Go Toolchain Primer

A toolchain is a package composed of the compiler and ancillary tools, libraries and runtime for a language which together allow you to build and run code written in that language. The GNU toolchain is the most commonly used toolchain on Linux and allows building programs written C, C++, Fortran and a host of other languages too.


The first Go toolchain to be made available, and the one most people are referring to when they talk about Go, is gc.  gc, (which is not to be confused with GC, which usually refers to the garbage collector) is the compiler and toolchain which evolved from the Plan 9 toolchain and includes its own compiler, assembler, linker and tools, as well as the Go runtime and standard library. With Go 1.5 the parts of the toolchain that were written in C have been rewritten in Go so the Plan 9 legacy is gone in terms of code but remains in spirit. The toolchain supports i386, x86_64, arm, arm64 and powerpc64 and the code is BSD licensed.


gccgo extends the gcc project to support Go. gcc is widely used compiler that along with GNU binutils for the linker and assembler supports a large number of processor architectures. gccgo currently only supports Go 1.4, but Go 1.5 support is in the works. The advantage of being able to use the gcc compiler infrastructure is that as well as supporting more processor architectures than gc, gccgo can take advantage of the more advanced middle-end and backend optimizations that gcc has developed over the years which could lead to faster generated code. The GNU toolchain and gccgo are GPLv3 licensed which some people may find problematic, but it is what many of the Linux distributions use to support Go on architectures not supported by gc like SPARC, S/390 or MIPS.


LLVM is a compiler infrastructure project similar to gcc, with a couple of key differences. Firstly it was developed from the ground up in C++ at a much later date than gcc so the code is generally more modern in style and has a clearer structure. Secondly it is BSD licensed, which has attracted a number of large companies such as Apple and Google to get heavily involved in it (in fact Apple employs the project’s founder). llgo is a Go compiler built on top of the LLVM compiler infrastructure. It is BSD licensed and supports nearly as many architectures as gccgo but feels like a less mature project and fewer people seem to be using it, at least publically.

Why so many toolchains?

One thing that may appear as odd is that all three toolchains are predominantly developed by Google engineers. All the toolchains contain some of the same components – the runtime and libraries are largely shared between all the projects, gccgo and llgo share a compiler frontend (language parser) and all the compilers are similarly ahead of time and generate native code. Perhaps Google feels like diversity of implementations is good for the language – I would be inclined to agree – and it looks like Google is spending their efforts relatively sparingly on gccgo and llgo so the development cost of that strategy may not be that high.

I would suggest most people should just stick with gc for their Go development needs, but it will be interesting to see in which directions the various toolchains develop. In later posts I will go into a bit more depth about the relative pros and cons of each.

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