Fun With Flags

In aprevious article we discussed why command line applications are important and talked about few guidelines. In this article we’ll see how we can use the built-in flag package to write command line applications.

There are other third-party packages for writing command line interfaces, see here for a list of them. However depending on third-party package carries a risk and I prefer to use the standard library as much as I can.

httpd

Let’s write an HTTP server. It’ll take the host & port to listen on from the command line.

package main

import (
	"flag"
	"fmt"
	"log"
	"net/http"
	"os"
	"strconv"
)

var config struct { // [1]
	port int
	host string
}

const (
	usage = `usage: %s
Run HTTP server

Options:
`
)

func main() {
	flag.IntVar(&config.port, "port", config.port, "port to listen on")    // [2]
	flag.StringVar(&config.host, "host", config.host, "host to listen on") // [3]
	flag.Usage = func() {                                                  // [4]
		fmt.Fprintf(flag.CommandLine.Output(), usage, os.Args[0])
		flag.PrintDefaults()
	}
	flag.Parse() // [5]

	http.HandleFunc("/", handler)
	addr := fmt.Sprintf("%s:%d", config.host, config.port)
	fmt.Printf("server ready on %s\n", addr)
	if err := http.ListenAndServe(addr, nil); err != nil {
		log.Fatalf("error: %s", err)
	}

}

func init() { // [6]
	// Set defaults
	s := os.Getenv("HTTPD_PORT")
	p, err := strconv.Atoi(s)
	if err == nil {
		config.port = p
	} else {
		config.port = 8080
	}

	h := os.Getenv("HTTPD_HOST")
	if len(h) > 0 {
		config.host = h
	} else {
		config.host = "localhost"
	}
}

func handler(w http.ResponseWriter, r *http.Request) {
	fmt.Fprintf(w, "Hello Gophers\n")
}
  1. I tend to use a config struct for configuration instead of separate variables. When applications evolve, the number of configuration option will grows and I’d like to keep them in one place
  2. flag.IntVar will bind config.port to the -port command line option
  3. flag.StringVar will bind config.host to the -host command line option
  4. Set flag.Usage to a function that will print your help
  5. flag.Parse will parse command line arguments and will print help when calling your application with -h or --help . flag.Parse will exit the program on any command line error
  6. You can use init to set default values and populate values from environment variables

Validation

A good practice is to validate all the command line switches at program start. The flag packages have built in function for integers, floats, boolean, time.Duration and more. However sometimes you’d like to have your own type. Using flag.Var we can achieve this.

We’ll define portVar struct that will implement the flag.Value interface. We’ll also provide a PortVar function to create such a variable.

Then we’ll change our main to use PortVar instead of IntVar .

func main() {
	flag.Var(PortVar(&config.port), "port", "port to listen on")
	// ...
}

func PortVar(port *int) *portVar {
	return &portVar{port}
}

type portVar struct {
	port *int
}

func (p *portVar) String() string {
	if p.port == nil {
		return ""
	}

	return fmt.Sprintf("%d", *p.port)
}

func (p *portVar) Set(s string) error {
	val, err := strconv.Atoi(s)
	if err != nil {
		return err
	}

	const minPort, maxPort = 1, 65535
	if val < minPort || val > maxPort {
		return fmt.Errorf("port %d out of range [%d:%d]", val, minPort, maxPort)
	}

	*p.port = val
	return nil
}

Sub Commands

Instead of having one executable to start the HTTP server and another to check it’s alive, we can have one executable that does both commands (same as git have many sub-commands - clone , add , diff …). We can do that with flag.FlagSet .

const (
	httpdUsage = `usage: %s httpd
Run HTTP server

Options:
`
	checkUsage = "usage: %s check URL\n"
)

func main() {
	flag.Usage = func() { // [1]
		fmt.Fprintf(flag.CommandLine.Output(), "usage: %s check|run\n", os.Args[0])
		flag.PrintDefaults()
	}
	flag.Parse()

	if len(os.Args) < 2 { // [2]
		log.Fatalf("error: wrong number of arguments")
	}

	var err error
	switch os.Args[1] { // [3]
	case "run":
		err = runHTTPD()
	case "check":
		err = checkHTTPD()
	default:
		err = fmt.Errorf("error: unknown command - %s", os.Args[1])
	}

	if err != nil {
		log.Fatalf("error: %s", err)
	}

}

func checkHTTPD() error {
	fs := flag.NewFlagSet("check", flag.ContinueOnError) // [4]
	fs.Usage = func() {
		fmt.Fprintf(flag.CommandLine.Output(), checkUsage, os.Args[0])
		fs.PrintDefaults()
	}

	if err := fs.Parse(os.Args[2:]); err != nil { // [5]
		return err
	}

	if fs.NArg() != 1 {
		return fmt.Errorf("error: wrong number of arguments")
	}

	url := fs.Arg(0) // [6]
	resp, err := http.Get(url)
	switch {
	case err != nil:
		return err
	case resp.StatusCode != http.StatusOK:
		return fmt.Errorf("error: bad status - %s", resp.Status)
	}

	return nil
}

func runHTTPD() error {
	fs := flag.NewFlagSet("check", flag.ContinueOnError)
	fs.Var(PortVar(&config.port), "port", "port to listen on")
	fs.StringVar(&config.host, "host", config.host, "host to listen on")
	fs.Usage = func() {
		fmt.Fprintf(flag.CommandLine.Output(), httpdUsage, os.Args[0])
		fs.PrintDefaults()
	}

	if err := fs.Parse(os.Args[2:]); err != nil {
		return err
	}

	http.HandleFunc("/", handler)
	addr := fmt.Sprintf("%s:%d", config.host, config.port)
	fmt.Printf("server ready on %s\n", addr)
	return http.ListenAndServe(addr, nil)
}
  1. Usage for the main executable
  2. We should have at lest two os.Args - the executable and the sub command name
  3. os.Args[1] is the subcommand ( os.Args[1] is the executable name)
  4. Create a new FlagSet to parse the command line for this sub command. Use flag.ContinueOnError so parse error will not exit the program. The only function that should exit the program is main , all others should return an error
  5. Pass rest of arguments. e.g. ["app", "check", "http://localhost:8080"]["localhost:8081"]
  6. fs.Arg returns the nth command line argument (not including the program name) after parsing

Conclusion

The flag package is flexible and will probably support all of your command line parsing needs. It might be more verbose than other packages but it’s in the standard library so you don’t need any extra dependencies and can count on its API keeping the Go compatibility promise .

You can see the full source code for the examples here .

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Miki, nice to e-meet you ☺. I’ve been a long time developer and have been working with Go for about 10 years. I write code professionally as a consultant and contribute a lot to open source. Apart from that I’m a book author , an author on LinkedIn learning , one of the organizers of GopherCon Israel and an instructor . Feel free to drop me a line and let me know if you learned something new or if you’d like to learn more.

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