goa - Untangling Microservices

Introducing goa, the Go framework for designed based REST API development.

The following post was initially published to the Gopher Academy December 2015 Series.

The Raise of Microservice Architectures and APIs

After suffering through a monolithic Rails application for a number of years, we shifted our focus to microservice architectures. As many others, we have encountered some of their pitfalls as well. One of them is that building good APIs is difficult. Changing APIs is even more difficult. And any APIs that get exposed to customers are almost impossible to ever change, it seems. For this reason we have focused on tools that help us design, review, and implement the APIs of our microservices. One of the results of this focus is goa, which we’re just starting to use as our HTTP microservice framework of choice. goa was inspired from a previous result of the focus put on API design at RightScale: the excellent ruby Praxis framework.

Introducing goa

There are already numerous good web application packages out there. In fact we have been using goji at RightScale successfully in production for some time. These packages focus on providing modular and composable web application stacks which is great for building independent services. However none of them help with the critical task consisting of designing an API.

API Design Lifecycle

Building an API is a multi-step process. The API first gets designed, resources and associated actions are identified, the request endpoints, payloads and parameters all get defined. Once that’s done the design goes trough a review process: will the UI another team has to build on top have all the information it requires? will dependent service X be able to list the resources it needs efficiently? will dependent service Y be able to update the fields of this other resource? After a few back and forth it’s time to actually implement the API. And after a while it’s back to square one with new requirements for APIv2.

The review process is especially hard to do with no special tooling. Who is going to write a Swagger specification from scratch just to throw it away as soon as implementation starts? However it’s also a critical step for the overall success of the service. Without a clear and complete description of the API there’s a good chance that something will end up not quite right or missing entirely.

That’s where goa comes in. goa lets you write the specification of your API in code. It then uses that code to produce a number of outputs including HTTP handlers that take care of validating the incoming requests. This means that the specification is translated automatically into the implementation, what got reviewed is what is implemented.

The final implementation, however, is very familiar looking and can plug-in to many existing HTTP processing packages. HTTP requests are accepted by the net/http server, routed by a router (goa uses httprouter) and handled by the application code. The only difference being that the application code is composed of two parts: the generated handler which validates the request and creates the context object (more on that later) and the user code that provides the business logic.

HTTP request flow

The goa Design Language

At first I wasn’t sure whether creating a DSL to describe an API design in Go would even be possible or yield something that is usable. goa started as an experiment but after many iterations of various degrees of ugliness the end result is actually quite nice. Credits go to Gomega for showing how using anonymous functions can help produce a clean and terse DSL.

Let’s go through a simple example to illustrate how it works. Imagine an API service that manages bottles of wine, let’s call it winecellar. This service exposes one endpoint that makes it possible to retrieve information on a wine bottle given its ID. First we define the API itself using the API global DSL function. This function accepts a name and an anonymous function that can define additional properties such as the base path for all requests, the supported URL schemes, the host as well as metadata like information (description, contact, license etc.):

package design

import (
        . "github.com/raphael/goa/design" // "dot" imports make the DSL easier to read.
        . "github.com/raphael/goa/design/dsl"

var _ = API("winecellar", func() { // The API function defines an API given its name.
        Description("The winecellar service API")
        BasePath("/cellar")        // Base path or prefix to all requests.
                                   // Can be overridden in action definitions using an
                                   // absolute path starting with //.
        Host("cellar.goa.design")  // Default API host used by clients and Swagger.
        Scheme("http")             // Supported API URL scheme used by clients and Swagger.
        Scheme("https")            // Scheme("http", "https") works too

Note that the name of the package is irrelevant, we use design as a convention.

Now that we have defined our API we need to define the show bottle request endpoint. To do that we first need to define a resource (Bottle) and in the definition of the resource add the show action that exposes that one endpoint:

var _ = Resource("Bottle", func() { // Define the Bottle resource
        DefaultMedia(BottleMedia)   // Default media type used to render the bottle resources
        BasePath("/bottles")        // Gets appended to the API base path

        Action("show", func() {              // Define the show action on the Bottle resource
                Routing(GET("/:bottleID"))   // The relative path to the show endpoint. The full path is
                                             // built concatenating the API and resource base paths with it.
                                             // Uses a wildcard to capture the requested bottle ID.
                                             // Wildcards can start with : to capture a single path segment
                                             // or with * to capture the rest of the path.
                Description("Retrieve bottle with given ID")
                Params(func() {              // Define the request parameters found in the URI (wildcards)
                                             // and the query string.
                        Param(               // Define a single parameter
                                "bottleID",  // Here it corresponds to the path segment captured by :bottleID
                                Integer,     // The JSON type of the parameter
                                "The name of the bottle to retrieve", // An optional description
                Response(OK)                 // Define a potential response
                Response(NotFound)           // An action may define any number of responses.
                                             // Their content is defined through ResponseTemplates (not shown
                                             // in this simplistic example). Here we use the default response
                                             // templates defined in goa.

A resource may specify a default media type used to render OK responses. In goa the media type describes the data structure rendered in the response body. In the example the Bottle resource refers to the BottleMedia media type. Here is the definition for it:

var BottleMedia = MediaType("application/vnd.goa.example.bottle+json", func() {
        Description("A bottle of wine")
        Attributes(func() {
                Attribute("id", Integer, "ID of bottle") // Attribute defines a single field in
                                                         // the media type data structure given its
                                                         // name, type and description.
                Attribute("href")                        // The default type for attributes is String.
                Attribute("name", String "The bottle  name", func() { // Like with API, Resource and Action an
                                                         // attribute definition may use an anonymous function
                                                         // as last argument to define additional properties.
                        MinLength(1)                     // Here we define validation rules specifying a
                        MaxLength(255)                   // minimum and maximum number of characters in a bottle
                        // name.
                Attribute("color", func() {              // Descriptions are optional.
                        Enum("red", "white", "rose", "yellow", "sparkling") // Possible field values
                Attribute("sweetness", Integer, func() {
                        Minimum(1)                       // Minimum and maximum int field values.

                View("default", func() {                 // Views are used to render a media type.
                        Attribute("id")                  // A media type can have one or more views
                        Attribute("href")                // and must define the "default" view.
                        Attribute("name")                // The view simply lists the fields to render.
                        Attribute("color")               // It can also specify the view to use to render
                        Attribute("sweetness")           // fields whose type is itself a media type
                                                         // (the "default" view by default). Not used here.
Autogenerated Documentation

We now have a complete description of our API together with its endpoint, the accepted request parameters and the details on the response content. In case you are wondering request payloads (for request that have bodies) are defined using the same DSL used to define media types (minus views). There are a few more advanced constructs supported by the DSL such as the ability to link to other media types or reuse types in multiple definitions. The dsl package GoDoc lists all the supported keywords with additional examples.

Now that we have written down the design of our API it can be reviewed. While reviewers may be able to read the DSL spec straight we can make their task more attractive by automatically generating browsable documentation. As explained further down, goa can generate the Swagger specification and the standard Swagger UI can be used to view them.

The Magic: Code Generation

The purpose of specifying the API using a DSL is to make it executable. In Go the preferred method for this is to generate code and this is the path goa takes. goa comes with the goagen tool which is the goa code generator.

The way the code generation process works is that the DSL, which consists of function calls, are executed in order to build data structures that describe the API in-memory. These in-memory data structures are then consumed by the tool in order to produce the desired output, whether code, documentation, or other. What this means is that as a first step goagen needs to put together a complete program that contains the DSL functions with the output generation code all wrapped into a suitable main. The data structures produced from running the DSL functions describe the resources that make up the API and for each resource the actions complete with a description of their parameters, payload and responses.

Note that the term resource here is very loosely defined. Resources in goa merely provide a convenient way to group API endpoints (called actions in the DSL) together. The actual semantic is irrelevant to goa - in other words goa is not an opinionated framework by design.

The generation steps are thus:

  1. goagen parses the command line to determine the type of output desired and invokes the appropriate generator.
  2. The generator writes the code of the tool that will produce the final output to a temporary Go workspace.
  3. The tool composed of the DSL and the output producing code is compiled in the temporary workspace.
  4. goagen then runs the tool which evaluates the DSL and traverses the resulting in-memory data structures to write the output.

The output generation algorithms in goagen make extensive use of the Go template package. This has turned out to work quite well, the power of the templating system coupled with its simplicity really helps making code generation as clean as it can be.

goagen supports many different outputs: server and client code, documentation and even custom outputs. Each output maps to a command. The following commands are currently supported:

Glue Code

The app output deserves special attention as it generates the glue code between the underlying HTTP server and the controller, i.e., your code. The glue code takes care of validating the incoming requests and coercing the types to the ones described in the design. This in turns means that the controller code does not have to worry about deserializing or “binding” the request body nor does it need to validate parameter values. The end result is controller code that is terse and only deals with what matters: your special sauce.

Here is a code snippet to illustrate the above, this code implements the show action of the Bottle resource defined in the previous example. The function signature was generated by goagen and the default implementation (which simply writes an empty response) replaced with actual code:

// Retrieve bottle with given ID.
func (b *BottleController) Show(ctx *app.ShowBottleContext) error { // The signature was generated by `goagen main`.
        bottle := b.db.GetBottle(ctx.BottleID) // This example stores the database driver in a controller field.
        if bottle == nil {                     // (the same controller instance handles all requests)
                return ctx.NotFound()          // NotFound has been generated from the corresponding Response
        }                                      // definition in the DSL.
        return ctx.OK(bottle)                  // So was OK. The default OK response template that comes with goa
}                                              // defines the media type of the response payload using the resource
                                               // default media type.

The context data structure app.ShowBottleContext is exactly and only for this action, tailor made with the fields holding validated and coerced parameter values, plus helper methods to form responses. The generated type definition is:

// ShowBottleContext provides the bottle show action context.
type ShowBottleContext struct {
	BottleID int

As you can see the code has access to the request state (BottleID here) via fields exposed by the context. The values of the fields have been validated by goa and their types match the types used in the design (here BottleID is an int). The context also exposes the NotFound and OK methods used to write the response. Again these methods exist because the design specified that these were the responses of this action. The design also defines the response payload so that in this case the OK method accepts an instance of app.Bottle which is a type that was generated from the BottleMedia definition.

Because goa uses code generation it does not have to use reflection (the DSL does use reflection in a few places just to make the code more terse). One of the design goal of goa was for the generated code to mimic what you would write if you were to implement the code yourself. The generated code is thus fairly simple to follow. And while validation code can look a bit funky just because of the number of cases that have to be considered it does reflect what you would do in a “standard” Go program (minus nice refactoring).

As an example here is the generated code that assigns the BottleID field of the ShowBottleContext data structure show above:

// NewShowBottleContext parses the incoming request URL and body, performs validations and creates the
// context used by the bottle controller show action.
func NewShowBottleContext(c *goa.Context) (*ShowBottleContext, error) {
        rawBottleID, ok := c.Get("bottleID")
        if ok {
                if bottleID, err2 := strconv.Atoi(rawBottleID); err2 == nil {
                        ctx.BottleID = int(bottleID)
                        } else {
                                err = goa.InvalidParamTypeError("bottleID", rawBottleID, "integer", err)
        return &ctx, err

An interesting side effect of using code generation is that the code does not need to be tested or otherwise maintained, this also removes a lot of extra overhead.


The swagger.goa.design service

This screen shot shows documentation that was produced automatically via the free swagger.goa.design service: I placed my design in a public github repository and then pointed swagger.goa.design at it. It then downloaded the repo from github, produced the swagger specification and loaded it in swagger UI.

Another very valuable output is documentation in the form of JSON schema or swagger. Being able to look at the documentation makes it a lot easier and more efficient to vet the API design without having to write a single line of actual implementation code.


One of the nice side-effects of having a complete spec of the API is that goa can produce not only server-side code to implement the API but also client-side code to make it easier to invoke the API. In its current form, the goagen tool can generate three types of clients:

  1. a Go package for clients written in Go
  2. a Javascript package for clients running in node.js or the browser
  3. a command-line tool to invoke the API from the linux or windows command line

Going back to the problem statement – how to deal with an exponentially growing number of interconnected microservices – this is huge. It means that the team in charge of developing a given microservice can also easily deliver the clients. This in turn means that the same clients can be used in all services consuming the API, which helps with consistency, troubleshooting etc. Things like enforcing the X-Request-ID header, CSRF or CORS which would otherwise be a tedious manual endeavor now become easily achievable. Here is an example of the command line help of a generated client:

./cellar-cli --help-long
usage: cellar-cli [<flags>] <command> [<args> ...]

CLI client for the cellar service (http://goa.design/getting-started.html)

     --help           Show context-sensitive help (also try --help-long and
 -s, --scheme="http"  Set the requests scheme
 -h, --host="cellar.goa.design"  
		      API hostname
 -t, --timeout=20s    Set the request timeout, defaults to 20s
     --dump           Dump HTTP request and response.
     --pp             Pretty print response body

 help [<command>...]
   Show help.

 create bottle [<flags>] <path>
   Record new bottle

   --payload=PAYLOAD  Request JSON body

 delete bottle <path>

 list bottle [<flags>] <path>
   List all bottles in account optionally filtering by year

   --years=YEARS  Filter by years

 show bottle <path>
   Retrieve bottle with given id

The tool also provides contextual help for each action:

./cellar-cli show bottle --help
usage: cellar-cli show bottle <path>

Retrieve bottle with given id

      --help           Show context-sensitive help (also try --help-long and
  -s, --scheme="http"  Set the requests scheme
  -h, --host="cellar.goa.design"  
                       API hostname
  -t, --timeout=20s    Set the request timeout, defaults to 20s
      --dump           Dump HTTP request and response.
      --pp             Pretty print response body

  <path>  Request path, format is /cellar/accounts/:accountID/bottles/:bottleID

The command line client tool relies on the generated client Go package to make the actual requests. The package exposes a function for each action exposed by the API, see the files generated for the cellar example clients for more details.

The other client goagen can produce is a JavaScript module. Similarly to the Go package the JavaScript module exposes one function per API action. It uses the axios library to make the actual requests. Again the cellar example contains the generated JavaScript together with an example on how to use it if you are curious.


Last but not least goagen makes it very easy to implement custom generators through goagen plugins. A plugin is merely a Go package which exposes a Generate function with the following signature:

func Generate(api *design.APIDefinition) ([]string, error)

where api is the API definition computed from the DSL. On success Generate should return the path to the generated files. On failure the error message gets displayed to the user (and goagen exits with status 1).

The plugin interface has already been used to contribute the first 3-rd party plugin to goa, which is @bketelsen’s cool object-relational interface generator. In this case, his generator could be invoked on the cellar example by:

goagen gen -d github.com/raphael/goa/examples/cellar/design --pkg-path=github.com/bketelsen/gorma

Final Overview

Putting it all together, the diagram below shows all the various outputs of the goagen tool:

goagen diagram

In many ways goagen is at the center of the goa framework and it already has a number of generators built-in for the obvious use-cases. What has surprised me is that as I finished the first generators I kept having new ideas about other generators and now other people have yet more ideas that I couldn’t even conceive of at the outset of the project. It is becoming evident to me that having the definition of the API in code form coupled with Go’s powerful code generation capability opens up many new opportunities.

The Engine: Runtime

goa is not just about code generation though. It also includes a set of functionality to support the execution of the web application. The goal is to provide a production ready runtime environment that helps dealing with the challenges of running services in a microservice environment. This includes structured logging, X-Request-ID header support, proper panic recovery and many other features described below.

The Request Context

goa provides a powerful Context object to all request handlers. This object makes it possible to carry deadlines and cancellation signals, gives access to the request and response state and allows writing log entries.

The goa Context interface implements the golang context.Context interface which provides a concurrency safe way of storing and retrieving values on top of the deadline and cancelation support described above. The idea is that the context can be passed around to all the various service sub-systems (e.g. persistence layer or external service interfaces) which can all read or update it as see fit. The context implementation takes care of updating the deadline properly so that setting a longer timeout down the chain doesn’t override the previously set short timeout for example. The golang ctxhttp provides a context-aware HTTP client that will honor timeouts and abort requests when a cancelation signal is triggered. Having access to the context in all the sub-systems also means that the entire request state is available to them. This can be very handy and helps with decoupling the application layers.


goa supports structured logging via the excellent log15 package. The context object is also a logger and exposes logger methods (Info Warn, Err and Crit). Each log entry has a message and a series of name/value pairs. goa pre-populates the key/value pairs with the name of the service, controller and action as well as a request specific ID so that any call to one of the logger methods will tag the log entry with these values. Obviously additional values can be stored in the logger context. Sub-systems may also instantiate their own logger inheriting the parent logger context (and handler see below).

The logger is backed by handlers which do the actual writing. log15 comes with a bunch of handlers that can write to syslog, loggly etc. The default goa handler writes to Stdout which is handy for dev or for services running in containers (depending on your logging strategy). The service logger handler can be initialized prior to starting it via the Logger package variable:

func main() {
        // Create goa service
        service := goa.New("cellar")

        // Initialize logger to use syslog.
        syslogHandler := log15.SyslogHandler("cellar", log15.LogfmtFormat())

        // ...

It should be possible to allow injecting other logging packages (like the standard log package) by tweaking the app generator so it logs in a more generic way. Definitely something on the roadmap but for now log15 works quite nicely.


goa supports both “classic” net/http middleware as well as goa specific middleware that can leverage the context object. As a simple example here is the source for the RequestID middleware that handles the X-Request-ID header:

// RequestID is a middleware that injects a request ID into the context of each request.
// Retrieve it using ctx.Value(ReqIDKey). If the incoming request has a RequestIDHeader header then
// that value is used else a random value is generated.
func RequestID() Middleware {
        return func(h Handler) Handler {
                return func(ctx *Context) error {
                        id := ctx.Request().Header.Get(RequestIDHeader)
                        if id == "" {
                                id = fmt.Sprintf("%s-%d", reqPrefix, atomic.AddInt64(&reqID, 1))
                        ctx.SetValue(ReqIDKey, id)

                        return h(ctx)

The middleware takes and returns a request handler, it uses a closure to wrap the handler passed as argument and add its own logic.

goa currently includes the following middlewares:

Obviously you can mount your own middleware through the Use method. This method is implemented by both the Service and the Controller interfaces. This means that middleware can be applied to all requests sent to the service or only to the endpoints exposed by specific controllers.

Error Handling

In goa request handlers can return errors (instances of error). When they do goa checks whether the controller has an error handler and if it does invokes it. If the controller does not have a error handler then goa invokes the service-wide error handler.

The default service-wide error handler simply logs the error and returns a response with status code 400 if the error is an instance of goa.BadRequestError - 500 otherwise. The default error handler also writes the message of the error to the response body. goa also comes with a terse error handler which won’t write the error message to the body for internal errors (useful for production).

As with middleware error handlers can be mounted on a specific controller or service-wide via the SetErrorHandler method exposed by both the Service and the Controller interfaces.

Graceful Shutdown

A goa service can be instantiated calling either the New or NewGraceful package functions. Calling NewGraceful returns a server backed by the graceful package Server type. When sending any of the signals listed in the goa InterruptSignals package variable to the process the graceful server:

What’s Next?

goa is still very new and while I’m quite excited about its potential, the proof is in the pudding. There are a number of goa services that are slated to go to production at RightScale in the near future and I’m sure that new “interesting” challenges will come out. At the same time goa seems to solve many problems and so far the adoption has been very positive. I have been amazed at how quickly the open source community started contributing back (special thanks to @bketelsen for spreading the good word) and can’t wait to see what others do with goa. But that’s enough talk, try it for yourself and let me know how it goes!