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Non-blocking I/O in Go

Whether you know it or not, if you are using Go you are probably using non-blocking I/O. This post will dig in a little into that, but go further into how you can actually take more control of the I/O handling in Go. This is especially nice as go1.11 and go1.12 add some very interesting interfaces to help with this. This had a slightly different conclusion than I’d expected, but 🤷‍♂, stuff happens

What is non-blocking I/O? A simple explanation: It allows you to read() and write() to a file descriptor (that is, any type of open file be it a socket, pipe, a file on disk, whatever) without having these calls block just because the file is not ready. How does this work? A little something like this:

fd, _ := syscall.Open("/foo", syscall.O_CREAT|syscall.O_RDWR|syscall.O_CLOEXEC|syscall.O_NONBLOCK, 0644)

This is instructing the system to:

  1. open the file at /foo, create it if it does not exist (O_CREAT)

  2. close the file if executing a new processes (O_CLOEXEC)… this is important to not copy file descriptors between processes unexpectedly

  3. Open the file with both read and write access

  4. Use non-blocking mode (O_NONBLOCK)

  5. Set the permissions on new files

That’s cool, but what does it actually mean? Well, for a regular file not much because they are always readable and always writable…. but… other types of files, such as a pipe this gets very interesting, so instead we can do this before we open the file:

syscall.Mkfifo("/foo", 0644)

This will create a fix-sized pipe buffer. Without the O_NONBLOCK flag, when a read() is performed, the caller will block until there is data to read. Likewise when a write() is performed the caller will be blocked if the pipe is full. Here we are using O_NONBLOCK, and so will have slightly different semantics. Instead of blocking, a call to read() on an empty pipe or write() to a full pipe will return an EAGAIN error. This is a nice way of saying the pipe is not ready for that action (the error message might like resource temporarily unavailable). EAGAIN really means “try again”, there is an alias for this error called EWOULDBLOCK.

From here you might want to use a polling mechanism such as epoll to be notified of when the pipe is ready for read or write (depending on what you need).

So, Go does all this for you. When you call os.Open(...), Go opens the file with the non-blocking flag, sets up watches for the file descriptor to know when it’s ready for read/write/is closed, and then provides a blocking API on top of non-blocking I/O for a natural flow like so:

buf := make([]byte, 32)
n, _ := f.Read(buf)

So, the fmt.Println doesn’t happen until Read has completed. If the file is not ready for read(), it pauses the goroutinue and allows other goroutines to run while it waits for it to be ready, then wakes up our goroutine when it is ready so it can continue. This is really nice and simple, don’t have to think about callbacks, or polling API’s, or any low-level details and get all the benefit of asynchronous I/O.

The trouble is, a blocking API isn’t always what you want. Sometimes you actually need lower-level control than what you might see in a typical Go program. A relatively simple example of this is this:

buf := make([]byte, 32)
go func() { f2.Close() }
for {
    n, err := f1.Read(buf)
    if err != nil {

This looks harmless, but what if f1 just blocks because there is never any data (or is just not closed… for good reason), the goroutine running this will run forever, blocking on the call to Read … this happens even if f2 is closed.

note: this may actually be more pervasive in the go ecosystem than is realized, especially a problem in Docker’s code base… the above code is essentially what io.Copy does.

Other cases where one might need this level of control is implementing semantics for custom read/write behavior, perhaps those using zero-copy techniques such as splice().

So, what’s the alternative? Bypass the go runtime and do our own file polling and switching? Oh no. This would be horribly annoying. Before go1.11, though, this would be precisely what one needed to do, except for some few cases where you can get access to the underlying file descriptor.

Starting with go1.11, there are two new interfaces:

These interfaces essentially allow Go to expose the raw file descriptor but without sacrificing any control by the runtime itself to do weird things (such as swap out file descriptors from beneath you) AND allows the caller to still utilize the built-in runtime poller so you don’t have to deal with these semantics yourself. The Read and Write methods on this interface take a function which gets called in a loop when the file descriptor is ready for the operation, and it’s up to you to determine when to hand off back to Go, normally you’d do this when you receive EAGAIN.

This was utilized in go1.11 to support transparently copying (even via io.Copy) between two TCP connections using zero-copy techniques (splice() on linux).

note: this is implemented in the ReadFrom method

I recently added support for syscall.Conn to containerd’s fifo package (go1.12 only), which is used for buffering stdio from containers. I’ve also been working on a similar ReadFrom implementation as above for this package to get the same sort of zero-copy behavior, which shows extremely promising results when copying between two pipes (very common in container-land)… however I’m still trying to decide if this complexity is worth it in the library vs just having some supporting library deal with this… where we’d want to use tee() in addition to splice() to copy I/O to multiple destinations anyway. The benefit here is getting zero-copy performance without setting up my own poller.

So… back to the problem stated above… what does this look like with our above example? Honestly still not all that simple because we’d need to setup our own epoll on f2 to know when the file has been closed and then go ahead and cleanup f1.

To do that we’d use syscall.RawConn's Control(func(uintptr)) definition to get access to the file descriptor. This is because there is no means of getting a close notification from the runtime poller… writing this I think I may just open a feature request 😃, but at least it is sort of possible without such a feature.