Florin Pățan
Dec 15, 2016 9 min read

Finding good packages in the Sea of Open-Source

So far we’ve seen different ways to use Go to build a variety of applications, from versioning your data pipelines to building your own BBQ grill controller.

But often times you’ll be looking to reuse the code from others in order to focus on what your code should do and not reinvent the wheel.

How do you know which package to use? And when should you use a package versus writing your own?

Let that sink in for a bit and now think of when you are learning a language and you don’t really know what is considered idiomatic or not.

Those are hard questions. They become even harder if you have to use these third-party packages to build applications that are going to be used in production code.

Usually you have a checklist of items that you’d like a package or library to meet before you can use it. My list looks like this (not in the order of importance):

  • is it used by others?
  • is it well documented?
  • does it do what I need it to do (and preferably nothing more)?
  • is the author maintaining the package? How are issues / pull requests addressed? How many contributors are there to the project?
  • license
  • what’s the code quality like? Does it have tests? Do they pass?

If you wonder why code quality is the last one on the list the answer is simple: because I can assert the first five in just a few minutes while reading the code can take a bit longer.

So how do you actually find packages?

For Go we have and which allow you to search for Go packages. With over 150000 projects and packages indexed by them, finding a “good” package could quickly become a problem.

Fortunately, both sort results by popularity (do not confuse with GitHub stars, we’ll come back to this a bit later). My default search tool is GoDoc but you can also use GoSearch as GoDoc references it when you search for a package that is not found in its index.

Popularity for Go packages means how often they are imported. This will already answer the first question.

You might ask, ok but what about places like GitHub or BitBucket, they also have a way to search for Go packages. Yes, that’s true, they have, but more often than not, the way they will filter for results and present them to the user will not be relevant for the programming language of choice. For example, GitHub stars are often used as a way to bookmark a project by some, which then creates a false image for those that assume that the number of stars is directly proportional with the popularity of the package or as a recommendation from other programmers. As this is a topic for another article and has merits for both usage types, I’ll not dive more into it for now.

Then I can quickly have a look at the documentation as well. And here is where one of the Go’s lesser known features shines. The documentation of a package can be tested so if I see that then I have the guarantee that the project is in a good shape.

Having briefly checked the documentation, I can quickly go to the place where it’s hosted and see the situation for the other factors.

Remember I’ve said that you shouldn’t confuse popularity with number of GitHub stars? Well this is the time to ignore the GitHub stars.

Back to our package, lets say that we are looking at a package which has a few contributors (that’s a nice touch) and a few open issues and maybe a few pull requests. All those things could indicate that in fact people are contributing to the package.

The first thing I do is to look at the readme and see what’s in there. Important information that I can quickly see is: - does the package have any badge for a continuous testing service? - does the package have instructions for how to install / use? - are there any examples there that might be relevant? Or maybe a list of frequently asked questions? Maybe there’s a link to a wiki page?

Having checked those out, I move to the issues and pull requests. What I’m interested in is how the maintainer is working with potential contributors. That is very important since I might end up myself opening an issue or a pull request in the future and I would like to know what I’m going to expect.

Sometimes I also look at when was the package last updated, as this might also help identify stale packages. However, it can happen that a package simply is done and does not need any further commits as it achieved its purpose.

By now I have a rough idea if I want to invest time in reading the code or I need to move over to alternatives or not.

For me, the number of contributors also depends on the project type or where it’s going to be used. If I’m looking at replacing my template engine, I would expect at least a few. It also depends on how long the project has been around, if it’s a brand new one, then chances are it will have less contributors than a more established one. However, if the contributors are actively discouraged by the author, then I’m sure I’m going to stay away from it and only use it if I cannot find an alternative and write it myself would be too time consuming.

And now, for the fun part. Say I like everything that I see so far and the license allows me to use it in the current project I work on.

The final step, me doing a code review of this.

If you are new to the language this is the hardest part probably because while everything above is interchangeable with other languages, reviewing someone else’s code and making sure it’s idiomatic is going to be next to very difficult.

However, don’t be scared by this, as this is where Go shines, readability. And if you are unsure of that, we have tools that can help check for common problems.

The first argument for this claim is that Go is a simple language, with just 25 keywords. This means that you’ll be able to review all packages out there very quickly after learning the language without any hurdles because you may have forgotten what’s a symbol or another or what does a keyword do versus the other or some other language construct.

There are a few guidelines for code review that you can read to help out with the review. Furthermore, Effective Go and articles like Idiomatic Go, Avoid gotchas or Gotchas and common mistakes in Go can help you quickly understand the common patters you should look out for.

A quick way to check some of these is to have a look at the package using a more automated way. First and the simplest is to run Go Report Card and see what problems does the package have. Things like gofmt should be a must for any package out there so that quickly can help identify packages which are not correctly formatted.

If Go Report Card checks out ok, it’s time to download the package locally and run Go Meta Linter against it. That will quickly highlight any problems with the package. Hopefully this will not discover anything but if that happens then I can at least open an issue so that the author is informed about this. If I like how the code looks and I decide to use the package, now I know I can also quickly contribute to it.

Placing your full trust in automated tools may lead you down a false path as code that passes all the checks might not be idiomatic. That’s why it’s good to use these tools but always have a look at what’s happening under the hood for yourself.

An important property of Go packages is how well they work with other packages so if you want to have a single takeaway from this article then this would be: Go as a language encourages composition and this can be observed throughout the standard library. Many of the popular packages in the open-source community also respect and embrace this property and allow you to quickly combine them in order to achieve the powerful functionality you need.

Finally, there’s a shortcut you can take, tho I have to admit, it involves a lot of trust on people on the Internet. Ask about the package you are looking at in places like the Gophers Slack, you can get an invite here, the Go Forum, or golang-nuts mailing list.

But what should you do if you cannot find a good package or any package at all?

If you find a package that maybe doesn’t cover everything that you need or the quality is not up to par, I highly suggest contributing to it. Contributions to a project are one of the best ways to learn a project or hone your skills using a certain language.

You can read either in this article or this article how to work with forks for Go packages and hopefully bring the package to a state that will meet your needs. If the author is busy maybe you can ask to have commit rights or even become the maintainer of the package. Mind you this might not happen if you are a first time contributor so don’t be discouraged if your request gets denied.

Everything else failing, you can start building your own package and make sure that everything else you’d like to see in a package is also present in it.

In the end, I hope this article has managed to give you some insight into how to search for a package good package in Go, where to look for Go packages and maybe even encourage you to contribute to the Open-Source world by opening and issue, a pull request or maintaining your own packages.

I would also like to thank Nathan Youngman and Caleb Gilmour for their help in proofreading this article. Please feel free to contact me with any questions regarding this article or any other Go problem that you might have.