'; etc.

We see here why we do not need to worry about the '...' parameter in 'printw'.  'fmt.Sprintf' can perform the formatting we need.  There are, perhaps, other uses of the '...' parameter that will require different workarounds, but for the purpose of this example we need not worry about them.

After calling Printw, we need to free the memory used by our new C string.  It is, after all, simply an array of chars created on the heap and we do not want a memory leak.  This is why we included 'stdlib.h': for the 'free' function.  'free' receives a pointer to void, a type that does not exist in Go.  'unsafe.Pointer' returns a compatible type, though.

The rest of the program is fairly basic.  Here's our main.go:

package main

import "gocurses"

func main () {
    gocurses.Hello ("world")

Now, we still need to compile everything.  We'll use a Makefile, as there a fair number of steps to compiling a cgo file.

include $(GOROOT)/src/Make.$(GOARCH)



include $(GOROOT)/src/Make.pkg


main: install main.go
        $(GC) main.go
        $(LD) -o $@ main.$O

The first line includes a file that simply defines some variables: CC, GC, LD, and O.  These define the compilers, the linker, and the file extension used for your platform.  On a 32-bit x86 platform, the values would be 8c, 8g, 8l, and .8, respectively.  On an amd64 platform, they would be 6c, 6g, 6l, and .6.

Next is simply a shortcut to Go's package directory.  It makes for less typing in Makefiles for larger projects.

The next five lines are cgo-specific:

TARG defines the name of the module we are compiling.  Since we defined it as gocurses in our source, that is the name here.

CGOFILES is a list of all .go files necessary for this module.  Since we everything is in a single file, we need only the one.

CGO_LDFLAGS defines any linker flags we need.  ncurses is not part of C's standard library, so we must tell cgo to explicitly link to it.

Next we include the file that Go provides to automate the cgo compilation process.  Take a look inside, if you wish, but I will not be going very deeply into what it does.  I will, however, explain a bit:

The cgo command line program creates four new files.  In our case they are gocurses.cgo1.go, gocurses.cgo2.go, gocurses.cgo3.c, and gocurses.cgo4.c.  The first is a translation of the original gocurses.go into normal go code.  The second defines all C types and variables that we used.  The third and fourth contain C code that wraps our calls.

When errors occur in the compilation of the Go code in a cgo file, it will often point to lines in *.cgo1.go.  Do not edit the contents of that file.  Use it as a reference to find where the error is in your .go file.

The actual steps the Makefile performs to compile these four files can be seen when one calls 'make main', though I will not go over them.

Back to the Makefile: CLEANFILES is just a list of files that Make.pkg uses to automatically remove all build files.  We add our executable to the list and also the package that it will install.

Finally we compile our main.go.  The 'install' directive there is what tells 'make' to actually start compiling our cgo files.

Please note that the final two lines must be indented using tab characters, not spaces.  When editing Makefiles you must ensure that your editor uses tabs and does not convert them to spaces.

I use vim and have set it to convert tabs to spaces, since I also code in Python.  However, when I need a tab I can create one using by pressing ctrl-v and hitting the tab key.

Well, that's it.  In the command line type 'make main' and the program should compile.  Run the executable 'main' and "Hello, world" should print.  Press any key and the program will exit.  Hopefully this little tutorial helps someone.


  1. make clean destroys my $GOROOT build stuff with this makefile =/ Other than that im having a undefined symbol: mysql_init error even after I don't have any compiling/linking errors. Good start, just not there yet

  2. Seems like it just might be a problem with my ubunto. Had to re-checkout go 3-4 times and it isn't having a problem anymore

  3. Thanks for the writeup. Here's the output I get using a source build from July 26, 2010.

    8g -o _go_.8 gocurses.cgo1.go _cgo_gotypes.go
    _cgo_gotypes.go:55: invalid recursive type _Ctypedef_WINDOW
    make: *** [_go_.8] Error 1

  4. Still won't work as of Feb 1, 2011

    8g -o _go_.8 gocurses.cgo1.go _cgo_gotypes.go
    _cgo_gotypes.go:58: invalid recursive type _Ctypedef_WINDOW
    make: *** [_go_.8] Error 1

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. I'd build it without problems.
    By the way, I've see a little go-improvement using defer:

    p := C.CString (fmt.Sprintf ("Hello, %s", s))
    defer (unsafe.Pointer (p))
    C.Printw (p)

    Znx a lot for your example!

  7. Thank you for this guide, it helped me a lot.
    But i had to include not " $(GOROOT)/src/Make.$(GOARCH)", but "$(GOROOT)/src/".