Shoot Bird
I ❤️ Go: Types and Structs
Fri Dec 14, 2018 · 1602 words

I’d like to take a moment here and talk about how much I love Go’s type system, and more importantly, how Go’s struct type has changed my life.

1. Why types are important

  • Go is a statically-typed language.

  • This means that you have to define the data type of each variable you use in your code.

  • This is the programming equivalent of calling your shots in a game of pool.

  • Types that we usually see in programming languages are strings (text characters), ints (numbers).

  • Types are important because writing them into a program tells it how to handle a specific type of data that we’re feeding to it.

An example (albeit simplistic) of why this is important:

  • Imagine you’re working with a list of phone numbers: [44034633, 60242165, 68524214, 15706247, 51469010]

  • If you want to add the country code +65 to each phone number in the list, you’d instinctively want to do something like 65 + 44034633.

  • If you’ve told your program that 65 and 44034633 should be treated like text and not like numbers — i.e. as string types — then you’d get the expected result: 6544034633

  • If you haven’t told your program that 65 and 44034633 should be treated like text, your program may inadvertently treat them as numbers, giving you: 44034698.

A more complex example would be working with Time:

  • Time is a data type in Go.

  • This is frustrating at first: why can’t you just write the time in RFC1123/RFC822 formats? (e.g. 15:40:08) and have your program understand it?

  • Reason 1: Because computers understand time in terms of Unix time: the number of seconds since 1 January 1970, 00:00:00 (

  • Reason 2: You can’t add time values like normal numbers. Adding 40 minutes to 30 minutes will give you 70 minutes, but unless you have a way to get your program to understand that there are 60 minutes to an hour, you’ll have issues getting your program to understand that you wanted your alarm set at 8:10PM and not 7:70PM.

  • Go handles this by forcing you make an explicit conversion from a time like "4 hours" to the Time type (run the code here):

package main

import (

func main() {
	timenow := time.Now() // Get the time now.
	fourhours, _ := time.ParseDuration("4h") // Create a value for a duration of four hours.
	timeFourHoursFromNow := timenow.Add(fourhours) // Add four hours to the time now.
  • Notice how the controlled bounds of each type — Time and Duration — makes sure that we don’t try to mash together values that aren’t compatible with each other. You can’t add an int to Time or Duration. In fact, you can’t add a Duration to a Time unless it’s through the Time.Add(<duration>) method.

2. Custom Types

One of the best things about Go is that it allows you to define your own data types. For example (code here):

package main

import (

type Vegetable string
type Vegetables []Vegetable
type Fruit string
type Fruits []Fruit

func main() {
  fruits := []Fruit{"Tomato"}
  fruits2 := []Fruit{"Apple"}
  veggies := []Vegetable{"Pizza"}
  veggies2 := []Vegetable{"Cabbage"}

  fruits3 := append(fruits, fruits2...)
  veggies3 := append(veggies, veggies2...)

  //cantdothis := append(fruits, veggies)

  fmt.Println("Tomato is a:", reflect.TypeOf(fruits3[0]))
  fmt.Println("Pizza is a:", reflect.TypeOf(veggies3[0]))


  1. We’ve defined a Vegetable and Fruit type, which both have a base type of string

  2. We’ve also defined a Vegetables and Fruits type, which are lists of Vegetable and Fruit respectively.

  3. In our small program, we can add fruits and fruits2 together to form fruits3.

  4. We also can add veggies and veggies2 together to form veggies3.

  5. But we can’t add fruits and veggies together because we’ve set them as different data types Fruits and `Vegetables respectively.

  6. We can check the type of a variable by calling reflect.TypeOf(<var>) on it.

Custom types are useful because it helps you define and describe your data very handily. We’ll get into that in the next section when we finally get to talking about structs.

3. Structs

A Go struct is a data type. But unlike data types like Time, string, and int, it doesn’t designate a type of value, but instead is used to group data types together under a single name. That’s why it’s also known as an aggregate type.

It allows us to do stuff like this:

type Veg string
type Meat string
type Fruit string

type Meal struct {
  Vegetables  Veg    // <Field>  <Type>
  Meats       Meat   // <Field>  <Type>
  Fruits      Fruit  // <Field>  <Type>

Here, we’ve set up a Meal struct that describes what generally goes into a meal: 1x Veg, 1x Meat, and 1x Fruit. Apart from being able to programmatically compare two different meals (e.g. does meal1 contain the same Veg, Meat, and Fruit) like how we compared our Fruits and Vegetables, this makes our data very readable. Another developer who comes to our code and wants to figure out what Meals are can read the type definition and instantly know what data should go into it, and how it plays with the rest of the program.

A more practical example would be describing a list of people:

type Person struct {
  ID int
  Name string
  Phone string
  Email string

type AddressBook []Person

From reading this type definition, we know that:

  1. Each person has four attributes that we save in our program: an ID (which is a number), a Name, a Phone number (which we save as text), and an Email address.

  2. An AddressBook is a list of people, which uses the Person struct. So we know that the AddressBook type contains the ID, Name, Phone number, and Email address of each person in it.

And most importantly, we know the data types to expect when using the data of these types:

  1. We know that ID is a number and not, say, a hexadecimal string like 2c34788af99f9ca074434e362d584d54.

  2. We know that the phone number of each person is stored as text.

  3. We also know that the first name and last name are not differentiated in our records — our program doesn’t care.

4. Going deeper

All this really kicked in for me only when I needed to figure out what other Go developers were thinking. Earlier this week I was stuck trying to figure out why, to extract an Ethereum wallet address from a private key, I had to write these lines of code:

publicKey := privateKey.Public()
publicKeyECDSA, ok := publicKey.(*ecdsa.PublicKey)
if !ok {
  log.Fatal("error casting public key to ECDSA")

This, of course, stumped me. Calling privateKey.Public() should have already given me the PublicKey, but it apparently didn’t — I had to get it by making an additional (and strange) publicKey.(*ecdsa.PublicKey) call.

Digging into the Go source code, I realised what was happening:

// From $GOROOT/libexec/src/crypto/ecdsa/ecdsa.go

// PublicKey represents an ECDSA public key.
type PublicKey struct {
	X, Y *big.Int

// PrivateKey represents an ECDSA private key.
type PrivateKey struct {
	D *big.Int


// Public returns the public key corresponding to priv.
func (priv *PrivateKey) Public() crypto.PublicKey {
	return &priv.PublicKey
  • A given PrivateKey allows you to get its associated PublicKey by calling its Public() method.

  • But the curious thing is that it returns a value that’s of type crypto.PublicKey instead of PublicKey, which means that it’s not returning the PublicKey type we see defined above the method, but another type that’s defined in the crypto library:

// From $GOROOT/libexec/src/crypto/crypto.go

// PublicKey represents a public key using an unspecified algorithm.
type PublicKey interface{}

// PrivateKey represents a private key using an unspecified algorithm.
type PrivateKey interface{}
  • I don’t fully understand this, but I assume that it’s so that different libraries can use the same crypto library as its base.

  • So, in order to get the ECDSA public key that we need to use as our Ethererum address, we need to cast the PublicKey as type *ecdsa.PublicKey.

Another example — this is what goes into an Ethereum block:

// From

// Block represents an entire block in the Ethereum blockchain.
type Block struct {
	header       *Header
	uncles       []*Header
	transactions Transactions

	// caches
	hash atomic.Value
	size atomic.Value

	// Td is used by package core to store the total difficulty
	// of the chain up to and including the block.
	td *big.Int

	// These fields are used by package eth to track
	// inter-peer block relay.
	ReceivedAt   time.Time
	ReceivedFrom interface{}

And this is what goes into a Block header:

// From

// Header represents a block header in the Ethereum blockchain.
type Header struct {
	ParentHash  common.Hash    `json:"parentHash"       gencodec:"required"`
	UncleHash   common.Hash    `json:"sha3Uncles"       gencodec:"required"`
	Coinbase    common.Address `json:"miner"            gencodec:"required"`
	Root        common.Hash    `json:"stateRoot"        gencodec:"required"`
	TxHash      common.Hash    `json:"transactionsRoot" gencodec:"required"`
	ReceiptHash common.Hash    `json:"receiptsRoot"     gencodec:"required"`
	Bloom       Bloom          `json:"logsBloom"        gencodec:"required"`
	Difficulty  *big.Int       `json:"difficulty"       gencodec:"required"`
	Number      *big.Int       `json:"number"           gencodec:"required"`
	GasLimit    uint64         `json:"gasLimit"         gencodec:"required"`
	GasUsed     uint64         `json:"gasUsed"          gencodec:"required"`
	Time        *big.Int       `json:"timestamp"        gencodec:"required"`
	Extra       []byte         `json:"extraData"        gencodec:"required"`
	MixDigest   common.Hash    `json:"mixHash"`
	Nonce       BlockNonce     `json:"nonce"`

5. Postscript

Lost? I am too. But I’m learning from it. The legibility of Go’s type system and its structs help with this — being able to very quickly see and parse the internals of Go and the libraries that I have to write about gives me a better understanding of the systems I’m using and why they act the way they do.

Now, I’ve also got one more descriptive tool under my belt: the Go struct. It’s a useful way of describing packs of data and their types that I’ll be using more of when writing. I hope this has been of use to you as well. Until next time.

Author | Zed is a former educator and currently a professional explainer. He writes about software, video games, and narrative design. If you have software or a system that needs explaining (to frustrated users, or you just need someone to write stuff down for you), you can contact him for work at

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