LK4D4 Blog

Mystery of finalizers in Go

Aug 26, 2015


Finalizer is basically a function which will be called when your object will lost all references and will be found by GC. In Go you can add finalizers to your objects with runtime.SetFinalizer function. Let’s see how it works.

package main

import (

type Test struct {
    A int

func test() {
    // create pointer
    a := &Test{}
    // add finalizer which just prints
    runtime.SetFinalizer(a, func(a *Test) { fmt.Println("I AM DEAD") })

func main() {
    // run garbage collection
    // sleep to switch to finalizer goroutine
    time.Sleep(1 * time.Millisecond)
Output obviously will be:


So, we created object a which is pointer and set simple finalizer to it. When code left test function - all references to it disappeared and therefore garbage collector was able to collect a and call finalizer in its own goroutine. You can try to modify test() function to return *Test an print it in main(), then you’ll see that finalizer won’t be called. Also if you remove A field from Test type, because then Test became just empty struct and empty struct allocates no memory and can’t be collected by GC.

Finalizers examples

Let’s try to find finalizers usage in standard library. There it is used only for for closing file descriptors like this in net package:

runtime.SetFinalizer(fd, (*netFD).Close)
So, you’ll never leak fd even if you forget to Close net.Conn.

So probably finalizers not so good idea if even in standard library it has so limited usage. Let’s see what problems can be.

Why you should avoid finalizers

Finalizers is pretty tempting idea if you come from languages without GC or where you’re not expecting users to write proper code. In Go we have both GC and pro-users :) So, in my opinion explicit call of Close is always better than magic finalizer. For example there is finalizer for fd in os:

// NewFile returns a new File with the given file descriptor and name.
func NewFile(fd uintptr, name string) *File {
    fdi := int(fd)
    if fdi < 0 {
        return nil
    f := &File{&file{fd: fdi, name: name}}
    runtime.SetFinalizer(f.file, (*file).close)
    return f
and NewFile is called by OpenFile which is called by Open, so if you’re opening file you’ll hit that code. Problem with finalizers that you have no control over them, and more than that you’re not expecting them. Look at code:
func getFd(path string) (int, error) {
    f, err := os.Open(path)
    if err != nil {
        return -1, err
    return f.Fd(), nil
It’s pretty common operation to get file descriptor from path when you’re writing some stuff for linux. But that code is unreliable, because when you’re return from getFd f loses its last reference and so your file is doomed to be closed sooner or later (when next GC cycle will come). Here is problem not that file will be closed, but that it’s not documented and not expected at all.


I think it’s better to suppose that users are smart enough to cleanup object themselves. At least all methods which call SetFinalizer should document this, but I personally don’t see any value in this method for me.

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