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Michael Stapelberg

Atomically writing files in Go (2017)

published 2017-01-28, last modified 2020-02-03
in tag golang
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NOTE that the documented assumptions about fsync skipping are incorrect in the code below. Prefer using the renameio package.

Writing files is simple, but correctly writing files atomically in a performant way might not be as trivial as one might think. Here’s an extensively commented function to atomically write compressed files (taken from debiman, the software behind

package main

import (

func tempDir(dest string) string {
    tempdir := os.Getenv("TMPDIR")
    if tempdir == "" {
        // Convenient for development: decreases the chance that we
        // cannot move files due to TMPDIR being on a different file
        // system than dest.
        tempdir = filepath.Dir(dest)
    return tempdir

func writeAtomically(dest string, compress bool, write func(w io.Writer) error) (err error) {
    f, err := ioutil.TempFile(tempDir(dest), "atomic-")
    if err != nil {
        return err
    defer func() {
        // Clean up (best effort) in case we are returning with an error:
        if err != nil {
            // Prevent file descriptor leaks.
            // Remove the tempfile to avoid filling up the file system.

    // Use a buffered writer to minimize write(2) syscalls.
    bufw := bufio.NewWriter(f)

    w := io.Writer(bufw)
    var gzipw *gzip.Writer
    if compress {
        // NOTE: gzip’s decompression phase takes the same time,
        // regardless of compression level. Hence, we invest the
        // maximum CPU time once to achieve the best compression.
        gzipw, err = gzip.NewWriterLevel(bufw, gzip.BestCompression)
        if err != nil {
            return err
        defer gzipw.Close()
        w = gzipw

    if err := write(w); err != nil {
        return err

    if compress {
        if err := gzipw.Close(); err != nil {
            return err

    if err := bufw.Flush(); err != nil {
        return err

    // Chmod the file world-readable (ioutil.TempFile creates files with
    // mode 0600) before renaming.
    if err := f.Chmod(0644); err != nil {
        return err

    // fsync(2) after fchmod(2) orders writes as per
    // Can be skipped for performance
    // for idempotent applications (which only ever atomically write new
    // files and tolerate file loss) on an ordered file systems. ext3,
    // ext4, XFS, Btrfs, ZFS are ordered by default.

    if err := f.Close(); err != nil {
        return err

    return os.Rename(f.Name(), dest)

func main() {
    if err := writeAtomically("demo.txt.gz", true, func(w io.Writer) error {
        _, err := w.Write([]byte("demo"))
        return err
    }); err != nil {

rsync(1) will fail when it lacks permission to read files. Hence, if you are synchronizing a repository of files while updating it, you’ll need to set TMPDIR to point to a directory on the same file system (for rename(2) to work) which is not covered by your rsync(1) invocation.

When calling writeAtomically repeatedly to create lots of small files, you’ll notice that creating gzip.Writers is actually rather expensive. Modifying the function to re-use the same gzip.Writer yielded a significant decrease in wall-clock time.

Of course, if you’re looking for maximum write performance (as opposed to minimum resulting file size), you should use a different gzip level than gzip.BestCompression.