Golang parallelism issues causing “too many open files” error

I’ve been hacking in golang for a while, but I’ll admit that I didn’t get too deep into some of the language nuances until more recently. Since some of them have started to bite me, here’s a little post-mortem of one of the problems I was having.

After hacking and testing code all day, I made a seemingly innocuous change, and when running my program, I saw the following error:

2015/07/10 14:34:12 too many open files

I didn’t know what I broke, but it was obviously my fault. I reverted my recent changes, but still the error persisted. Internet searches and many painful hours of debugging ensued.

I had definitely hit some sort of heisenbug.

I had definitely hit some sort of Heisenbug.

What had gone wrong? Digging around my system, I noticed something weird in my ps output:

$ ps auxww | grep go
james     3446  0.0  0.1 197392  9240 pts/4    Sl   11:48   0:00 go run ./main.go
james     3457  0.0  0.0   6268  1980 pts/4    Sl   11:48   0:00 /tmp/go-build030949627/command-line-arguments/_obj/exe/event
james     3487  0.0  0.1 197392  9184 pts/4    Sl   11:49   0:00 go run ./main.go
james     3501  0.0  0.0   6268  2040 pts/4    Sl   11:49   0:00 /tmp/go-build037131602/command-line-arguments/_obj/exe/event
james     3556  0.0  0.1 197392  9168 pts/4    Sl   11:49   0:00 go run ./main.go
james     3567  0.0  0.0   6268  1976 pts/4    Sl   11:49   0:00 /tmp/go-build957487534/command-line-arguments/_obj/exe/event
james     3788  0.0  0.0 197392  1636 pts/4    Sl   Jul04   0:07 go run ./main.go
james     3800  0.0  0.0   5180  1944 pts/4    Sl   Jul04   0:01 /tmp/go-build552106841/command-line-arguments/_obj/exe/event

Hoards and hoards of lingering go build artefacts, were still running. At one time I noticed over 42 of these! I quickly killed them all off:

# processes are named `event`, and I don't have any unrelated event processes running.
$ killall -9 event
kernel: ahh, much better! :)

Which brought my program back to life! Heisenbug gone… or was it? I soon noticed, that each time I ran my program, the left over process count would increment by one. What was causing this? After another session of debugging, I found that these leftovers were caused by a lack of clean up due to some buggy code. That buggy code is the interesting part. Let’s look at it:

for v := range obj.GetSomeChannel() {
    fmt.Printf("Processing: %v\n", v.Name)
    // BAD
    go func() {
        defer wg.Done()
        v.Start() // some method
        fmt.Printf("Finished: %v\n", v.Name)

I’m not sure how common this issue is, so if you’re not yet familiar with it, take a moment to try and figure it out.

Okay. The issue is that when you iterate through the loop, the v value which is passed in to the function (the closure) is actually referencing the memory space of v. As a result, whenever the v value changes (as it does in the loop) the v variable instantly contains the new value, and the go routine will see the value of whatever it happens to be when it uses it.

To get around this race (and it is a race) you need to copy in the value to the goroutine:

for v := range obj.GetSomeChannel() {
    fmt.Printf("Processing: %v\n", v.Name)
    // GOOD
    go func(v *Objtype) {
        defer wg.Done()
            v.Start() // some method
        fmt.Printf("Finished: %v\n", v.Name)


It so happens that v is a pointer, but that’s irrelevant. The value of the pointer still needs to be copied in to the goroutine that is being called to use it. In my case, v needs to be a pointer, because we want the same copy of our data to be used throughout the code.

Many thanks to bleidl for helping me with some of the analysis!

As a quick aside, I’m using this WaitGroup pattern, which replaced the much uglier version of this loop which I had previously written. For a language that claims to not be pattern and idiom heavy, there sure are a bunch that I’ve found so far, many of which come with gotchas.

Happy hacking!


4 thoughts on “Golang parallelism issues causing “too many open files” error

  1. Pingback: Links 29/7/2015: Akademy 2015 Ends, NetBSD 7.0 RC | Techrights

    • Please feel to expand on your comment if my answer doesn’t satisfy.

      Technically speaking, my single go program binary can in some ways be seen as consisting of many ultra-micro-services, each one being singly threaded. It makes sense for them to be in one program, because each is an ultra-light goroutine, and most are sitting in an inotify wait. This avoids the overhead of inter-process IPC.

      Having said that, go programs could probably be decomposed with some minimal fighting into multiple programs, and thinking about first class parallelism in software is one way to help scale software which used to be limited by being single threaded.

      Lastly, this issue is really my fault for being a novice. Shame the golang race detector didn’t catch the issue though.


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