Proposal: Extended backwards compatibility for Go

Russ Cox
December 2022

Earlier discussion at

Proposal at


Go's emphasis on backwards compatibility is one of its key strengths. There are, however, times when we cannot maintain strict compatibility, such as when changing sort algorithms or fixing clear bugs, when existing code depends on the old algorithm or the buggy behavior. This proposal aims to address many such situations by keeping older Go programs executing the same way even when built with newer Go distributions.


This proposal is about backward compatibility, meaning new versions of Go compiling older Go code. Old versions of Go compiling newer Go code is a separate problem, with a different solution. There is not a proposal yet. For now, see the discussion about forward compatibility.

Go 1 introduced Go's compatibility promise, which says that old programs will by and large continue to run correctly in new versions of Go. There is an exception for security problems and certain other implementation overfitting. For example, code that depends on a given type not implementing a particular interface may change behavior when the type adds a new method, which we are allowed to do.

We now have about ten years of experience with Go 1 compatibility. In general it works very well for the Go team and for developers. However, there are also practices we‘ve developed since then that it doesn’t capture (specifically GODEBUG settings), and there are still times when developers' programs break. I think it is worth extending our approach to try to break programs even less often, as well as to explicitly codify GODEBUG settings and clarify when they are and are not appropriate.

As background, I‘ve been talking to the Kubernetes team about their experiences with Go. It turns out that Go’s been averaging about one Kubernetes-breaking change per year for the past few years. I don‘t think Kubernetes is an outlier here: I expect most large projects have similar experiences. Once per year is not high, but it’s not zero either, and our goal with Go 1 compatibility is zero.

Here are some examples of Kubernetes-breaking changes that we've made:

These kinds of behavioral changes don‘t only cause pain for Kubernetes developers and users. They also make it impossible to update older, long-term-supported versions of Kubernetes to a newer version of Go. Those older versions don’t have the same access to performance improvements and bug fixes. Again, this is not specific to Kubernetes. I am sure lots of projects are in similar situations.

As the examples show, over time we‘ve adopted a practice of being able to opt out of these risky changes using GODEBUG settings. The examples also show that we have probably been too aggressive about removing those settings. But the settings themselves have clearly become an important part of Go’s compatibility story.

Other important compatibility-related GODEBUG settings include:

  • GODEBUG=asyncpreemptoff=1 disables signal-based goroutine preemption, which occasionally uncovers operating system bugs.
  • GODEBUG=cgocheck=0 disables the runtime's cgo pointer checks.
  • GODEBUG=cpu.<extension>=off disables use of a particular CPU extension at run time.
  • GODEBUG=http2client=0 disables client-side HTTP/2.
  • GODEBUG=http2server=0 disables server-side HTTP/2.
  • GODEBUG=netdns=cgo forces use of the cgo resolver.
  • GODEBUG=netdns=go forces use of the Go DNS resolver

Programs that need one to use these can usually set the GODEBUG variable in func init of package main, but for runtime variables, that's too late: the runtime reads the variable early in Go program startup, before any of the user program has run yet. For those programs, the environment variable must be set in the execution environment. It cannot be “carried with” the program.

Another problem with the GODEBUGs is that you have to know they exist. If you have a large system written for Go 1.17 and want to update to Go 1.18's toolchain, you need to know which settings to flip to keep as close to Go 1.17 semantics as possible.

I believe that we should make it even easier and safer for large projects like Kubernetes to update to new Go releases.

See also my talk on this topic at GopherCon.


I propose that we formalize and expand our use of GODEBUG to provide compatibility beyond what is guaranteed by the current compatibility guidelines.

Specifically, I propose that we:

  1. Commit to always adding a GODEBUG setting for changes allowed by the compatibility guidelines but that nonetheless are likely to break a significant number of real programs.

  2. Guarantee that GODEBUG settings last for at least 2 years (4 releases). That is only a minimum; some, like http2server, will likely last forever.

  3. Provide a runtime/metrics counter /godebug/non-default-behavior/<name>:events to observe non-default-behavior due to GODEBUG settings.

  4. Set the default GODEBUG settings based on the go line the main module's go.mod, so that updating to a new Go toolchain with an unmodified go.mod mimics the older release.

  5. Allow overriding specific default GODEBUG settings in the source code for package main using one or more lines of the form

    //go:debug <name>=<value>

    The GODEBUG environment variable set when a programs runs would continue to override both these lines and the default inferred from the go.mod go line. An unrecognized //go:debug setting is a build error.

  6. Adjust the go/build API to report these new //go:debug lines. Specifically, add this type:

    type Comment struct {
        Pos token.Position
        Text string

    and then in type Package we would add a new field

    Directives []Comment

    This field would collect all //go:* directives before the package line, not just //go:debug, in the hopes of supporting any future need for directives.

  7. Adjust go list output to have a new field DefaultGODEBUG string set for main packages, reporting the combination of the go.mod-based defaults and the source code overrides, as well as adding to Package new fields Directives, TestDirectives, and XTestDirectives, all of type []string.

  8. Add a new DefaultGODEBUG setting to debug.BuildInfo.Settings, to be reported by go version -m and other tools that inspect build details.

  9. Document these commitments as well as how to use GODEBUG in the compatibility guidelines.


The main alternate approach is to keep on doing what we are doing, without these additions. That makes it difficult for Kubernetes and other large projects to update in a timely fashion, which cuts them off from performance improvements and eventually security fixes. An alternative way to provide these improvements and fixes would be to extend Go's release support window to two or more years, but that would require significantly more work and would be a serious drag on the Go project overall. It is better to focus our energy as well as the energy of Go developers on the latest release. Making it safer to update to the latest release does just that.

The rest of this section gives the affirmative case for each of the enumerated items in the previous section.

  1. Building on the rest of the compatibility guidelines, this commitment will give developers added confidence that they can update to a new Go toolchain safely with minimal disruption to their programs.

  2. In the past we have planned to remove a GODEBUG after only a single release. A single release cycle - six months - may well be too short for some developers, especially where the GODEBUGs are adjusting settings that affect external systems, like which protocols are used. For example, Go 1.14 (Feb 2020) removed NPN support in crypto/tls, but we patched it back into Google's internal Go toolchain for almost three years while we waited for updates to network devices that used NPN. Today that would probably be a GODEBUG setting, and it would be an example of something that takes a large company more than six months to resolve.

  3. When a developer is using a GODEBUG override, they need to be able to find out whether it is safe to remove the override. Obviously testing is a good first step, but production metrics can confirm what testing seems to show. If the production systems are reporting zeros for /godebug/non-default-behavior/<name>, that is strong evidence for the safety of removing that override.

  4. Having the GODEBUG settings is not enough. Developers need to be able to determine which ones to use when updating to a new Go toolchain. Instead of forcing developers to look up what is new from one toolchain to the next, setting the default to match the go line in go.mod keeps the program behavior as close to the old toolchain as possible.

  5. When developers do update the go line to a new Go version, they may still need to keep a specific GODEBUG set to mimic an older toolchain. There needs to be some way to bake that into the build: it‘s not okay to make end users set an environment variable to run a program, and setting the variable in main.main or even main’s init can be too late. The //go:debug lines provide a clear way to set those specific GODEBUGs, presumably alongside comments explaining why they are needed and when they can be removed.

  6. This API is needed for the go command and other tools to scan source files and find the new //go:debug lines.

  7. This provides an easy way for developers to understand which default GODEBUG their programs will be compiled with. It will be particularly useful when switching from one go line to another.

  8. This provides an easy way for developers to understand which default GODEBUG their existing programs have been compiled with.

  9. The compatibility documentation should explain all this so developers know about it.


This entire proposal is about compatibility. It does not violate any existing compatibility requirements.

It is worth pointing out that the GODEBUG mechanism is appropriate for security deprecations, such as the SHA1 retirement, but not security fixes, like changing the version of LookPath used by tools in the Go distribution. Security fixes need to always apply when building with a new toolchain, not just when the go line has been moved forward.

One of the hard rules of point releases is it really must not break anyone, because we never want someone to be unable to add an urgent security fix due to some breakage in that same point release or an earlier one in the sequence. That applies to the security fixes themselves too. This means it is up to the authors of the security fix to find a fix that does not require a GODEBUG.

LookPath is a good example. There was a reported bug affecting go toolchain programs, and we fixed the bug by making the LookPath change in a forked copy of os/exec specifically for those programs. We left the toolchain-wide fix for a major Go release precisely because of the compatibility issue.

The same is true of net.ParseIP. We decided it was an important security-hardening fix but on balance inappropriate for a point release because of the potential for breakage.

It‘s hard for me to think of a security problem that would be so critical that it must be fixed in a point release and simultaneously so broad that the fix fundamentally must break unaffected user programs as collateral damage. To date I believe we’ve always found a way to avoid such a fix, and I think the onus is on those of us preparing security releases to continue to do that.


Overall the implementation is fairly short and straightforward. Documentation probably outweighs new code. Russ Cox, Michael Matloob, and Bryan Millls will do the work.

A complete sketch of the implementation is in CL 453618, CL 453619, CL 453603, CL 453604, and CL 453605. The sketch does not include tests and documentation.