Writing an API Client in Go

Let’s say you need to write a client that talks to a third party API, like the AWS API, or the Twilio API. Go gives you a lot of tools that can help you write a really good client, but you have to know how to take advantage of them! Keep reading for tips that will help you write a great API client.

Contexts and Timeouts

Generally your users will give up waiting for an answer after some amount of time. As an extreme example, if your checkout flow takes 2 days to return a response, your users will probably give up and buy it at Target. 2 days is an extreme example, but there is some maximum amount of time your users (and your code) should wait for an answer before you should give up and execute the fallback logic (like telling users they should try again later).

Complicating this, the user that’s calling your library is probably doing so as part of a larger request; maybe they are making 10 simultaneous requests to your client, and also making a database request and also doing some filesystem work. Odds are they want to enforce some deadline for all of that work to finish, and if the work isn’t complete by then, everything still in progress should be canceled.

Go’s context library is perfect for this use case. Users can create a Context, pass it to multiple threads, and then either cancel the work being done in every thread, or time it out after a specific deadline.

Many other languages make it tricky to enforce an absolute deadline on a HTTP request - in many languages, you compute the timeout as a duration (“3 seconds”) and that can reset any time the server sends a single byte. You can use context.WithDeadline to enforce an absolute deadline on a client request, which is really nice.

The best practice is to pass a Context as the first parameter to every function that can open a socket. Here are some example function signatures:

client.Messages.Create(ctx context.Context, to, from string)
client.Emails.Get(ctx context.Context, sid string)
client.Notifications.List(ctx context.Context, filters url.Values)

All you have to do inside your library is pass the Context to the http.Request object via request.WithContext():

req, err := http.NewRequest(method, url, body)
req = req.WithContext(ctx)
return client.Do(req)

This will let your users coordinate timeouts very precisely, as well as cancel requests they no longer need.

Type Parsing

GRPC API’s are becoming more common, but most HTTP API’s you’ll deal with are still returning XML or JSON data. JSON offers only a few types - numbers, strings, booleans, and arrays/maps of those. Go offers a much wider range of types. Consider trying to marshal those JSON/XML objects into a more useful type for your users.

For example, the Twilio API returns phone numbers as strings - "+14105551234" for example. We can parse those into PhoneNumber objects, and then provide helpers to let users print different formats of the number (e.g. "(410) 555-1234").

type PhoneNumber string

func (p PhoneNumber) Local() string {
    num, err := libphonenumber.Parse(string(pn), "US")
    if err != nil {
        return string(pn)
    return libphonenumber.Format(num, libphonenumber.NATIONAL)

// A Call represents a phone call.
type Call struct {
    To          PhoneNumber `json:"to"`
    From        PhoneNumber `json:"from"`
    ID          string      `json:"id"`
    DateCreated time.Time   `json:"date_created"`

Nullable Values

Frequently API’s written in other languages will return values that are nullable or don’t contain the right type. For example, an API may return either null or a time.Time for a field, or may return booleans as strings, e.g. “true” and “false”. I like to borrow a type from the database/sql package to handle nullable types.

type NullTime struct {
    Time time.Time
    Valid bool

Callers can check whether a NullTime is Valid; if so, they can access the Time value, otherwise it’s zero.

Of course, this needs to be marshaled from JSON into the right value, which we can accomplish by satisfying the json.Unmarshaler interface.

func (nt *NullTime) UnmarshalJSON(b []byte) error {
    if string(b) == "null" {
        nt.Valid = false
        return nil
    var t time.Time
    err := json.Unmarshal(b, &t)
    if err != nil {
        return err
    nt.Valid = true
    nt.Time = t
    return nil

User Agents

Sometimes clients have faulty logic. In these cases it’s extremely useful for the server to know which version of the client is making the request. The server can use this to email accounts with faulty clients and ask them to upgrade, or (gasp) return different results to different clients, if upgrading is impossible.

I recommend including the following information in your library:

  • the version number
  • the name of the client
  • the name/version of the HTTP or REST client you are using, if it’s not just net/http
  • the Go platform version

Here is a sample User-Agent string for my twilio-go helper library:

twilio-go/0.54 rest-client/0.16 (https://github.com/kevinburke/rest) go1.7.4 (darwin/amd64)

You can add it to outbound requests with req.Header.Add():

req, err := http.NewRequest(method, url, body)
req.Header.Add("User-Agent", "twilio-go/0.54 ...")
return client.Do(req)

Forward Compatibility

Users of your client library might not be able to upgrade to a newer version (or may be worried about introducing incompatibilities by doing so). Where possible, it’s good to try to be forward compatible in your client library. For example, if the server offers a new parameter, or changes the available types for an existing parameter, users should be able to specify those without needing to pull down the latest versions.

Specifying API parameters with a url.Values works really well for this use case. For example:

data := url.Values{}
data.Set("To", "+14105551234")
data.Set("From", "+14105556789")

If the server decides to allow calls to people’s names instead of phone numbers, or to the number 7, or allow multiple From values, or a new parameter, your users are totally compatible with their existing code! They can just change the values they set on data and they are good to go.

Usage Patterns

For most client libraries, the vast majority of your users will only do one or two things with the API. For Stripe this is charging a credit card, for Sendgrid this is sending an email, &c, &c. Offer helpers to make common actions really easy. For example, this type of interface is easy to scale to many resources and many different HTTP methods:

data := url.Values{}
data.Set("From", "boss@example.org")
data.Set("To", "foo@example.com")
data.Set("Subject", "TPS Cover Sheets")
data.Set("Body", "They are important!")
return client.V1.Emails.CreateResource(data)

But it’s a little cumbersome. It might be worthwhile to add a helper function that simplifies the interface a little bit.

client.SendEmail("boss@example.org", "foo@example.com", "TPS Cover Sheets",
    "They are important! Don't forget them.")


One way to test your client would be to define each resource as an interface, then add dummy code that satisfies the interface and returns you objects. For example:

type ChargeResource interface {
    Get(string) (*Charge, error)
    Create(url.Values) (*Charge, error)
    List(url.Values) ([]*Charge, error)

Then your tests would integrate with dummy versions of each interface. The problem here is that you’re not actually testing against the HTTP response. If you make a change to the client code that parses the HTTP response incorrectly, you’re not going to catch it.

The next option is to integrate directly with the API - pass in a valid set of credentials and make network requests. This is the only way to tell if the API starts returning different responses, but is slow, doesn’t work on the subway, and may be expensive, if you are testing API calls that cost money.

The third option is to save the API response, then spin up a test server that serves that response on demand. This gets you most of the benefits of integration with the API, but is much faster, works on the subway and won’t cost you anything to test expensive calls. Spinning up a test server is easy and cheap in Go. Here’s an example test:

s := httptest.NewServer(http.HandlerFunc(func(w http.ResponseWriter, _ *http.Request) {
    w.Header().Set("Content-Type", "application/json; charset=utf-8")
    w.Write([]byte(`{"message": "Card charge denied", "code": 10002}`))
defer s.Close()
client.Base = s.URL
charge, err := client.Charge.Create(...)
if err == nil {
    t.Fatal("Expected to get error...")

This is really cheap and you should be able to run all of these tests in parallel, which will also help speed up your test suite.

That’s it! Best of luck.

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