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      Using ldflags to Set Version Information for Go Applications


      Introduction

      When deploying applications into a production environment, building binaries with version information and other metadata will improve your monitoring, logging, and debugging processes by adding identifying information to help track your builds over time. This version information can often include highly dynamic data, such as build time, the machine or user building the binary, the Version Control System (VCS) commit ID it was built against, and more. Because these values are constantly changing, coding this data directly into the source code and modifying it before every new build is tedious and prone to error: Source files can move around and variables/constants may switch files throughout development, breaking the build process.

      One way to solve this in Go is to use -ldflags with the go build command to insert dynamic information into the binary at build time, without the need for source code modification. In this flag, ld stands for linker, the program that links together the different pieces of the compiled source code into the final binary. ldflags, then, stands for linker flags. It is called this because it passes a flag to the underlying Go toolchain linker, cmd/link, that allows you to change the values of imported packages at build time from the command line.

      In this tutorial, you will use -ldflags to change the value of variables at build time and introduce your own dynamic information into a binary, using a sample application that prints version information to the screen.

      Prerequisites

      To follow the example in this article, you will need:

      Building Your Sample Application

      Before you can use ldflags to introduce dynamic data, you first need an application to insert the information into. In this step, you will make this application, which will at this stage only print static versioning information. Let’s create that application now.

      In your src directory, make a directory named after your application. This tutorial will use the application name app:

      Change your working directory to this folder:

      Next, using the text editor of your choice, create the entry point of your program, main.go:

      Now, make your application print out version information by adding the following contents:

      app/main.go

      package main
      
      import (
          "fmt"
      )
      
      var Version = "development"
      
      func main() {
          fmt.Println("Version:t", Version)
      }
      

      Inside of the main() function, you declared the Version variable, then printed the string Version:, followed by a tab character, t, and then the declared variable.

      At this point, the variable Version is defined as development, which will be the default version for this app. Later on, you will change this value to be an official version number, arranged according to semantic versioning format.

      Save and exit the file. Once this is done, build and run the application to confirm that it prints the correct version:

      You will see the following output:

      Output

      You now have an application that prints default version information, but you do not yet have a way to pass in current version information at build time. In the next step, you will use -ldflags and go build to solve this problem.

      Using ldflags with go build

      As mentioned before, ldflags stands for linker flags, and is used to pass in flags to the underlying linker in the Go toolchain. This works according to the following syntax:

      • go build -ldflags="-flag"

      In this example, we passed in flag to the underlying go tool link command that runs as a part of go build. This command uses double quotes around the contents passed to ldflags to avoid breaking characters in it, or characters that the command line might interpret as something other than what we want. From here, you could pass in many different link flags. For the purposes of this tutorial, we will use the -X flag to write information into the variable at link time, followed by the package path to the variable and its new value:

      • go build -ldflags="-X 'package_path.variable_name=new_value'"

      Inside the quotes, there is now the -X option and a key-value pair that represents the variable to be changed and its new value. The . character separates the package path and the variable name, and single quotes are used to avoid breaking characters in the key-value pair.

      To replace the Version variable in your example application, use the syntax in the last command block to pass in a new value and build the new binary:

      • go build -ldflags="-X 'main.Version=v1.0.0'"

      In this command, main is the package path of the Version variable, since this variable is in the main.go file. Version is the variable that you are writing to, and v1.0.0 is the new value.

      In order to use ldflags, the value you want to change must exist and be a package level variable of type string. This variable can be either exported or unexported. The value cannot be a const or have its value set by the result of a function call. Fortunately, Version fits all of these requirements: It was already declared as a variable in the main.go file, and the current value (development) and the desired value (v1.0.0) are both strings.

      Once your new app binary is built, run the application:

      You will receive the following output:

      Output

      Using -ldflags, you have succesfully changed the Version variable from development to v1.0.0.

      You have now modified a string variable inside of a simple application at build time. Using ldflags, you can embed version details, licensing information, and more into a binary ready for distribution, using only the command line.

      In this example, the variable you changed was in the main program, reducing the difficulty of determining the path name. But sometimes the path to these variables is more complicated to find. In the next step, you will write values to variables in sub-packages to demonstrate the best way to determine more complex package paths.

      Targeting Sub-Package Variables

      In the last section, you manipulated the Version variable, which was at the top-level package of the application. But this is not always the case. Often it is more practical to place these variables in another package, since main is not an importable package. To simulate this in your example application, you will create a new sub-package, app/build, that will store information about the time the binary was built and the name of the user that issued the build command.

      To add a new sub-package, first add a new directory to your project named build:

      Then create a new file named build.go to hold the new variables:

      In your text editor, add new variables for Time and User:

      app/build/build.go

      package build
      
      var Time string
      
      var User string
      

      The Time variable will hold a string representation of the time when the binary was built. The User variable will hold the name of the user who built the binary. Since these two variables will always have values, you don’t need to initialize these variables with default values like you did for Version.

      Save and exit the file.

      Next, open main.go to add these variables to your application:

      Inside of main.go, add the following highlighted lines:

      main.go

      package main
      
      import (
          "app/build"
          "fmt"
      )
      
      var Version = "development"
      
      func main() {
          fmt.Println("Version:t", Version)
          fmt.Println("build.Time:t", build.Time)
          fmt.Println("build.User:t", build.User)
      }
      

      In these lines, you first imported the app/build package, then printed build.Time and build.User in the same way you printed Version.

      Save the file, then exit from your text editor.

      Next, to target these variables with ldflags, you could use the import path app/build followed by .User or .Time, since you already know the import path. However, to simulate a more complex situation in which the path to the variable is not evident, let’s instead use the nm command in the Go tool chain.

      The go tool nm command will output the symbols involved in a given executable, object file, or archive. In this case, a symbol refers to an object in the code, such as a defined or imported variable or function. By generating a symbol table with nm and using grep to search for a variable, you can quickly find information about its path.

      Note: The nm command will not help you find the path of your variable if the package name has any non-ASCII characters, or a " or % character, as that is a limitation of the tool itself.

      To use this command, first build the binary for app:

      Now that app is built, point the nm tool at it and search through the output:

      • go tool nm ./app | grep app

      When run, the nm tool will output a lot of data. Because of this, the preceding command used | to pipe the output to the grep command, which then searched for terms that had the top-level app in the title.

      You will receive output similar to this:

      Output

      55d2c0 D app/build.Time 55d2d0 D app/build.User 4069a0 T runtime.appendIntStr 462580 T strconv.appendEscapedRune . . .

      In this case, the first two lines of the result set contain the paths to the two variables you are looking for: app/build.Time and app/build.User.

      Now that you know the paths, build the application again, this time changing Version, User, and Time at build time. To do this, pass multiple -X flags to -ldflags:

      • go build -v -ldflags="-X 'main.Version=v1.0.0' -X 'app/build.User=$(id -u -n)' -X 'app/build.Time=$(date)'"

      Here you passed in the id -u -n Bash command to list the current user, and the date command to list the current date.

      Once the executable is built, run the program:

      This command, when run on a Unix system, will generate similar output to the following:

      Output

      Version: v1.0.0 build.Time: Fri Oct 4 19:49:19 UTC 2019 build.User: sammy

      Now you have a binary that contains versioning and build information that can provide vital assistance in production when resolving issues.

      Conclusion

      This tutorial showed how, when applied correctly, ldflags can be a powerful tool for injecting valuable information into binaries at build time. This way, you can control feature flags, environment information, versioning information, and more without introducing changes to your source code. By adding ldflags to your current build workflow you can maximize the benefits of Go’s self-contained binary distribution format.

      If you would like to learn more about the Go programming language, check out our full How To Code in Go series. If you are looking for more solutions for version control, try our How To Use Git reference guide.



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