Proposal: Alias declarations for Go

Authors: Robert Griesemer & Rob Pike. Last updated: June 31, 2016

Discussion at


We propose to add alias declarations to the Go language. An alias declaration introduces an alternative name for an object (type, function, etc.) declared elsewhere. Aliases simplify splitting up packages because clients can be updated incrementally, which is crucial for large-scale refactoring.

1. Motivation

Suppose we have a library package L and a client package C that depends on L. During refactoring of code, some functionality of L is moved into a new package L1, which in turn may require updates to C. If there are multiple clients C1, C2, ..., many of these clients may need to be updated simultaneously for the system to build. Failing to do so will lead to build breakages in a continuous build environment.

This is a real issue in large-scale systems such as we find at Google because the number of dependencies can go into the hundreds if not thousands. Client packages may be under control of different teams and evolve at different speeds. Updating a large number of client packages simultaneously may be close to impossible. This is an effective barrier to system evolution and maintenance.

If client packages can be updated incrementally, one package (or a small batch of packages) at a time, the problem is avoided. For instance, after moving functionality from L into L1, if it is possible for clients to continue to refer to L in order to get the features in L1, clients don’t need to be updated at once.

Go packages export constants, types (incl. associated methods), variables, and functions. If a constant X is moved from a package L to L1, L may trivially depend on L1 and re-export X with the same value as in L1.

package L
import "L1"
const X = L1.X  // X is effectively an alias for L1.X

Client packages may use L1.X or continue to refer to L.X and still build without issues. A similar work-around exists for functions: Package L may provide wrapper functions that simply invoke the corresponding functions in L1. Alternatively, L may define variables of function type which are initialized to the functions which moved from L to L1:

package L
import "L1"
var F = L1.F  // F is a function variable referring to L1.F
func G(args…) Result { return L1.G(args…) }

It gets more complicated for variables: An incremental approach still exists but it requires multiple steps. Let’s assume we want to move a variable V from L to L1. In a first step, we declare a pointer variable Vptr in L1 pointing to L.V:

package L1
import "L"
var Vptr = &L.V

Now we can incrementally update clients referring to L.V such that they use (*L1.Vptr) instead. This will give them full access to the same variable. Once all references to L.V have been changed, L.V can move to L1; this step doesn’t require any changes to clients of L1 (though it may require additional internal changes in L and L1):

package L1
import "L"
var Vptr = &V
var V T = ...

Finally, clients may be incrementally updated again to use L1.V directly after which we can get rid of Vptr.

There is no work-around for types, nor is possible to define a named type T in L1 and re-export it in L and have L.T mean the exact same type as L1.T.

Discussion: The multi-step approach to factor out exported variables requires careful planning. For instance, if we want to move both a function F and a variable V from L to L1, we cannot do so at the same time: The forwarder F left in L requires L to import L1, and the pointer variable Vptr introduced in L1 requires L1 to import L. The consequence would be a forbidden import cycle. Furthermore, if a moved function F requires access to a yet unmoved V, it would also cause a cyclic import. Thus, variables will have to be moved first in such a scenario, requiring multiple steps to enable incremental client updates, followed by another round of incremental updates to move everything else.

2. Alias declarations

To address these issues with a single, unified mechanism, we propose a new form of declaration in Go, called an alias declaration. As the name suggests, an alias declaration introduces an alternative name for a given object that has been declared elsewhere, possibly in a different package.

An alias declaration in package L makes it possible to move the original declaration of an object X (a constant, type, variable, or function) from package L to L1, while continuing to define and export the name X in L. Both L.X and L1.X denote the exact same object (L1.X).

Note that the two predeclared types byte and rune are aliases for the predeclared types uint8 and int32. Alias declarations will enable users to define their own aliases, and byte and rune can then be defined internally using this general language mechanism rather than rely on built-in “magic” only available to the implementation.

3. Notation

The existing declaration syntax for constants effectively permits constant aliases:

const C = L1.C  // C is effectively an alias for L1.C

Ideally we would like to extend this syntax to other declarations and give it alias semantics:

type T = L1.T  // T is an alias for L1.T
func F = L1.F  // F is an alias for L1.F

Unfortunately, this notation breaks down for variables, because it already has a given (and different) meaning in variable declarations:

var V = L1.V  // V is initialized to L1.V

Instead of “=” we propose the new alias operator “->” to solve the syntactic issue:

const C -> L1.C  // for regularity only, same effect as const C = L1.C
type  T -> L1.T  // T is an alias for type L1.T
var   V -> L1.V  // V is an alias for variable L1.V
func  F -> L1.F  // F is an alias for function L1.F

With that, a general alias specification is of the form:

AliasSpec = identifier “->” [ PackageName “.” ] identifier .

An alias declaration may refer to another alias, as in:

type T1 -> L1.T  // T1 is an alias for L1.T
type T2 -> T1    // T2 is an alias for L1.T

The lhs identifier (T1, T2 in the example above) in an alias declaration is called the alias name (or alias for short). For each alias name there is an original name (or original for short), which is the non-alias name declared for a given object (here L1.T).

Some more examples:

import "math"
import "oldp"

var v -> oldp.V  // local alias, not exported

type (
	T1 -> oldp.T1  // original for T1 is oldp.T1
	T2 -> T1       // original for T2 is oldp.T1

var (
	V1 -> oldp.V1
	V2 T2  // same effect as: var V2 oldp.T1

func myF -> oldp.F  // local alias, not exported
func G   -> oldp.G

func f() {
	type T -> muchTooLongATypeName
	x := T{}  // same effect as: x := muchTooLongATypeName{}

The respective syntactic changes in the language spec are small and concentrated. Each declaration specification (ConstSpec, TypeSpec, etc.) gets a new alternative which is an alias specification (AliasSpec). Grouping is possible as before, except for functions (as before). See Appendix A1 for details.

The short variable declaration form (using “:=”) cannot be used to declare an alias.

Discussion: Introducing a new operator (“->”) has the advantage of not needing to introduce a new keyword (such as “alias”), which we can't really do without violating the Go 1 promise (though r@golang and rsc@golang observe that it would be possible to recognize “alias” as a keyword at the package- level only, when in const/type/var/func position, and as an identifier otherwise, and probably not break existing code). As proposed, it also means that an alias declaration must specify what kind of object the alias refers to (const, type, var, or func), which we think is an advantage: It makes it clear to a user what the alias denotes (as with existing declarations); and it also makes it possible to report an error at the type of the alias declaration if the aliased object changes (e.g., from being a constant to a variable) rather than only at where the alias is used.

On the other hand, mdempsky@golang points out that using a keyword would permit making changes in a package L1, say change a function F into a type F, and not require a respective update of any alias declarations referring to L1.F, which in turn might simplify refactoring. Specifically, one could generalize import declarations so that they can be used to import and rename specific objects. For instance:

	import Printf = fmt.Printf


	import Printf fmt.Printf

One might even permit the form

	import context.Context

as a shorthand for

	import Context context.Context

analogously to the renaming feature available to imports already. One of the issues to consider here is that imported packages end up in the file scope and are only visible in one file. Furthermore, currently they cannot be re-exported. It is crucial for aliases to be re-exportable. Thus alias imports would need to end up in package scope. (It would be odd if they ended up in file scope: the same alias may have to be imported in multiple files of the same package, possibly with different names.)

The choice of symbol (“->”) is somewhat arbitrary, but both “A -> B” and “A => B” conjure up the image of a reference or forwarding from A to B. Furthermore, “->” is also used in Unix directory listings for symbolic links, where the lhs is another name (an alias) for the file mentioned on the rhs.

dneil@golang and r@golang observe that if “->” is written “in reverse” by mistake, a declaration “var X -> p.X” meant to be an alias declaration is close to a regular variable declaration “var X <-p.X” (with a missing “=”); though it wouldn’t compile.

adonovan@golang points out that we could permit aliases only to imported (explicitly package-qualified or dot-imported) identifiers to start with. This would solve the immediate problem at hand and still allow the more general form eventually. It may also mean less work during declaration cycle detection.

3. Semantics and rules

An alias declaration declares an alternative name, the alias, for a constant, type, variable, or function, referred to by the rhs of the alias declaration. The rhs must be a (possibly package-qualified) identifier; it may itself be an alias, or it may the original name for the aliased object.

An alias denotes the aliased object, and the effect of using an alias is indistinguishable from the effect of using the original; the only difference is the name.

The same scope and export rules (capitalization for export) apply as for all other identifiers.

An alias declaration may be used wherever it is valid to have a keyword-based constant, type, variable, or function declaration. In particular, alias declarations may be grouped and aliases may refer to locally declared objects.

The scope of an alias identifier at the top-level (outside any function) is the package block (as is the case now for an identifier denoting a constant, type, variable, or function). The scope of an alias identifier inside a function begins at the end of the alias specification and ends at the end of the innermost block (analogous to what is the case now for local declarations).

An alias declaration may refer to any predeclared type including unsafe.Pointer, but not to any other predeclared object in the Universe scope (true, false, nil, iota, or any of the predeclared functions) nor any function of package unsafe (unsafe.Alignof, unsafe.Offsetof, unsafe.Sizeof).

An alias may refer to another alias, but cycles are forbidden. The existing lexical rules for cycle detection will serve for aliases as well.

A variable “used” via an alias is considered “used” as if it were accessed by its original name.

Discussion: The main reason for permitting aliases to predeclared types is regularity - we already implement byte and rune type aliases and the mechanisms for it exist already. There is no inherent difficulty in permitting aliases for the predeclared values nil, true, and false. However, due to the special meaning of nil it seems unwise to permit aliases to nil. The same is true for iota. The values true and false are constants, so aliases (as unwise as they may be) are already possible with constant declarations. Predeclared functions such as new or append (and others) are not regular functions; new takes a type argument, and append has a generic signature. These function types cannot be expressed via ordinary function signatures. If an alias to such a function were exported it would require a new mechanism to export these functions. Extra machinery for a questionable use case does not seem justifiable.

For purposes of implementation, unsafe.Pointer and the functions in package unsafe are treated like any of the other predeclared objects. It is already possible to declare a new type P with unsafe.Pointer as its underlying type, export P, and then use that P in another package to convert any pointer type to P, which then further can be converted to an uintptr. Thus restricting aliases in some way for unsafe.Pointer is not a meaningful restriction.

4. Impact on other libraries and tools

Alias declarations are a source-level and compile-time feature, with no observable impact at run time. Thus, libraries and tools operating at the source level or involved in type checking and compilation are expected to need adjustments.

reflect package The reflect package permits access to values and their types at run-time. There’s no mechanism to make a new reflect.Value from a type name, only from a reflect.Type. The predeclared aliases byte and rune are mapped to uint8 and int32 already, and we would expect the same to be true for general aliases. For instance:

fmt.Printf("%T", rune(0))

prints the original type name int32, not rune. Thus, we expect no API or semantic changes to package reflect.

go/* std lib packages The packages under the go/* std library tree which deal with source code will need to be adjusted. Specifically, the packages go/token, go/scanner, go/ast, go/parser, go/doc, and go/printer will need the necessary API extensions and changes to cope with the new syntax. These changes should be straightforward.

Package go/types will need to understand how to type-check alias declarations. It may also require an extension to its API (to be explored).

We don’t expect any changes to the go/build package.

go doc The go doc implementation will need to be adjusted: It relies on package go/doc which now exposes alias declarations. Thus, godoc needs to have a meaningful way to show those as well. This may be a simple extension of the existing machinery to include alias declarations.

Other tools operating on source code A variety of other tools operate or inspect source code such as go vet, go lint, goimport, and others. What adjustments need to be made needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis.

5. Implementation

There are many open questions that need to be answered by an implementation. To mention a few of them:

Are aliases represented somehow as “first-class” citizens in a compiler and go/types, or are they immediately “resolved” internally to the original names? For go/types specifically, adonovan@golang points out that a first-class representation may have an impact on the go/types API and potentially affect many tools. For instance, type switches assuming only the kinds of objects now in existence in go/types would need to be extended to handle aliases, should they show up in the public API. The go/types’ Info.Uses map, which currently mapes identifiers to objects, will require especial attention: Should it record the alias to object references, or only the original names?

At first glance, since an alias is simply another name for an object, it would seem that an implementation should resolve them immediately, making aliases virtually invisible to the API (we may keep track of them internally only for better error messages). On the other hand, they need to be exported and might need to show up in go/types’ Info.Uses map (or some additional variant thereof) so that tools such as guru have access to the alias names.

To be prototyped.


A1. Syntax changes

The syntax changes necessary to accommodate alias declarations are limited and concentrated. There is a new declaration specification called AliasSpec:

AliasSpec = identifier "->" [ PackageName "." ] identifier .

An AliasSpec binds an identifier, the alias name, to the object (constant, type, variable, or function) the alias refers to. The object must be specified via a (possibly qualified) identifier. The aliased object must be a constant, type, variable, or function, depending on whether the AliasSpec is within a constant, type, variable, of function declaration.

Alias specifications may be used with any of the existing constant, type, variable, or function declarations. The respective syntax productions are extended as follows, with the extensions marked in red:

ConstDecl = "const" ( ConstSpec | "(" { ConstSpec ";" } ")" ) .
ConstSpec = IdentifierList [ [ Type ] "=" ExprList ] | AliasSpec .

TypeDecl  = "type" ( TypeSpec | "(" { TypeSpec ";" } ")" ) .
TypeSpec  = identifier Type | AliasSpec .

VarDecl   = "var" ( VarSpec | "(" { VarSpec ";" } ")" ) .
VarSpec   = IdentList ( Type [ "=" ExprList ] | "=" ExprList ) |
            AliasSpec .

FuncDecl  = "func" FunctionName ( Function | Signature ) |
            "func" AliasSpec .

A2. Alternatives to this proposal

For completeness, we mention several alternatives.

  1. Do nothing (wait for Go 2). The easiest solution, but it does not address the problem.

  2. Permit alias declarations for types only, use the existing work-arounds otherwise. This would be a “minimal” solution for the problem. It would require the use of work-arounds for all other objects (constants, variables, and functions). Except for variables, those work-arounds would not be too onerous. Finally, this would not require the introduction of a new operator since “=” could be used.

  3. Permit re-export of imports, or generalize imports. One might come up with a notation to re-export all objects of an imported package wholesale, accessible under the importing package name. Such a mechanism would address the incremental refactoring problem and also permit the easy construction of some sort of “super-package” (or component), the API of which would be the sum of all the re-exported package APIs. This would be an “all-or-nothing” approach that would not permit control over which objects are re-exported or under what name. Alternatively, a generalized import scheme (discussed earlier in this document) may provide a more fine-grained solution.