Creating an Advent of Code Application Using Go Plugins

The best way to learn programming is to write code. The advice is almost always “build something,” but it can be hard to figure out what a good “something” would be, especially for beginners. In my mind, that’s where coding puzzles come in. Some of my favorites are Advent of Code, Project Euler (for the more mathematically inclined) and Rosalind (focused on bioinformatics). I’ve spent a fair bit of time working through Advent of Code puzzles in a few different languages – R, Python, Julia, and Go so far. I can’t say that I’ve completed all 25 challenges for a year, nor that I’ve done all four of those languages for every puzzle that I’ve completed. But I’ve gotten a tremendous amount of enjoyment and satisfaction from doing the puzzles that I have worked on, and I’ve learned a ton.

In this post, I’m going to talk about how I have structured my Go solutions (later posts will get into the puzzle solutions themselves in detail). I really wanted to embed my solutions in a single application and have everything runnable through a common command. I found the Go Plugin package to be just about the best solution for doing this, though not without its challenges. Most things I read about the plugin package said that it wasn’t mature enough, or that it’s too clunky to work well. While it definitely is a little clunky, I think it does alright for this job.

The main challenge that I was facing was how to dynamically include different Go source files for execution from a main program. I wanted to specify at runtime which package to import and run, which is not possible as far as I know. I didn’t want to run the solution code, write the answers to disk, and then have the main program just read in those answers. The other solution that I had come across was to create a map with dates pointing to solution functions. I definitely thought about how I might do that, but decided that manually importing every solution file and filling in the map with the functions from each file was just too much of a pain, and not a very elegant solution.

Go Plugins

So what exactly is a Go plugin? From the package docs:

A plugin is a Go main package with exported functions and variables that have been built with:

go build -buildmode=plugin

Importantly, even though a Go plugin is a main package, the main() function is not run. This is nice because it can allow you to export functionality from a main package that you may have written for some other purpose. But it is a pain because Go will not compile a main package without a main() function, so you still need one even if you’re creating a package specifically to be a plugin, and you know you won’t actually use main(). The other irritating part is that you have to provide type information to the caller program about the entities from the plugin that you want to use. I was able to make this work by having every plugin implement a function with the signature func Solve(fname string), which takes the path to the problem input as its argument, runs the solution functions, and prints the answers. That way, I can have the same code in my main program regardless of the intermediate steps involved in any given day’s solution.

Program Structure

You can find the full source code on GitHub.

So given this brief overview of Go plugins, how does it work in practice? The project has this overall file structure:

.
|__ AOC.go
|__ puzzles/
|  |__ 2018/
|  |  |__ 01/
|  |  |  |__ input.txt
|  |  |  |__ main.go

AOC.go is the main Advent of Code program file. It includes the code to load plugins and execute the solution function from those plugins. The puzzles/ directory contains sub-directories for each day’s puzzle, where input.txt is the puzzle input (generated for each unique user of adventofcode.com) and main.go contains the source code for the solutions.

As mentioned above, all of the main.go solution files contain a function with the signature func Solve(fname string). Beyond that, they also generally contain a func readInput(fname string) as well as functions for the different parts of the puzzle, taking in the data structure(s) produced by readInput(). They also all contain a blank func main(){} so that they can be compiled as main packages, as required by the plugin package. For any puzzle solution, we have to compile it as a plugin to provide a .so file with a predictable name that the AOC.go file can locate and access. To do this, we run:

$ cd puzzles/$YEAR/$DAY
$ go build -buildmode=plugin -o $YEAR$DAY.so

AOC.go is the most interesting file as far as the plugin system is concerned. After reading in the year and day for the desired puzzle, it has to attempt to locate a solution directory and .so (shared object) file for that date:

import (
    "fmt"
    "os"
    "path/filepath"
    "plugin"
)

dir := filepath.Join("puzzles", year, day)
// Check for solution directory
if s, err := os.Stat(dir); os.IsNotExist(err) || !s.IsDir() {
    fmt.Println("No solution available for", year, day)
    os.Exit(1)
}
// Check for .so file
pluginPath := filepath.Join(dir, year+day+".so")
p, err := plugin.Open(pluginPath)
if err != nil {
    fmt.Printf("No such file %s.so\n", year+day)
    os.Exit(1)
}

Assuming that our program survives through that point (i.e. we have the correct subdirectory inside the puzzles/ directory and that we have compiled it with -buildmode=plugin to create a .so file), we then need to find the Solve() function and run it. We need to know the name of the symbol that we’re looking up, as well as its type/signature.

symbol, err := p.Lookup("Solve")
if err != nil {
    fmt.Println(err.Error())
    os.Exit(1)
}

solve, ok := symbol.(func(string))
if !ok {
    fmt.Println("Plugin has no 'Solve' function")
    os.Exit(1)
}

All that’s left is to provide the path to the puzzle’s input file and run the Solve() function.

inputFile := filepath.Join(dir, "input.txt")
solve(inputFile)

I have set things up so that the Solve() functions print out the answers, rather than returning them as a string. So once we call solve() in the parent program, we’re all done! Running from the command line is as easy as

$ go build -o AOC
$ ./AOC 2018 1

Helper Scripts

It would definitely get tedious to create new solution directories by hand, write the solution code, then compile it with the -buildmode=plugin flag by hand. Especially when it turns out that the solution needs to be fixed or refactored, and then needs to be compiled yet again. So I created a couple of different helper scripts to make these tasks a little easier.

new_puzzle.sh

When I want to start working on a new solution, I like having a template for the files ready to go. In the project root, I have a directory called template containing input.txt.templ, which is blank (the input is taken from the AOC website), and main.go.templ which contains a skeleton file with func Solve(fname string), func ReadInput(fname string), func Part1(), and func Part2(), as well as the empty func main(){}. new_puzzle.sh copies the basic templates into a new directory for the year and day that I want to solve. After doing some input validation (which I won’t get into here), the main part of the script creates the directory, creates a basic README.md, and copies over a couple of templates for the source code and the input file.

YEAR=$1
DAY=$2

DIR="puzzles/$YEAR/$DAY"
mkdir -p $DIR
cp template/input.txt.templ $DIR/input.txt
cp template/main.go.templ $DIR/main.go

README="# [$YEAR Day $DAY:](https://adventofcode.com/$YEAR/day/$DAY)\n\n"
echo -e $README > $DIR/README.md

build_plugin.sh

It’s also nice to be able to build a plugin from the project root, without worrying about changing directories, making sure the .so file is in the right place, and typing everything out by hand. Once again skipping over input validation in this post, the script is fairly straightforward:

YEAR=$1
DAY=$2
DIR="puzzles/$YEAR/$DAY"

if [[ -d $DIR ]]; then
    cd $DIR
    go build -buildmode=plugin -o $YEAR$DAY.so
else
    echo "$DIR does not exist"
    exit 1
fi

build_all_plugins.sh

Finally, it’s sometimes helpful to be able to compile every plugin you’ve got, instead of just one at a time. This is especially useful after cloning the git repository, since the .so files are ignored. This was a great opportunity for me to learn more about control flow in bash. Again, it’s not a very complex script, but I find it incredibly useful.

cd puzzles

# every subdir in puzzles/ is a year
for YEAR in *; do
    # cd into the year's dir
    cd $YEAR
    echo "$YEAR"

    # every subdir in puzzles/$YEAR/ is a day
    for DAY in *; do
        # cd into day's dir
        cd $DAY
        echo -e "\t$DAY"

        # if there's a main.go file, build it
        if [[ -f main.go ]]; then
            go build -buildmode=plugin -o $YEAR$DAY.so
        fi

        # cd back into the year dir
        cd ..
    done
done

Conclusion

Go’s plugin system does have a lot of restrictions – it’s only available on MacOS and Linux, it requires the plugin and the caller program to be compiled with the exact same version of Go and of any dependencies that are be imported in both, etc. But if you are working solo or if the plugins and the calling program will be built on the same machine at roughly the same time, it’s not a bad solution. My Advent of Code use case is obviously not the most complex or technically demanding application, so I can’t speak to the usefulness of Go plugins in other contexts. But I’ve enjoyed working with them and have learned a lot from the experience. If it looks like the plugin package might be useful for you, I’d strongly encourage you to give it a try!

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