The empty interface and the empty struct in golang

An interface is a collection or set of method declarations. A data type implements or satisfies an interface if it at least defines the methods declared by the interface.

Empty interface

An empty interface interface{} has zero methods. So, in essence, any data type implements or satisfies an empty interface. Let’s take the following example:

type Container []interface{}

func (c *Container) Put(elem interface{}) {
    *c = append(*c, elem)
    switch elem.(type) {
    case int:
        fmt.Println("Put ", elem, " of type int")
    case string:
        fmt.Println("Put ", elem, " of type string")
    default:
        fmt.Println("Put ", elem, " of type unknown")
    }
}

func (c *Container) Pop() interface{} {
    elem := (*c)[0]
    *c = (*c)[1:]
    return elem
}

func main() {
    allContainer := &Container{}

    allContainer.Put("Hello")
    allContainer.Put(213)
    allContainer.Put(123.321)

    fmt.Printf("allContainer: %+v\n\n", allContainer)
}

Output:

$ go run main.go
Put  Hello  of type string
Put  213  of type int
Put  123.321  of type unknown
allContainer: &[Hello 213 123.321]

In the above example, the data type Container is a slice of empty interfaces with two methods defined on it, Put() and Pop(). It loosely resembles a First In, Last Out stack.

The Put() method takes an interface{} as the input argument and appends it to the slice of interface{}s. This means that it can accept a string, an integer, a float or any other simple and composite data type as its input argument. You can access the underlying type of elem, an interface{}, using elem.(type).

This approach does have its disadvantages though. One being that you should implement type assertions, checks or type specific logics to avoid any surprises during runtime.

Empty struct

To quote the Golang spec:

A struct is a sequence of named elements, called fields, each of which has a name and a type.

Let’s take an example

// A struct with 5 fields.
struct {
    x, y int
    u float32
    A *[]int
    F func()
}

An empty struct is a struct data type with zero fields:

// Named type
type EmptyStruct struct{}

// Variable declaration
var es struct{}

// Or use it directly!
struct{}{}

The size or width of a struct is defined as the sum of its constituent types. An empty struct, since it has no fields within it, has a size or width of zero. Zero bytes!

Just like regular structs you can define methods on empty structs as well. Sort of like a zero sized container for methods:

type EmptyStruct struct{}

func (es *EmptyStruct) WhoAmI() {
    fmt.Println("I am an empty struct!")
}

Empty structs find its best use case in channel signalling. Many a mere mortals such as me have used booleans or integers to notify an event over a channel.

The following example prints the current time at every 500 milliseconds and times out after 3 seconds,

func printFor3Seconds(doneChannel chan struct{}) {
    ticker := time.NewTicker(500 * time.Millisecond)
    timeout := time.After(3 * time.Second)

    for {
        select {
        case t := <-ticker.C:
            fmt.Printf("Tik tik: %v\n", t)
        case <-timeout:
            fmt.Printf("Timeout at: %v\n", time.Now())
            doneChannel <- struct{}{}
            return
        }
    }
}

func main() {
    doneChannel := make(chan struct{}, 1)

    go printFor3Seconds(doneChannel)

    <-doneChannel
}

// Output
// $ go run 1.go
// Tik tik: 2020-09-16 08:25:36.750631 +0530 IST m=+0.501680080
// Tik tik: 2020-09-16 08:25:37.250303 +0530 IST m=+1.001337269
// Tik tik: 2020-09-16 08:25:37.750696 +0530 IST m=+1.501714888
// Tik tik: 2020-09-16 08:25:38.253708 +0530 IST m=+2.004711715
// Tik tik: 2020-09-16 08:25:38.752804 +0530 IST m=+2.503793180
// Tik tik: 2020-09-16 08:25:39.251941 +0530 IST m=+3.002914584
// Timeout at: 2020-09-16 08:25:39.251999 +0530 IST m=+3.002972846

Instead of doneChannel <- 0 or doneChannel <- true, I am using doneChannel <- struct{}{} for channel signalling. Using booleans or integers for channel signalling involves memory allocation, copying over the element etc.

We can use empty structs for simulating sets as well,

intSet := make(map[int]struct{})
empty := struct{}{}

// We are setting empty as the value for 1, because the
// value is meaningless
intSet[1] = empty
if _, ok := intSet[1]; ok {
    fmt.Println("1 is in the set")
}

// 2 is not one of intSet's keys
if _, ok := intSet[2]; !ok {
    fmt.Println("2 is not in the set")
}

Resources:

  1. The Go Programming Language Specification
  2. The empty struct - Dave Cheney

Note: This article is not an in-depth tutorial or treatment of Golang’s syntax, semantics, design or implementation, but a journal of my learnings.