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Michael Stapelberg

Readiness notifications in Go (2020)

published 2020-02-02, last modified 2020-11-21
in tag golang
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When spawning a child program, for example in an integration test, it is often helpful to know when the child program is ready to receive requests.


A brittle strategy is to just add a delay (say, time.Sleep(2 * time.Second)) and hope the child program finishes initialization in that time. This is brittle because it depends on timing, so when the computer running the test is slow for whichever reason, your test starts failing. Many CI/CD systems have less capacity (and/or are more heavily utilized) than developer machines, so timeouts frequently need to be adjusted.

Also, relying on timing is a race to the bottom: your delay needs to work on the slowest machine that runs your code. Ergo, tests waste valuable developer time on your high-end workstation, just so that they pass on some under-powered machine.


A slightly better strategy is polling, i.e. repeatedly checking whether the child program is ready. As an example, in the dnsmasq_exporter test, I need to poll to find out when dnsmasq(8) is ready.

This approach is better because it automatically works well on both high-end and under-powered machines, without wasting time on either.

Finding a good frequency with which to poll is a bit of an art, though: the more often you poll, the less time you waste, but also the more resources you spend on polling instead of letting your program initialize. The overhead may be barely noticeable, but when starting lots of programs (e.g. in a microservice architecture) or when individual polls are costly, the overhead can add up.

Readiness notifications

The most elegant approach is to use readiness notifications: you don’t waste any time or resources.

It only takes a few lines of code to integrate this approach into your application. The specifics might vary depending on your environment, e.g. whether an environment variable is preferable to a command-line flag; my goal with this article is to explain the approach in general, and you can take care of the details.

The key idea is: the child program inherits a pipe file descriptor from the parent and closes it once ready. The parent program knows the child program is ready because an otherwise blocking read from the pipe returns once the pipe is closed.

This is similar to using a chan struct{} in Go and closing it. It doesn’t have to remain this simple, though: you can also send arbitrary data over the pipe, ranging from a simple string being sent in one direction and culminating in speaking a framed protocol in a client/server fashion. In Debian Code Search, I’m writing the chosen network address before closing the pipe, so that the parent program knows where to connect to.

Parent Program

So, how do we go about readiness notifications in Go? We create a new pipe and specify the write end in the ExtraFiles field of (os/exec).Cmd:

r, w, err := os.Pipe()
if err != nil {
  return err

child := exec.Command("child")
child.Stderr = os.Stderr
child.ExtraFiles = []*os.File{w}

It is good practice to explicitly specify the file descriptor number that we passed via some sort of signaling, so that the child program does not need to be modified when we add new file descriptors in the parent, and also because this behavior is usually opt-in.

In this case, we’ll do that via an environment variable and start the child program:

// Go dup2()’s ExtraFiles to file descriptor 3 and counting.
// File descriptors 0, 1, 2 are stdin, stdout and stderr.
child.Env = append(os.Environ(), "CHILD_READY_FD=3")

// Note child.Start(), not child.Run():
if err := child.Start(); err != nil {
  return fmt.Errorf("%v: %v", child.Args, err)

At this point, both the parent and the child process have a file descriptor referencing the write end of the pipe. Since the pipe will only be closed once all processes have closed the write end, we need to close the write end in the parent program:

// Close the write end of the pipe in the parent:

Now, we can blockingly read from the pipe, and know that once the read call returns, the child program is ready to receive requests:

// Avoid hanging forever in case the child program never becomes ready;
// this is easier to diagnose than an unspecified CI/CD test timeout.
// This timeout should be much much longer than initialization takes.
r.SetReadDeadline(time.Now().Add(1 * time.Minute))
if _, err := ioutil.ReadAll(r); err != nil {
  return fmt.Errorf("awaiting readiness: %v", err)

// …send requests…

// …tear down child program…

Child Program

In the child program, we need to recognize that the parent program requests a readiness notification, and ensure our signaling doesn’t leak to child programs of the child program:

var readyFile *os.File

func init() {
  if fd, err := strconv.Atoi(os.Getenv("CHILD_READY_FD")); err == nil {
    readyFile = os.NewFile(uintptr(fd), "readyfd")

func main() {
  // …initialize…

  if readyFile != nil {
    readyFile.Close() // signal readiness
    readyFile = nil   // just to be prudent


Depending on what you’re communicating from the child to the parent, and how your system is architected, it might be a good idea to use systemd socket activation (socket activation in Go). It works similarly in concept, but passes a listening socket and readiness is determined by the child process answering requests. We introduced this technique in the i3 testsuite and reduced the total wallclock time from >100 seconds to a mere 16 seconds back then (even faster today).

The technique described in this blog post is a bit more generic than systemd’s socket activation. In general, passing file descriptors between processes is a powerful idea. For example, in debiman, we’re passing individual pipe file descriptors to a persistent mandocd(8) process to quickly convert lots of man pages without encurring process creation overhead.

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