Context isn’t for cancellation

This is an experience report about the use of, and difficulties with, the context.Context facility in Go.

Many authors, including myself, have written about the use of, misuse of, and how they would changecontext.Context in a future iteration of Go. While opinions differs on many aspects of context.Context, one thing is clear–there is almost unanimous agreement that the Context.WithValue method on the context.Context interface is orthogonal to the type’s role as a mechanism to control the lifetime of request scoped resources.

Many proposals have emerged to address this apparent overloading of context.Context with a copy on write bag of values. Most approximate thread local storage so are unlikely to be accepted on ideological grounds.

This post explores the relationship between context.Context and lifecycle management and asks the question, are attempts to fix Context.WithValue solving the wrong problem?

Context is a request scoped paradigm

The documentation for the context package strongly recommends that context.Context is only for request scoped values:

Do not store Contexts inside a struct type; instead, pass a Context explicitly to each function that needs it. The Context should be the first parameter, typically named ctx:

func DoSomething(ctx context.Context, arg Arg) error {
        // ... use ctx ...

Specifically context.Context values should only live in function arguments, never stored in a field or global. This makes context.Context applicable only to the lifetime of resources in a request’s scope. Given Go’s lineage on the server, this is a compelling use case. However, there exist other use cases for cancellation where the lifetime of the resource extends beyond a single request. For example, a background goroutine as part of an agent or pipeline.

Context as a hook for cancellation

The stated goal of the context package is:

Package context defines the Context type, which carries deadlines, cancelation signals, and other request-scoped values across API boundaries and between processes.

Which sounds great, but belies its catch-all nature. context.Context is used in three independent, yet sometimes conflated, scenarios:

  • Cancellation via context.WithCancel.
  • Timeout via context.WithDeadline.
  • A bag of values via context.WithValue.

At any point, a context.Context value can represent any one, or all three of these independent concerns. However, context.Context‘s most important facility, broadcasting a cancellation signal, is incomplete as there is no way to wait for the signal to be acknowledged.

Looking to the past

As this is an experience report, it would be germane to highlight some actual experience. In 2012 Gustavo Niemeyer wrote a package for goroutine lifecycle management called tomb which is used by Juju for the management of the worker goroutines within the various agents in the Juju system.

tomb.Tombs are concerned only with lifecycle management. Importantly, this is a generic notion of a lifecycle, not tied exclusively to a request, or a goroutine. The scope of the resource’s lifetime is defined simply by holding a reference to the tomb value.

A tomb.Tomb value has three properties:

  1. The ability to signal the owner of the tomb to shut down.
  2. The ability to wait until that signal has been acknowledged.
  3. A way to capture a final error value.

However, tomb.Tombs have one drawback, they cannot be shared across multiple goroutines. Consider this prototypical network server where a tomb.Tomb cannot replace the use of sync.WaitGroup.

func serve(l net.Listener) error {
        var wg sync.WaitGroup
        var conn net.Conn
        var err error
        for {
                conn, err = l.Accept()
                if err != nil {
                go func(c net.Conn) {
                        defer wg.Done()
        return err

To be fair, context.Context cannot do this either as it provides no built in mechanism to acknowledge cancellation. What is needed is a form of sync.WaitGroup that allows cancellation, as well as waiting for its participants to call wg.Done.

Context should become, well, just context

The purpose of the context.Context type is in it’s name:

context /kɒntɛkst/ noun
The circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood.

I propose context.Context becomes just that; a request scoped association list of copy on write values.

Decoupling lifetime management from context.Context as a store of request scoped values will hopefully highlight that request context and lifecycle management are orthogonal concerns.

Best of all, we don’t need to wait til Go 2.0 to explore these ideas like Gustavo’s tomb package.