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Advanced Reflection with Go at HashiCorp

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Original source (blog.gopheracademy.com)
Tags: golang go serialization reflection mitchellh hashicorp blog.gopheracademy.com
Clipped on: 2016-03-25

Advanced Reflection with Go at HashiCorp

Contributed by Mitchell Hashimoto   2014-11-26

Advanced Reflection with Go at HashiCorp

HashiCorp builds a diverse set of popular DevOps tools written in Go: Packer, Serf, Consul, and Terraform. While these tools range from desktop software to highly scalable distributed systems, their internals all have one thing in common: they use reflection, and a lot of it. In this post, I’ll share the libraries and techniques we use at HashiCorp to get the most out of reflection, all while being safe and efficient.

Reflection is a powerful tool that can enable some beautiful functionality, but the downside is that it isn’t particularly efficent and a misuse of the standard reflection library almost always results in a panic. Because of this, HashiCorp has developed a set of core libraries on top of the standard reflect package in order to safely use reflection throughout our tools.

The three open source libraries we use heavily are: mapstructure, copystructure, and reflectwalk. We’ll go over each of these libraries: what they do, when they should be used, and where they’re used in HashiCorp tools.


mapstructure is a library for decoding generic map values to Go structures. In other words, given any interface{} and a pointer to another Go value, mapstructure does its best to decode the value to into the destination Go value. Most commonly, mapstructure is used to take a map[string]interface{} and decode it into a Go struct.

Why? There are a lot of times, especially with APIs and configuration, where you receive a value in some format, and the final struct that value should be decoded to is variable. Go’s standard decoding libraries for JSON, XML, etc. do not handle this case particularly well. mapstructure gives you a way to cleanly take any of those formats and decode it into a specific structure determined at runtime.

An example explains this best:

// A structure we want to decode into.
type Person struct {
	Name   string
	Age    int
	Emails []string
	Extra  map[string]string

// This input can come from anywhere, but typically comes from
// something like decoding JSON where we're not quite sure of the
// struct initially.
input := map[string]interface{}{
	"name":   "Mitchell",
	"age":    91,
	"emails": []string{"one", "two", "three"},
	"extra": map[string]string{
		"twitter": "mitchellh",

var result Person
if err := mapstructure.Decode(input, &result); err != nil {

fmt.Printf("%+v", result)

mapstructure exposes a very developer-friendly API, and protects you from all the edge cases of reflection that result in panics, instead returning an error when types mismatch or invalid input is given.

We’ve found that mapstructure is one of those libraries where at first you look at it and say: “I’m not sure why I would ever need that.” But then within a few months it quickly becomes a library where you say: “How did I ever write tools without mapstructure?”

We use mapstructure in every one of our tools at the minimum for configuration but many times for APIs as well.


copystructure is a library for performing deep copies of values in Go.

This library usually doesn’t need a “why?” as the utility is clear: sometimes you need a deep copy of a structure. Perhaps you’re trying to return a modified map without modifying the original value, or you’re trying to duplicate a structure for multiple function calls. Whatever the case, deep copying is something that comes up from time to time.

Usage is simple:

input := map[string]interface{}{
	"bob": map[string]interface{}{
		"name":   "bob",
		"emails": []string{"a", "b"},
	"jane": map[string]interface{}{
		"name": "jane",

dup, err := copystructure.Copy(input)
if err != nil {

fmt.Printf("%#v", dup)

Simple, easy to use API, powered by reflect.

We use this within Terraform in order to duplicate full config objects (which contain many nested maps, slices, etc.).


reflectwalk uses reflection to “walk” any value in Go, calling callbacks along the way for each component of the structure. In other terms, it turns reflection into something similar to the visitor pattern.

Why? We’ve found that a callback-based approached to reflection is a powerful and natural way to implement a lot of reflection-powered code. In fact, it is the underlying library for implementing copystructure.


var walker MyWalker

value := getComplexValue()
if err := reflectwalk.Walk(value, walker); err != nil {

In this case, MyWalker is a struct that implements one or more of the interfaces in copystructure. Depending on the interfaces implemented, copystructure will invoke various callbacks on the walker for different events while traversing the value.

We use this within Terraform in order to implement our interpolations. Interpolations work by reflectwalking the configuration structure, finding all string values, and then parsing them for interpolations.

Great Power

With great power comes great responsibility. Reflection can enable some really great use cases that have historically been difficult to achieve with a static language like Go. On the other hand, reflection is quite slow (relative to knowing the types of ahead of time) and introduce a layer of complexity at runtime that can result in crashes if you’re not careful. However, we’ve developed these libraries in order to make reflection easier to use where it makes sense, and we make heavy use of them in every one of our projects.

It is a great testimony to Go that it is able to create performant static binaries while also being flexible enough to enable some dynamic behavior. We love Go at HashiCorp and look forward to our long future with it.

This is a post in the Birthday Bash 2014 series.
Other posts in this series: