Proposal: Non-cooperative goroutine preemption

Author(s): Austin Clements

Last updated: 2019-01-18

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Go currently uses compiler-inserted cooperative preemption points in function prologues. The majority of the time, this is good enough to allow Go developers to ignore preemption and focus on writing clear parallel code, but it has sharp edges that we‘ve seen degrade the developer experience time and time again. When it goes wrong, it goes spectacularly wrong, leading to mysterious system-wide latency issues and sometimes complete freezes. And because this is a language implementation issue that exists outside of Go’s language semantics, these failures are surprising and very difficult to debug.

@dr2chase has put significant effort into prototyping cooperative preemption points in loops, which is one way to solve this problem. However, even sophisticated approaches to this led to unacceptable slow-downs in tight loops (where slow-downs are generally least acceptable).

I propose that the Go implementation switch to non-cooperative preemption, which would allow goroutines to be preempted at essentially any point without the need for explicit preemption checks. This approach will solve the problem of delayed preemption and do so with zero run-time overhead.

Non-cooperative preemption is a general concept with a whole class of implementation techniques. This document describes and motivates the switch to non-cooperative preemption and discusses common concerns of any non-cooperative preemption approach in Go. Specific implementation approaches are detailed in sub-proposals linked from this document.


Up to and including Go 1.10, Go has used cooperative preemption with safe-points only at function calls (and even then, not if the function is small or gets inlined). This means that Go can only switch between concurrently-executing goroutines at specific points. The main advantage of this is that the compiler can ensure useful invariants at these safe-points. In particular, the compiler ensures that all local garbage collection roots are known at all safe-points, which is critical to precise garbage collection. It can also ensure that no registers are live at safe-points, which means the Go runtime can switch goroutines without having to save and restore a large register set.

However, this can result in infrequent safe-points, which leads to many problems:

  1. The most common in production code is that this can delay STW operations, such as starting and ending a GC cycle. This increases STW latency, and on large core counts can significantly impact throughput (if, for example, most threads are stopped while the runtime waits on a straggler for a long time). (#17831, #19241)

  2. This can delay scheduling, preventing competing goroutines from executing in a timely manner.

  3. This can delay stack scanning, which consumes CPU while the runtime waits for a preemption point and can ultimately delay GC termination, resulting in an effective STW where the system runs out of heap and no goroutines can allocate.

  4. In really extreme cases, it can cause a program to halt, such as when a goroutine spinning on an atomic load starves out the goroutine responsible for setting that atomic. This often indicates bad or buggy code, but is surprising nonetheless and has clearly wasted a lot of developer time on debugging. (#543, #12553, #13546, #14561, #15442, #17174, #20793, #21053)

These problems impede developer productivity and production efficiency and expose Go‘s users to implementation details they shouldn’t have to worry about.

Cooperative loop preemption

@dr2chase put significant effort into trying to solve these problems using cooperative loop preemption (#10958). This is a standard approach for runtimes employing cooperative preemption in which the compiler inserts preemption checks and safe-points at back-edges in the flow graph. This significantly improves the quality of preemption, since code almost never executes without a back-edge for any non-trivial amount of time.

Our most recent approach to loop preemption, which we call fault-based preemption, adds a single instruction, no branches, and no register pressure to loops on x86 and UNIX platforms (CL 43050). Despite this, the geomean slow-down on a large suite of benchmarks is 7.8%, with a handful of significantly worse outliers. Even compared to Go 1.9, where the slow-down is only 1% thanks to other improvements, most benchmarks see some slow-down and there are still significant outliers.

Fault-based preemption also has several implementation downsides. It can‘t target specific threads or goroutines, so it’s a poor match for stack scanning, ragged barriers, or regular scheduler preemption. It‘s also “sticky”, in that we can’t resume any loops until we resume all loops, so the safe-point can‘t simply resume if it occurs in an unsafe state (such as when runtime locks are held). It requires more instructions (and more overhead) on non-x86 and non-UNIX platforms. Finally, it interferes with debuggers, which assume bad memory references are a good reason to stop a program. It’s not clear it can work at all under many debuggers on OS X due to a kernel bug.

Non-cooperative preemption

Non-cooperative preemption switches between concurrent execution contexts without explicit preemption checks or assistance from those contexts. This is used by all modern desktop and server operating systems to switch between threads. Without this, a single poorly-behaved application could wedge the entire system, much like how a single poorly-behaved goroutine can currently wedge a Go application. It is also a convenient abstraction: it lets us program as if there are an infinite number of CPUs available, hiding the fact that the OS is time-multiplexing a finite number of CPUs.

Operating system schedulers use hardware interrupt support to switch a running thread into the OS scheduler, which can save that thread's state such as its CPU registers so that it can be resumed later. In Go, we would use operating system support to do the same thing. On UNIX-like operating systems, this can be done using signals.

However, because of the garbage collector, Go has requirements that an operating system does not: Go must be able to find the live pointers on a goroutine's stack wherever it stops it. Most of the complexity of non-cooperative preemption in Go derives from this requirement.


I propose that Go implement non-cooperative goroutine preemption by sending a POSIX signal (or using an equivalent OS mechanism) to stop a running goroutine and capture its CPU state. If a goroutine is interrupted at a point that must be GC atomic, as detailed in the “Handling unsafe-points” section, the runtime can simply resume the goroutine and try again later.

The key difficulty of implementing non-cooperative preemption for Go is finding live pointers in the stack of a preempted goroutine. There are many possible ways to do this, which are detailed in these sub-proposals:

  • The safe-points everywhere proposal describes an implementation where the compiler records stack and register maps for nearly every instruction. This allows the runtime to halt a goroutine anywhere and find its GC roots.

  • The conservative inner-frame scanning proposal describes an implementation that uses conservative GC techniques to find pointers in the inner-most stack frame of a preempted goroutine. This can be done without any extra safe-point metadata.

Handling unsafe-points

Any non-cooperative preemption approach in Go must deal with code sequences that have to be atomic with respect to the garbage collector. We call these “unsafe-points”, in contrast with GC safe-points. A few known situations are:

  1. Expressions involving unsafe.Pointer may temporarily represent the only pointer to an object as a uintptr. Hence, there must be no safe-points while a uintptr derived from an unsafe.Pointer is live. Likewise, we must recognize reflect.Value.Pointer, reflect.Value.UnsafeAddr, and reflect.Value.InterfaceData as unsafe.Pointer-to-uintptr conversions. Alternatively, if the compiler can reliably detect such uintptrs, it could mark this as pointers, but there's a danger that an intermediate value may not represent a legal pointer value.

  2. In the write barrier there must not be a safe-point between the write-barrier-enabled check and a direct write. For example, suppose the goroutine is writing a pointer to B into object A. If the check happens, then GC starts and scans A, then the goroutine writes B into A and drops all references to B from its stack, the garbage collector could fail to mark B.

  3. There are places where the compiler generates temporary pointers that can be past the end of allocations, such as in range loops over slices and arrays. These would either have to be avoided or safe-points would have to be disallowed while these are live.

All of these cases must already avoid significant reordering to avoid being split across a call. Internally, this is achieved via the “mem” pseudo-value, which must be sequentially threaded through all SSA values that manipulate memory. Mem is also threaded through values that must not be reordered, even if they don't touch memory. For example, conversion between unsafe.Pointer and uintptr is done with a special “Convert” operation that takes a mem solely to constrain reordering.

There are several possible solutions to these problem, some of which can be combined:

  1. We could mark basic blocks that shouldn't contain preemption points. For unsafe.Pointer conversions, we would opt-out the basic block containing the conversion. For code adhering to the unsafe.Pointer rules, this should be sufficient, but it may break code that is incorrect but happens to work today in ways that are very difficult to debug. For write barriers this is also sufficient. For loops, this is overly broad and would require splitting some basic blocks.

  2. For unsafe.Pointer conversions, we could simply opt-out entire functions that convert from unsafe.Pointer to uintptr. This would be easy to implement, and would keep even broken unsafe code working as well as it does today, but may have broad impact, especially in the presence of inlining.

  3. A simple combination of 1 and 2 would be to opt-out any basic block that is reachable from an unsafe.Pointer to uintptr conversion, up to a function call (which is a safe-point today).

  4. For range loops, the compiler could compile them differently such that it never constructs an out-of-bounds pointer (see below).

  5. A far more precise and general approach (thanks to @cherrymui) would be to create new SSA operations that “taint” and “untaint” memory. The taint operation would take a mem and return a new tainted mem. This taint would flow to any values that themselves took a tainted value. The untaint operation would take a value and a mem and return an untainted value and an untainted mem. During liveness analysis, safe-points would be disallowed wherever a tainted value was live. This is probably the most precise solution, and is likely to keep even incorrect uses of unsafe working, but requires a complex implementation.

More broadly, it‘s worth considering making the compiler check unsafe.Pointer-using code and actively reject code that doesn’t follow the allowed patterns. This could be implemented as a simple type system that distinguishes pointer-ish uintptr from numeric uintptr. But this is out of scope for this proposal.

Range loops

As of Go 1.10, range loops are compiled roughly like:

for i, x := range s { b }
for i, _n, _p := 0, len(s), &s[0]; i < _n; i, _p = i+1, _p + unsafe.Sizeof(s[0]) { b }
i, _n, _p := 0, len(s), &s[0]
goto cond
{ b }
i, _p = i+1, _p + unsafe.Sizeof(s[0])
if i < _n { goto body } else { goto end }

The problem with this lowering is that _p may temporarily point past the end of the allocation the moment before the loop terminates. Currently this is safe because there's never a safe-point while this value of _p is live.

This lowering requires that the compiler mark the increment and condition blocks as unsafe-points. However, if the body is short, this could result in infrequent safe-points. It also requires creating a separate block for the increment, which is currently usually appended to the end of the body. Separating these blocks would inhibit reordering opportunities.

In preparation for non-cooperative preemption, Go 1.11 began compiling range loops as follows to avoid ever creating a past-the-end pointer:

i, _n, _p := 0, len(s), &s[0]
if i >= _n { goto end } else { goto body }
_p += unsafe.Sizeof(s[0])
{ b }
if i >= _n { goto end } else { goto top }

This allows safe-points everywhere in the loop. Compared to the original loop compilation, it generates slightly more code, but executes the same number of conditional branch instructions (n+1) and results in the same number of SSA basic blocks (3).

This lowering does complicate bounds-check elimination. In Go 1.10, bounds-check elimination knew that i < _n in the body because the body block is dominated by the cond block. However, in the new lowering, deriving this fact required detecting that i < _n on both paths into body and hence is true in body.

Runtime safe-points

Beyond generated code, the runtime in general is not written to be arbitrarily preemptible and there are many places that must not be preempted. Hence, we would likely disable safe-points by default in the runtime, except at calls (where they occur now).

While this would have little downside for most of the runtime, there are some parts of the runtime that could benefit substantially from non-cooperative preemption, such as memory functions like memmove. Non-cooperative preemption is an excellent way to make these preemptible without slowing down the common case, since we would only need to mark their register maps (which would often be empty for functions like memmove since all pointers would already be protected by arguments).

Over time we may opt-in more of the runtime.

Unsafe standard library code

The Windows syscall package contains many unsafe.Pointer conversions that don't follow the unsafe.Pointer rules. It broadly makes shaky assumptions about safe-point behavior, liveness, and when stack movement can happen. It would likely need a thorough auditing, or would need to be opted out like the runtime.

Perhaps more troubling is that some of the Windows syscall package types have uintptr fields that are actually pointers, hence forcing callers to perform unsafe pointer conversions. For example, see issue #21376.

Ensuring progress with unsafe-points

We propose simply giving up and retrying later when a goroutine is interrupted at an unsafe-point. One danger of this is that safe points may be rare in tight loops. However, in many cases, there are more sophisticated alternatives to this approach.

For interruptions in the runtime or in functions without any safe points (such as assembly), the signal handler could unwind the stack and insert a return trampoline at the next return to a function with safe point metadata. The runtime could then let the goroutine continue running and the trampoline would pause it as soon as possible.

For write barriers and unsafe.Pointer sequences, the compiler could insert a cheap, explicit preemption check at the end of the sequence. For example, the runtime could modify some register that would be checked at the end of the sequence and let the thread continue executing. In the write barrier sequence, this could even be the register that the write barrier flag was loaded into, and the compiler could insert a simple register test and conditional branch at the end of the sequence. To even further shrink the sequence, the runtime could put the address of the stop function in this register so the stop sequence would be just a register call and a jump.

Alternatives to this check include forward and reverse simulation. Forward simulation is tricky because the compiler must be careful to only generate operations the runtime knows how to simulate. Reverse simulation is easy if the compiler can always generate a restartable sequence (simply move the PC back to the write barrier flag check), but quickly becomes complicated if there are multiple writes in the sequence or more complex writes such as DUFFCOPY.

Other considerations

All of the proposed approaches to non-cooperative preemption involve stopping a running goroutine by sending its thread an OS signal. This section discusses general consequences of this.

Windows support. Unlike fault-based loop preemption, signaled preemption is quite easy to support in Windows because it provides SuspendThread and GetThreadContext, which make it trivial to get a thread's register set.

Choosing a signal. We have to choose a signal that is unlikely to interfere with existing uses of signals or with debuggers. There are no perfect choices, but there are some heuristics.

  1. It should be a signal that's passed-through by debuggers by default. On Linux, this is SIGALRM, SIGURG, SIGCHLD, SIGIO, SIGVTALRM, SIGPROF, and SIGWINCH, plus some glibc-internal signals.
  2. It shouldn‘t be used internally by libc in mixed Go/C binaries because libc may assume it’s the only thing that can handle these signals. For example SIGCANCEL or SIGSETXID.
  3. It should be a signal that can happen spuriously without consequences. For example, SIGALRM is a bad choice because the signal handler can't tell if it was caused by the real process alarm or not (arguably this means the signal is broken, but I digress). SIGUSR1 and SIGUSR2 are also bad because those are often used in meaningful ways by applications.
  4. We need to deal with platforms without real-time signals (like macOS), so those are out.

We use SIGURG because it meets all of these criteria, is extremely unlikely to be used by an application for its “real” meaning (both because out-of-band data is basically unused and because SIGURG doesn‘t report which socket has the condition, making it pretty useless), and even if it is, the application has to be ready for spurious SIGURG. SIGIO wouldn’t be a bad choice either, but is more likely to be used for real.

Scheduler preemption. This mechanism is well-suited to temporary preemptions where the same goroutine will resume after the preemption because we don‘t need to save the full register state and can rely on the existing signal return path to restore the full register state. This applies to all GC-related preemptions, but it’s not as well suited to permanent preemption performed by the scheduler. However, we could still build on this mechanism. For example, since most of the time goroutines self-preempt, we only need to save the full signal state in the uncommon case, so the g could contain a pointer to its full saved state that's only used after a forced preemption. Restoring the full signal state could be done by either writing the architecture-dependent code to restore the full register set (a beefed-up runtime.gogo), or by self-signaling, swapping in the desired context, and letting the OS restore the full register set.

Targeting and resuming. In contrast with fault-based loop preemption, signaled preemption can be targeted at a specific thread and can immediately resume. Thread-targeting is a little different from cooperative preemption, which is goroutine-targeted. However, in many cases this is actually better, since targeting goroutines for preemption is racy and hence requires retry loops that can add significantly to STW time. Taking advantage of this for stack scanning will require some restructuring of how we track GC roots, but the result should eliminate the blocking retry loop we currently use.

Non-pointer pointers. This has the potential to expose incorrect uses of unsafe.Pointer for transiently storing non-pointers. Such uses are a clear violation of the unsafe.Pointer rules, but they may happen (especially in, for example, cgo-using code).



Rather than making an effort to be able to stop at any instruction, the compiler could emit metadata for safe-points only at back-edges and the runtime could use hardware single-stepping support to advance the thread to a safe-point (or a point where the compiler has provided a branch to reach a safe-point, like in the current loop preemption approach). This works (somewhat surprisingly), but thoroughly bamboozles debuggers since both the debugger and the operating system assume the debugger owns single-stepping, not the process itself. This would also require the compiler to provide register flushing stubs for these safe-points, which increases code size (and hence instruction cache pressure) as well as stack size, much like cooperative loop preemption. However, unlike cooperative loop preemption, this approach would have no effect on mainline code size or performance.

Jump rewriting

We can solve the problems of single-stepping by instead rewriting the next safe-point jump instruction after the interruption point to jump to a preemption path and resuming execution like usual. To make this easy, the compiler could leave enough room (via padding NOPs) so only the jump target needs to be modified.

This approach has the usual drawbacks of modifiable code. It‘s a security risk, it breaks text page sharing, and simply isn’t allowed on iOS. It also can't target an individual goroutine (since another goroutine could be executing the same code) and may have odd interactions with concurrent execution on other cores.

Out-of-line execution

A further alternative in the same vein, but that doesn't require modifying existing text is out-of-line execution. In this approach, the signal handler relocates the instruction stream from the interruption point to the next safe-point jump into a temporary buffer, patches it to jump into the runtime at the end, and resumes execution in this relocated sequence.

This solves most of the problems with single-stepping and jump rewriting, but is quite complex to implement and requires substantial implementation effort for each platform. It also isn't allowed on iOS.

There is precedent for this sort of approach. For example, when Linux uprobes injects an INT3, it relocates the overwritten instructions into an “execute out-of-line” area to avoid the usual problems with resuming from an INT3 instruction. The implementation is surprisingly simple given the complexity of the x86 instruction encoding, but is still quite complex.