Theory of operation

This article outlines the general theory of compiling Go code, then describes the operation of gb as an implementation of a tool that drives compilation of Go programs.


Go is a compiled language, and thus needs a compiler tool chain (compiler, assembler, linker, etc.) to convert source code into runable machine code. Go’s compilation model differs from traditional compiled languages in the C family (C, C++, Objective-C, etc.) by not using header files. Instead of header files, the Go compilers work with packages, which are both the output of and the input to compilation.

gb and the go tool are two implementations of programs that analyse Go source code and invoke the Go compiler in a manner that ensures that the dependencies of a package are always compiled before the package itself.

Import paths

When the go compiler encounters a an import statement, it interprets the argument to that statement as a path on disk, relative to a list of paths passed to the compiler with the -I flag. Importantly the arguments to -I are not where the source of Go code is stored, but rather the compiled versions. To give an example, if the compiler encounters the statement

 import ""

it will search its list of include paths (and finally $GOROOT/pkg) for a file called, and will use the information inside it when compiling. The -I argument to the compiler are ordered, with $GOROOT/pkg coming first, then any -I paths. The Go compiler knows nothing about $GOPATH.

Incremental compilation

Because the dependencies of a package must be compiled before the package itself, incremental compilation—by storing and reusing the results of previous compilation runs—falls out naturally from the operation of tools like gb and go.

Build tags and conditional compilation

The Go compiler is executed once per package; conditional compilation via // +build tags and file name suffixes is achieved by modifying the set of files passed to the Go compiler. This can complicate incremental compilation.


As an implementation of a tool that drives Go compilation, gb works as follows.

Argument parsing

With the exception of plugins, all gb commands take the following form:

 gb $COMMAND [flags] arguments...

Once gb has determined the project root and constructed a build context it parses the arguments supplied into import paths. These import paths are considered the roots for the operation of commands. For example, the command

 gb build .../sftp

will invoke the build command for each package whose import path ends in sftp.

Arguments can be file paths, import paths, aliases (like all), and globs of file or import paths. The specific form of the arguments are described in the usage document.

Package resolution

Using the build context, each import path is resolved to a package. Package resolution involves locating the source that matches an import path—this may be in $PROJECT/src, or $PROJECT/vendor/src (noting that the former shadows the latter)—and inspecting the source with respect to the constraints applicable to the build context (i.e. filtering out files which don’t match the current operating system or architecture). Package resolution is a recursive process as one package may import another.

The build context holds references to every package resolved through it, so resolving multiple import paths is efficient.

Incremental compilation

gb tries to transparently reuse the results of previous compilations wherever possible; we call this incremental compilation. As discussed above, Go packages contain symbols from the packages they depend on, so if the source that a package depends on has changed, its compiled version must be recompiled. During package resolution the staleness of a package is computed recursively.

Compilation and linking

With package resolution complete, the build context now holds references both to all the packages and their relevant source files. Starting from the import paths—the roots of the graph—gb will compile each package that is considered to be stale. This is a recursive process whereby a package’s dependencies are compiled before any package that depends on them. If the package is not stale, compilation is skipped and instead a reference to the compiled package stored in $PROJECT/pkg is used.

Once a package is compiled, a copy of it is stored in $PROJECT/pkg for reuse. Some packages are not cached—specifically the results of compiling a package main command, or the results of compiling packages for use by gb test.

If any of the import paths are commands, gb will invoke the linker and place the final program in $PROJECT/bin.