Scala or Go: Tastes Great or Less Filling?

By Neil Chaudhuri | March 29, 2019

Scala and Go (aka Golang) are two of the fastest growing leading-edge programming languages in the world. In the United States, they are also among the most lucrative. Scala and Go are among a slew of programming languages that innovate in numerous ways to produce faster, more resilient, more secure applications for a multicore, cloud native, mobile world.

The thing is Scala and Go have very different philosophies on what makes engineers most productive and what defines great applications. We are going to look at how Scala and Go solve five common programming tasks and how their contrasting approaches reflect their contrasting philosophies. Then you can decide for yourself which works best for your next application. This is a really long post, so here are the tasks we will consider so you can jump to the ones that interest you most:

Or you can skip straight to my conclusion: which boils down to this:

Despite the strong possibility that this opinion will subject me to ritual humiliation on social media, I would use Scala (or a similarly featured language like Kotlin) for microservices or bigger but Go both to replace any bash or Python (or C++ or whatever) scripts that are part of my continuous delivery pipeline and to create lambda functions, which are supposed to be lightweight, fast, and focused.

With that, let me introduce you to Scala and Go.

Scala

Scala is an object-oriented (OO) and functional programming language built for the JVM (though Scala Native is in the works). It emerged from academia at the EPFL in Switzerland from the mind of Academic Director Martin Odersky, who sought to prove that the two paradigms–OO for representing your domain and functional for its mathematical guarantees for working programs–can blend seamlessly to yield the best of both worlds. Scala also has an exquisite static type system that can provide a powerful safety net.

Operationally, as you might expect from a language borne from academia, Scala tooling can be problematic and compilation can be slow, but type inference, a vast standard library, and other features of the language make you very productive once you get the hang of them. Performance varies with the JVM you’re running, but regardless you do have to contend with the size of compiled objects and the latency of garbage collection at runtime. When you want to experiment, you can skip the ceremony of writing a class or test and instead use a command-line REPL, an online REPL called Scastie you can share, or an outstanding third-party command-line REPL called Ammonite. Dependency management is achieved with SBT typically but also more general JVM build tools like Gradle and Maven.

Scala became really popular with the advent of “Big Data” because functional programming lends itself so naturally to analytics, and the learning curve for modern LISPs like Haskell and Clojure is too high for too many. Apache Spark is built in Scala, and when it got big, Scala got big. Since then Scala has also become a popular language for other domains including reactive web applications and microservices with Play Framework and Akka and even the front end with Scala.js.

Go

Go had an pragmatic mission from the start, so it was built with simplicity, minimalism, and performance in mind. Robert Griesemer, Rob Pike, and Ken Thompson created Go at Google as an alternative to C++ built for modern machines. Go is compiled to native machine code; no virtual machine. Go is statically typed like Scala but is imperative and procedural. It’s not a functional language per se, but functions are first-class. Where it truly shines is in its concurrency primitives: channels and goroutines. Together, they enable you to leverage the full power of your multicore machine.

Operationally, Go is really fast to compile and run. It too has a vast standard library for common tasks like REST calls and JSON de/serialization. When you want to experiment, you can use the Go Playground or a scratch file in your IDE, but there is no command-line REPL. Unlike Scala, Go has by design a very lean feature set and simple constructs. This makes it relatively easy to learn. However, you have to add a lot of features yourself that you take for granted in other languages or explore what Go offers as potential workarounds. To get really good at advanced features of Go like concurrency and polymorphism is still a challenge. Official dependency management is nonexistent, and you may find Go’s unorthodox project setup based on Git repos takes getting used to.

After Go took off at Google and was released to the public, it got really popular as the language of concurrency, which helped in turn to make it the language of DevOps–particularly in concert with Kubernetes, which also emerged from Google. Go has expanded into other domains as well with the CMS Hugo (which was used to build this site) and the microservices framework Go kit.

Comparing Scala and Go

Let’s look at how Scala and Go handle the kinds of real-world problems you will encounter every day.

Disclaimer: The sample code is not meant to showcase necessarily the “best” way to solve these problems–most performant, most elegant, or whatever. Instead it is meant to showcase reasonable, idiomatic solutions and, more importantly, how they reflect the design philosophies of the respective languages. Of course you are welcome to suggest improvements regardless.

Absent values

You have to deal with potentially absent values all the time like when database queries for single entities return no hits or when you are maintaining backwards-compatible microservices. Typically, absent values are represented with null. Sir Tony Hoare called his invention of null to represent the absence of a value his “billion-dollar mistake.” Handling absent values isn’t glamorous, but if you do it poorly, you will suffer significant productivity loses.

Scala

Although null exists in Scala as a JVM language, you should (almost) never interact with it directly. Instead, you should work with Option, a monad designed specifically for this purpose. We describe Option in more detail in our tutorial, but essentially it compels you to account for the potential absence of a value at compile time. This avoids the costly NullPointerException at runtime that has sent thousands of Java developers to therapy.

In this example, the findStudent function returns an Option[Student]. If the Option contains a value, the client can transform it into a String (i.e. Option[Student] => Option[String]) with the map function on Option; otherwise, getOrElse handles the absent value.

Option allows you to safely work with potentially absent values without fear. The compile-time safety makes you very productive. On the other hand, every transformation on the Option–via map, filter, etc.–produces a new value because of the functional programming bias towards immutability. If memory is at a premium, maybe this is a concern.

Go

Go handles potentially absent values through completely different idioms. Functions can return multiple return values. When a value is present, it’s idiomatic to return the value and a bool value (named ok by convention) of true; otherwise, it returns the “zero value” of the return type and false. The client uses an imperative if statement to distinguish.

In this example, the findStudent function returns a Student and a bool. Go allows you to initialize and test conditions in one line, and that’s what we see here. If ok is true, we know we got something and act accordingly; if ok is false, we know the value is absent and handle this contingency.

For those uncomfortable with monad composition and higher-order functions, Go provides a very simple alternative in keeping with its mission. On the other hand, Go engineers need the knowledge and discipline to apply these language features and idioms. There is no dedicated type like Option to help. Also, unlike with the composability afforded by monads like Option, if you need to compose multiple potentially absent values, you need to write multiple if conditions; that can feel verbose. The simplicity may well be worth it though.

Error Handling

This is another inglorious task that is critical to good software engineering. As programs become big and complex, proper error handling is critical to diagnose bugs and move builds to production as quickly as possible.

Scala

As you might imagine from a language that prizes on immutability and composability, Scala offers another monad, Try, for error handling. Analogous to Option, it compels you to account for a possible error at compile time rather than the absence of a value. A Try[Double], for example, represents either a Double if all is well or an error (or more precisely an instance of Throwable) otherwise.

In this example, the squareRoot function returns Try[Double], and the client does something a bit more complicated than the prior example. It calls squareRoot twice and uses a for comprehension, which is syntactic sugar for otherwise cumbersome map and flatMap transformations, to take advantage of the composability of monads to sum the results. If both calls work out, then the result is a Try with the sum; if either fails, the error information is passed on. You can do similar with Option too. This is why monad composability in Scala is so cool. The same pattern works on very different types as long as they follow the monad laws.

As before though, keep in mind that you are generating new objects with each transformation. This means you’re paying for the protection immutability affords you with memory.

Go

Just as Option and Try in Scala are similar, handling absent values and handling errors in Go is similar. Here again Go takes advantage of multiple return values, but rather than a value accompanied by a bool, idiomatic Go error handling features a value accompanied by an Error (named err by convention). If err has the value of nil, then you can work with the value because it’s all good; otherwise, you handle the error and (probably) ignore the zero-value.

In this example, the sumRoots function, which is the client of squareRoot, returns a value and an error. Those are saved from the first call to squareRoot. If there is an error, the function returns immediately; otherwise, it does the same with the second call to squareRoot. If the function makes it to the end, then it returns the sum and a nil error. You will see a similar approach in main with the call to sumRoots.

There are a few interesting things to note. First, once again the code reflects Go’s bias toward simplicity. Furthermore, as immutability is not a priority, variable reuse is common in Go. In this case, err is reused to store the error returned from squareRoot. It doesn’t happen here, but it isn’t unheard of to reuse the value variable as well once its initial value has served its purpose. Finally, we see a common pattern:

  • Call a function
  • Test err for nil
  • If an error is found, return
  • Call the next function
  • Test err for nil
  • If an error is found, return
  • Lather, rinse, repeat

Absent Scala’s function composition, it’s a fair bit of boilerplate–particularly when you are calling a lot of functions that may return errors. You can take advantage of language features to make it more elegant like this pattern utilizing interfaces and pointers from Rob Pike, but this is one of the ways where Go’s simplicity is a bit overrated. Building custom abstractions from Go’s toolkit requires creativity, and you will have to do that often when you use Go to build mature applications. Still, it is almost certainly easier to master advanced patterns in Go than it is in Scala.

Finally, even though it doesn’t appear in this example, defer is a simple but powerful construct in Go that executes a call at the end of a function no matter what happens–error or otherwise. You can use defer to clean things up after an error in the same way you’d use finally in other languages.

Collections

I don’t have to tell you that manipulating data from a database, a stream, a REST request, or a host of other sources is a common task in application development. Languages that facilitate seamless transformation and aggregation of collections of data make your life a lot easier.

Scala

Scala has a vast library of collections–both immutable and mutable though immutable is preferred–each of which offers in turn a vast collection of higher-order functions that let you manipulate the collection in numerous ways.

In this example, given a List of words, the code uses groupBy to convert it into a Map of each word (lowercased to normalize them) to a list of occurrences of each word. Finally, those lists are transformed into their sizes, and the result is a Map of each word to its count.

There isn’t much to see. This is a credit to Scala’s powerful abstractions. Still, it is important to keep in mind that this code performs multiple O(n) traversals and with each one consumes memory to produce an entirely new collection–all but the first and last of which are immediately thrown away.

Go

Go naturally takes a far more lightweight approach to collections. You will essentially only deal with maps and slices, which are array views that enable memory-efficient operations on the backing arrays.

In this example, the code uses make both to create an empty map (with values defaulting to the zero value, in this case literally 0) to hold the word counts and to create a slice containing the words. It simply iterates over the slice and builds the word count using the ok idiom you saw before to check if there is an existing entry for the word in the map.

The code is more verbose than its Scala counterpart, but it is significantly more efficient in time and space. There is a single O(n) traversal with constant-time lookups in the map, and we maintain only two collections the entire time. The efficiency of Go collections and the simplicity of using them are among the best reasons to use Go in a project.

Concurrency and Parallelism

Modern software applications have a lot more to do in a lot less time, so it’s important for your code to take advantage of every bit of power your machines have. Modern applications demand modern languages that enable you to leverage every core through abstractions that strike the right balance of power and intuitiveness. Perhaps most importantly, they need to provide mechanisms for handling errors because concurrent/parallel programming is notoriously hard to debug. It’s a challenge to reproduce the conditions that generated the bug in the first place.

By the way, as Rob Pike has taught us, concurrency is not parallelism. Long story short, concurrency is about decomposing a problem into its components; each component might then run in parallel depending on available resources. Concurrency manages a lot of things at once while parallelism does a lot of things at once.

Regardless, doing concurrency and parallelism well is a hard problem. Whatever path you choose, you need to understand the nature of your tasks to achieve peak performance. Are they IO- or CPU-intensive? Are they intrinsically parallel?

Scala

As a core language in reactive programming, Scala takes concurrency and parallelism very seriously. It offers Future as its core primitive to facilitate concurrency and parallelism–in concert with an ExecutionContext, which is basically a thread pool. Future abstracts the threads away from you, which is nice, but its association with ExecutionContext can lead to some complexity in understanding how they work. This is why notable third-party libraries offer their own concurrency primitives. Still, Future at least approximates a monad, and that means we can mostly adhere to the familiar patterns we saw with Option and Try.

At a low level, each asynchronous call delegates to a different thread. This helps scale your application, but it’s also a heavyweight operation as the operating system needs to schedule threads against physical processors and manage expensive context switching. The result is that for some problems parallelism with Future in Scala may potentially consume a lot of resources for merely a modest increase in performance–or even slow you down. When performance is a major concern, you need to configure your ExecutionContext smartly according to the capability of your machine(s) and the nature of your tasks.

Bottom line? Reactive programming doesn’t necessarily make your applications faster (except maybe in those cases where you can do expensive work in parallel), but it usually allows them to be more resilient. Reactive applications scale under load with limited threads and memory especially when you have latency from inconsistent network IO like database and REST calls.

In this example, the code uses Play WS Standalone as a REST client to fetch JSON containing a UUID. Play WS has an asynchronous, non-blocking API based on Future, so you need to provide an ExecutionContext via Akka. That’s all the boilerplate at the beginning of this example. Sometimes it will be done for you as when you use Play WS in the context of Play Framework. Nonetheless, you should be aware it has to happen somewhere.

In the getUuid function, the get call to Play WS makes an asynchronous, non-blocking HTTP GET request and returns a Future containing the response. You need to be careful and make sure you only work directly with the Future itself lest you lose the eventual result–the response or an error. Otherwise anything you do next outside the realm of the asynchronous call will execute after the request is dispatched but completely independently from when the response returns. That’s a common mistake for engineers new to Future. This is why everything that happens after the call in getUuid is dispatched is a method call on the Future object that comes back.

Like a typical monad, Future offers map to enable clients to transform results, and getUuid does exactly that by parsing the JSON response into the UUID string and returning a Future[String]. If the REST call returned an error, it remains preserved in the Future. The client of getUuid requires two calls to complete before moving forward, so it calls the function twice so the independent fetches can run in parallel and composes them as we saw with Try via for comprehension to produce a Future[Tuple2[String, String]]. Finally, the code calls map again to transform the tuple of strings into a printed result. If there is an error any step of the way, we handle it with recover.

Future is a really nice concurrency primitive that offers the convenience of a monad, but it has its pitfalls. As mentioned, you need to supply a finely tuned ExecutionContext, and everything you do once you make an asynchronous call better happen in the context of the Future that returns. Otherwise, you will find very confusing results like silent failures. The amorphous referential transparency of Future can confuse you too. If the code made its calls to getUuid inside the for comprehension, they would have been sequential and not parallel. The result is likely the same, which feels referentially transparent, but the fact where you make the call impacts the desired parallelism definitely doesn’t.

Future also consumes a lot of system resources because it transacts in full threads that have to managed by the operating system. It’s important to profile your application to understand what’s going on because there will almost be certainly occasions where things don’t perform as you expect. You will need to diagnose if it is a code or resource problem.

Go

Concurrency and parallelism lie at the heart of Go’s mission as well, but of course it takes a totally different approach with primitives called goroutines and channels. The philosophy here is to break down your tasks into independent functions, and spin them off into goroutines. The key thing to remember is goroutines are not threads; they are lightweight pieces of memory tracking thread usage. As a result, you can spin off literally hundreds of thousands of goroutines and use only a little memory on the stack while the Go scheduler, not you, uses clever algorithms to manage them in concert with the operating system and its actual threads.

Goroutines use a paradigm called communicating sequential processes (CSP) developed by Sir Tony Hoare, who despite being the null guy is a pillar of computer science. CSP is a message-passing model. Goroutines pass their data over channels rather than synchronize data, which slows things down. If you are familiar with messaging patterns like Gregor Hohpe’s Enterprise Integration Patterns, then you understand the power of this approach to manipulate message data as needed to produce the results you want–and at scale thanks to Go.

In this example, the code defines a type called Result containing a UUID and an error to hold the result of a concurrent computation. Only one of those should be populated with a meaningful value, but there is no simple way to enforce that. Meanwhile, the main function creates a buffered channel for communicating Result values and spins off two goroutines for two concurrent getUuid calls, which take the channel as a write-only parameter. That is enforceable.

The getUuid function makes the REST call and unmarshals the JSON response. If an error occurs at either step, the code creates a Result with the respective error (and the zero value, the empty string, for the UUID) and publishes it to the channel. If all goes well, the code creates a Result with the UUID (and the zero value, nil, for the error) and publishes it to the channel instead. The main function knows in this case how many Results to expect from the channel and consumes the right amount of data from the channel. It bails at the first error it finds, or it accumulates the data into a slice of UUIDs.

Goroutines are lightweight and flexible–and straightforward if you have a good grasp on messaging. Still, there are subtleties that can make them more complicated than we might expect from Go. If you don’t understand the difference between buffered and unbuffered channels, you may find curious results. Error handling is also tricky because patterns aren’t obvious. In this case we encapsulated success and error cases in a single struct, but some advise using dedicated error channels. This example is also as simple as it gets: You have one channel, and you know how many computations will transpire. In more complicated cases you will need to utilize other Go functionality from the sync package like Mutex, WaitGroup, Pool. You might even need the experimental ErrGroup. Finally, you need to be very careful with pointers and mutability generally as always in concurrent programming. They save memory but you need to govern access carefully.

Concurrency and parallelism are always hard. You have to decide which language offers primitives that comport with your mental model of how things should work.

Polymorphism

You know polymorphism. Far beyond trite Animal-Dog-Cat examples, the business value of polymorphism is to leverage abstractions to limit changes to your code even as the functionality of your application grows. By defining new behavior leveraged through old abstractions, you can build software efficiently, and you don’t have to work weekends when your client demands new features immediately.

Scala

As an OO language, Scala offers the familiar polymorphism that developers in Java, Ruby, and similar languages have loved for years, but because it is a functional lanugage with a rich type system, it also offers typeclass polymorphism, which enables completely unrelated types to exhibit polymorphic behavior. You can think of it as functional programming’s take on the Open-Closed Principle from OO. Perhaps most striking of all in comparison to Go, Scala offers parametric polymorphism–what the kids call “generics.” When Java 5 introduced generics, it was revolutionary, and Scala benefits as well.

In this example, we really see three examples of polymorphism in Scala. The first is the kind of straightforward runtime polymorphism familiar to Java developers–except with Scala traits rather than Java interfaces. Connection and File are marked as instances of Closeable, and the showClosing function accepts a Closeable parameter. Therefore either Connection or File is suitable to pass to showClosing and the result of the function is dynamically and polymorphically resolved.

The second example of polymorphism is also familiar to Java developers. It’s generics. In Scala, you never have just List; you have List[T], where T is a type parameter indicating the type of item in the List. Scala’s type inference deduces that numbers is an instance of List[Int]; strings is an instance of List[String]. The head method returns the first element of a List, which is a T. T is Int with numbers and String with strings. Finally, just for demonstration purposes, the code defines a function use that’s not only type parameterized but type bounded. It only accepts a type that’s File or any subclass of File. If you try passing a Connection to it, the code won’t compile.

The last example is what I consider the coolest and most powerful form of polymorphism in Scala–typeclass polymorphism. List has a sorted method as you’d hope, but it requires an implicit ordering. In other words, you have to tell List[T] how to sort its elements by providing a function that lifts T into an Ordering[T]. This makes perfect sense, and it is enforced by Scala’s type system. The code defines a type called Complex and a typeclass called ComplexOrdering that defines how instances of Complex should be sorted. Without this, List[Complex] wouldn’t know how to sort its contents, and that last line wouldn’t compile. This means you can make any T sortable by defining an Ordering[T] typeclass. More broadly, it means you can use typeclasses to add polymorphic behavior to completely unrelated types, which includes types you don’t control like legacy types and/or types found in imported dependencies.

Polymorphism in Scala is powerful and flexible because of its sophisticated type system. It allows you not only to extend functionality in clever ways but also to constrain the solution space. In other words, you can limit the number of ways a problem can be solved, which makes it harder to write bugs.

Go

Go is not an OO language. Structs have no capacity for inheritance by design–only composition via “embedding”. Go is not quite functional either. However, polymorphic behavior is not only possible but a fundamental part of the power of Go via structural typing. You can take advantage by doing two things. First, you write interfaces, which as usual define the method signatures for a set of API calls. You can also compose interfaces via embedding. Second, you can endow any type–an existing Go type like float64 or your own custom structs–with behavior by defining functions and assigning them to the type. When you do this, the type is called a “receiver”, and if the receiver has been assigned all the functions associated with a given interface, it is an implicit instance of that interface. You can then pass the type to any function expecting an instance of that interface, and it’s resolved at compile time, which makes you more productive in stark contrast to the runtime resolution of duck typing in dynamic languages like Python.

In this example, interface Named is embedded in Connection and File. Note that this does not denote any relationship among them, but there is a tight coupling similar to inheritance in that any changes to Named are reflected wherever it is embedded. Interface Closeable is defined with a single function close with no parameters and returning a string. Any type with an identical function is resolved at compile time as an instance of Closeable, and lucky for us, Connection and File qualify as they are both receivers of a close function with the right signature. As a result, showClosing works just fine when called on both kinds of structs.

That’s the extent of Go’s polymorphism. Clearly it is not remotely as extensive as Scala’s, but it promotes two important values–composition over inheritance and abstraction over implementation. Engineers coming from traditional OO backgrounds may find Go’s polymorphism takes a little getting used to, but with some creativity you will find it quite powerful. There is no question, however, that the absence of generics can be quite jarring for more complex applications. It’s such a powerful and pervasive idiom that even front end languages like TypeScript and Elm have it. As it happens, there has been such demand for generics from the Go community that the maintainers have begun considering it. As the debate rages on whether the benefits outweigh the costs–potentially the speed and simplicity fundamental to Go’s mission–just recognize you won’t have the benefit of generics for a while.

How Do You Decide?

Scala and Go are two great languages with fundamentally different philosophies that offer distinct advantages and disadvantages. I’ve tried to lay those out as simply as I can so you can extrapolate which might be best suited to your situation.

Having worked on complex applications with both languages, I can tell you Scala takes longer to grasp, and you will have a harder time finding Scala engineers–especially in the United States and especially if you require onsite work. But if you have senior staff who can mentor novices and who can build abstractions that utilize functional programming’s strengths and the exquisite type system to constrain wayward novices, you will find the team growing very productive very quickly. Day-to-day tasks like compilation and continuous delivery are slower, and you will often find yourself exploring Scala’s rich open-source community to enhance development.

Meanwhile, anyone can learn Go. The constructs are simple and lightweight, and compiling and executing are just so fast. It’s amazing. Mastering the more advanced concepts of Go, however, demands effort. You will also find yourself reinventing the wheel from other languages often–like writing your own filter function, which is easy enough but is more plumbing than directly related to your business domain–and building creative workarounds for the limitations of Go by exploiting the powerful features Go does offer. Dependency management and error handling could be better, and the absence of generics can be rather painful when dealing with unknown schemas like unmarshaling dynamic JSON.

So it all depends on if the priorities of your application and project align with the priorities of the language and ecosystem you choose. Despite the strong possibility that this opinion will subject me to ritual humiliation on social media, I would use Scala (or a similarly featured language like Kotlin) for microservices or bigger but Go both to replace any bash or Python (or C++ or whatever) scripts that are part of my continuous delivery pipeline and to create lambda functions, which are supposed to be lightweight, fast, and focused. This means you may not necessarily have to choose because nontrivial cloud native architectures will often blend both microservices and lambdas, and you should always have a continuous delivery pipeline.

I hope this helps. If you read the whole thing, you deserve a nap.