Common Concurrent Programming Mistakes

Go is a language supporting built-in concurrent programming. By using the go keyword to create goroutines (light weight threads) and by using channels and other concurrency synchronization techniques provided in Go, concurrent programming becomes easy, flexible and enjoyable.

One the other hand, Go doesn't prevent Go programmers from making some concurrent programming mistakes which are caused by either carelessnesses or lacking of experiences. The remaining of the current article will show some common mistakes in Go concurrent programming, to help Go programmers avoid making such mistakes.

No Synchronizations When Synchronizations Are Needed

Code lines might be not executed by their appearance order.

There are two mistakes in the following program.
package main

import (
	"time"
	"runtime"
)

func main() {
	var a []int // nil
	var b bool  // false

	// a new goroutine
	go func () {
		a = make([]int, 3)
		b = true // write b
	}()

	for !b { // read b
		time.Sleep(time.Second)
		runtime.Gosched()
	}
	a[0], a[1], a[2] = 0, 1, 2 // might panic
}

The above program may run well on one computer, but may panic on another one, or it runs well when it is compiled by one compiler, but panics when another compiler is used.

We should use channels or the synchronization techniques provided in the sync standard package to ensure the memory orders. For example,
package main

func main() {
	var a []int = nil
	c := make(chan struct{})

	go func () {
		a = make([]int, 3)
		c <- struct{}{}
	}()

	<-c
	// The next line will not panic for sure.
	a[0], a[1], a[2] = 0, 1, 2
}

Use time.Sleep Calls to Do Synchronizations

Let's view a simple example.
package main

import (
	"fmt"
	"time"
)

func main() {
	var x = 123

	go func() {
		x = 789 // write x
	}()

	time.Sleep(time.Second)
	fmt.Println(x) // read x
}

We expect this program to print 789. In fact, it really prints 789, almost always, in running. But is it a program with good synchronization? No! The reason is Go runtime doesn't guarantee the write of x happens before the read of x for sure. Under certain conditions, such as most CPU resources are consumed by some other computation-intensive programs running on the same OS, the write of x might happen after the read of x. This is why we should never use time.Sleep calls to do synchronizations in formal projects.

Let's view another example.
package main

import (
	"fmt"
	"time"
)

var x = 0

func main() {
	var num = 123
	var p = &num

	c := make(chan int)

	go func() {
		c <- *p + x
	}()

	time.Sleep(time.Second)
	num = 789
	fmt.Println(<-c)
}

What do you expect the program will output? 123, or 789? In fact, the output is compiler dependent. For the standard Go compiler 1.12, it is very possible the program will output 123. But in theory, it might output 789, or another unexpected number.

Now, let's change c <- *p + x to c <- *p and run the program again, you will find the output becomes to 789 (for the standard Go compiler 1.12). Again, the output is compiler dependent.

Yes, there are data races in the above program. The expression *p might be evaluated before, after, or when the assignment num = 789 is processed. The time.Sleep call can't guarantee the evaluation of *p happens before the assignment is processed.

For this specified example, we should store the value to be sent in a temporary value before creating the new goroutine and send the temporary value instead in the new goroutine to remove the data races.
...
	tmp := *p
	go func() {
		c <- tmp
	}()
...

Leave Goroutines Hanging

Hanging goroutines are the goroutines staying in blocking state for ever. There are many reasons leading goroutines into hanging. For example,

Except sometimes we deliberately let the main goroutine in a program hanging to avoid the program exiting, most other hanging goroutine cases are unexpected. It is hard for Go runtime to judge whether or not a goroutine in blocking state is hanging or stays in blocking state temporarily, so Go runtime will never release the resources consumed by a hanging goroutine.

In the first-response-wins channel use case, if the capacity of the channel which is used a future is not large enough, some slower response goroutines will hang when trying to send a result to the future channel. For example, if the following function is called, there will be 4 goroutines stay in blocking state for ever.
func request() int {
	c := make(chan int)
	for i := 0; i < 5; i++ {
		i := i
		go func() {
			c <- i // 4 goroutines will hang here.
		}()
	}
	return <-c
}

To avoid the four goroutines hanging, the capacity of channel c must be at least 4.

In the second way to implement the first-response-wins channel use case, if the channel which is used as a future/promise is an unbuffered channel, like the following code shows, it is possible that the channel receiver will miss all responses and hang.
func request() int {
	c := make(chan int)
	for i := 0; i < 5; i++ {
		i := i
		go func() {
			select {
			case c <- i:
			default:
			}
		}()
	}
	return <-c // might hang here
}

The reason why the receiver goroutine might hang is that if the five try-send operations all happen before the receive operation <-c is ready, then all the five try-send operations will fail to send values so that the caller goroutine will never receive a value.

Changing the channel c as a buffered channel will guarantee at least one of the five try-send operations succeed so that the caller goroutine will never hang in the above function.

Copy Values of the Types in the sync Standard Package

In practice, values of the types (except the Locker interface values) in the sync standard package should never be copied. We should only copy pointers of such values.

The following is bad concurrent programming example. In this example, when the Counter.Value method is called, a Counter receiver value will be copied. As a field of the receiver value, the respective Mutex field of the Counter receiver value will also be copied. The copy is not synchronized, so the copied Mutex value might be corrupted. Even if it is not corrupted, what it protects is the use of the copied field n, which is meaningless generally.
import "sync"

type Counter struct {
	sync.Mutex
	n int64
}

// This method is okay.
func (c *Counter) Increase(d int64) (r int64) {
	c.Lock()
	c.n += d
	r = c.n
	c.Unlock()
	return
}

// The method is bad. When it is called,
// the Counter receiver value will be copied.
func (c Counter) Value() (r int64) {
	c.Lock()
	r = c.n
	c.Unlock()
	return
}

We should change the receiver type of the Value method to the pointer type *Counter to avoid copying sync.Mutex values.

The go vet command provided in the official Go SDK will report potential bad value copies.

Call the sync.WaitGroup.Add Method at Wrong Places

Each sync.WaitGroup value maintains a counter internally, The initial value of the counter is zero. If the counter of a WaitGroup value is zero, a call to the Wait method of the WaitGroup value will not block, otherwise, the call blocks until the counter value becomes zero.

To make the uses of WaitGroup value meaningful, when the counter of a WaitGroup value is zero, the next call to the Add method of the WaitGroup value must happen before the next call to the Wait method of the WaitGroup value.

For example, in the following program, the Add method is called at an improper place, which makes that the final printed number is not always 100. In fact, the final printed number of the program may be an arbitrary number in the range [0, 100). The reason is none of the Add method calls are guaranteed to happen before the Wait method call, which causes none of the Done method calls are guaranteed to happen before the Wait method call returns.
package main

import (
	"fmt"
	"sync"
	"sync/atomic"
)

func main() {
	var wg sync.WaitGroup
	var x int32 = 0
	for i := 0; i < 100; i++ {
		go func() {
			wg.Add(1)
			atomic.AddInt32(&x, 1)
			wg.Done()
		}()
	}

	fmt.Println("Wait ...")
	wg.Wait()
	fmt.Println(atomic.LoadInt32(&x))
}

To make the program behave as expected, we should move the Add method calls out of the new goroutines created in the for loop, as the following code shown.
...
	for i := 0; i < 100; i++ {
		wg.Add(1)
		go func() {
			atomic.AddInt32(&x, 1)
			wg.Done()
		}()
	}
...

Use Channels as Futures/Promises Improperly

From the article channel use cases, we know that some functions will return channels as futures. Assume fa and fb are two such functions, then the following call uses future arguments improperly.
doSomethingWithFutureArguments(<-fa(), <-fb())

In the above code line, the two channel receive operations are processed sequentially, instead of concurrently.

We should modify it as the following to process them concurrently.
ca, cb := fa(), fb()
doSomethingWithFutureArguments(<-ca, <-cb)

Close Channels Not From the Last Active Sender Goroutine

A common mistake made by Go programmers is closing a channel when there are still some other goroutines will potentially send values to the channel later. When such a potential send (to the closed channel) really happens, a panic might occur.

This mistake was ever made in some famous Go projects, such as this bug and this bug in the kubernetes project.

Please read this article for explanations on how to safely and gracefully close channels.

Do 64-bit Atomic Operations on Values Which are Not Guaranteed to Be 8-byte Aligned

Up to now (Go 1.12), the address of the value involved in a 64-bit atomic operation is required to be 8-byte aligned. Failure to do so may make the current goroutine panic. For the standard Go compiler, such failure can only happen on 32-bit architectures. Please read memory layouts to get how to guarantee the addresses of 64-bit word 8-byte aligned on 32-bit OSes.

Not Pay Attention to Too Many Resources Are Consumed by Calls to the time.After Function

The After function in the time standard package returns a channel for delay notification. The function is convenient, however each of its calls will create a new value of the time.Timer type. The new created Timer value will keep alive in the duration specified by the passed argument to the After function. If the function is called many times in a certain period, there will be many alive Timer values accumulated so that much memory and computation is consumed.

For example, if the following longRunning function is called and there are millions of messages coming in one minute, then there will be millions of Timer values alive in a certain small period (several seconds), even if most of these Timer values have already become useless.
import (
	"fmt"
	"time"
)

// The function will return if a message
// arrival interval is larger than one minute.
func longRunning(messages <-chan string) {
	for {
		select {
		case <-time.After(time.Minute):
			return
		case msg := <-messages:
			fmt.Println(msg)
		}
	}
}

To avoid too many Timer values being created in the above code, we should use (and reuse) a single Timer value to do the same job.
func longRunning(messages <-chan string) {
	timer := time.NewTimer(time.Minute)
	defer timer.Stop()

	for {
		select {
		case <-timer.C: // expires (timeout)
			return
		case msg := <-messages:
			fmt.Println(msg)

			// This "if" block is important.
			if !timer.Stop() {
				<-timer.C
			}
		}

		// Reset to reuse.
		timer.Reset(time.Minute)
	}
}

Note, the if code block is used to discard/drain a possible timer notification which is sent in the small period when executing the second branch code block.

Use time.Timer Values Incorrectly

An idiomatic use example of time.Timer values has been shown in the last section. Some explanations:

The Reset method of a *Timer value must be called when the corresponding Timer value has already expired or been stopped, otherwise, a data race may occur between the Reset call and a possible notification send to the C channel field of the Timer value.

If the first case branch of the select block is selected, it means the Timer value has already expired, so we don't need to stop it, for the sent notification has already been taken out. However, we must stop the timer in the second branch to check whether or not a timeout notification exists. If it does exist, we should drain it before reusing the timer, otherwise, the notification will be fired immediately in the next loop step.

For example, the following program is very possible to exit in about one second, instead of ten seconds. And more importantly, the program is not data race free.
package main

import (
	"fmt"
	"time"
)

func main() {
	start := time.Now()
	timer := time.NewTimer(time.Second/2)
	select {
	case <-timer.C:
	default:
		// Most likely go here.
		time.Sleep(time.Second)
	}
	// Potential data race in the next line.
	timer.Reset(time.Second * 10)
	<-timer.C
	fmt.Println(time.Since(start)) // about 1s
}

A time.Timer value can be leaved in non-stopping status when it is not used any more, but it is recommended to stop it in the end.

It is bug prone and not recommended to use a time.Timer value concurrently among multiple goroutines.

We should not rely on the return value of a Reset method call. The return result of the Reset method exists just for compatibility purpose.


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